Interview: Turnaround Schools Leader Chris Barbic On His Early Exit And Charter Schools

NOTE: This story was originally published on Nashville Public Radio’s website earlier today.

Chris Barbic was appointed four years ago as the first superintendent of the Achievement School District, created with funds from the federal Race to the Top grant program. That money has now run out. Credit: TN Photo Services.

Chris Barbic was appointed four years ago as the first superintendent of the Achievement School District, created with funds from the federal Race to the Top grant program. That money has now run out. Credit: TN Photo Services.

Chris Barbic nearly worked himself to death last year. At age 44, the otherwise healthy head of Tennessee’s new turnaround school district had a heart attack. Now he’s stepping down, well before his educational experimentation bears much fruit. Barbic has been one of the most closely-watched superintendents in the country. And as he leaves the job ahead of schedule, he’s raising eyebrows with what he calls an “honest” critique of charter schools.

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Tennessee snatched Barbic from the charter school world where he’s still considered a heavyweight. He founded Houston’s high-performing Yes Prep charter network. When he arrived in Tennessee, naturally he leaned on his background, asking charters to come in and run some of the state’s lowest performing schools.

But when his resignation letter came out last week, it came with a bit of self-reflection:

“As a charter school founder, I did my own 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.”

Barbic’s Achievement School District has to operate under constraints that are unusual for charters but commonplace for traditional public schools. The students didn’t choose the school, and the school didn’t choose them.

“There are great charter schools out there doing great work for kids and giving them an opportunity that they otherwise would not have had had that school not been opened. So I want to start there,” Barbic tells WPLN. “Having said that, getting results with families who are choosing your school versus students and families who that’s the school they go to because they’ve been assigned to it and they live across the street is a different context, and it’s a harder context.”

Barbic says there’s an “inherent value” when families make a choice to go to a charter.

“There’s a level of investment and — quite frankly — what I would call skin in the game that doesn’t always exist when you’re assigned to a school,” he says. “And that inherent difference matters.”

The bar Barbic set for the ASD was higher than almost anyone thought it should be, or at least seemed realistic. He would work with schools in the bottom five percent of the state and catapult them into the top 25 percent statewide over the course of five years.

“I’m glad we set that goal,” he says. “We’ve certainly been criticized and folks have said we’re crazy but I think especially in a place like Memphis where most of our schools are…there’s been a sense of energy and momentum and urgency in Memphis that quite frankly I don’t think existed prior to all of this.”

In some ways, turnaround efforts by the local districts have been more successful than Barbic’s. It’s one of the points state legislators from Nashville and Memphis make as they attempt to dismantle the ASD. Barbic says that won’t happen.

“As much as people who may want to roll this back, if you talk to folks that are actually doing this work every day, they would say that this has made everybody better,” he says. “I think the idea that the ASD makes the state accountability system real. I think in the past, results come out, they’re published in the paper. People talk about them for a couple of days and then its back to business as usual.”

Now, the state can come in and turn a chronic low-performer over to a charter operator, though it has gotten increasingly difficult to find charter organizations willing to take on the challenge. Even Barbic’s Yes Prep, which was under contract to run several Memphis schools, pulled out at the last minute. At the time, Barbic slipped in a jab, saying, “not everyone is cut out for this work.”

A few months later, a guy who falls in the “no excuses” camp of education reform is leaving himself.

“I would say this has never been about me, and we set it up in a way that it’s never been about a superintendent,” he says.

Barbic calls the effort a “relay,” and says it’s time to “pass the baton.” He describes the job — which has him split time between Memphis and Nashville — as “grueling,” though he concedes it may be no harder than actually teaching in high-poverty schools. He says he’s not looking for sympathy.

“At the end of the day, the adults can change jobs,” he says. “Our kids — especially the ones that we’re serving — they can’t one day wake up and decide they’re not going to be poor any more, and they can’t one day wake up and decide if I don’t learn to read, who cares.

“So while we need to be sympathetic to the circumstances our teachers and principals work in and we need to applaud and give them all the credit they’re due, at the end of the day, this is about the kids in the schools. They’ve got the toughest set of circumstances, at least the ones that we’re serving, and they can’t change that for themselves. The only way that’s going to change is if the adults in the school step up and do the work they need to do.”

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