Links to the rest of this series here
Tennessee is one of the reformer hotspots. The commissioner of Education there is a TFA alum, and Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband Kevin Huffman. I know him a bit, too, but my letter will instead go to Chris Barbic. Chris is currently the superintendent of something called ‘The Achievement School District’ in Tennessee. He moved from Houston where he was running the YES prep charter schools to help turnaround the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee (about 85 schools) so that they are, based on their test scores, in the top 25% in five years.
So far I’ve written to 6 reformers in 5 letters. Some of those 6 people were better acquaintances than others but none of them were really ‘friends’ in the sense that aside from TFA events I didn’t really ‘hang out’ with them apart from that. But Chris Barbic is different. Chris and I met in Houston in 1992 when he was starting his first year there. The way we met was that his first teaching job was teaching the very students that I taught at Deady Middle School in my first year, the year before. I think we met at a happy hour that I went to to see my friends from my old school (I transferred to a high school my second year). So in a sense we had an unusual connection as, like a relay race, I passed my old students onto him.
As another connection, I was very good friends with Natasha, who is now his wife, as she was in my corps and lived in the same apartment complex as me during my first year. Natasha was probably the best first year teacher I’ve ever seen. She went on to be the regional director in Houston for a while and then was even elected to the Houston Independent School District school board at a pretty young age.
Chris and I would often run into each other at different events and spent a decent amount of time hanging out. We weren’t best friends or anything, but I’d say that I’d see him about once a month and we always had a lot of fun together. When I recently found all my old photos from Houston that I took with my 35 mm camera back between 1991 and 1995 (unlike now where we take hundreds of pictures a year with our phones, back then I took about twenty pictures a year so the fact that he’s in one definitely means we were friends), I found this picture of Chris and two Houston 1993ers, Debbie, and Matt (now married) from what looks like a party at my old house.
After I left Houston in 1995, I pretty much lost touch with Chris. I knew that he started YES prep charter schools and I’d see him from time to time at Teach For America things. I was thrilled when he was on Oprah and she gave his school a million dollars to continue their good work. From what I understood, 100% of his students got into 4 year colleges. I was happy that he was, I thought, outdoing KIPP.
The first time I realized that Chris was maybe a ‘reformer’ was when Wendy Kopp used his school as an example of a miracle school which proves that ‘demography isn’t destiny’ as, her recent book says, his schools will produce more low-income college graduates than the rest of Houston Independent School District combined. This was a pretty impressive statistic. Wendy used that statistic again in a debate with Diane Ravitch at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2011.
As this statistic seemed pretty impossible — H.I.S.D. has 10,000 seniors graduate every year and the YES prep network had a total of about 300 graduates — I emailed Chris to get the lowdown. He wrote back that when all the YES prep campuses are up they will have 500 graduates and all 500 will go on to graduate college while out of H.I.S.D.’s 10,000 graduates, only 500 who are low-income will go on to graduate college. In other words, the statistic was a pretty big stretch.
A few months later I learned that Kevin Huffman had lured Chris and his family away from Houston to Tennessee for this new opportunity. As I read about what was going to happen, I got pretty nervous. It seems that Memphis is operating under the New Orleans model with their ‘Recovery School District.’ The basic idea is to have charter companies take over the schools. Though it is tough to get true data out of New Orleans, my sense is that aside from some statistics that they have made up, the New Orleans charter experiment is a disaster.
The Memphis ASD has the right to hand over the operation to any of the 85 schools in the bottom 5% to a charter operator with the intent of getting the schools to the ‘top 25%’ within 5 years. They took over 6 schools this year and are planning to raise that to 12 next year. As I am skeptical of short term ‘turnarounds,’ I’m not optimistic that this can be accomplished without some very creative math.
Here is the 6th, out of 8 (spoiler alert: not all reformers are men) of my open letters series: An intervention for Chris Barbic.
Don’t be afraid. I am here to help. It’s just me, your old buddy circa Houston early 1990s.
The reason I’m doing this is that I can’t sit back and watch you suffer anymore. You may not feel like you’re suffering but to most everyone else, at least that I know, you have developed a dangerous addiction. An addiction to ‘reform.’ And though you might now be a functional reformaholic, my belief is that the professional life span of an untreated reformaholic will soon be quite short. But don’t despair. I’m going to get you through this.
Though we’ve only run into each other a few times since I left Houston in 1995, I’ve always liked seeing you at various TFA events. I think the fact that the students who challenged me my first year of teaching were the same students who challenged you during your first year of teaching one year later has built, for me at least, a unique bond. That’s why I know that you will read this letter and hopefully offer a public response.
Over the years I’ve always been excited to follow your progress: The creation of YES schools, the million dollars from Oprah, these were things that made me proud to know you. You are such an enthusiastic and hard worker, if even a portion of that energy gets transferred to the people who work for you, it’s going to be a pretty exciting team.
But I started to get worried about you when I researched some claims I was hearing about YES. For several years I had no idea that the 100% of graduates getting into a college did not mean that 100% of the students who entered the school as 6th graders ultimately got into college — only the approximately 60% who didn’t leave YES for one reason or another. I know that in the charter school game everyone is presenting the statistics that make them look best, but I still felt a little bad when I learned that I had been misled by this stat.
But it was when you uprooted from Houston to take on the position of superintendent of the Achievement School District in Tennessee that I got really concerned. When I read how you describe the mission of the ASD I see the full effects of your reformaholism. The things you say are, and excuse me if this is the best word I can come up with to describe it, ‘goofy.’ From what I understand, the goal is to take schools that are in the bottom 5% based on standardized test scores and ‘turn them around’ so that they will, within 5 years, be in the top 25% based on the same standardized test scores. You started with 6 schools this year and are adding 6 more next year.
A key symptom of reformaholism is a sense of invincibility followed by making false promises. The only way to possibly achieve this goal is to somehow game the system. One way to do this is to very carefully select from the approximately 80 schools in the bottom 5% the schools that are already ‘on the rise.’ I know that reformers sometimes call the collection of schools slated for ‘turnaround’ the ‘portfolio’ and like a stock portfolio, they pick ones that have the best chance of rising.
What is to guarantee that the students who enter these schools next year will be the exact same students that would have entered the school if not for the ASD takeover? Likely there is some kind of application process, so it is very unlikely that this will be the same group of kids that would have been there otherwise. In that case, I don’t know how fair it is to compare the scores of the old students with the scores of the new students five years from now.
Even with this potential for artificially upping the numbers, I still don’t think that you will accomplish this goal. If you’ve followed other attempted ‘turnarounds’ that have been going on around the country, they sometimes get an initial boost only to regress the next year. Even Arne Duncan has completely changed his once optimistic view about turnarounds. Where he once spoke of mythical 90-90-90 schools (90% free lunch, 90% graduation rate, 90% achievement), he now can only point to schools that have achieved ‘double digit gains.’ You seem to be the only one committing to such a specific and, in my view, unattainable goal. It is like you’re promising that you will get a group of people to all run three minute miles when nobody has ever done that, not even you.
The reason that I am so skeptical is not because I don’t believe that schools cannot be improved. I’ve taught at four schools and in each of them I’ve seen things that could be made more efficient. But the improvements that I’d envision wouldn’t make the kind of, to use a TFA word, ‘transformational’ change. Still it is always good to improve a school, I know. But from what I’ve read in interviews with you, the primary type of change you propose is to get better, and mainly younger, teachers. I don’t see a lot about costly wrap-around services like mental health clinics and social workers. I’m skeptical since I don’t think that the teachers before the turnaround were so much worse than the teachers after the turnaround. Many of the new teachers are pretty inexperienced. I even noticed that you recently requested that the ASD get brand new TFAers next year. There is no way that a new TFAer is equipped to make transformational change. I didn’t accomplish much my first year at Deady Middle School in that regard, and neither did you.
Speaking of Deady Middle School, do you think the problem with Deady back in the early 1990s was bad teaching? I was pretty impressed with the average teacher at that school. Do you think that Deady could have been turned around and made into a school in the top 25% with mainly a change in staff? I don’t.
I’m hoping I’ve helped you out here. I know that you will likely need to go through the 12 steps of which ‘denial’ is the first one. Overcoming addiction takes a lot of courage. Sometimes you have to get a whole new set of friends since the addiction to reform was the thing one thing that you had in common with them. I’m happy though to be your sponsor and you can feel free to e-mail me day or night, anytime you need to.
Tell Natasha I say ‘hi’ (Bayou Park Village is in the house!) and thanks to her for allowing me to have the monthly column in the TFA Houston newsletter that was, in a way, my original blog.
I hope for you a speedy recovery and that we can get together and hang at the TFA 25th anniversary, assuming that I’m not forbidden from attending.