back in town

Back in Memphis, founding superintendent of Tennessee’s turnaround district says the effort needs more time

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Chris Barbic (left) speaks at panel alongside Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership and Mary Seawell of the Gates Family Foundation. Barbic returned to Memphis for a forum on K-12 philanthropy.

The founding superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District says the next few years will tell whether the school turnaround initiative is on track to succeed.

In Memphis this week for a philanthropic event, Chris Barbic told Chalkbeat that he expects low-performing schools absorbed by the ASD to see more progress in the next two to three years.

That’s significantly slower than he envisioned when the charter school leader was recruited from Houston to lead the school turnaround program that launched in 2012 with federal money from Tennessee’s Race to the Top award. At the time, Barbic set the goal of moving schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent within five years. Most of those schools continue to struggle academically, however.

When he left the ASD in 2015, Barbic acknowledged that the goal was overly ambitious and said the extent of poverty in Memphis impeded change. However, he’s now hopeful that gains will come as ASD educators become more familiar with teaching to Tennessee’s new academic standards and standardized test.

“I have all the belief in the world in folks that are running schools,” said Barbic, now a senior education fellow with the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which supports the portfolio model of school governance.

Barbic was in Memphis for a two-day forum of the Philanthropy Roundtable, a network of charitable donors meeting with grantmakers to discuss strategies in education-related giving. Memphis is also home to the bulk of the ASD’s work, and Barbic was a frequent visitor during his tenure as superintendent from 2011 to 2015.

The state-run district is markedly different from those years when its charter-driven model was Tennessee’s highest-profile school turnaround tool. Now the district — which takes over low-performing schools and assigns them to charter operators to turn them around — is considered a tool of last resort under the state’s new education plan unveiled last year. Under-enrollment continues to plague many of its schools and was a big factor in the decisions of four charter operators to close their schools or exit the district.

The state is also seeking new leadership for the district, naming four candidates this week. Barbic’s successor, Malika Anderson, stepped down last fall after the state restructured the district’s central office.

“I hope to see someone hired who believes in the vision,” said Barbic, adding that the state’s role is “less about directly operating [schools] and more about finding great operators and giving them the opportunity.”

Barbic said a change in state standards and tests made it difficult for the ASD to track academic progress early on. After Tennessee shifted to new tests aligned with the standards, the first batch of results for the ASD were not promising. Students in its schools scored below the state averages in both elementary- and middle-school and high-school.

“It feels like to be fair, we’ve got to give folks to give a few years and rounds with new assessment,” he said. “We’ll see what happens over the next two to three years, and at that point, the schools that are doing well should get the opportunity to grow.”

Barbic spoke at the forum about the ASD, as well as his work with the Arnold Foundation to invest in cities pursuing strategies like common enrollment systems, expanded school options for families, and improved systems of accountability.

Memphis is among seven cities reaping some of those investments, Barbic said. The foundation has been working with the Memphis Education Fund, the city’s primary philanthropic organization to improve schools. (The Memphis fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

“It’s great to see how different communities have approached school quality and talent —  things people are working on here in Memphis,” Barbic said. “Folks in other cities are looking here to both what we got right and where we learned some lessons.”

Rahm

Emanuel touts Chicago grads’ successes in defense of CPS

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Rahm Emanuel speaking at Marine Leadership Academy's class of 2018 graduation

In three commencement speeches, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has touted post-high school success, underscoring a prime education goal that he’s prioritized for more than a year.

“99 graduates out of 99. All going to college or a branch of the armed forces,” he said Friday at the graduation ceremony for Marine Leadership Academy, a public high school affiliated with the U.S. Marine Corps in Logan Square.

Four days earlier, he highlighted achievement at the graduation ceremony of Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep based in Roseland: “I want the rest of Chicago to hear me loud and clear: 98 percent graduation, 90 percent college bound.”  Emanuel said. Three days before at commencement at Baker College Prep based in South Chicago, he celebrated a class that was 100 percent college-bound.

The mayor repeatedly highlighted postsecondary plans, echoing goals of the initiative he announced in April 2017– that starting with the class of 2020, high school seniors must have a letter of acceptance from a four-year college, a community college, the military, or a guaranteed entry into a trade in order to graduate. He said that this requirement “is an expectation we have for every child because that is the expectation the economy of the 21st century has for them.”

While CPS educators have agreed that preparing students beyond high school is important, many of them have also worried that the graduation requirement would rush schools to get students accepted into college without preparing them to actually succeed there.

As Emanuel travelled across the city to fete graduates, he also appeared to focus on their college plans as a weapon in his war of words with President Donald Trump over Chicago education. Just before Rahm announced the graduation requirement last year, the president criticized the city’s academic numbers as “very rough,” prompting the mayor to point to a Stanford study showing that Chicago students have among the highest improvement rates in the nation.

On Friday, Emanuel said, “To Chicago, to Illinois, to the rest of America, and to one person in particular in Washington, to all those doubters, to all the cynics, to all the nay-sayers who say ‘not those kids, not from that background, not from that part of town,’ you come here and see what I see: that the Bulldogs are going on to great and better things.”

Read on for his full speech at Marine Leadership Academy’s graduation:

“I

want to congratulate this great class of 2018. I want to congratulate your teachers, your principals, all the families, all the families of the Bulldogs that are here. I want to say, just last week, I sat where your parents are sitting as my little baby graduated. And well, I’m sorry, you are to certain people still their baby. That’s the way this works.

Now this is your day, this is your accomplishment. But there are a lot of people in this room who prodded you, who pushed you, who poked you. So I want you to stand up, turn around and give your parents and your teachers an applause for what they did to help you get to this day.

Now I asked you to do that for a reason. I asked you to do that because I want the rest of the city of Chicago, I want the state of Illinois, and I want the United States of America to see what I see in this room. 99 graduates out of 99. All going to college or a branch of the armed forces. 100 percent.

$5.3 million in scholarships. That comes out to about $53,000 a student. So, to Chicago, to Illinois, to the rest of America, and to one person in particular in Washington, to all those doubters, to all the cynics, to all the nay-sayers who say ‘not those kids, not from that background, not from that part of town,’ you come here and see what I see: that the Bulldogs are going on to great and better things.

You stop running down the kids of the city of Chicago. The Bulldogs stand strong. They’re going to college, they’re going into the armed forces. When you use your cynicism to run down our kids, they got one thing to say to you, they’ll look you right in the eyes, like that valedictorian just said, and they’re going to strut to success. Don’t you ever doubt the kids in the city of Chicago.

And I can’t be more proud of what you’ve accomplished. Now I say that because unlike any other – and your principal knows this – unlike any other school (this is my third commencement this year, every year I do three), when I was a congressman (those were the days when you could get an earmark), I worked with a congressman from downstate Illinois by the name of Ray LaHood, and we got you the first $500,000 to $600,000 so you could establish the Marine Math and Science Academy. And then as mayor, I helped you get to your new building out of [shared quarters at] Phoenix [Military Academy], so you could have your separate building and expand to seventh and eighth grade. So I have a particular joy in this day, and I’m glad that you allowed me to share it with you and I want to thank you for that.

I also want to note to each and every one of you, every time you’ve confronted a challenge, you’ve met it head on. Every time you’ve faced an obstacle, you overcame it. Every time you’ve faced adversity, you’ve triumphed. And I want to talk about adversity for one second. Because while today is a milestone, and a sense of accomplishment, and it is that, you will learn more about yourself and what you’re made of in how you handle adversity, not success, how you handle failing, not triumph.

In my own life, and there’s no adult in this room that hasn’t failed. There’s no adult that hasn’t actually stumbled. One, you’re going to learn something about yourself, second, you’re going to learn who your friends are, who stands by you when you’re down. It’s easy to be by you when you’re up. That’s what you’re going to learn.

Right at this point, when I was your age, I was working to make money to go to college. I was working on a meat cutter. And I didn’t get told that on the meat-cutting blade there was a metal glove. Sliced my finger real bad, wrapped it up real tight, didn’t do anything for it for about 48 hours. They realized then that I was in a serious problem, rushed me to the hospital. I ended up with five blood infections, two bone infections, gangrene, 105.4 [degrees temperature]. They put me in ice packs for 72 hours. And for those 72 hours, they weren’t sure I was going to make it. They also thought they should take my arm off just to see if they could save me.

In the seven weeks I was there, three of my roommates died and were wheeled out in the middle of the morning. And I was not a good student, and I said to myself – it’s not like the clouds broke open and Beethoven started playing and the sun came through – but in those seven weeks that I stayed in my bed, I said if I ever get another chance, I’m going to make something of my life. I’m going to do something, I’ll go out.

And in the moment where I almost lost my life, I realized why life is worth living. And you will face your own moment, it won’t be that grave, where you stumble, you fall. You wobble, and that’s where you’re going to learn what it means to be a Bulldog. That’s where you’re going to learn who you are, and what you’re made of.

In the same way [that I learned] physically, [I also learned] professionally. So I get out of college, and I decide, I’m going to work for a president of the United States I believe in. Eight years later out of college, I’m in the White House. Political advisor to President Clinton. I think I’m in hog heaven. And I convinced my then-girlfriend, now my wife, to leave her job and join me in Washington for this great experiment – working for the president of the United States, everything that I wanted to do in life. In my career, eight years out of college here I am. The son and the grandson of an immigrant, working in the White House, working for a great president, for somebody I believed in.

And I know you find it hard to believe, but I mouthed off a little too often, to the First Lady – not a good idea, don’t do that. The day my wife Amy arrives, leaves her job here in Chicago to join me, because we’re in the White House, I lose my job. We have a home, and no employment. And the dream we were going to be part of, this journey with President Clinton, I was given my walking paper six months into it. I saw everything that I’ve worked for right before my eyes, just like I was in that hospital bed.

I don’t know where I got the gumption – I walked into the chief of staff’s office and I said, ‘I ain’t leaving.’ Now, let me say this, as chief of staff to President Obama, if somebody said that to me, I would have said something else to them. I don’t know where I got it, I said, ‘I’m not leaving until the president of the United States says I’m leaving.’

So, two days later they said OK here’s your new job. And they demoted me, put me down, I joked I got a closet of an office from a big office with a play-school phone that didn’t even dial out. A year later, I worked my way back up to being senior adviser to the president of the United States for policy and politics, and replacing George Stephanopoulos as his senior adviser. I saw my entire career pass before my eyes, but I dug down deep, and realized in that moment of failure, I’m going to give myself a second chance, and make something of this second chance. And it was in that moment of seeing my career pass, it was in that moment of seeing my life pass, that I realized why it was worth doing what I needed to do. It is my one point to you on this great day of celebration.

You should celebrate, and have joy. Know that your moments of learning and accomplishment will come as much not only from success, but also from failure. And if you approach when you stumble with an attitude of ‘what I can learn from this,’ there are only great things ahead of you in your life. And I ask you as mayor, I see the sons and daughters of immigrants, I see the sons and daughters from all corners of this city. To you are given both opportunity and obligation. Opportunity to go on to college and make something of yourself. Your parents sacrificed and struggled for this moment for you. Honor it, give it justice that you are given an opportunity in the greatest city in the greatest country to make something of that. But you are also given, and required, an obligation. An obligation to give something back, something bigger than yourself. Muhammad Ali once said, ‘the service we pay to others is the rent we pay for being here on Earth.’

So while you are given this opportunity to make your own path, to make something of your life, you have an obligation to give something back to this city, to your neighborhood, and ultimately to your country. Your city and your country need your leadership. Your city and your country need your values. Your city and your country need your leadership, your values, and your courage. There’s never been a greater moment of opportunity for us, and also challenge. Go achieve what you’ve set out for yourself. Make your parents and yourself proud of what you’ve done. Look back and not regret your decision, but look back at them with joy, but I ask you, come home, come back to Chicago, and help us build this great city for another generation of Bulldogs.

Congratulations on this great day.

On the Agenda

While revealing $7 billion education plan, Nixon criticizes schools that leave kids ‘destined for jail’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon walks away from a speech at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon outlined her education agenda on Wednesday, promising to tackle what she called the “unholy trinity” of racial segregation, underfunding, and over-policing in schools.

The plan’s central element is billions in extra cash, which Nixon would funnel into schools to reduce class size and hire more counselors and teachers. Many elements of the plan explicitly tackle race, including pushing districts to reduce suspensions for black and Hispanic students, attract a more diverse teaching workforce, and create curriculum that explores the history of students of color.

“We have two different education systems in our state – one that sends wealthy white children to college, and another that sends poor children of color to prison,” Nixon said.

Many elements of the plan like sending more money to needy schools and reducing the emphasis on standardized testing continue recent trends in state policy.

But the plan is likely to face a number of obstacles. The price tag will make it a hard sell, particularly in a state that already spends more on education per student than any other state in the country. And Nixon, who left without taking questions from reporters, has yet to explain how she plans to handle other contentious issues like charter school policy or widespread school segregation.

Here’s what you should know about Nixon’s plan for New York’s K-12 schools.

School funding: A massive boost

Nixon has spent 17 years protesting to push more state money into schools. So it’s not surprising that a massive school funding boost is the bedrock of her agenda.

Nixon wants to increase education spending by $4.2 billion over three years, money that advocates say schools are owed based on the terms of a 2006 settlement. She also wants to invest $200 million annually statewide on 500 new community schools, which add non-academic services such as vision and mental health care.

The tough part, of course, is paying for it. Nixon’s plan relies on tax hikes on the wealthiest New Yorkers and on corporations.

She did not shy away from the hefty price tag on Wednesday, insisting that it is necessary to have an expensive plan. “You know what?” she said. “It is and it should be.”

Officials from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office point out that he has increased education spending by 36 percent since 2012, and say there is no legal mandate to spend billions more on schools in the state.

“Cynthia Nixon has been wrong on the facts on every issue she discusses. The difference between advocacy and government is the difference between fiction and non-fiction,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever.

School discipline: Replace metal detectors with counselors

Nixon’s motto for the education package was “schools not jails.”

The gubernatorial candidate says schools are over-policed, with too many students of color being suspended or arrested. Nixon said she would trade metal detectors and tough discipline policies for social workers and school counselors.

Specifically, she would require school districts with high suspension rates to undergo “school climate assessments” and ban suspensions for students from pre-kindergarten to third grade.

Those changes would require navigating tricky territory. While some agree that schools are over-policed, others say some suspensions and metal detectors keep schools safe and running smoothly. While the city has moved to reduce suspensions, it’s prompted pushback from others arguing the changes have made schools more unruly. Additionally, a plan to block suspensions for young students was met with resistance from the city’s teachers union.

Inside schools: More diverse teachers and curriculum

In New York City, more than 80 percent of students are black, Hispanic, or Asian, while only 39 percent of teachers are, according to a recent analysis. Nixon says she wants to tackle this teacher diversity gap across the state by investing $6 million annually in the Teacher Opportunity Corps, a state program designed to recruit and train more teachers of color.

Additionally, Nixon said she wants to invest in creating curriculum that pays more attention to the culture and history of students of color. She would spend $20 million in such “Culturally Responsive Education” efforts, which would include outreach to parents and training for teachers.

Testing: Less of it

New York’s math and English tests have become a political lightning rod, as nearly one in five families have boycotted the tests to protest a suite of education changes they felt focused too heavily on the exams.

The state has tried to address some of these concerns. Officials reduced the number of testing days and temporarily paused the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations.

Nixon suggested an even more aggressive rollback of the use of standardized tests. She wants the state to “significantly reduce” the amount of testing and “eliminate” serious consequences from being levied based on the tests. She expressed support for the ability to opt out of the exams and is calling for a total repeal of the state’s current teacher evaluation law. (That’s a more substantial change than what the state teachers union is pushing for.)

What she didn’t say

In the 24-page document, Nixon does not take a stance on charter schools, though the state is responsible for deciding how many new charter schools can open and for funding the schools.

A Nixon spokesperson said charter schools were intentionally left out of the plan to avoid distracting from the candidate’s plan for district schools, and that Nixon will share her thoughts on charters in the near future.

Also, though Nixon repeatedly mentioned segregation in her speech, she has only one element in her plan designed to diversify schools — supporting the mayor’s plan to diversify eight specialized high schools. She does not appear to have a more comprehensive plan to integrate schools in New York.