Last week was a good week. It was one of those classic “in with the new, out with the old” kind of weeks. In the space of three days, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools identified the preferred candidate for the position of Director of Schools, and Chris Barbic resigned as head of the Tennessee Achievement School District. Either of those alone would bring a smile to my face, but together, I’m dancing a jig in the middle of Broadway.
The position of MNPS Director of Schools opened up a few months ago when then-current director Dr. Jesse Register announced his retirement. To say the search process has been tumultuous is an understatement. The search firm of Hazard, Young, and Attea (HYA) was hired to conduct the search. To say that they have underperformed is also an understatement, but apparently that’s par for the course with them.
After conducting a national search, the four candidates HYA presented as finalists were a director of school from a neighboring district, a candidate who grew up in Nashville and most recently worked in Atlanta, a recently retired director from North Carolina whose daughter played in a band here in Nashville, and a man who was a Broad consultant. Shockingly, HYA consults for the Broad Foundation as well. This list of finalists was not exactly indicative of the national search that many residents had hoped for.
On paper, the list looked pretty light. The Broad candidate was instantly thrown out due to a plethora of issues, including the fact that his references were never checked and when they were checked, the results weren’t positive. During the interview process, all three remaining candidates proved to be much more formidable than they initially appeared on paper. However, one quickly separated himself from the others. Dr. Mike Looney, the current Director of Schools for Williamson County, demonstrated why many think he’s the best director in the state. The question was, would a board that has long been criticized as dysfunctional be able to capitalize on this opportunity?
It’s been a long standing narrative that the MNPS School Board is too dysfunctional to lead properly. But it’s a false narrative. The board is passionate, informed, and made up of individuals with deep beliefs that they are willing to fight for. It’s as prescribed in a democracy. That’s why reform advocates have long pushed for the dissolving of elected school boards in favor of mayoral control or appointed boards, elected boards tend to get messy sometimes. The MNPS Board has demonstrated repeatedly that the process is often inflammatory, but they are capable of coalescing when required. This time was no different; they ultimately voted 8-1 to make Dr. Looney the preferred candidate.
This is a huge move for Nashville. In Dr. Looney, they have a man with a proven track record. Under his leadership, schools in Williamson County have flourished. Student test scores have been among the highest in the state. Teachers feel more supported than in most districts and parents have been given seats at the table. It seems that despite its best efforts, HYA has presented an excellent fit for MNPS. I hate that our gain comes at the expense of my friends to the south but I can’t help but be pleased.
Looney is not the perfect candidate. There are people that are unsure of him and even some detractors. Some questioned whether he had the life experience to empathize with the diverse demographics of MNPS. Truth is, Dr. Looney grew up impoverished and his life story as someone who used education to rise from poverty is exactly what the district needs. If community response to Dr. Looney possibly leaving Williamson County is any indication, then the MNPS school board is poised to make, dare I say it, a game-changing hire.
Nashville has long been a city at the forefront of the reform movement. Several elements have tried to get a toe-hold with mixed success and there have been many contentious battles. A strong leader with the experience of Dr. Looney offers the opportunity to put those battles on the back burner. To take the best practices of the reform movement ingrain them in the existing system with the end result being a stronger public education system for all stakeholders. It’s a very exciting time for Nashville and one that could really set us on the path to being a model for the country of a progressive modern public school system.
On the other end of the spectrum, founding Achievement School District director Chris Barbic decided last week that this work was too hard and that he would be leaving his post in December. The ASD was charged three years ago with taking the bottom 5% of schools and turning them into the top 25% within five years. This goal has proven a bit elusive, and Barbic has even said that those challenges were just numbers he made up to inspire. On a related note, teacher and education blogger Peter Greene has an excellent article on why the bottom 5% is such a false narrative.
Interestingly enough, Barbic still retains his Teflon skin as many step up to heap praise on a man who led a failed mission paid for by real children. Candice McQueen, Tennessee’s new Education Commissioner remarked, “The work that you take on as a turnaround district around is deeply challenging, and Chris has led this effort with vigor and drive.” Her comments ignore the hundreds of other teachers and administrators who have been engaging in this work for years. Many a lot more successfully than Barbic. Rumor has it that one school in Nashville targeted by the ASD scored a five this year, yet Barbic’s minions are still looking to take it over.
Funny, there are also quotes from Paul Pastorek, former state superintendent of schools in Louisiana and Kevin Huffman, former Tennessee Education Commissioner. Both of them are comrades of Barbic’s in the Chiefs for Change, a national organization of superintendents founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush that seems to be the kiss of death for employment. Less than two months ago, Chiefs for Change announced three new members. Two of those new members have already resigned their superintendent positions.
I, however, am not going to miss Mr. Barbic. He liked to play loose with the numbers to suit his narrative. Math teacher and blogger Gary Rubenstein demonstrated in a recent post just how short the ASD and its fellow Achievement Districts were falling. Barbic countered via social media with some form of measurement that the ASD uses that differs from the standard method used. Shockingly, the way Barbic used math made everything magically add up to support for his assertions. Imagine that. Barbic also took the original goal of the ASD and changed it to that of basically a charter authorizer. All but 5 of the district’s 23 school takeovers are overseen by charter operators.
Barbic consistently changed the rules to suit his narrative. He would say gains were being made when reading scores were lower in ASD schools in 2014 then in 2012. He claimed he was pursuing schools for the benefit of the children yet took the higher performing Neely’s Bend over the lower performing Jere Baxter. Newspaper interviews quoted him as stating that after going door to door in the Neely’s Bend area parents were incredibly supportive, yet despite numerous open records requests, he was never able to produce documentation to support this assertion.
The one positive takeaway is that Barbic started to understand the role of poverty in educating kids. When he first arrived, he was a hard and fast “no excuses” kind of guy. In recent interviews, he’s begun to acknowledge the difficulties in overcoming poverty and that there are differences in types of poverty. He could have learned this a lot quicker, though, if he hadn’t been busy attacking opponents for a supposed belief gap.
Speculation is starting to circulate about who will replace Barbic in the ASD. Some fear that an even bigger reformer might appear. My question on that would be, where would such a creature come from? The heavy-hitting reformers have all but faded away. Barbic was supposed to be the next wave of super-star reformers, but like Rhee, Bennett, Huffman, and the rest, he learned that there are no easy solutions. In his own words, “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.” According to his resignation letter, he’s also learned a few other things.
Despite these admissions, some are still defending the need to have the Achievement School District. My counter argument has been and will continue to be, don’t label anything failing until it’s fully funded. The limited success that the ASD can claim came as a result of the additional resources brought in through Race to the Top funds. That money is gone and the state’s BEP is still not fully funded. That needs to be corrected. The Izone schools in Memphis have demonstrated that they are capable of improving schools without turning them over to the state or private entities. The recent push for Community Schools present an opportunity to address the individual challenges of schools while them even more a central focus of the community.
Chris Barbic may be hoping that his resignation will buy a temporary reprise for the ASD and that new director will function as a reset. That respite will be short lived if the new director continues to pursue a policy of taking over schools without community input. As long as they continue to work as a charter authorizer, putting charter operator’s needs before children’s needs, there will be a backlash. The ASD has already indicated that they want to take over two more Nashville schools, a middle school and an elementary school, to be designated in the fall. I hope Candice McQueen and whoever replaces Mr. Barbic are prepared for a fight.
But, last week was a good week and I plan to enjoy it. Today finds me extremely excited about the potential new direction of the Metropolitan Nashville School District. I am also extremely excited about the imminent departure of a state director that I felt did more to divide our schools and parents than to improve educational outcomes for our children. Months ago, I compared the reform movement to my children right before bedtime. Well, it seems like the kiddos are starting to settle in, and just like with my children, it can’t come too soon.