With Memphis home to 68 of the 85 schools in the bottom five percent of the lowest performers and many of those students African Americans, Achievement School District Supt. Chris Barbic is a man whose thoughts bear special scrutiny by the African-American community.
The ASD's goal is to move the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state to the top 25 percent in five years. This week, Barbic was making the rounds, spreading the word that 12 months into operating schools, its students are showing signs of progress. That get-out-the message tour coincided with the release of annual TCAP (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program) Proficiency results measuring students in grades 3-8 in reading, math, social studies, and science.
Barbic's two-minute spiel, which he folded into a 100-minute conservation at The New Tri-State Defender on Tuesday, basically covers this ground:
Thus far into a five-year journey, the district earned a "Level 5" growth rating and ASD students made solid gains in math, science, and social studies. Reading scores dipped – "We've got to get better, and we will." – and ASD schools are responding quickly to make improvements in year two. ... Meanwhile the ASD has created significantly better learning environments for students, teachers and parents.
During the rest of his visit to the TSD, Barbic – at times quite direct, blunt and by self-description "real" – acknowledged missteps made by charter school operators moving into the learning community in Binghamton, pinpointed his key to ASD success and zeroed in on what he thinks is the one thing that absolutely would make the whole Memphis education improvement effort be for naught.
"In some cases, the first time our kids are holding a book is when they hit school for the first day," said Barbic, asserting that environmental challenges the students face show up more in reading than the other TCAP measurables.
"In Frayser for example, we have kids coming in with half the vocabulary of a kid coming out of a middle-income household. We've got a lot of kids whose parents cannot read themselves. So this idea of who is reading to kids 20 minutes a night, that probably is not happening."
While there were some pockets where students show growth in reading proficiency, overall it's going to take more than a year to turn around years of neglect, he said.
"I still do 100 percent believe that we can still do this (meet the ASD's overall 5-year goal)," he said. "We will see faster gains in math just because we have set a foundation. Next year, we will start to see some of these reading proficiency numbers go up. "
Importance of culture
A lot of people, said Barbic, don't really want to talk much about the culture in schools. He's convinced that's a big mistake.
"The way we talk about culture in school is we talk about beliefs, values and assumptions. What are the beliefs we have as an organization and what are the beliefs the folks have in the schools. ...
"Some of this is just mindset," he said. "Do you really believe that poor black children can really learn? And making sure that we've got folks who really believe that."
Creating rituals is essential to a healthy culture, he said, elaborating on his definition.
"It's about how you celebrate success. It's about relationships and how folks talk to each other. ... It's also about recognizing the culture that our kids come from and honoring it and celebrating it and making sure that when our kids grow up, it's not just about passing a test and reading and writing, but what kind of person are you. What is your character? Do you look out for other people beside yourself?"
The culture has to encompass what it takes to create the next generation of community and leaders, he said.
"It's about making sure we are teaching kids about decision-making and setting goals. All these things are kind of wrapped up in culture."
Measuring cultural progress involves asking parents, students and teachers just what they think about the experience they are having with ASD. Barbic points to results from a state-mandated inquiry for his confidence that the district is on target or within striking distance of its goals.
He's not declaring victory.
Noting some of the changes being made at the state level, Barbic said, "I think teachers are feeling pretty beat up right now. The change in the salary schedule, teacher evaluation. ... While I agree with a lot of the policies, I think the way it has been communicated has been pretty weak. ...
"So what you've had is people, who if the communication had been better, would be supportive of this arc (of projected progress toward reaching to the top 25 percent in five years.)"
Last Friday, he met with the Memphis Education Association, not to defend the state's education commissioner – "He can do that himself." – but to listen and share his view.
"This does not happen without teachers and so, if anything, we are loving on our teachers and telling them that they are the most important thing in the school," he said. "This is not about anti-teacher..."
The state-administered survey has three out four ASD teachers indicating they would return to their schools after the first year.
"It speaks to the kind of people we have working in our schools, their dedication," he said, buffering the importance of teachers with the notation that master teachers are paid more than the principals.
"We've got to have teachers who take time to build relationships with kids. Without that, nothing gets done..."
What is being
asked of parents?
That requires a multi-tiered answer, Barbic said.
First, it's the basics: a partnership in getting children to school everyday in uniform and on time.
Then comes getting on the same page about messaging.
"What messages do they hear at home? The messages at school are work hard, set goals, growth mindset: work hard you will get better, it's about practice ... Talking to (parents and guardians) to make sure they (the students) are hearing the same messages..."
Next, do the students have a quiet place to do homework? And if parents are not able to help with homework, are they letting their children make use of the district-issued phones to call their teachers. For parents who have difficulty reading, are they open to getting plugged into organizations than can help improve their literacy rates?
"There is a sense of urgency, but we must take a bit of long view... We can't microwave relationships."
'The biggest risk'
Across the country, everybody in education circles is talking about Memphis, said Barbic, who asserts that the city could become "Teacher Town USA."
The factors? The relatively manageable cost of living and what Barbic projects will be increased salaries for teachers because of competition.
Then he turns to "real talk."
"I think the biggest risk to all of this is if you look at the school system, the school system creates a black middle class – teachers, principals, custodians, building engineers. If what happens is – because of all this change and different operators come in – you start to displace and disrupt that, and you've got middle-age African Americans getting replaced with 22-year-old Teach for America corps members and folks who are not from here, I think that is a huge risk to all this..."
Knowing that it must have a building full of great teachers, Barbic said the ASD is thinking about how to engage what he thinks are "a bunch of teachers out there who may be average teachers but who with some targeted training and the right opportunity could actually be great."
So, the ASD is talking to the University of Memphis – and it is has some philanthropic support – about how to "find that not terrible teacher that maybe shouldn't be teaching at all, but that average teacher."
A key question, he said, is, "How do you select for mindset?"
"It's got to be someone who believes all kids can learn...but just maybe didn't have the right training...They don't need to go back and get a complete overhaul, just some real targeted training.
Such a move would tap into the existing teacher talent in the city and "we are not importing a bunch of talent from other places...If that (large-scale importation) happens, this thing is dead...it won't work...and we're going to miss a huge opportunity..."
"This has to be done with the community and not to the community."