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

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.”