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The Waltons Promote the (Failing) Tennessee ASD

October 26, 2015

On October 26, 2015, the Walton Foundation sent this email to subscribers of its Walton Family Foundation (WFF) list,  Here is an excerpt:

Dear [Name],

Bobby White graduated from Frayser High School in Memphis in 1990. Last fall, he came back — not just as an alumnus but as the school’s leader.

In the time since White’s graduation, the school had become “chaotic,” and the students’ achievement was suffering. The school was in the bottom 5% of schools in the state of Tennessee, and so were many of the other schools in the local community.

“There needed to be a lightning bolt to kind of shock the school into a new state of thinking,” White told us.

Because of its low performance, the school (now renamed MLK Prep) had been designated as part of the Achievement School District (ASD) — a special district created in Tennessee to dramatically improve the bottom 5% of the state’s schools.

The email comes from the Walton Foundation’s “K12 Education Program Director,” Marc Sternberg, who was once senior deputy chancellor at the New York City Department of Education, and whose career in education began in the mid-1990s as a Teach for America (TFA) temp teacher. Sternberg is promoting the Walton priority of opening charters in select cities.

Sternberg’s email promotes Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) by focusing on a Memphis school that has been in ASD for only one year, MLK Prep (formerly Frayser High School).

What caught my attention immediately is that this Walton charter school promotional showcases a school that is relatively new to ASD, which the Walton sell defines as “a special district created in Tennessee to dramatically improve the bottom 5% of the state’s schools.”

So, if ASD dramatically improves schools, why feature a school that has been in ASD for only a single year? Why not feature schools that have been in ASD for years and have therefore (surely) shown evidence of *dramatic improvement*?

Easy answer:

ASD has no schools that have *dramatically improved.*

Still, the Waltons want to sell ASD as a solution for those “bottom 5 percent” of Tennessee schools. They email subscribers with a feel-good story of a man who graduated from the “bottom 5 percent” school and who became a success anyway when the school was not in the bottom 5 percent– and without any detailed consideration of the factors that might have contributed to the school’s now having “fallen” into the bottom 5 percent based on test scores.

Converting the school to a charter led by an alum of the school surely will allow Frasyer High MLK Charter to climb on the backs of some other, less fortunate Tennessee schools and exit that bottom 5 percent.

Indeed, if one believes the Walton spiel, one knows that “Cultivating talented leaders like Bobby White is one of the main ways the ASD transforms school cultures and results.”

About those results

In July 2015, New York math teacher and blogger, Gary Rubinstein, wrote a series about ASD. In his examination of the six ASD schools that have been in ASD since its 2012-13 launch, Rubinstein demonstrates that the best “result” was that two of the six schools broke through the “bottom five percent” and are now in the bottom six percent:

Here are the results:

School Score Percentile
Hume 33.1 1.5%
Cornerstone 37.6 2.6%
Westside 42.1 3.2%
Frayser (Elem) 45.2 4.1%
Brick Church 47.9 5.2%
Corning 48.6 5.5%


But the Waltons will not send out such details in their ASD promotional emails. Instead, they offer a video of the MLK Prep CEO who has one ASD year under his belt and offer the advertisement, “Watch this video to learn more about Bobby White and the ASD– and how effective leaders and educators are transforming schools.”



What Sternberg omits from his ASD promotional is that ASD leader (and former TFAer) Chris Barbic resigned in July 2015 even as his ASD did not achieve the amazing improvements that he promised in 2011 when ASD was just getting started. As the July 20, 2015, Nashville Scene notes in an article entitled, “Chris Barbic Keeps His Promise”:

Bright-eyed Tennessee Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic said in 2011 if he couldn’t turn the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent in five years, he shouldn’t have a job.

He announced Friday he’s resigning from his post.

News of his planned departure came less than two weeks before officials expect to reveal district-level test scores, outlining how far the now 29-school district — with schools largely in Memphis and speckles in Nashville — is moving the needle on student performance. Now three years into school turnaround efforts, this year’s scores would provide the first clear snapshot of the ASD’s success, he’s said. Past years have shown lackluster results.

The entire article is worth a read, for it includes a 2011 TN Report interview with naive Barbic about what test score gains he expected to see– and his statement about the “ultimate accountability” of his own job if he couldn’t deliver.

Bye, bye, Barbic.

Yet the ASD continues to advertise a miracle on its website:

Building the Possible

The Achievement School District was created to catapult the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee straight to the top 25% in the state.

As Rubinstein points out in his July 2015 post, the symbol for ASD is an irony in itself, for it represents “that which cannot work”:

I don’t know if this was an intentional thing or not, but look at the ASD logo.

See that triangle thing?  It is called a Penrose Triangle or sometimes a Penrose Tribar.  It is an optical illusion since something like this cannot be built.  According to Wikipedia, in the 1950’s Penrose, himself, described the object as “impossibility in its purest form.”  In a very candid moment, Barbic admitted during a panel discussion that even if the goal was unattainable, it served a purpose because it created an energy around a lofty goal which attracted funders and talent to the district. [Emphasis added.]

Got that? Even if ASD cannot work, at least it will draw money (and “talent” to carry out the desires of those providing the money).

And indeed, ASD has the money coming, and coming from billionaires whose mission is to replace traditional public education with under-regulated charters. So, they carefully craft the optical illusion that ASD is a success by promoting a feel-good story of a single school with a single year in the ASD that ASD CEO Chris Barbic recently quit.

money apple


Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, published on June 12, 2015.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. Cody permalink

    Marc Sternberg is a native of Baton Rouge, and promoted over the years by Rolfe McCollister, owner of Baton Rouge Business Report, insider to Jindal, and a Jindal appointee to the LSU Board of Supervisors.

  2. There was an interesting four-part report covering the 2014-2015 school year at Frayser High, or rather Martin Luther King Jr. College Prep School as Bobby White renamed it, in Governing magazine (September 2015).

    I’m not not sure how to summarize the reporters findings and am unfamiliar with either the credibility or political slant of Governing, but it presented an interesting overview of some of the charter reform issues in Nashville. As for progress, not all change is progress.

  3. Reblogged this on Crazy Normal – the Classroom Exposé and commented:
    Discover the false promises paid for by the Walton family?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mercedes Schneider on the Walton Family Foundation’s Propaganda | Diane Ravitch's blog
  2. Mercedes Schneider on the Walton Family Foundation’s Propaganda | Co-Opt-Ed

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