Chris Barbic

Editor’s note: Chris Barbic announced today his decision to step down as the head of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, a position he has held since 2011. Under his leadership, the Achievement School District has shown great promise, as described in two Fordham Institute reports by Nelson Smith. He released a public letter to explain his decision and offer a number of lessons he learned during his tenure. Those lessons are what follow, in Chris’s own words.

We do far better when we trust our teachers and school leaders. In the ASD, we trust educators by giving them the power to make the decisions that matter most in schools—staffing, program, budget, and time. They are the ones—not I or any “central” administrator—making things happen in schools, and with the right structure in place, this cycle of fast learning and educator-led decision-making will continue. By removing the bureaucracy—and putting the power in the hands of nonprofit school operators—we can eliminate the vicious cycle of the hard-charging superintendent needing to “reform” a central office once every three years.

Autonomy cannot outpace talent. All of our schools in the ASD are given autonomy. The difference between the high performers...

Massachusetts and Ohio: Study in contrasts, am I right? One gave the country its handsomest president; the other birthed its most corpulent. One is a mecca for athletics, home to storied franchises that have piled on championships over the course of decades; the other’s teams have known defeat so cruel and so persistent that many suspect the influence of a wrathful deity. One has been the setting of cherished cultural touchstones of television and film; the other is not so much like that. (What’s that? I’m from Boston, why do you ask?)

But when it comes to education, the two have more in common that you might imagine. Last week, Achieve released detailed profiles of each state’s career and technical education (CTE) programs. The reports arrive at a turning point in the history of workforce training, as noted policy commentators are beginning to embrace vocational instruction as an underutilized tool for spurring upward mobility. CTE students, we now know, are just as likely as students on a college preparatory track to pursue postsecondary education; what’s more, their starting salaries after obtaining associate’s degrees and professional certifications are impressive enough to make this liberal...

A new study in the scientific journal Brain and Language examines how the brain responds when presented with two different methods of reading instruction. It examines a small sample—sixteen adults (with an average age of twenty-two) who are native English speakers and do not face reading disabilities.

Participants took two days to undergo training, whereby they learn an invented language based on hieroglyphics. Each participant was taught two ways to associate a set of words read aloud to a corresponding set of visual characters (or “glyphs”). The first was a phonics-based approach focusing on letter-sound relationships; the second was a whole-word approach relying on memorization. After training, the participants took part in testing sessions during which they were hooked up to an EEG machine that monitored their brain response. They were then instructed to approach their “reading” using one strategy or the other.

Scientists found that the phonics approach activated the left side of the brain—which is where the visual and language regions lie, and which has been shown in prior studies to support later word recognition. Thus, activating this part of the brain helps to spur on beginning readers. This approach also enabled participants to decode “words” they had...

There are no grand revelations, but this new report about New York’s robust charter sector from the city’s Independent Budget Office offers useful data on a range of hotly debated topics, including student demographics, attrition, and “backfilling” seats left by departing students.

For starters, it’s good to be reminded just how small that sector is, in spite of its rapid growth. Gotham boasts some of the nation’s highest-profile and most closely watched charters, including Success Academy, KIPP, and Achievement First, but only seventy-two thousand of the city’s 1.1 million school-aged children attend a charter school. And those major players are a fraction of the New York’s charter school scene, which is almost evenly split between network-run schools and independents. Some New York City neighborhoods are particularly charter-rich (Harlem, for instance, enrolls 37 percent of its students in charters as of 2013–2014), but charters remain relatively rare in the boroughs of Queens and Staten Island. The sector also serves an overwhelmingly black and Hispanic population. Charter students are more likely to be poor than traditional Department of Education (DOE) schools, though charters serve smaller concentrations of English language learners and special education students.

Another fascinating bit of data: The controversial practice of...

Shortly before ten o’clock on a recent warm summer morning, the grand old Apollo Theater on Harlem's 125th Street filled up with the friends and families of the members of Democracy Prep Charter High School's third-ever graduating class. The soon-to-be graduates milled about in the lobby, hugging each other and taking selfies in their bright golden robes and mortarboards before filing in, grinning, for their moment of glory.

I got to know each of these sixty-one students in my senior seminar class this year. It was a deeply satisfying year for the school and an extraordinary one for the students, each of Latino and African descent, and nearly all of modest means. Come September, every single one of them will attending colleges, including several institutions that would be the envy of parents and students at the elite private schools just a few blocks south of here. Ashlynn and Chris will be heading to Dartmouth; Hawa turned down Stanford to attend Yale; Tyisha will join the freshman class at Princeton. Other members of Democracy Prep's Class of 2019 are bound for Emory, Smith, SUNY Albany, Boston College, and Brown, among many others.

Class of 2019 is not a typo. It...

You don’t have to be a diehard liberal to believe that it’s nuts to wait until kids—especially poor kids—are five years old to start their formal education. We know that many children arrive in kindergarten with major gaps in knowledge, vocabulary, and social skills. We know that first-rate preschools can make a big difference on the readiness front. And we know from the work of Richard Wenning and others that even those K–12 schools that are helping poor kids make significant progress aren’t fully catching them up to their more affluent peers. Six hours a day spread over thirteen years isn’t enough. Indeed, as our colleague Chester Finn calculated years ago, that amount of schooling adds up to just 9 percent of a person’s life on this planet by the age of eighteen. We need to start earlier and go faster.

But the challenge in pre-K, as in K–12 education, is one of quality at scale. As much as preschool education makes sense—as much as it should help kids get off to an even start, if not a “head start”—the actual experience has been consistently disappointing. Quality is uneven....

In a new study released today from Fordham, authors Sara Mead and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel examine thirty-six jurisdictions that have both charter schools and state-funded pre-K programs to determine where charters can provide state-funded pre-K. Among the findings:

  • Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have both state-funded pre-K and charter laws. Of those, thirty-two have at least one charter school serving preschoolers.
  • Charter schools in all but four states face at least one significant barrier to offering state pre-K. Nine have statutory or policy barriers that preclude charter schools from offering state-funded pre-K; twenty-three other states technically permit charters to offer state-funded pre-K but have created practical barriers that significantly limit their ability to do so in practice.

The most common practical barriers include low funding levels, small pre-K programs, barriers to kindergarten enrollment, and local district monopolies on pre-K funds.

Download the report to see individual profiles of thirty-five states and the District of Columbia, as well as policy recommendations for federal and state policymakers and other critical stakeholders.

This research was made possible through the generous support of the Joyce Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), and our sister...

Yesterday, the Senate debated an amendment proposed by Mike Lee (R-UT) that would have required states to allow parents to opt-out of federally-mandated tests without penalizing their schools or districts. After Senate HELP committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) voiced his opposition, it failed 32 to 64. However, a similar amendment succeeded last week in the House, so is now included in the Student Success Act that was approved along party lines.

Senator Alexander’s floor speech on the Lee amendment, as printed in the Congressional Record, follows.

Mr. President, I thank the senator from Utah for his comments. We will be voting on the senator’s amendment this afternoon at 4 o’clock, and I want to just make a couple of comments about it. I have a little different view of what his proposal is. He talks about our being opposed to Washington’s heavy-handed approach. The way I understand his proposal, it is even more of a heavy-handed approach than the bill we are voting on today, and this is why.

His proposal is that Washington tells Utah or Oklahoma or Tennessee or Washington State what to do about whether parents may opt out of these federally required tests. Now, they are not...

I have been and continue to be a strong supporter of parental choice. I joined this fight over twenty-five years ago because I believe it can help address the systemic inequities so many poor students face. In my mind, the primary purpose of parental choice is to provide those who do not currently have high-quality educational options with access to those options. So while I believe that every student deserves an excellent education in the school that best meets his needs, I also believe that parental choice should be used principally as a tool to empower communities that face systemic barriers to greater educational and economic opportunities. I did not join this movement to subsidize families like mine—which may not be rich, but which have resources and options. I joined the late Polly Williams in 1989 in her courageous fight to make sure that poor families were afforded some opportunity to choose schools in the private sector for their children.

Since then, I have fought alongside many others for parental choice for low-income and working class families throughout the nation. From the beginning, some critics of the parental choice movement have claimed that Republican lawmakers and other conservatives who have...

Scott Walker announced today that he’s running for president. The governor of Wisconsin is the fifteenth Republican candidate and the twentieth overall. He’s also the latest subject of our Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Walker has been involved in state politics for over twenty-two years. He was a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1993 to 2002, when he was elected executive of Milwaukee County. After serving in that office for eight years, he took the helm as governor in 2011. During his tenure, Walker has focused heavily on education reform—and hasn’t shied away from controversial decisions. Here’s a sampling of his stances:

1. Teacher tenure and pay: “In 2011, we changed that broken system in Wisconsin. Today, the requirements for seniority and tenure are gone. Schools can hire based on merit and pay based on performance. That means they can keep the best and the brightest in the classroom.” June 2015.

2. School choice: “[W]e increased the number of quality education choices all over Wisconsin. Over the past four years, we expanded the number of charter schools, lifted the limits on virtual schools, and provided more help for families choosing to...