Education Reform Leaders

Barbic touts Memphis efforts over Nashville

By Bill Dries

Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Achievement School District superintendent Chris Barbic say the education reformation underway locally in Shelby County can lead and influence the national discussion about education reform.

This week’s Celebrate What’s Right education panel featured Chris Barbic, from left, Dorsey Hopson and Brad Martin. The discussion looked at reform efforts in the city. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Every parent in 2013 has got a choice about where they send their kids,” Barbic told an audience of 600 Wednesday, Sept. 11, at a New Memphis Institute Forum at the Holiday Inn University of Memphis.

Barbic joined Hopson in a discussion moderated by University of Memphis interim president Brad Martin.

Barbic also said the local education reformation and the discussion about what public education will ultimately look like in Shelby County is very different.

“If you look at other places you don’t see this,” he said, specifically mentioning Nashville where he lived and attended Vanderbilt University and where the Achievement School District has a single school.

There, a single charter school has become controversial as well as a move by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to move away from seniority and advanced degrees as the primary criteria for certification of teachers by the state. Haslam recently delayed the implementation of the criteria.

“You look at what’s going on there. It’s a very different conversation,” Barbic said of Nashville. “They’ve taken their eye off the ball around quality for students.”

Barbic is aware of something of a rivalry between Nashville and Memphis and offered a warning for those in Nashville comparing their debate about public education to the discussion in Memphis.

“You know what, you may think right now that you guys are fine,” he said. “But this city is going to blow right past you guys in the next four or five years because you are focused on the wrong thing.”

The Memphis discussion is not without its potential detours and its issues.

“We’ve got to keep the focus on student achievement. That is probably one of the more difficult things,” Hopson said, recounting controversies at the opening of the first school year of the merger about guns in schools, payroll problems and bus routes that didn’t work – all happening as the opening of schools was under “intense scrutiny” because of the consolidation.

“Those things aren’t nearly as bad as reported,” he said. “We live in a culture that tends not to be patient.”

“You look at what’s going on (in Nashville). It’s a very different conversation.”

–Chris Barbic
Superintendent, Achievement School District

Memphis has more charter schools than any other city in the state, by far. And Hopson said he approves of that. But he also said the countywide school board, which gives the approval for the charters to operate under contract with the school system, should think more about the placement of the schools and the specific academic achievement challenges they can meet.

“Hopefully it will be done in a more strategic way,” he said.

Hopson and Barbic and their staffs collaborated as they selected their lists of which schools will be in the ASD and the Innovation Zone for the 2014-2015 school year.

The lists were announced this week.

“This is so much work to be done,” Hopson said of the proficiency gap among students in the schools. “And nobody has a monopoly.”

The Innovation Zone schools are the school system’s version of the Achievement School District aimed at the same group of 68 schools that make up the majority of the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state in terms of student achievement and proficiency.

And with the talk of cooperation, Barbic and Hopson also displayed some of the competition that is at play, which they say is healthy.

“At the end of the day, we want to win,” Barbic said of the competition between the state-run Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools to boost student growth in schools where children can be as much as four school years below grade level, particularly in reading and language arts proficiency.

Hopson touted double-digit percentage test gains by the school system’s Innovation Zone schools made in the latest test results released by the state.

“I’m confident our I-Zone schools will become a road map for every school district in the state and outperform the ASD schools,” he said.

Both praised the Shelby County Schools move away from seniority and advanced degrees as the sole factors in determining pay raises for teachers.

Hopson called the decision by the countywide school board “courageous.”

“If you were a bright ambitious person, you could go to a website for any district in the country and you could know what you’re going to make in 20 years whether you knock it out of the park or not,” Barbic said. “I can’t think of a more demotivating way to think about your profession.”

He also challenged higher education to turn out better teachers.

“Our kids are feeling the pressure of an accountability system,” he added. “Our principals and teachers are feeling the pressure of accountability. We’re feeling the pressure of accountability and higher education needs to share in feeling the pressure.”