Ed Talk: Reformer Chris Barbic On Poverty, Charters And Blowing Up Public Education

Chris Barbic leads Tennessee's experimental Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state's lowest performing schools in a matter of five years. Credit: ASD

Chris Barbic leads Tennessee’s experimental Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest performing schools in a matter of five years. Credit: ASD

Educational leaders in Tennessee say their jobs are more political than ever. So WPLN is launching an occasional series of interviews that attempt to untangle the debate over public schools. We start with Chris Barbic, superintendent of the state’s Achievement School District, who sees two extremes.

“I think there’s a group that thinks that you can’t fix education until you fix poverty. And then there’s a group that thinks the way you fix poverty is you fix public education…I think the people on the opposite ends probably aren’t in classrooms. I think the folks that are in the classroom would take a slightly nuanced approach.”

Barbic regularly finds himself engaging opponents on Twitter.

The biggest critics of Barbic include people like MNPS board members Amy Frogge and Will Pinkston, who contend Barbic is trying to “charterize” public schools.

Barbic Bio

  • 1992 Vanderbilt grad – studied English, named distinguished alumnus in 2006 by the Peabody School
  • Teach for America alum – planned to go to law school until he joined TFA and taught in Houston with Kevin Huffman, who would become Tennessee’s Education Commissioner
  • Yes Prep! founder – started one of the first charter schools in Texas which has grown to 13 campuses with 8,000 students. It will open a school in Memphis next year.
  • Achievement School District superintendent – named by Governor Bill Haslam in 2011, charged with moving the state’s bottom five percent of schools into the top 25 percent. He’s the highest-paid education official in state government.

Interview Highlights

On whether he’s trying to “blow up” the traditional public school system:

“I do think that the system of public education is a system that was created 100 years ago. I think the question we have to ask ourselves now is are we trying to make the Model T work better or do we want to make the car for the 21st Century…I do think this idea of let’s tinker around the edges with the Model T and make it work better is a fool’s errand.”

Should every school be a charter? Barbic says high-achievers don’t want to work in a traditional “top-down” school system.

“If we’re going to attract and keep the kind of people that all of us want to have in this profession, then I do think we have to think a little bit differently about how we’re set up and how we manage our organizations. To me, it’s less about charter and more about this idea of autonomy for accountability and let’s give people the freedom to make those decisions and hold them accountable for results.”

Facts About The ASD

Barbic says parents are driving the growth of charter schools, noting that the privately-run, publicly-funded schools don’t exist where parents are happy with existing public options.

What questions do you have for Tennessee educational leaders? Leave them in the comment section below.

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