TFA leaders have been dropping like flies. First there was Michelle Rhee ‘resigning’ as chancellor in DC and then, more recently, ‘stepping down’ as CEO of StudentsFirst. Wendy Kopp resigned her post as CEO of TFA to lead the international Teach For All. Then there was Kevin Huffman in Tennessee, Cami Anderson in Newark. Now that there is a new Governor in Louisiana I am certain that John White will soon be ‘opting to spend more time with his family’ and then that will be it for the first generation TFA system leaders.
Of all the fallen TFA leaders, however, the one who I have spent the most time covering is the Tennessee Achievement School District’s (ASD) superintendent Chris Barbic. I suppose this is partly because I was, at one time, fairly good friends with him and still have a cordial relationship with him. Of all the reformer leaders, I’ve felt that I could ‘crack’ Barbic since I think he has some morals and just needs to snapped out of his reform trance with some extreme ‘Deer Hunter’ therapy.
I don’t know if the reformers had planned out this strategy in advance, but it seems that what happens is that one of them gets the reins of a big school system and shakes things up, shutting down schools, opening charters and, ultimately, alienating the community. Then, once they’ve gotten the wrecking ball rolling, they ‘voluntarily’ step down and get replaced by some kinder, less threatening, version of themselves. So Arne Duncan was replaced by John King. Michelle Rhee was replaced by Kaya Henderson. Wendy Kopp was replaced by two people, Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva-Beard. And it was recently announced that Chris Barbic will be replaced by Malika Anderson.
The ASD is one of the biggest disasters in ed reform. They started about four years ago with the goal of taking over schools in the bottom 5% in terms of test scores and getting them, in five years, into the top 25% of schools in Tennessee. In my analysis I found that of the six schools that have been in the ASD since the beginning, four remain in the bottom 5% while the other two are still in the bottom 6%.
In her letter introducing herself, Anderson shows that she has been briefed about how to spin their data. She writes:
After only three years, we’re excited to say that half of all Priority Schools in the state are now receiving some form of significant intervention. The bar for the bottom 5% has increased nearly 10 points—over a 50% increase—and students in Priority Schools are growing 4 times faster than their statewide peers
Since they cannot deny that their schools are still in the bottom 5%, they say that ‘the bar for the bottom 5% has increased by nearly 10 points — over a 50% increase.’ So what this means is that there is some metric, I think it is called the School Success Rate or SSR. It is calculated every year for every school, but only released every four years or so. So the bottom 5% school evidently used to score only 20 ‘points’ on this metric and now they’ve gone up by 10 ‘points’ to 30, which is a 50% increase. But apparently the other schools that were not in the bottom 5% have also increased by 10 points so that the bottom 5% schools have not overtaken anyone as they were supposed to. Also there’s this stat that students in priority schools are ‘growing 4 times faster than their statewide peers.’ Basically this means that there is some metric on which the statewide peers got a very low growth number, something very close to zero. And when you multiply something very close to zero by four you still get something very close to zero. It’s like if I go on a diet and lose one pound, I lost four times as much as a person who lost just a quarter of a pound. It is meaningless to talk about comparing growth rates this way when both numbers are so low.
In the future, Anderson promises some improvements:
Going forward, we will continue to hold ourselves and our school operators accountable to the highest levels of student achievement and growth. We will continue to go where need is concentrated, ensuring every Priority School in Tennessee is improving because we believe that families and students in these schools deserve nothing but the best. And we will continue to ensure that the power in our district is placed in the hands of local parents, educators and leaders in the neighborhoods and communities we serve because they are the ones who best know how to serve our students. We will do so with even greater transparency and deeper levels of partnership than during the ASD’s initial years.
Now the ASD has been known for alienating communities, taking over schools, holding meetings at times that interested community members are unable to attend. So to say they will ‘continue to ensure that the power in our district is placed in the hands of local parents, educators, and leaders in the neighborhoods’ is something I find puzzling. And in reading this letter, she’s not off to a good start with doing so ‘with even greater transparency’ as she parrots the typical misleading, albeit creative, statistics that try to paint the ASD as some sort of success.
I’ll admit I was hoping that Chris Barbic would have held on for five years so he would have had to hold some kind of press conference after the five years to say “We failed.” Having a different leader in place at the end of the five years will definitely change that dynamic. No, by the time that it becomes clear that all these reform leaders were a type of grifters, they will all have safely disappeared leaving their marks trying to figure out how they fell for such a clear long con.