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‘Seed, feed and weed’: Advice on turning around underperforming schools

MinnPost talks with Chris Barbic, Tennessee’s expert in turning around underperforming schools, about how to create a high-performing environment, especially with charter schools.
Chris Barbic

In addition to being something of a luminary in education policy circles, Chris Barbic is the head of something called the Achievement School District in Tennessee. In that capacity, his job is to move that state’s lowest performing schools into the top in terms of performance in five short years.

To do this, Barbic is borrowing strategies that have worked in other “recovery” or “portfolio” districts, where some or all schools are operated outside of the normal district structure. What this looks like varies from place to place, but there’s evidence that the approach can drive relatively quick transformation.

Elements of the strategy are expected to begin appearing in schools hereabouts in coming months. So it seemed like a good idea to catch up with Barbic during a recent visit to the Twin Cities. An edited version of that conversation follows.

If you’d like to hear from Barbic himself, or to learn about turnaround districts in New Orleans and Detroit, the strategy was the topic of a dynamic panel at this year’s Education Writers Association national conference, held in May in Nashville.   

MinnPost: Can you explain what a recovery school district is?

Chris Barbic: A recovery district is a statewide district that is operated by a statewide entity, in our case the [Tennessee] Department of Education. Each one may have a slightly different focus. Ours is focused on the schools in Tennessee that are in the bottom 5 percent in student achievement.

These are the lowest performing schools in the state. What we are tasked with is transforming those schools, not just getting them out of the bottom 5 percent. We set a goal for ourselves of moving those schools into the top 25 percent in five years.

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And we do that through a few things. We serve as a charter authorizer, so we try to create conditions in which we can recruit the best charters both locally and nationally to work in Tennessee to convert our lowest-performing schools to high-performing charters.

In addition to being a charter authorizer, we also operate a small group of schools ourselves. We have a network of about five schools we run.

MP: Why is this done at the state level?

Barbic: Again it varies from state to state depending on what the local context is. In Tennessee, this was really born out of our Race to the Top grant application. Tennessee was one of the first states to win Race to the Top, and it was a large sum of money. One of the criteria the state had to address was, what is the state going to do to try to transform the lowest performing schools?

States have done lots of things for years. For instance, allocating school improvement grants, or using No Child Left Behind accountability consequences. They’ve done some of what I would say is tinkering on the edges.

What a recovery district signifies is a much deeper-touch intervention on how low-performing schools operate. We’re taking those schools out of local control, we’re taking the buildings away from the districts. The students stay in the school, but they’re now served either via a charter or by us.

It’s a much higher-touch intervention then just slapping a school on the wrist or providing more money or interventions. This is: We are going to run the school for a set period of time. The way we are set up, the schools eventually go back into local control. In our case, our charters go back to the district in 10 years — as charters.

What you’re seeing now is states taking a much more active role locally where there are patterns of low performance over a long period of time. In our case there are schools where 2 percent of the third-graders are proficient.

What you’re seeing are states that are saying, Look you can’t just sit back and let things happen. There needs to be a higher touch, in some cases more disruptive intervention to try to increase performance.

MP: Minnesota, of course, has had charters for more than 20 years. Can you give us some context what this is like in Tennessee, where the concept is much newer?

Barbic: The law in Tennessee was passed several years after the Minnesota law. When first passed it was pretty restrictive. It focused only on kids in low-performing schools, only on kids who were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. It was a very targeted population, and it was [in] a lot of ways not a very charter-friendly state.

Two things happened as a result of that. First, there weren’t very many charter schools because it was hard to open, hard to get off the ground, and there was not a lot of public knowledge or support.

The flip side of that was that because the schools were hard to open and hard to get off the ground, it created this culture where for the most part the ones that were open were pretty good. CREDO is the organization out of Stanford that does a lot of data crunching and looking at performance, and [its data shows] Tennessee charters were operating much better than the national average.

Now, the charter law got changed in 2011. There is no cap and there is open enrollment in charters now. It gave our district the ability to be a statewide authorizer. Post-2011 you’re seeing a much more charter friendly environment and as a result you’re seeing the charter sector grow.

Our job is to take advantage of this new context, and make sure that we are focused on quality growth, not just growth for growth’s sake. That happens when you have authorizers who hold quality up as the single most important measure for who gets approved to open the school and who doesn’t.

The way we’ve tried to do that is 1) look at the charters that were already there pre-2011 and see who was performing well and helping those high performers grow. And 2) go out and try to recruit the best charter operators nationally to come to Tennessee.

That’s been our strategy, with the third leg of the stool being finding high-performing educators in Tennessee and creating an incubator, a charter incubator, that gives those folks a runway and a pathway to open their own schools. That’s the strategy for growing a high-performing charter sector.

MP: So what are the results of the portfolio to date?

Barbic: We have one year’s worth of data. Our second year’s data will come out later this summer. In our first year we had six schools. Three were charters and three we were running ourselves.

In Tennessee we look at proficiency and growth. We look at value added from the grade level and teacher down to the student. Every school in the district is given a rating of level five down to level one — level five being the highest growth.

In Tennessee, level three means the kid grew a year’s worth in a year. So assuming everybody is on grade level, you want every school to be at least a level three. Levels one and two mean that the kids didn’t grow a year in a year’s time.

We were a level five, which means that our kids were growing more than a year in a year’s time. Which for us is really important because the vast majority of our students are several years behind grade level. If we’re ever going to catch them up we have to be growing at a level-four, level-five pace to close the gap.

We saw growth in math and science, we grew faster than the state average in math and science. In reading, we didn’t see that, so literacy has been a big focus for us this year. We’re hoping to see big gains in reading.

But the other part of any turnaround is, Are you resetting the culture? Are you creating a culture of success in the building with the kids and adults?

In our school climate surveys we saw three out of four kids across the district say, hey, the school is a positive culture, I feel safe here. We saw a 97 percent parent satisfaction rate, parents giving our schools an A or a B.

We saw big shifts in culture. And we saw big growth. Now we want to see continued growth in proficiency. And as we bring new schools in — we have 17 schools this year that we will be getting data back on — we want to see those first-year growth measures, culture changes and proficiency increases over time.

MP: Has your success generated interest outside of the recovery district?

Barbic: First I’d say it’s way too early to say that we’ve been successful. This is still very much in the early stages. I think we’re creating the conditions for a successful portfolio district to emerge. It’s going to be several years before we can say whether or not it’s been successful.

Having said all that, other states are watching what’s happening. New Orleans is far enough down the road to say, Look this has been a success. There are more kids graduating, they are about to surpass the state average.

They’ve been at this long enough it’s pretty clear they’ve been successful. We are trying to take that and adapt it to a Tennessee context. Take the lessons learned and try to get similar results.

When we’re having these conversations, though, we’re urging [other states] to think about a few things. One, this isn’t a magic bullet. There are no magic bullets in education.

It’s only as good as the policy environment you create and the people who are able to execute it. It’s like anything else, if you can’t implement it well it’s not going to work.

And implementation in this context really means capacity at the state level and the environment you’re operating in. What we tried to do these first couple of years is create the right conditions and get the talent in place to be able to do this. And it’s going to be the next two or three years when we see whether or not this is going to work.

All of those things point to us being very hopeful that we are going to see all of this translate into dramatic gains in student achievement. But we’ve got a lot to do before we deliver on that promise.

MP: Tennessee just posted the largest student growth on the most recent NAEP test, the national assessment that allows apples-to-apples comparisons. Does that play into this?

Barbic: The NAEP results have less to do with anything we’re doing in the achievement school district. It has more to do with a couple of things. [T]he state raised the standards back in 2009, which is one of the reasons we got Race to the Top in the first place.

Raising those standards was a really important step. Prior to that we were telling 70, 80, 90 percent of our kids in grades three through 11 they were proficient. Then they took the ACT and only 11 percent of them were actually college ready.

I don’t think there’s anything more insidious than adults lying to kids about where they stand, and that’s what the state was doing for a long time. Raising the standards was huge; I think that had a lot to do with NAEP.

Also, the statewide teacher evaluation system was important. Less so because it rated teachers than because it forced conversations between principals and teachers on how they were doing in their practice. Before that principals just weren’t getting into classrooms and giving teachers feedback.

Every teacher is part of the statewide teacher eval, even non-tested grades. It’s created lots more conversations about practice, and that’s contributed to teachers getting better.

We’ve done a lot of work around preparing our teachers for Common Core. The state has done an incredible job with high-quality training. We’ve trained 40,000 teachers the last three summers with really high-quality stuff.

And we’ve been doing value-added measurement for 20 years. Value-added started in Tennessee. So we’ve had that data, though we weren’t using it to make any decisions around talent.

Now we are starting to say, OK we’ve got this wealth of information about who our teachers are. How can we incentivize our level-five teachers to go into our lowest performing schools so we can get our best teachers in front of the kids who are the furthest behind?

You can use that information to make important decisions to hopefully influence student achievement at a faster rate. That’s the type of work that’s been done across the state that’s led to the NAEP growth.

Long-term if we don’t bring these bottom schools up we’re not going to see sustained growth in the NAEP. For us, in 2015, if we can grow our presence in the bottom 5 percent of schools, and do it with quality, I think we can play an important role in sustaining the NAEP growth.

MP: What in your opinion are the important parts of a portfolio strategy?

Barbic: If you’re implementing it at the district level, really rethinking the role of the board and the central office. Thinking of them less as an operator of schools than as an authorizer of schools.

When you talk about a district as an authorizer of schools, there are three things I talk about: seed, feed and weed. You’ve got to incubate new schools, high-quality ones. You’ve got to support those schools with conditions on the ground: Access to resources, a talent pool, facilities — things that they need to be able to grow.

Then you have to hold them accountable for results. If they’re not getting results, then there has to be courage on the part of the board to close that school and replace it with another or a charter operator.

But we can’t be in a situation where were letting low performing schools hang around for eight, 10 years. When we do that, we’re losing the opportunity of the portfolio district. We’re acting like a traditional district all over again.

It’s the district’s or the government’s job to regulate, and it’s up to nonprofits and educators to operate the schools. That’s what you see in a place like New Orleans; the district is not operating most of the schools.

The analogy I used this morning is, the district plays the role of the health inspector who makes sure the restaurants are clean, they’re serving quality food. But it’s not the health inspector’s job to run the restaurant.

In our world it’s the nonprofit’s job, it’s the educator’s job to run the school. And it’s the district’s job to play the health inspector. We’ve got to push decision-making down to the school level, while at the same time ramping up the talent.

It is a big change, but we know that what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years is not working for lots of kids. We just got to be willing to rethink what a system of public schools could look like.

MP: Is there anything you wanted to talk about that I didn’t ask?

Barbic: The draw for me to want to come to Minnesota is this is the birthplace of charters. For a long time, that’s what Minnesota has been known as. The question here is, can Minnesota be known not just as the birthplace of charters, but as a place where there’s a high-quality charter sector?

In order for that to happen the leadership here has to get serious about quality and ask, What’s going to happen to charters that have been open for five years plus and are not getting results? And really get serious about replacing those schools.

We can’t have a charter sector that’s performing worse than a traditional district. That defeats the purpose of having charters in the first place.

To me, that’s the opportunity here in the next three to five years, to get serious about quality — and quality growth, not just growth for growth’s sake.

The reputation of Minnesota outside of Minnesota is that the attitude here has been, Let 1,000 flowers bloom. Maybe that was the right strategy 20 years ago. But there’s enough proof points now from around the country what a quality charter sector can look like.

There’s no reason why Minnesota can’t lead in that respect. And frankly should as the birthplace of the movement.