Barbic’s goal was for the ASD to take the lowest 5 percent to the top 25 percent in a few years. That didn’t happen. Not even close.
It’s September, school is back in session, and it’s time for an update on two tarnished leaders of public education in Memphis and Tennessee.
Kriner Cash was superintendent of Memphis City Schools when it surrendered its charter and became part — make that a very big part — of the Shelby County system. He was not offered the job as superintendent of the merged system and took a buyout. In mid-August, Cash was hired as the new superintendent in Buffalo, New York.
As I told a Buffalo reporter who called me for some background, nobody will beat Cash’s resume or throw anything at him that he has not seen before. Memphis was America’s test lab for “school reform” during his tenure, and even President Obama got into the act with a visit to Booker T. Washington High School. Like him or not, Cash is a superintendent superstar who can find plenty of data to make himself look good without the burden of those no-nonsense “Ws” and “Ls” that send coaches packing. When the merged system disintegrated after a year, he was gone.
It was not his mess. He had, in fact, warned against it.
Chris Barbic is head of the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD) since 2011 but announced in July that he will leave at the end of this calendar year. Two weeks later, the state Department of Education released test scores showing that the ASD schools, most of which are in Memphis, regressed last year and are far from meeting Barbic’s goal of making it into the top 25 percent of public schools.
Buried in his letter of resignation (and apparently ignored in most media reports) was this important admission: “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.”
For a first-year teacher to say this would be perfectly understandable. For a 45-year-old veteran of Teach For America and charter schools — and holder of one of the most important jobs in public education — to say this as if it were some sort of revelation is deeply troubling.
Let’s just be real. Barbic and the ASD failed. A harsh word for sure, but one that’s applied to students, teachers, schools, and school districts that don’t make the grade. But not once does Barbic use the f-word in his resignation letter.
A “choice environment” is a school with some discretion over who gets in. A “neighborhood school” takes all comers and is accountable for the no-shows too. Barbic’s goal was for the ASD to take the lowest 5 percent to the top 25 percent in a few years. That didn’t happen. Not even close.
In 2014-15, the ASD schools in the “economically disadvantaged” subgroup, which is essentially all of them, did slightly better in grades 3-8 math but worse in grades 3-8 reading and much worse in high school Algebra 1 (only 23 percent of students were advanced or proficient compared to 44 percent the previous year).
New school systems in Bartlett, Germantown, and Collierville all showed improvement among disadvantaged students in those subjects. Even the new Shelby County system outperformed the ASD. That was no surprise since the ASD had taken over the lowest performers. Simple math: If there are ten students in a class and eight of them make an 80 on a test and two of them make 20, the class average goes up if you put the 20s somewhere else. This is why the data game is rigged in favor of Nashville against Memphis, suburban school districts against SCS, and choice schools versus the ASD.
In his resignation letter, Barbic wrote about hard work, writing new narratives, building foundations, and catalyzing changes in other schools. That lofty rhetoric might cut it for a superintendent interviewing for a job, but test scores and data make or break everyone else. Students, teachers, principals, and school districts can scream all they want about how unfair it is, but they get flunked, furloughed, fired, shamed, moved around, or taken over if they “underperform.” All in the name of accountability and school reform.