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Thompson: Chris Barbic's Resignation & the Failure of School "Reform"

In 2009 and 2010, the contemporary school reform movement became the dog that caught the bus it was chasing. The Obama administration funded the entire corporate reform agenda. The wish list of market-driven reformers, test-driven reformers, and even the most ideological anti-union, teacher-bashers, became the law (in part or in totality) in 3/4ths of the states. Due to the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and other innovations, competition-driven reformers, and corporate reform think tanks were granted the contracts that they claimed would reverse the effects of poverty. 

Now, ideology-driven reformers are supposed to be announcing the increases in student performance that their gold-plated reforms promised. Instead, across the nation, outcome-driven reformers are delivering excuses about their experiments’ disappointing results. Some are completely contradicting themselves, as they announce gains in graduation rates that are attributable to more counselors and student supports. Accountability hawks conveniently forget that they previously derided those old-fashioned, input-driven programs as artifacts of the education “status quo,” and its “low expectations.”

Some defeated reformers, like Michelle Rhee and Cami Anderson, remain blunt in blaming teachers and persons who disagree with them for the failure of schools that accept every student who walks in the door to produce significant gains. Others, like Kaya Henderson and the true believers in the New Orleans portfolio model, predict that early education and wraparound services will turn the toughest schools around. In doing so, these reformers forget how they previously condemned advocates of those policies as the problem.

Perhaps the most interesting spin was issued by Chris Barbic  when he resigned as the superintendent of the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD). Chalkbeat Tennessee’s Daarel Burnette, in Chris Barbic, Founding Superintendent of State-Run Achievement School District, to Exit, explains that “Tennessee used more than 10 percent of its $500 million windfall in federal education funds to launch the ASD. Those funds, which arrived through the Race to the Top competition to spur education policy changes, have now disappeared.” Moreover, the legislature has made a number of efforts to shift gears away from Barbic’s and the ASD’s approach to school improvement.

The state is two weeks away from releasing 2014-2015 test scores, and Burnette reports, "Meanwhile, test scores in year two suggested that dramatic gains were not underway, although Barbic said it was too soon to tell whether the school overhauls were working and that the extent of poverty in Memphis impeded change." Last spring he told Chalkbeat,  “I think that the depth of the generational poverty and what our kids bring into school every day makes it even harder than we initially expected. ... We underestimated that.”

When the ASD’s Barbic  announced his resignation, he flirted with a candid explanation of why his approach to scaling up reform seems to be falling apart.  Under the heading  The current debate is off the mark, part 1,  Barbic, wrote, “we see the impact of poverty on kids and families there every single day, and there’s no question this makes living and learning more difficult.”

Under the heading The current debate is off the mark, part 2,  Barbic wrote: 

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.

But, even now, Barbic reverts back to the blame-the-teacher ideology that created this mess. He makes the type of innocuous statement that nobody would contradict; the ASD “proves that all kids, in the right conditions supported by the right team of adults, can achieve at high levels no matter their circumstances.” Then he returns to the straw man, the so-called “poverty trumps education” argument, that supposedly “sells our educators, and more importantly, our kids way too short.  And it is perhaps one of the most dangerous propositions that exists in our country today.”

No! it is the simplistic blame game that sells our kids short! The dangerous proposition is that the demonization of teachers, unions, and advocates for socio-emotional student supports can turn our schools around.

The supposedly quick, cheap, and easier silver bullets like high stakes testing and union-busting will continue to be incapable of improving schools, and some defeated reformers will continue to craft new excuses.  At some point, failed reformers might abandon their quest for a better soundbite, quit slandering teachers, and join us in seeking solutions where we address the legacies of poverty in order to create great schools for all.-JT(@drjohnthompson) 


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