All Aboard the Rephorm Train to Memphis

That scent in the air isn’t Memphis-style barbecue but the rich bouquet of education rephorm.

Today our tour of the rephormiest places in America takes us south, to good old Memphis, Tennessee. That unmistakable scent wafting through the air isn’t dry ribs slow cookin’ in a pit, but the rich bouquet of education rephorm. Reader: I give you the Achievement School District, a bold experiment in excellence and innovation that will take the bottom 5% of students in Tennessee and catapult them straight to the top 25%. What’s the ASD’s secret recipe? Take old, failing schools and replace LIFO lifers with fresh, new teachers and administrators. Now add high expectations, toss in a bushel of buzzwords — and don’t forget the spin. Presto chango — Elvis has left the building.

Less than a year into the New Orlean’s style rephorm-over, the Achievement School District’s numbers are off the charts. By numbers, I’m referring NOT to student test scores at the 6 ASD schools —they ranked in the 16th percentile in reading and math —but the eye popping salaries that district personnel are pulling down. Tennessee may be called the volunteer state, but in Achievement land, the “sweet salary state” might be a more accurate nickname. District head and TFA alum Christopher Barbic takes home nearly $18K —a month. A little perspective: that’s more than the governor of the state makes, and, believe or not, a hair more than Kevin Huffman, TFAster turned former Mr. Michelle Rhee turned chief rephormer for the state of Tennessee.

Chris Barbic, superintendent of the Achievement School District, earns more than the governor of Tennessee.

To be fair, Barbic has his work cut out for him. Not only must he work test score miracles in 5 years or less but he also presides over a sizeable rephorm crew. More than 145 people are on the ASD payroll (see complete list here), including someone whose sole responsibility seems to be monitoring and responding to comments on local Memphis media sites. Good news: there are plenty more positions still to be filled. If you have what it takes to Join Our Team (Big Challenges, Stunning Colleagues), contact a recruiter today—operators are standing by.

Like any rephorm train with a well-compensated captain at the helm, this one is quickly picking up speed. With a logic that will be familiar to anyone who has the misfortune to live in a district that has come down with rephorm fever, the Achievement School District will keep expanding, fueled by spin and “high expectations,” no matter what its actual results or how fervently local residents oppose it. Case in point: the hand-picked committee that is about to announce six more Memphis schools to be converted to charters next year.

And as is so often the case the local media is doing its part to fan the flames of rephorm —like this story that appeared in the Commercial Appeal: “North Memphis Grandmother Fighting to Convert Schools to Charters.” And in case that was too subtle, a helpful subtitle was included: “Not buying excuses, wants schools converted to charters.”

Within the next few years, the Achievement School District will swallow up schools all over Memphis, eventually covering more than 20,000 students. And there in lies the dry spice rub. You see not everyone is cheering the rephorm train as it speeds down the tracks. The neighborhoods whose schools are being targeted for takeovers have responded with protests—even anti-ASD billboards. Tomorrow, parents and other supporters of the Treadwell School, a one-of-a-kind dual language school located in the heart of Memphis’ Hispanic neighborhood, will submit a petition signed by 1,000 people, all saying “¡keep your manos off our escuela!

It will take more than outraged parents and teachers to stop this crazy train, though. In the name of excellence and innovation, charter operators are moving in to take over former public schools and replace their non-excellent teaching staffs with fresh, new teachers whose high expectations are matched only by their dewy skin. As for the old, non-excellent teachers that Memphis used to have, they are welcome to apply to work at one of the excellent new schools. Assuming they are hired, all they have to do is resign from the Memphis City Schools and start from scratch. Oh, and when the Achievement School District realizes all of its student-centered and people-powered goals and hands the excellent new schools back to Memphis in five years, those teachers can start again, again.

Do you prefer Memphis style rephorm or the equally excellent and effective New Orleans version? Send comments to


  1. Interesting! According to your attached Achievement Schools Salary the total salary is $8,043,970.00 with $3,891,106.00 towards administration and $4,152,864.00 toward teacher and classroom support. Can you imagine a Public School spending almost half of its salary on Administration? The State would swoop in with the Governor and politicians screaming!

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