Earlier this year, the head of the Achievement School District in Tennessee, Chris Barbic, wrote a piece about the supposed belief gap. A few months later, another gap was floated by Forbes – the Honesty Gap. Supposedly, the scores our kids are getting on state tests aren’t matching up with NAEP scores, leading to a false sense of proficiency. Based on recent results from this year’s TCAP tests in Tennessee, I couldn’t tell you if that’s true or not because I’m not even sure what our scores mean (That’s not making parents and teachers very happy, but that’s another tale for another day.)
Then April rolls around and Mr. Chris “Poverty-is-no-excuse” Barbic starts talking about the different types of poverty and the challenges each brings, something we all had been telling him about for years and to which he’d just respond with his “all kids can learn” mantra. Yesterday, he did an interview with the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, which is unfortunately behind a pay wall, that indicated perhaps the Achievement School District had bitten off more than it could chew. Add all of this together, and I’m starting to get the stench of a different kind of a gap. A bullshit gap.
American lore is filled with tales of the “Snake Oil Salesman.” Unfortunately, nowadays it’s not a persona only tied to the Old West. The original description came about in the 1800s, as Chinese workers arrived in the United States to work on the railroad as indentured servants. They brought several medicines with them, snake oil being one. Apparently, in its original form, made from the oil of Chinese water snakes, it was quite effective in treating arthritis and bursitis. As Chinese workers began sharing the oil with their American counterparts, the Americans marveled at its success, and tales of its miraculous powers began to grow. Of course, being Americans, people began to make their own snake oil and assign all kinds of magical prowess to it.
I find the story of Clark Stanley, aka The Rattlesnake King, particularly relevant here. Stanley claimed that he had learned about the power of rattlesnake oil from a Hopi medicine man. Unfortunately, he failed to mention that Chinese water snake oil had three times the content of Omega-3 acids as rattlesnake oil; therefore, the rattlesnake oil was considerably less effective. This didn’t deter him, though, as he unveiled his magical discovery at the 1893 World’s Fair. Joe Schwarcz, the director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, describes the scene in this 2008 article:
“[Stanley] reached into a sack, plucked out a snake, slit it open, and plunged it into boiling water. When the fat rose to the top, he skimmed it off and used it on the spot to create ‘Stanley’s Snake Oil,’ a liniment that was immediately snapped up by the throng that had gathered to watch the spectacle.”
Well, it’s not exactly the World’s Fair, but I think the Oprah show is a reasonable facsimile. Barbic appeared on her show in 2010, where, with a dramatic flourish, she awarded him a check for a million dollars because of his vision for YES Prep. Fresh off that million-dollar spectacle, Barbic was snapped up by Tennessee in 2011 with a prescription to cure all ills. As Barbic stated in the recent Commercial Appeal interview,
“That was the first order of business when I arrived,” Barbic said. “‘What are we going to do here? What is our goal?’ I talked to a lot of people who said, ‘Let’s get the schools off the priority list’ (those schools in the bottom 5 percent). Everyone here is working too hard. That is not an ambitious enough goal.”
Unfortunately, ambition wasn’t enough and reality has begun to sink in that things haven’t turned out quite as he imagined they would. Even the successes that Barbic tried to tout weren’t exactly as he portrayed them. So the narrative had to change. Time was running out and a few more sales have to be wrung out before the market dries up completely.
In the interview with the Commercial Appeal, Barbic refers to the ASD as an “expansion team”: “In NBA terms, he said, the ASD was the “expansion team,” forced to build a brand-new organization, including inventing pipelines to provide strong teachers.”
I’m assuming the pipeline he invented was Teach for America, because as far as I can tell, the ASD is not drawing teachers from anywhere else. This is where I’d refer you back to the difference between Chinese water snakes and rattlesnakes. It feels apropos here. Barbic goes on further to say,
“We had to create a game worth playing, a game that was going to allow us to attract the people that could potentially win the game. … Now, the third part is you gotta win the game. We’re in the middle of playing the game. It’s an important game. Kids’ lives are at stake.”
It’s nice of him to recognize that he’s playing this “game” with real live students who will suffer the consequences of the losses a whole lot more than he and his cadre will. After all, a child gets one chance at childhood. Shouldn’t it be a little more precious than to be used as fodder for Barbic’s expansion team?
There’s something about this quote that is even more troubling. Barbic states that they are in the midst of playing the game and trying to win the game while his former boss, Kevin Huffman, is out selling it as a win. Last month, Huffman told a crowd in Pennsylvania that things were so great in Tennessee that Pennsylvania needed their own Achievement School District, too. In his words, “Indeed, doing nothing would be unconscionable.” Yeah, as Gary Rubenstein has again pointed out, not so much. It’s one thing to try to fix your failed experiment, but it’s a whole other thing to try to export it. Efforts are afoot to create Achievement School Districts in Nevada, Texas, and Georgia as well. Apparently, a trip to Gamblers Anonymous might be in order for some folks. When losing, one walks away from the table; they don’t slide more chips on to it unless they have a problem.
As far as current goals go, Barbic is a little vague:
“Maybe it’s the top 25 percent in seven years or six years,” Barbic said, adding that o rganizations that get “pounded over the head” for taking risks learn to be so “risk adverse, you don’t do anything. I think what we have to be able to do is have the courage to say, ‘Look, we tried this. It didn’t work. Yes, we need to be held accountable for that, and if it turns out that we are off by a year or two, that’s OK as long as we are still making progress.”
Earlier in the interview, Barbic says,
“We could say tomorrow we are changing the goal. The only blowback we would probably get is from you guys (media). But there is nothing stopping us. I could wake up tomorrow and decide I want to do something different.”
Wow. If we were making porn movies, that would be what they call the money shot. The hubris is appalling. I guess he forgot that part about kid’s lives being at stake. Hey, when you’re building a franchise, it’s hard to keep track of the players. It’s interesting that this line appeared in the original story in the Commercial Appeal but by mid-afternoon the next day it and two other paragraphs had oddly disappeared only to be replaced by more flattering paragraphs like below,
By comparison, the ASD is the “expansion team,” Barbic said, building from the ground-up, which includes creating pipelines for finding teachers.
If some schools take longer to improve, the ASD will “have to have the courage to say that,” Barbic said. “Maybe it’s the top 25 percent in seven years or six years.”
Makes you wonder why it was changed and what kind of sway Barbic has over the hometown papers. The ASD has had a long line of apologists since the beginning but that line is dwindling. From the same Commercial Appeal article,
SCS school board member Chris Caldwell finds it “very interesting” that a state that passed that legislation “would give one person that much authority over a school system in which he never lived or was never voted on by any local body.”
In the midst of all this, Barbic has become one of the newest members of the Chiefs for Change. The Chiefs are an organization founded by Jeb Bush to push the reform agenda. Initially, it was made up of State Superintendents, but since they showed a propensity for either losing their job or running afoul of regulations, the membership rules had to change. For some reason, Barbic felt this was an organization he wanted to be a part of. Personally, if you came knocking at my door asking me to join a group that has lost 75% of its member because of their dubious behavior, I’d have to beg off. But that’s just me. Chris Barbic might consider it an honor.
This brings me back to the story of Clark Stanley. You might be asking, whatever happened to him? Well, eventually it was revealed that his whole empire was one big lie. He was found to have violated the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and was fined 20 bucks for “misbranding” his product by “falsely and fraudulently representing it as a remedy for all pain.” It is not to hard to draw parallels, the difference being that Barbic’s rattlesnake oil is taking advantage of children’s future. It’s way pay past time to close this modern day snake oil salesman’s wagon up.