Last week brought the announcement that Chris Barbic, head of Tennessee's Achievement School District, is headed out the door at the end of the year. The announcement came complete with a letter that ran on the ASD website. There are certainly many lessons to be learned from the ASD in TN. Did Barbic learn any of them? Let's see...
Barbic opens with the one-two punch of why he's leaving. First, because ASD is all launched and "sustainable," now is a good time to pass the baton. Second, because the job was killing him.
The pace and stress of a superintendent role...does not lend itself to decades of work.
That is perhaps a rough way to recruit a successor. But it also underlines one of those things that reformsters don't get-- education is a marathon, not a sprint. Maybe the job doesn't lend itself to decades of work, but a school district does, in fact, have to keep working for decades.
Reformsters often look at teachers and other professional educators as if they're just not trying hard enough. But the most read piece I have ever written is this one; on Huffington Post it has pulled 560K facebook likes. That's not because I wrote it so darn good, but because I touched a nerve, and the nerve I touched is the one that says that there is never enough-- never enough time, energy, you, to do everything, and so everybody who works a full career in education makes compromises. Otherwise you have to leave after four years because you drove yourself to a heart attack and your family misses you.
Schools require sustainable efforts. Otherwise it's constant chaos as teachers and administrators have to be constantly replaced. So Barbic has learned a True Thing here, maybe.
Barbic follows with some very pretty words about how ASD has changed stuff and made things better. Nothing about how Barbic's promise to move the bottom 5% of schools into the top 25% hasn't actually happened. Instead, advocates for ASD have been moving the goal posts from "achieve miracle move to top 25%" to "made some students do a little better." I'm pretty sure that if public schools were also allowed to move the goal posts in this game, they could score more often as well.
But now Barbic is going to move on to actual lessons learned.
Trust the professionals
Barbic speaks up for teachers and administrators, and, well, non-profit school operators, too.
By removing the bureaucracy—and putting the power in the hands of nonprofit school operators—we can eliminate the vicious cycle of the hard-charging superintendent needing to “reform” a central office once every three years.
Or even every four. I can't tell if Barbic has just suffered an irony overdose or if he is smart enough to be recognizing that he is living proof that you can't put your managerial eggs in a mercurial superintendent basket. I'm going to give him credit for the latter.
Autonomy cannot outpace talent
A good school is run by a rock star principal and a superhero teaching staff. If you have those folks in place, you should give them freedom, but if you don't, don't. Barbic believes that hiring the right superstars is the secret sauce for a tasty great school burger.
Swing and a miss
Barbic sees two ideas in the school debate that are, IHHO, off the mark. First, he believes that superstar staffs can insure "that all kids, in the right conditions supported by the the right team of adults, can achieve at high levels no matter their circumstances." But Barbic is wrestling with a giant man of straw, saying that the "poverty trumps education" argument is out of place. At least, I think he's wrestling a straw man. Given the context, I think he's saying that nobody should argue that poor students cannot be educated, which is a great thing to say since I don't believe I've ever read anybody who disagrees with it (although I'm behind on my Donald Trump press releases).
On the other hand, if he's referring to the idea that poverty has more influence on a student's future than an education does, he's in trouble. As soon as I can locate one of the many charts I've seen showing that the highest achieving poor kids still end up behind the lowest achieving rich kids, I will link it here.
Barbic's second Ed Debate Mistake is, however, dead on the mark.
Let’s just be real: achieving results in neighborhood
schools is harder than in a choice environment. I have seen this
firsthand at YES Prep and now as the superintendent of the ASD. As a
charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great
results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned
neighborhood school environment is much harder.
Exactly-- having a successful charter when you have control over which students are enrolled is much easier then having to serve the students who are actually in the community. You know, the way a public school does.
I’ve spent plenty of time in “community” meetings where the voices of
parents are shouted down by people who are not from the community, do
not have kids attending a chronically under-performing school, and are
simply hell-bent on defending the status quo.
Funny, but this brings to my mind videos from, say, "community" meetings in Newark, where the people Not from the Community were running the meeting, defending the status quo of state control and charter privatizing. Or maybe the "community" meetings that the state of New York canceled because the local folks were too cranky. And of course there's the hybrid approach, where folks from outside the community bankroll elections so that the Wrong Peoplecan be forced to shut up.
It's not that Barbic doesn't have a point. Any time folks from outside come into a community to tell those local folks what it is they want, a line has been crossed, no matter which "side" crossed it. But that outside takeover has been the pattern of reform since Bill Gates appointed himself America's School Superintendent, right down through the establishment of Achievement School Districts which are predicated on stripping local taxpayers and voters of their democratic rights so that wiser folks from outside can come in to hire other people from outside to tell the community what schools they'll be allowed to have.
And it's brave for Barbic to use "status quo," because in 2015 top-down test-driven privatizing school initiatives are the status quo.
Also, this work is hard
Barbic has an engaging openness to this letter, including this part where he acknowledges that his heart attack was a kind of wake-up call.
Ironic thank yous
He thanks the governor. He thanks (always silly and currently departed) Kevin Huffman for bringing him to Tennessee. He thanks Candace McQueen and he thanks "the local and national philanthropic community whose commitment to this work and to our kids is inspiring." What was that part again about outsiders coming in and rolling over the community?
One last bonus point
I'm going to give him credit for his sign-off, in which he states the big goal: "the very best education possible for every child in this great state." I appreciate that he doesn't tout "access" or "opportunity," which are charter-speak for "one spot in a charter school for every hundred students." A great education for every kid is the correct goal.
Now let's see who they replace him with. Good luck, Tennessee.