All Hail Chris Barbic


You may have heard that Chris suffered from a health setback this weekend.

He and his family are in my thoughts.

I’m not one for cards, so here’s a post on why I admire Chris.

Chris and I have previously talked about one of my favorite theories of systems level change – a theory that posits that transformation occurs through the interactions between academics, thought leaders, and mad people.

In short:

  1. Academics come up with the ideas but often do not have the influence and communication skills needed to spread these ideas.
  1. Thought leaders utilize their networks and communication strengths to popularize the ideas of academics, but often do not have the courage or leadership skills needed to implement these ideas.
  1. Mad people, acting as policy entrepreneurs, seize political openings to implement the ideas that academics dreamed up and thought leaders popularized.

Chris has the intelligence to be an academic and the communication skills to be thought leader.

But ultimately he is a mad person.

Twice in his career he has seized on regulatory opportunities to fight, like a mad person, for at-risk students.

First, Chris launched YES College Prep, a charter school network that was born through Chris taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the relatively recent policy innovation of allowing non-profit organizations to operate public schools.

I’ve talked to Chris about the early days of YES. He fully admits, like most entrepreneurs, that he did not fully understand what launching the first YES school would lead to.

Now we know: it led to YES being named the best charter school network in the nation.

Of course, like many great charter networks, YES is not a perfect organization. But it is better than most, and it provides a rich and rigorous academic program to thousands of children.

Chris eventually stepped down from YES to lead the Achieved School District (ASD) in Tennessee and become a mad person once again.

As the head of the ASD, Chris has taken advantage of a relatively recent policy innovation of allowing states to transform individual failing schools.

While I personally think Chris has laid the groundwork for the ASD’s long-term success, the work is still in its early stages. Some of the ASD’s schools are achieving strong gains, while others have yet to show improvement. You can check out the data here.

More than anything, the early days of the ASD strike me as a better version of the early days of the New Orleans reform efforts. Launching dozens of new schools is incredibly difficult work, and it takes time for the best operators to emerge and scale.

I believe Chris is ahead of where we were at during a similar junction in the New Orleans effort.

But I guess the point is this: we can never know if an idea is great until a mad person attempts to actualize the idea.

Chris played a major part in proving that one idea – allowing educators to operate non-profit schools – can transform the lives of at-risk students at scale.

Chris is now at the forefront of attempting to prove another idea: that a state can transform its failing schools via the expansion of great charter networks.

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of students receive subpar educational opportunities in underperforming public schools.

I hope Chris can prove that these underperforming schools can be transformed. It’s hard to imagine the children of Tennessee having a more passionate and effective leader fighting for them.

But most of all, I hope the mad man has a speedy recovery.

He is a dear friend and I send all my love to him and his family.

1 thought on “All Hail Chris Barbic

  1. Pingback: The Democracy Gap | EduShyster

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