Imagine a hospital where the very toughest cases, the most inoperable cancers, the most stubborn infections, the most complicated reconstructive surgeries, and the most challenging diagnoses-- those are all handed over to someone who works in the personnel office and who has no medical training at all.
Now imagine that you're the state of Tennessee. You've come up with a system for identifying your most challenging and troubled schools, the schools that require the ablest educational leadership, the deepest understanding of how to make student learning happen under the most challenging of circumstances. The last person you put in charge set audacious goals for himself-- and he failed. Then he quit. On his way out the door, he said, "Hey, this turns out to be a lot harder than we thought."
And so the state of Tennessee called upon-- Malika Anderson.
Anderson has Tennessee roots, and a family background in civil rights work, from grandfather Kelly Smith (a Tennessee civil rights heavyweight with a bridge named after him in Nashville) and an aunt who was one of the first black students to integrate Nashville public schools. So when she writes, "Creating great neighborhood schools here is personal for me," we should take her seriously.
But does Malika Anderson have the qualifications to lead Tennessee's Achievement School District?
Her LinkedIn account seems to have been abandoned six years ago. But after graduating from Spelman College in 1997, she spent two years as a senior business analyst at A T Kearney, four years as a manager of corporate planning and projects at Crystal Stairs, one year as VP of Business Strategy and Development at the National Health Foundation, two years as an owner-partner of mobileSPA, a management consulting firm in Atlanta. After that, she started 2007 as VP at WrightWay consulting.
Anderson lists as her specialties, "Strategic planning, data analysis and reporting, organizational assessment, board development, program and project management, and the development of human resources management systems." Her profile also includes a warm recommendation of her human resource services.
So after a decade, no work with or expressed interest in, education.
But in 2009 she landed the job of director of “school turnaround” for the District of Columbia Public Schools as part of the team under Chancellor She Who Will Not Be Named. And by 2012, she was in Tennessee, working as the chief portfolio officer of the ASD to farm out "failing" schools to charter operators.
So how did someone with no background in anything but management consulting and human resources end up on track to become an administrator of a major school system?
What else but the Broad Academy. Anderson is part of the 2009-2011 "residency class."
The Broad Academy is a testament to just what one can accomplish with giant brass cojones. Los Angeles Gazillionaire Eli Board decided that schools did not have an education problem, but a management problem, and so he would set up his own superintendent school, certified by nobody but Eli Broad to provide up-and-coming corporate managers with superintendent certification, also accredited by nobody but Eli Broad. It is like Teach for America, but worse. It is literally as if I set up a "school" in the shed in my backyard and declared that I was training "superintendents" and started issuing certificates. The only difference is that I am not rich and powerful and well-connected.
The Broad Academy has many distinguished alumni, like John Deasy, Chris Cerf and-- well, look!-- Chris Barbic, the former boss who plugged Anderson to be his replacement at ASD.
Broad most infamously wrote the book on how to break and dismantle a public school. And they are pretty resolute in their beliefs that A) schools should be run like businesses and B) trained education professionals don't have a clue about how to run schools properly.
Of course, it's arguable that the Achievement School District doesn't need to be run by educators because it is nothing more than a broker, a government office charged with busting up public schools and handing them over to charter operators. "Take over" and "turn around" seem to mean "farm out in general privatization move." The ASD has experienced some mission shift. For instance, their page with their mission statement used to say this:
The Achievement School District was created to catapult the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee straight to the to 25% in the state. In doing so, we dramatically expand our students' life and career options, engage parents and community members in new and exciting ways, and ensure a bright future for the state of Tennessee.
Now that pages says this:
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I did find a mission statement on a power point slide. It now says this:
Through mutually enriching relationships with the communities we serve, we will build joyful, college-preparatory neighborhood schools that empower students to know their full possibility, to understand the path to pursue it, and to have the academic and social skills to realize it.
Anderson's letter to the public reflects the new, vaguely-focused ASD.
Going forward, we will continue to hold ourselves and our school
operators accountable to the highest levels of student achievement and
growth. We will continue to go where need is concentrated, ensuring
every Priority School in Tennessee is improving because we believe that
families and students in these schools deserve nothing but the best. And
we will continue to ensure that the power in our district is placed in
the hands of local parents, educators and leaders in the neighborhoods
and communities we serve because they are the ones who best know how to
serve our students. We will do so with even greater transparency and
deeper levels of partnership than during the ASD’s initial years.
Anderson faces a variety of problems, not the least of which is that finding buyers for the Tennessee Failed School Yard Sale is getting harder (fun fact-- now that Race to the Top money is gone, charters have to pay the ASD central office an administrative fee).
Meanwhile, ASD's definition of "failing school" as "any school in the bottom 5% of Big Standardized Tests scores soaked in VAM sauce" guarantees that there will always be failing schools in Tennessee, and while it may have seemed to reformsters as if they were planting a money tree, I wonder if they aren't starting to see that they sorcerer's apprenticed themselves into a corner. They're like the kid who enjoyed some popularity because he threatened to kick that big guy's ass after school, but now it's after school and the big guy has shown up with ten of his friends.
Tennessee has suffered for a while from the effects of a school system run by amateurs, starting back with state ed honcho Kevin "All I Know Is What I Learned in TFA" Huffman. These folks may very well have been and continue to be well-intentioned amateurs, but they don't understand how schools work, they don't understand why VAM doesn't work, they don't understand the uses and abuses of standardized testing, and they don't understand how to make troubled schools better. They get as far as "every child of every race and background deserves a good education" and then everything that comes after that, they get wrong.
The continued existence of the failed Achievement School District and the appointment of Malika Anderson to its unnecessary head position is just one more sign that Tennessee's leaders have not wised up yet. The guy from human resources who comes in to operate on my mother's heart may have the best intentions in the world-- but I want somebody with real training, real experience, real expertise, and real knowledge of what needs to be done, and not someone who will do massive destruction because they don't know what the hell they're doing.