Chris Barbic used to belittle government bureaucrats running public education systems. In his view, “they didn’t know what they were doing.”
Now, as fate would have it, the Vanderbilt graduate and acclaimed Texas charter-school founder has become one of them. Or rather, he’s getting an opportunity to prove he can succeed where others have come up woefully short.
Selected by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman to become the first superintendent for Tennessee’s so-called “Achievement School District,” Barbic, 41, says he feels in some ways now like he’s “joined the dark side.”
Another way he looks at it, though, is that he’s been issued an education reformer’s challenge of a lifetime — the chance to apply his theories, philosophy, experience and knowledge on a larger and more politically significant scale than anything he’s done before.
The pitfalls are great, but the potential rewards profound. Barbic’s job is nothing short of figuring out how to replace academic despair and defeatism with success, excellence and optimism in Tennessee’s most dismally performing schools.
Tennessee’s Achievement School District was born out of the state’s federal Race to the Top application in which state officials promised to implement a bundle of reforms favored by the Obama administration. Tennessee was one of two states to win the first wave of awards, taking home $501 million in federal funding to apply toward boosting educational outcomes in the Volunteer State.
Right now, the district is helping run four schools in Memphis and one in Hamilton County, and holding a looser grip on operations in eight other schools in Nashville, Knoxville and Jackson.
Barbic began his teaching career with the Teach for America alternative certification program alongside Huffman — the man he credits for convincing him to accept a government job.
TNReport talked with Barbic about his vision for the Achievement School District, how he plans to cope with bureaucratic and political obstacles and what he believes the criteria ought to be for holding him accountable:
(Editor’s note: the following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
TNREPORT: What do you tell parents who wonder what it means for their child to be in the Achievement School District?
Barbic: Hopefully what it means is a better quality of education. And that’s what we’re committed to doing. And we’re committed to doing it in a way that’s going to be the least disruptive, with the least amount of turmoil, so that everyone in the building can focus on their child and not on all the other stuff that tend to get focused on. And that we’re going to do this thoughtfully and, to the extent possible, in partnership with the community and the school district…I think what we’re here to do is to work in partnership as best we can with the players in the community to create the best possible school we can. Because at the end of the day, let’s face it: We’re all going to be gone, we’re going to do other things, we’re going to move on, and it’s going to be the parents in that community that are going to have to own that school.
TNREPORT: Can you talk about what kind of role your charter-school background will play?
BARBIC: I think what I’ve come to realize is that this is less about traditional schools and charter schools, it’s more about how do we create more high performance schools, and how we do make sure that the below performing schools, whether charter or traditional, that we’re doing something to turn them around. And then the most extreme cases, if we have to, closing them and then restarting them with a new team and a new group of people. So I’m actually kind of agnostic on charter/non-charter. What I really care about is performance and making sure that every single kid in Tennessee has access to a great education, and so I think that’s really what the achievement school district is about.
TNREPORT: What would it mean for the ASD if the U.S. Department of Education accepts Tennessee’s waiver and exempts the state from the No Child Left Behind law?
BARBIC: It’s interesting because, it’s gotten to the point now where because the metrics in (the law), as they get closer to 2014, 2015, are so high, we would go from 13 schools to 38 schools to 800 schools in three years. … Obviously, we are not now and never will be able to handle that sort of capacity, so I think what the waiver does is it just better defines what is an ambitious target, and we want the targets to fit the school that everyone in the state is focused on, the First to the Top goals. We feel like those are ambitious goals but also practical goals, and if we can get to those goals then we’ll feel like we’ve moved the way we need to in the state of Tennessee to be where we want to be. So I think that’s important that people need to understand, that this is not about watering things down or going back to a time of five or 10 years ago. This is about, let’s create a realistic measure, an ambitious measure, but let’s have everybody focused on one goal post.
TNREPORT: How do you do that?
BARBIC: Changing education, as much as we’d like to think it’s about the programs, it’s not about programs. It’s about people. If you look at a new school budget, 80 percent of the budget is people. … So we need to evaluate who’s there, keep the great people and then figure out what we’re going to do to the folks that maybe need to move on to another school or to another profession. Make sure we’re recruiting and bringing in the best possible people we can find. Once you have that in place then you need to give the leaders some freedom and some flexibility. If the leader needs time to go over their schedule, if they want to extend the school day, they need to be able to do that. If they want to extend the school year they need to be able to do that. … And then, it’s accountability. It’s making sure that we are truly holding people and schools accountable based on data. We’ve tracked TVAAS data in the state for 20 years. It hadn’t been used at all to make decisions around what we’re doing with the people. I think it’s great to collect data, but if you’re not actually using the data to drive the decisions about what you’re doing in the school, then it’s kind of an exercise in futility.
TNREPORT: How do you plan on navigating the Legislature and state bureaucracy?
BARBIC: I don’t want to be naïve about the politics, but I wasn’t brought here to do that. I was brought here to be on the ground and work in schools. The governor, the commissioner, the Legislature, they can do that, and I feel like there’s the right leadership there with the right values and the right amount of courage to provide the cover that we’re going to need to do this work. This is going to be hard work, and we’re not always going to get it right. We’re going to make mistakes. Anytime you’re doing something new, it’s not going to be perfect. I feel like when the glass breaks and we make a mistake, as long as we own it and move on and learn from it we’re going to be okay.
TNREPORT: What gauge do you want used to hold you accountable?
BARBIC: Some of these schools haven’t been successful in decades, and so I think to expect, in one year, this is all going to change, is optimistic, but I think that’s a little naïve. I do think we need to be showing progress, and we need to be making solid gains, 10-point plus gains, each year. I mentioned Louisiana and New Orleans earlier in the conversation because that’s kind of what we were modeled after. If you look at the schools there — which before you could argue were some of the worst schools in the country — you’re seeing over the last four years gains in those schools in New Orleans that were higher than gains being made in the rest of the state. You’re seeing over the four-year stretch, 20-point proficiency gains for poor African-American kids in the schools. And I think those are the sort of gains we need to see in the Achievement School District. The absolute achievement may be a little different because kids are showing up at a different point, but the growth should be as good if not better than growth happening across the state.
TNREPORT: You expect these schools will perform at the same level as the best in the district?
BARBIC: Take Hamilton High School in Memphis. Hamilton High School in three years, if we’re where I want us to be, in three years Hamilton High School, when you look at the list of Memphis City Schools, top to bottom in terms of student achievement and you take out the optional schools where kids test in, Hamilton High School should be right up there at the top of the list with other schools in Memphis City Schools. And hopefully in five years it’s competing at the same level as some of the best schools in the state. And that’s the goal we’re going to set and the goal we’re going to work towards. And in three years if we haven’t gotten that done, then I shouldn’t be here. I think the ultimate accountability is, I shouldn’t have a job.
TNREPORT: How do you go about identifying the best teachers in the classrooms?
BARBIC: The evaluations are going to be key because it’s going to tell us who’s great and who’s not. And right now I’m not sure we can really, with confidence, say we know who those teachers are. I think that’s one. And, obviously, for those teachers who are knocking it out of the park, we want to keep them and make sure that they stay. And we also want to attract them, maybe they’re working at other schools, to come and be here. So that’s first. I think for folks who aren’t performing, the legislation is pretty clear that we have some flexibility there to make sure that we are getting the right people in the building. Without control over that, this becomes pretty much an uphill battle, so I think having that flexibility could be important. …My job is to make sure that we have the best possible people in the school, and we’re going to do that. And like I said, we’re going to do it judiciously. But if we don’t get that part right, the rest of it’s never going to happen.
TNREPORT: How are you reaching out to teachers?
BARBIC: The first thing that we’re doing is we want to get into the schools, and really see what’s going on like I mentioned before. And I think as we develop a gameplan for what it is we’re going to be doing, we want to make sure we’re communicating that to everybody, to the teachers, to the students, to the parents. We’re going to be starting some community forums, probably at the end of September, with folks in the community meeting with leaders in the community as…political leaders, faith leaders in the philanthropy community, folks that have traditionally been involved in education and education reform, and all the stakeholders are going to be an important part of making this happen. I think the key is, the goal is, to communicate what it is we’re doing. I think, I’m not naïve enough to think that everyone is going to embrace what it is we’re going to be doing, that’s not the goal.
But the goal is to be open, to have an honest conversation about what’s happening, for the community to – for there not to be any surprises for anyone when we do decide what it is we’re going to do so that everyone is fully aware, and I think that as long as we’re open, and there’s some transparency in the process, and we’ve got a good rationale for what it is we’re doing, that’s my goal. At the end of the day we’ll have as many supporters as we can. I think the key to building support is to deliver results. We can talk all we want but if we’re not actually getting it done, then it doesn’t really matter. So I think on the front end, it is going to require a little bit of a leap of faith from everybody, but after a year or two into this, if we haven’t gotten the community behind us because we haven’t delivered the results, then that’s on us. And we need to be held accountable for that.