Monday, July 20, 2015

What Barbic Learned

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...

Sustaining Effort

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.

Pretty words

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.

Home run!

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.

Include parents 

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.



  1. Don't let him get away with that lie about the community's voice being drowned out. The community voice was heard loud and clear at those meetings. Repeating a lie several times does not make it true, despite what the ASD supporters think.

  2. "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."

    It's a lesson that the new Ed Commish of New York State, MaryEllen Elia, has yet to learn, as she's repeating the Stalinist "improve-or-else" tyranny she executed during her stint previous stint heading up schools in Hillsborough Florida:

    Check out this performance during her "listening" tour in Buffalo:


    " 'Rest assured,' (Elia) told them in a meeting in Buffalo,'that if the schools do not show demonstrable improvement, someone will come in under my authority and fix those schools.'

    "The state Education Department already is taking steps to do just that. 'A year from now, five Buffalo schools are headed for a takeover by someone outside the district. Twenty more city schools are on the same path for the following year. At that point, the state has within its power to place any city school it deems failing in the hands of someone outside the district.

    "And as it stands now, just 15 of the district’s 56 schools are in good standing with the state. That means, unless significant improvement is made in student performance, someone other than the Buffalo superintendent or School Board will be in charge of nearly half of Buffalo’s public schools in just a couple of years. When Elia demanded that the School Board fix the city schools or she would act, she was referring to a new state law that allows for the appointment of receivers who would have unprecedented powers to make sweeping changes at failing schools.

    " ... "

    "Some members on both sides of the usually bickering board attempted to explain the district’s past failures and plans for the future. She rejected each attempt.

    "The scenario that played out between the commissioner and the board members smacked of students sent to the principal’s office to explain their misbehavior. Elia’s tone became increasingly more direct as the meeting progressed.

    "Wearing a serious face with hands folded in front of her, Elia wasn’t buying excuses – from anyone on either side of the divided board.

    "At one point, board majority member Larry Quinn suggested the high schools on the receivership list were beyond repair and the district should focus its effort on elementary schools.

    “ 'Let’s be honest, you’re only looking at Buffalo,' Elia said, referring to possible solutions. 'There are high schools in this nation that have been turned around. It’s going to be a huge sea change for this district and you’re the ones who are going to decide if you’re going to get there. You have a vote on a board to make the decision whether you’re going to do it.'

    "Quinn later suggested it could take a year to come up with plans for those schools.

    “ 'I can tell you, if you’re going to take a year to come up with a plan, you’re not going to have those schools any more,' (Elia) responded.

    "And when board member Sharon Belton-Cottman attempted to defend the district, Elia shared a similar exchange.

    “ 'I don’t want the impression to be given to you that this district cannot function,' Belton-Cottman said.

    “ 'For whatever reason,' Elia replied, 'the Buffalo school system with the School Board has not gotten its act together at those schools.' ”

  3. One more bit from the article above:


    “ 'That someone’s going to come in here and wave a magic wand, and all of these kids who have severe problems will start doing well, that’s just not going to happen,' Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said.

    "Elia disagrees.

    “ 'It’s important for you to understand there will be consequences if you can’t move those schools forward,' she said. 'It’s handing you a tool and giving you an option to use it. If you don’t use it, I will.' ”

    Exactly what is this "tool" to which she refers?

    Will this tool be able to reverse or correct the conditions described in the following post from "Perdido Street Schools" blog, beneath an article covering Elia's appearance in Buffalo?
    "AnonymousJuly 20, 2015 at 7:07 PM

    "I taught for three years in the Hempstead UFSD, at Hempstead High School specifically, one of the schools that have been 'identified' as a persistently struggling school.

    "The school had a student population of approximately 65% African-American and 35% Latin-American. As a teacher of Spanish-speaking students, a majority of them were recent arrivals from El Salvador and Honduras. When I refer to them as recent arrivals, the time period includes students in the US from as little to just arriving to less than one year in New York.

    "Both the black and Latino populations suffered extensively fro severe economic hardships. As a teacher of Latino students, I recall many of them were wonderful children, but the experiences that they had endured, both before coming to the US and then magnified after living in New York, created barriers that children should never have to experience.

    "One student would shamefully glance at the floor when homework would be collected. He confided in me that he worked in a restaurant after school and didn't get home until midnight. He did this to help his family pay bills. This student told me he wanted to do the homework but couldn't because he was too tired and could not keep his eyes open that late at night.

    "Another student used to look into classrooms during holiday season. When I asked her what she was doing, she told me she wanted to see if there was food because she was hungry.

    "The high levels of unemployment, divorce rates, and crime in the area were heartbreaking, and I experienced this for the short time I was there.

    "Ms Elia...what you fail to understand...what the reformsters want from you, is a punishment to be inflicted on a school that cannot defend itself. This policy is akin to walking over to a person who is handicapped and demanding that they walk, and when they say they can't, the person making the demand beats them, hoping to get the desired effect, while knowing in the back of their mind that it will not happen under current circumstances.

    "Ms. Elia...many of the teachers at Hempstead, both of the black and Latino students, were wonderful educators, warm and caring, using their expertise to change lives for the better.

    "If you truly want to deal with the 'struggling school syndrome', it is time to break from the Cuomo Party Line...visit the schools, walk through the neighborhoods, talk with the students.

    "I am most certain you will not, because the truth is not what you are looking for. You are helping your masters to profit off the backs of our the blame is shifted against professional educators. What is even worse, is that the group identified here as the neediest is made up of children.

    "Ms Elia...will you be a voice for them, or the people who are banking their success off the 'manufactured' failures of children?"
    Again the post from "Anonymous" is in the COMMENTS section at:

    1. Exactly. What miraculous "tool" that schools just don't want to use is she referring to?