Here in Tennessee we are blessed with a very unique educational entity. It’s called the Achievement School District and it was created hand in glove with Louisiana’s Recovery School District to move schools in the lower 5% achievement-wise to the top 25% with in five years. Mind you, this ranking is all test score based. I know, there will always be a five percent and standardized tests tell us more about demographics than learning, but this is what the ASD has been tasked with. Charged with leading this endeavor and executing it with an evangelical furor is former Yes Prep founder Chris Barbic. The ASD has been primarily focused in Memphis, but things have gotten a little hot there, so Chris is bringing the troops to Nashville this year and unfortunately for him, its not much cooler here.
The truth is, a lot of people are downright hostile to the ASD in general. It seems they don’t want to embrace the turnover of locally controlled schools to a state entity with limited success. The ASD may have very lofty goals, but as Gary Rubenstein has on numerous occasions pointed out, they haven’t been very successful at achieving them. They’ve also shown a tendency to want to game the system. These are a few things that taken alone, would make people wary. Put them together and people get hostile.
Apparently things have gotten so heated that Mr. Barbic felt compelled to write an Op-Ed piece. The focus of this piece was on the supposed “Belief Gap.” In Mr. Barbic’s view, some people don’t have enough belief in the poor children of Nashville. His piece is a call to arms against this perceived slight and its crippling effects. Initially, I just chuckled at this Op-Ed, but then I re-read it several times and realized it was a brilliant example of how the reform movement uses language to confuse the issues. I decided to break it down paragraph by paragraph.
Let’s start with the title, “Charter School critics blinded by ‘Belief Gap’.” Right off the bat he’s setting the stage. The people who were upset by the Achievement School District’s proposed takeover were not necessarily anti-charter school. Granted, many of them were, but the thrust of the argument was with the ASD, not charters. However, if the title would have said “Achievement School District critics blinded by ‘Belief Gap’, I doubt there would have been as much sympathy. But with the title as it is, the group being attacked is widened, enlisting potential for sympathy from pro-charter supporters. This could have been the papers doing, but lets move forward and see what else we find.
In the first part, he introduces his theory of the belief gap and defines it as such.
“The Belief Gap is the persistent and deep divide between what parents believe their children are capable of and what some elected leadership, through word and deed, believe the very same kids can do.”
In other words, poverty is just something that kids need to deal with. We all have challenges, but what’s really holding these kids down is that adults aren’t believing in them. It’s not that they are hungry. It’s not that they didn’t get enough rest. It’s not that many are unhealthy or don’t speak fluent English. It’s not even that some don’t even have homes to go to after school. Nope, it’s that adults don’t believe in them. This despite the numerous studies that show poverty is the number one determinant on how kids perform in schools. Mr. Barbic apparently feels that if we just believe kids will perform at a high level, results will follow.
Let’s be clear here, I’m not downplaying the amazing potential of children. I’ve got two myself and they never cease to amaze me with what they grasp. It’s important, though, to remember that they are still children and therefore subject to certain developmental limitations. For example, the University of Alabama has a very good football team. Some of their more ardent fans might argue that they are capable of beating a professional football team. However, the serious student of the game knows that assertion is ludicrous. The pro’s are more developed, can spend more time focused on training, are monetarily incentivized and so on.
What if I said, you just have to demonstrate that you believe in them and then the college team would rise up and win? What if it happened one time and then I turned to you and said, “See it can be done” and offered that as evidence that a college team can defeat a pro team? A serious sports fan would laugh me right out of the conversation. Barbic submits it as academic theory and expects us not to laugh him out of the conversation.
In the next part of his piece he points out that this belief gap,“is most glaring and devastating in communities with high percentages of low-income and minority children.” The subtle interjection of the idea that he is on the right side of “the civil rights issue of our time” and opposing the ASD and charter schools is akin to opposing equal rights for all. It’s a subtle effort to paint anti-ASD forces as people who don’t believe in equality. Object to that and it’s easy to walk it back and say, “That not what I said, I was just pointing out how devastating it is for the communities we work in.” Very subtle and very effective. Its also very difficult to argue back against. That’s why the reform community has been utilizing this tactic for years despite the fact that they are the ones perpetrating segregation.
The next part is spent attacking an elected official through an out-of-context quote.
“For instance, it appears in the following quote from the Facebook page of a Metro City Councilmember. Keep in mind that he is referring to Neely’s Bend Middle School, which ranks in the bottom 5percent of all schools in Tennessee, a state that despite much progress, still remains in the bottom half of student performance in our country. “They (the ASD) are really stretching with takeovers, to schools that need work, but aren’t faring that bad…”
The elected official might have said the schools weren’t faring that bad but the rest of the quote is just as important. “especially compared to the schools they already have and need to focus on.” Context is everything, isn’t it. To further weaken Barbic’s argument, said official goes on in their post to say that he doesn’t care what the school looks like, magnet, traditional or charter – he just believes that until MNPS and Nashville’s elected officials have exhausted all avenues, they are the ones that should be held to solving the issue. The Councilman even says, “I want to see a full scale project/task force called We Learned this stuff from Charters, MNPS plan. A long, goofy title and everything.” Hmmmm….I thought this Op-Ed was about Charter critics…that doesn’t sound like a charter critic, does it? But when you have nothing else, you have to create a straw man.
This is where things get good. Barbic proceeds to attack the data that two MNPS School Board members got directly from the district, then calls into question the board members very belief in data, all while ignoring the fact that he frequently picks out certain data points to use whenever he pleases.
On one hand they rail against the use of standardized tests, and on the other hand they use the narrowest of data points pulled from the very same assessments to make their case against LEAD. So, do these two board members believe in data or don’t they?
What logic is he applying here? That’s like my other favorite argument on the importance of having an open mind. You have to have an open mind and if you have an open mind it will lead you to these conclusions. Otherwise, you don’t have an open mind. Makes my head hurt just typing it.
Then for good measure he attacks the school board members for the growth of priority schools on their watch. Of course he fails to mention that based on the formula for declaring a school a priority school, there will always be a bottom 5% . Or that Memphis closed 10 priority schools, thus opening slots for 10 more schools. It’s not that performance levels necessarily sunk; these schools just got caught in a numbers game. Please keep in mind as well that these classifications are based on standardized tests and what do standardized tests most accurately measure? Demographics.
In his second-to-last paragraph, Barbic brings it all home and really evokes the spirit of the straw man.
“Maybe what they worry about is that we at the ASD may actually succeed. We are still only two years into this effort, and our second-year charters have made strong gains. So when we do succeed, what will that mean to the system they are working hard to protect? Maybe it is just easier to not believe.”
Ahh… the old “adults protecting adult’s interests” argument. First of all, the ASD wasn’t created to be a charter school clearing house. The purpose was for the state to apply additional resources to turn around schools, be it through charter or a traditional setting. It’s been the ASD’s own initiative to do that almost exclusively by turning over schools to private entities. Most people would agree that schools should be accountable to local citizens not private boards, but that’s not what the ASD apparently believes. Seems to be a bit of belief gap here.
Barbic suggests that his critics are worried or afraid of his success. But in order to be afraid of something, doesn’t that thing have to actually be a little threatening? Looking at the data clearly shows that the ASD is in no danger of being successful by any measurement anytime soon. Unfortunately for Barbic there are plenty of adults capable of reading data and realizing that this is all one big experiment, one that’s not likely to succeed, using our children as lab rats. They don’t agree with that on principle and would rather time be spent focusing on real solutions and proven best practices.
Mr. Barbic closes with his best sleight of hand.
“During this season of hope, please know that we at the ASD believe —and we partner with school leaders, teachers and parents who also believe—that every single student can realize their full potential, regardless of ZIP code or circumstance. We believe that our schools have both the ability and responsibility to unlock this potential.”
Wait a minute. This isn’t what he was talking about at the beginning of his piece. He began talking about performance and now he ends by talking about potential. It’s a very subtle sleight of hand, and he executes it deftly. We can say two athletes have the potential to run the same time in a race, but if we fail to provide proper training, nutrition, and rest to one, it’s doubtful that the performance will be similar. Everyone believes in the potential of children. Some just have realistic expectations about performance and seek real solutions to unlocking that potential.
We are wasting time offering “belief” as a solution for children of poverty, when we should be advocating for policies that will have a real effect. Policies that make affordable housing readily available would go much further than belief. Policies that fund psychologists and schools nurses in every school would be more effective than belief. Ranking schools on more factors than just standardized test scores – or even better, not ranking schools at all – would further student learning more than just believing. It’s time to stop using the idea that if you just believe something should happen that it will; this shortchanges our kids and serves as a distractions from addressing the needs of kids in poverty and the growing opportunity gap in America. Its time to have an honest conversation and stop playing word games.
I also believe, unlike Mr. Barbic, that kids don’t need a white knight to unlock their potential. I believe what they really need is for us to all act like citizens of a democracy and provide them the basic needs and stability to enable them to unlock their own potential. See, I believe in children. I don’t believe in Mr. Barbic or the Achievement School District’s ability to provide the best education for my community’s children.