Open Letters To Reformers I Know. Part 6: Chris Barbic

Links to the rest of this series here

Tennessee is one of the reformer hotspots.  The commissioner of Education there is a TFA alum, and Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband Kevin Huffman.  I know him a bit, too, but my letter will instead go to Chris Barbic.  Chris is currently the superintendent of something called ‘The Achievement School District’ in Tennessee.  He moved from Houston where he was running the YES prep charter schools to help turnaround the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee (about 85 schools) so that they are, based on their test scores, in the top 25% in five years.

So far I’ve written to 6 reformers in 5 letters.  Some of those 6 people were better acquaintances than others but none of them were really ‘friends’ in the sense that aside from TFA events I didn’t really ‘hang out’ with them apart from that.  But Chris Barbic is different.  Chris and I met in Houston in 1992 when he was starting his first year there.  The way we met was that his first teaching job was teaching the very students that I taught at Deady Middle School in my first year, the year before.  I think we met at a happy hour that I went to to see my friends from my old school (I transferred to a high school my second year).  So in a sense we had an unusual connection as, like a relay race, I passed my old students onto him.

As another connection, I was very good friends with Natasha, who is now his wife, as she was in my corps and lived in the same apartment complex as me during my first year.  Natasha was probably the best first year teacher I’ve ever seen.  She went on to be the regional director in Houston for a while and then was even elected to the Houston Independent School District school board at a pretty young age.

Chris and I would often run into each other at different events and spent a decent amount of time hanging out.  We weren’t best friends or anything, but I’d say that I’d see him about once a month and we always had a lot of fun together.  When I recently found all my old photos from Houston that I took with my 35 mm camera back between 1991 and 1995 (unlike now where we take hundreds of pictures a year with our phones, back then I took about twenty pictures a year so the fact that he’s in one definitely means we were friends), I found this picture of Chris and two Houston 1993ers, Debbie, and Matt (now married) from what looks like a party at my old house.

After I left Houston in 1995, I pretty much lost touch with Chris.  I knew that he started YES prep charter schools and I’d see him from time to time at Teach For America things.  I was thrilled when he was on Oprah and she gave his school a million dollars to continue their good work.  From what I understood, 100% of his students got into 4 year colleges.  I was happy that he was, I thought, outdoing KIPP.

The first time I realized that Chris was maybe a ‘reformer’ was when Wendy Kopp used his school as an example of a miracle school which proves that ‘demography isn’t destiny’ as, her recent book says, his schools will produce more low-income college graduates than the rest of Houston Independent School District combined.  This was a pretty impressive statistic.  Wendy used that statistic again in a debate with Diane Ravitch at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2011.

As this statistic seemed pretty impossible — H.I.S.D. has 10,000 seniors graduate every year and the YES prep network had a total of about 300 graduates — I emailed Chris to get the lowdown.  He wrote back that when all the YES prep campuses are up they will have 500 graduates and all 500 will go on to graduate college while out of H.I.S.D.’s 10,000 graduates, only 500 who are low-income will go on to graduate college.  In other words, the statistic was a pretty big stretch.

A few months later I learned that Kevin Huffman had lured Chris and his family away from Houston to Tennessee for this new opportunity.  As I read about what was going to happen, I got pretty nervous.  It seems that Memphis is operating under the New Orleans model with their ‘Recovery School District.’  The basic idea is to have charter companies take over the schools.  Though it is tough to get true data out of New Orleans, my sense is that aside from some statistics that they have made up, the New Orleans charter experiment is a disaster.

The Memphis ASD has the right to hand over the operation to any of the 85 schools in the bottom 5% to a charter operator with the intent of getting the schools to the ‘top 25%’ within 5 years.  They took over 6 schools this year and are planning to raise that to 12 next year.  As I am skeptical of short term ‘turnarounds,’ I’m not optimistic that this can be accomplished without some very creative math.

Here is the 6th, out of 8 (spoiler alert:  not all reformers are men) of my open letters series:  An intervention for Chris Barbic.


Dear Chris,

Don’t be afraid.  I am here to help.  It’s just me, your old buddy circa Houston early 1990s.

The reason I’m doing this is that I can’t sit back and watch you suffer anymore.  You may not feel like you’re suffering but to most everyone else, at least that I know, you have developed a dangerous addiction.  An addiction to ‘reform.’  And though you might now be a functional reformaholic, my belief is that the professional life span of an untreated reformaholic will soon be quite short.  But don’t despair.  I’m going to get you through this.

Though we’ve only run into each other a few times since I left Houston in 1995, I’ve always liked seeing you at various TFA events.  I think the fact that the students who challenged me my first year of teaching were the same students who challenged you during your first year of teaching one year later has built, for me at least, a unique bond.  That’s why I know that you will read this letter and hopefully offer a public response.

Over the years I’ve always been excited to follow your progress:  The creation of YES schools, the million dollars from Oprah, these were things that made me proud to know you.  You are such an enthusiastic and hard worker, if even a portion of that energy gets transferred to the people who work for you, it’s going to be a pretty exciting team.

But I started to get worried about you when I researched some claims I was hearing about YES.  For several years I had no idea that the 100% of graduates getting into a college did not mean that 100% of the students who entered the school as 6th graders ultimately got into college — only the approximately 60% who didn’t leave YES for one reason or another.  I know that in the charter school game everyone is presenting the statistics that make them look best, but I still felt a little bad when I learned that I had been misled by this stat.

But it was when you uprooted from Houston to take on the position of superintendent of the Achievement School District in Tennessee that I got really concerned.  When I read how you describe the mission of the ASD I see the full effects of your reformaholism.  The things you say are, and excuse me if this is the best word I can come up with to describe it, ‘goofy.’  From what I understand, the goal is to take schools that are in the bottom 5% based on standardized test scores and ‘turn them around’ so that they will, within 5 years, be in the top 25% based on the same standardized test scores.  You started with 6 schools this year and are adding 6 more next year.

A key symptom of reformaholism is a sense of invincibility followed by making false promises.  The only way to possibly achieve this goal is to somehow game the system.  One way to do this is to very carefully select from the approximately 80 schools in the bottom 5% the schools that are already ‘on the rise.’  I know that reformers sometimes call the collection of schools slated for ‘turnaround’ the ‘portfolio’ and like a stock portfolio, they pick ones that have the best chance of rising.

What is to guarantee that the students who enter these schools next year will be the exact same students that would have entered the school if not for the ASD takeover?  Likely there is some kind of application process, so it is very unlikely that this will be the same group of kids that would have been there otherwise.  In that case, I don’t know how fair it is to compare the scores of the old students with the scores of the new students five years from now.

Even with this potential for artificially upping the numbers, I still don’t think that you will accomplish this goal.  If you’ve followed other attempted ‘turnarounds’ that have been going on around the country, they sometimes get an initial boost only to regress the next year.  Even Arne Duncan has completely changed his once optimistic view about turnarounds.  Where he once spoke of mythical 90-90-90 schools (90% free lunch, 90% graduation rate, 90% achievement), he now can only point to schools that have achieved ‘double digit gains.’  You seem to be the only one committing to such a specific and, in my view, unattainable goal.  It is like you’re promising that you will get a group of people to all run three minute miles when nobody has ever done that, not even you.

The reason that I am so skeptical is not because I don’t believe that schools cannot be improved.  I’ve taught at four schools and in each of them I’ve seen things that could be made more efficient.  But the improvements that I’d envision wouldn’t make the kind of, to use a TFA word, ‘transformational’ change.  Still it is always good to improve a school, I know.  But from what I’ve read in interviews with you, the primary type of change you propose is to get better, and mainly younger, teachers.  I don’t see a lot about costly wrap-around services like mental health clinics and social workers.  I’m skeptical since I don’t think that the teachers before the turnaround were so much worse than the teachers after the turnaround.  Many of the new teachers are pretty inexperienced.  I even noticed that you recently requested that the ASD get brand new TFAers next year.  There is no way that a new TFAer is equipped to make transformational change.  I didn’t accomplish much my first year at Deady Middle School in that regard, and neither did you.

Speaking of Deady Middle School, do you think the problem with Deady back in the early 1990s was bad teaching?  I was pretty impressed with the average teacher at that school.  Do you think that Deady could have been turned around and made into a school in the top 25% with mainly a change in staff?  I don’t.

I’m hoping I’ve helped you out here.  I know that you will likely need to go through the 12 steps of which ‘denial’ is the first one.  Overcoming addiction takes a lot of courage.  Sometimes you have to get a whole new set of friends since the addiction to reform was the thing one thing that you had in common with them.  I’m happy though to be your sponsor and you can feel free to e-mail me day or night, anytime you need to.

Tell Natasha I say ‘hi’ (Bayou Park Village is in the house!) and thanks to her for allowing me to have the monthly column in the TFA Houston newsletter that was, in a way, my original blog.

I hope for you a speedy recovery and that we can get together and hang at the TFA 25th anniversary, assuming that I’m not forbidden from attending.

Your Friend,


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38 Responses to Open Letters To Reformers I Know. Part 6: Chris Barbic

  1. An Alum says:

    I live in Memphis and am familiar with the ASD schools. As a point of clarification, the ASD has two types of schools in its ‘portfolio’– direct-run and charter-operated. The direct-run schools are managed by the ASD itself, but the principals at each school have a lot of autonomy over the operation of each school, including curriculum, budget and staffing. These direct run schools also operate as neighborhood schools, meaning that, in theory, every child in that School’s attendance zone is allowed to attend without any application aside from the normal registration procedures. Charter-operated schools may require an application, but, if I’m not mistaken, I believe they are neighborhood schools as well.
    I have major qualms about what is happening in the ASD, but I don’t want to discuss them in a public forum. I don’t believe the majority of the problems stem from Chris Barbic, but rather from other leaders in the district and at the schools themselves. Before you so heavily critique the ASD (and it definitely needs scrutiny), please have all of your facts straight.

    • Educator says:

      He may have not had all his facts straight on this ASD topic, but it seems he sure has his facts straight on everything else related to various reforms. Hence, these open letters to reformers. Perhaps you’re saying that he shouldn’t critique these specific organizations / people unless he get every fact straight about what they’re doing, and to a certain extent, I agree. It would be more powerful if each reformer’s specific actions were studied more carefully and analyzed, and then questioned with an open letter. But I’m guessing Gary is busy with…his life.

      However, it’s the general intent of these open letters that I am in support of, as many of these reformers are instituting very similar reforms that many people, including Gary, have researched and questioned. For example, it’s clear that in many charter schools, even the most famous charter schools that get the positive press and foundation funding, that 40% or more of students never finish at the school. This needs to be talked about. So far, I am not seeing much of response from the reformers concerning this. Instead, I hear them boast “See what you can do when you believe in children and don’t accept poverty as destiny? Look at our children and what they’ve accomplished! And look at what the failing local school is doing!” Although I know many students do succeed at charters, it’s the statistics game they play that I don’t agree with, as it’s affecting all schools nationwide. The reformers are putting forth a false argument that is hurting other students at the expense of helping some (those who aren’t SPED, ELL, or who have enough social capital to know to apply to a lottery for a charter position).

      I would hope that the reformers would realize that this new education reform status quo bubble is ending, as more brave ex-reformers start reflecting upon what is happening and then muster up the courage to speak truth to power and expose the false premises upon which many politicians base their decisions upon concerning education. Then we can have much better conversations moving forward.

      So I don’t believe Gary has to have every specific detail of every person he writes a letter to correct. Of course, the more researched, the better, but I believe Gary’s intent is more broad.

      • An Alum says:

        I am definitely in support of the open letters project, and I wish more of these leaders would be brave enough to answer them publicly. My point was not to critique the project, but rather to clarify some specific details about the admissions process in the ASD.
        In hindsight, the last sentence of my response should not have been there.

      • Educator says:

        I see. Thanks for your reply and thanks for giving more details about ASD. I think I misunderstood your post initially.

    • meghank says:

      I also live in Memphis. I would love to know more about what you are referring to in the ASD schools. I know you said you do not want to share the information in a public forum, but I wish you could find a way of getting the information out nonetheless.

      I think you should give Gary a break about the difference between ASD-run schools and charter-run ASD schools. It’s a bit complicated for someone to understand who isn’t living in the community where it is happening. Also, I read of a former ASD employee, Bobby White, also the former principal of Westside Middle, who is working with the ASD on creating Frayser Community Schools, a charter management organization that he hopes will eventually run ALL schools in Frayser. So I guess he is expecting the ASD to get out of the business of running schools (presumably after the students continue to fail the tests) and to turn all of their ASD-run schools over to charter schools anyway (note that all of the directly ASD-run schools are located in Frayser).

      In other words, same difference. The ultimate plan seems to be charters for all schools under the control of the ASD, just as Gary implies.

      • An Alum says:

        I’d love to share everything I know about the ASD, but to do so (even anonymously) would put me at risk professionally.
        Here are some of the more broad issues I have:
        1. When the ASD chose its 2013-2014 schools, it all but ignored the recommendations of its own advisory council, which did not recommend any of the schools be direct-run. Now, 4 elementary schools and one middle school in the Frayser community will be direct-run by the ASD. I want to know why these decisions were made.
        2. The process of community input was a debacle. The process of changing everything about a school, from culture to teachers, is understandably a scary one for parents, and I don’t think the ASD handled those legitimate fears in a way that was productive. I know the first meeting at Pursuit of God Church ended with an ASD official being cornered by a group of angry parents and teachers, at which point a member of an outside organization had to step in and turn the meeting into a question and answer session.
        3. Since you live in Memphis, I’d encourage you to visit the schools (Frayser ES, Corning ES, Westside MS). Observe the teachers and the students. Talk to the teachers and the kids if you can. Look carefully at the demographics of the teachers. Look at the class offerings and the culture of the schools and ask yourself,”Is this a place I would want my own child to go to school?”
        I really want this ASD concept to work, for the children’s sake. However, the more I learn, the more skeptical I become about whose interests this district is serving.

      • CY says:

        I teach in Memphis City Schools and, I have to say, I wouldn’t want my own child to go to school in at least 80% of them…So I can’t say that’s a fair question to ask in terms of criticizing the ASD.

  2. Jan Keith Farmer says:

    I totally support the open letter approach and am amazed by the number of TFA alums in such high policy positions (a stated mission of TFA). I did my own TFA in an F minus high school in the New Orleans area (West Jefferson) teaching science for two years. To do this I retired as an administrator and left my doc program in chapter three of dissertation. While it was a struggle at first, like Gary, my students liked my class. And like Gary and other TFAers I was amazed by the competent and courageous teachers doing the best they could with the resources and leadership they had.

    On another important note, I sense event the “best reformers” (those willing to listen to critics) still see the problem as better teacher evaluation and not better professional development and school capacity (leadership, organizational, and structural). We know how to do this!

  3. skepticnotcynic says:


    Very clever, “reformaholism,” love it. Thanks for writing clever and interesting posts. For some reason, I find your blog more innovative and useful than the vast majority of”new” reforms in education.

    In response to “An Alum.” Gary has it all figured out. Rather than risk professional suicide, he has found his niche and can go to sleep at night, educate kids, and build a large public following. I’m sure most of the reformers secretly wish they were in his shoes. I’m currently waiting for Gary’s teacher sitcom to be produced in Hollywood.

    Even if Gary is a bit insecure about his old colleagues moving on to become part of the edu elite, he at least has the respect of the people who matter in education: the students, career teachers, and most admins who work directly in schools.

  4. Meg says:

    Two notes on the ASD. First, as already stated, not all ASD schools are run by CMOs or even individual charter schools, many are district run. Secondly, I do not believe that there is the same level of “choice” in students that ASD charters can accept as there are in other Memphis charters. ASD charter schools can only accept students from the bottom 5% of schools – ie an ASD charter school in Frayser could not take a student from a school in Frayser that wasn’t in the bottom 5%. The schools slated for takeover in the next year seem to be moving one year at a time. For example, KIPP is planning on taking over a middle school and will start by taking over only 6th grade (supposedly with all students that would be zoned to the school by the district) and then move up one year at a time.

    • meghank says:

      You’re wrong. Hanley Elementary, Georgian Hills Elementary, and Whitney Elementary will be taken over entirely next year, with an entirely new staff.

      Also, if a parent cannot enroll a child into an ASD school if they are not in the district for it, why does the ASD have an “Enroll a Student” page?

      Also, Cornerstone Prep, an ASD charter school, states on its webpage that you may enroll your student even if you are not in the district for it: Other Students “Outside the Lester Zone May Enroll

      After all zoned students are accepted, Cornerstone Prep may then enroll all other students from other zones. Cornerstone Prep will have a limited number of seats available for non-Lester students. Please call Jacque Rowe Fields, director of community and family relations, at 901-416-3640 or e-mail her at to enroll today. ”

      • Meg says:

        I’m not sure which (if any) of those schools are being taken over by KIPP, but it was my understanding that KIPP was opening their schools one grade at a time, rather than starting at full capacity. Perhaps I’m misinformed, though this would be a rarity for KIPP, who usually prefers one grade at a time.

        My understanding of the ASD enrollment process is not necessarily that all students at Lester this year had to be previous students of Lester, but needed to come from a school in the bottom 5%. If you notice in your link it asks for zip code and current school, presumably to sort students into piles based on whether their school is failing or not.

        It makes sense that if schools are underenrolled that they allow open registration, but your enrollment page does support that the students who receive priority are students from the bottom 5%. I know that certain CMOs have been turned off from going ASD because they would have to give students in the bottom 5% schools preference over even current students if they are not zoned to one of those schools ( I believe that very few, if any, spots were made available this year to students who did not attend those schools.

      • meghank says:

        They are not being taken over by KIPP. Two are being taken over to be direct-run by the ASD, and Hanley Elementary is being taken over in one year by Aspire, a charter company based in California. (By the way, Aspire is going to have their hands full going into Orange Mound, a historic black community, and trying to take over their school. I don’t think they know what they’ve gotten into.)

    • Steve M says:

      So, by working with a subset of the middle school it is involved with (6th grade, with students who are, in all likelihood, “chosen”), KIPP will get year-by-year “confirmation” that their program works.

      Its select students will be compared to the 7th and 8th graders in the school’s other buildings during the first two years; and, they will probably get incredible results as the 6th graders will have smaller class sizes, more interventions, longer school days, brand new materials/equipment. The laugh is on the rest of us as, for all intents and purposes, it will look like the school was turned around internally…when in reality they did a switcheroo on the students and threw unsustainable amounts of money into the chosen ones.

  5. Dufrense says:

    Steve, you mentioned the “chosen” students. Here’s an article from over the summer that speaks to that:

    Here’s a salient excerpt:

    “While Barbic doesn’t say this publicly, the trick is getting parents with some means — financial, mental or simply a working mode of transportation — to enroll their children with him. Without them, his three Frayser schools could quickly fill up with behavioral problems and disengaged parents, death for reformists needing to hit an early success out of the park.

    “‘Those families that understand the importance of education and have the capacity to do research, they are making other choices. They do have options,” said Rev. Anthony Anderson, executive director of Memphis Business Academy charter school, also in Frayser.

    “Those are the families the ASD doesn’t want to lose. They have to do this groundwork to keep those families in the system, otherwise they’ll end up with something in Frayser that is going to be a challenge.'”

  6. gnubdudley says:

    Read this Facebook post, authored by ASD. Sick and ignorant.

    • Former says:

      The main thing that caught and always catches my attention is the comment, “least qualified teachers.” WHY? is everyone so quick to say that teachers in these lower achieving schools are less qualified? Teaching isn’t like every other profession where you leave your work at work. When you become a teacher, you quickly realize this is a 24/7 job. We are responsible not only for the academics, but in many situations, like in these lower performing schools, we enter into a type of counselor/psychologist mode. Are we trained for this? Definitely NOT! Mothers and fathers do the same thing everyday and when it becomes too overwhelming, they seek help from a specialist. Teachers do not have this luxury and especially in these lower achieving schools where, in my experience, the admin left teachers to fend for themselves. It is time for all educators to step up and defend each other instead of playing the blame game. A STRONG support system is the only way to advance our children and that means from the top to the bottom. Any glitch in that system means the children suffer. Teachers are responsible for running their classrooms, but as many of us have seen in these lower performing schools, there comes a time…or twelve….when a specialist MUST step in to ensure that the majority doesn’t suffer because of a few!

  7. Mercedes Schneider says:

    Gary, some RSD numbers for 2012: Not counting the 9 schools excused from letter grades, only 9%, or 5 out of 55 letter-graded RSD schools, are “passing” if one considers that Jindal calls C, D, and F as “failing,” As None has an A. In his LPB interview, White described the RSD as “turning around schools, those extraordinary successes.” Interestingly, he presented no numbers.

  8. ASDteacher says:

    FYI. I am a teacher in the ASD… I am also white. AND I am also a first year teacher. But first and foremost, I am a Memphian who has been through Memphis City Schools myself. I see the power that the ASD is having in my community.

    No one has any right to judge unless they have been through the alternative situation in Memphis, which is absolutely abysmal. And yes, I can say so from first hand experience. Most of the ASD teachers are also from Memphis. And they know the alternative as well. First hand.

    The school with the most controversy is Cornerstone Prep, which is not directly run by the ASD but by a partner charter organization. The ASD schools in Frayser are supported by the Frayser community because leaders in the community support the ASD and were on the front lines recruiting families to attend the new schools.

    • meghank says:

      What do you say to reports in the Frayser community that disproportionate numbers of students are being expelled from the ASD schools?

      Are students more likely to be expelled from an ASD school than an MCS school, and how much more likely?

      • Former says:

        I can answer that! No expulsions, no matter what the circumstances. Expecting teachers to learn to teach to students abilities is one thing, but expecting them to learn to teach and cater to “over the top” behaviors is another.

      • Meghank says:

        Jeremy Jones claimed in a reply to a comment that I made that the ASD would be hiring many more counselors to deal with the problems you describe. I taught in one of these schools and that is the best solution I can think of, in addition to smaller class sizes.

        I suppose that didn’t happen. Why do reformers keep claiming they will make things better if they refuse to use the only strategies that have been proven to work?

      • Former says:

        More counselors is a great idea, and may be the only solution. But again, what I noticed in my time at one of these schools, is the counselor became the “scapegoat” and was treated like an ISS teacher. She was then held accountable when there were 5-6 students in with her and she wasn’t able to turn them around.

      • Meghank says:

        By the way, it sounds like you got the same group of students I had my first year. They were a particularly challenging bunch, and not just because it was my first year.

      • Former says:

        My year at one of these schools wasn’t my first year teaching. What I noticed is that instead of admin facing the problems head on, they looked for “many scapegoats” to take the fall. “Challenging” isn’t the word for some of these students and it’s not really their fault. They pushed the envelope and learned very quickly that admin wasn’t going to address it and expected teachers to deal with the numerous daily issues inside the classroom. We watched behaviors escalate and actual academic time deflate. It’s one of the saddest periods in my profession because there was NOTHING I or anyone else could do. We exhausted all avenues and hit brick walls every time.

    • Jaded says:

      Are you still with the ASD?

  9. Meghank says:

    Gary, you ought to see the results from the Achievement District’s first year. particularly the English/Language Arts results. Looks like you were right.

  10. Jack Covey says:

    “From what I understood, 100% of his students got into 4 year colleges…

    “As this statistic seemed pretty impossible — H.I.S.D. has 10,000 seniors graduate every year and the YES prep network had a total of about 300 graduates — I emailed Chris to get the lowdown.

    “The first time I realized that Chris was maybe a ‘reformer’ was when Wendy Kopp used his school as an example of a miracle school which proves that ‘demography isn’t destiny’ as, her recent book says, his schools will produce more low-income college graduates than the rest of Houston Independent School District combined. This was a pretty impressive statistic. Wendy used that statistic again in a debate with Diane Ravitch at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2011.

    “He wrote back that when all the YES prep campuses are up they will have 500 graduates and all 500 will go on to graduate college while out of H.I.S.D.’s 10,000 graduates, only 500 who are low-income will go on to graduate college. In other words, the statistic was a pretty big stretch.”

    “A stretch”? More like a bald-faced lie.

    Wendy was not using the future tense in her claims, nor did she use any future conditional language such as: “If Yes Prep continues to expand at the same rate, and if it continues to produced the same percentages of college-bound students… ”

    She spoke in the past tense, talking about it as if Yes’s miracle achievement had, in fact, already happened. (Jonathan Alter did the same thing with his number of college graduates that KIPP produced. Like Wendy, he gave a future, conditional “projection”… 10,000, when the actual number was 300.)

    Chris is a liar-after-the-fact because he has not yet corrected Wendy publicly on this talking point.

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