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Living in Dialogue: Can the Tennessee Achievement School District Move Beyond the Silver Bullets?

Chris Barbic, the Superintendent of the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), is back in the news, and he is displaying remarkable candor in describing his assumptions. Barbic also explains how he remains devoted to his “hypothesis” on school improvement.

Coverage of Barbic’s efforts will inform the post mortem of the Race to the Top and the Obama administration’s “turnaround” experiments such as the School Improvement Grants (SIG).  Even if one of Barbic’s “most challenging seasons” turns out to be less disappointing than his previous years, and he pulls out some sort of miraculous transformation of Memphis schools, it seems clear the RttT and the SIG aren’t going to survive. And, most likely, the high-dollar innovations led by Barbic will become classic case studies in how and why reform overreach is so fatal to school improvement.

Two valuable contributions to the “lessons learned” process that we need to undertake are Daarel Burnette’s Chalkbeat Tennessee interview with Barbic, and a series in Governing magazine by John Buntin. Both journalists provide more evidence that Barbic’s intentions are pure, that last year was extremely contentious for the ASD, and that Barbic now faces even bigger challenges dealing with community protests and with three charter operators – most notably YES charter schools – pulling out of Memphis schools.

In the past, Buntin says, the ASD’s effort to takeover neighborhood schools “had generated impassioned protests from some parents and teachers who faced the prospect of losing their jobs if the ASD or a charter operator took over. But none of the protests were well organized or had much of an effect. This year … a different tone has been set.”

Barbic still defends the setting of a seemingly utopian goal, bringing schools ranked in the bottom 5% into the top quarter of schools. It would be difficult enough to make such a transformation using a comprehensive set of science-based policies. But, as Buntin reports, Barbic is attempting to do so based on his theory that, “It’s the school leader. It’s teacher talent. It’s a common vision.” Free educators from administrative constraints and hold them accountable for outcomes, and this educator-driven, instruction-driven model could supposedly overcome the legacies of extreme poverty. Even more strange, Barbic seeks systemic transformation, not just dramatic improvements in individual schools.

To his credit, Barbic made some startling acknowledgements to Burnette. He now to admits to underestimating “the depth of the generational poverty” and how “what our kids bring into school every day makes it even harder than we initially expected.” He belatedly endorses the more expensive and complex policies that many social scientists and educators have long described as essential to turning around the most challenging schools – wraparound and social service supports for students and families.

Barbic committed himself, and the ASD, to a teacher quality shortcut which I would think would be described as a classic education “silver bullet.” Now, he says:

In education, we tend to look for silver bullets and we need to be conscious that setting up ASD-type organizations doesn’t turn into the next silver bullet in the reform community. Every time a state does this, it is important that it works well. During the first decade of charter schools, for every good charter, there were five lousy ones. But if we are setting up achievement school districts, every one of these needs to be good.

Moreover, he agrees:

It’s important to have a pipeline of teachers and school leaders who are going to be able to do this work in a sustainable way. That’s as much a question as it is a lesson learned. Asking someone to come in and spend their career in a priority school, given the level of intensity required day in and day out to be successful, is a lot to ask of any educator.

Barbic seems to believe his silver bullet can work when combined with the magic bullet of his vision of “autonomy” for those leaders and teachers. As Buntin explains, “He thinks charters will be able to outperform traditional district schools because they won’t have to operate within large bureaucracies. ‘That’s the bet at least,’ Barbic says.”

I bet most best teachers have a very different vision of teacher autonomy, one that doesn’t defer to test-driven accountability.  But, that is the subject for another post.

Then Buntin describes a complex and expensive alternative that has worked better than the ASD in Memphis. Innovation schools, known as the iZone, are traditional public schools that meet for an additional hour every day. Federal funding allowed for the equivalent to adding 23 days to the school year. In addition to leadership, autonomy, effective teachers, and longer school days, iZone schools offer “content-coaching and constant support” to educators.

But, iZone isn’t a magic bullet, either. Buntin reports, “While iZone students showed big gains in test scores, the schools that iZone principals and teachers had left behind showed declines. The benefits of good leadership and good teaching had seemingly just been redistributed from one group of schools to another.” Because of the systemic lack of such skillful educators and long term financing shortfalls, the “expansion of the iZone program was on hold.”

In other words, due to the conditions we encounter, inner city schools face a chronic shortage of teacher talent. Barbic somehow thinks he can rectify this challenge by subjecting us to test-driven accountability metrics that are biased against inner city teachers.

Buntin concludes, “In the end though, what the ASD really needs are more wins — more clear-cut, impressive successes that would quiet the critics.” Given the financial costs and the conflicts parked by Barbic’s gamble, however, it is hard to imagine a clear-cut positive outcome for the Tennessee experiment. Moreover, the “opportunity costs” of the reformers’ ill-fated search for a relatively cheaper and quicker method of school improvement are tragic. The search for a shortcut sucked the air out of more expensive, more complicated alternatives such as socio-economic integration and full-service community schools. Even if Barbic now, as an afterthought, supports social and emotional student supports, it is hard to see where the money for those science-based policies will come from.

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his n...