Frayser 9GA, the miracle school of the Achievement School District

The Achievement School District of Tennessee, or ASD, was modeled after the Louisiana Recovery School District, or RSD.  The superintendent of the ASD is a friend of mine from my days as a TFAer in Houston, Chris Barbic.  The goal of the ASD is to take over the schools in the bottom 5% in terms of test scores in the state and within five years get the scores up so those same schools are in the top 25%.  The schools, as I originally understood it, would have the same zoned students after the were taken over by (they use the euphemism ‘matched with’) the usual suspects of TFA charter chains, like KIPP and Rocketship.  The first cohort of the ASD was 6 schools started in the 2012-2013 school year.  This grew to 17 schools in 2013-2014, and now 23 schools for 2014-2015.  I was skeptical of this plan from the beginning.  As I wrote to Chris in one of my open letters, still unanswered, I felt like this was a goal that can only be achieved by some sort of cheating or lying.  One cheat that is happening is that many of the charter schools did not take over existing schools but became new schools which phased in one grade at a time.  This makes it pretty hard to say that a school that never existed was originally in the bottom 5% of schools.

As reformers are all about accountability and data, the ASD, of course, issues yearly reports about the progress that it is making toward the goal of moving the schools in the bottom 5% to the top 25% in five years.  This year Tennessee has been very slow in releasing their state test scores.  In early July they first released data for the State.  On these, the average scores in the state were not very good.  On average, as I wrote about here, 3-8 math scores went up by a percent while 3-8 reading scores went down by a percent.  At the end of July they released the data for the individual districts.  In that release, we learned that the ASD scores increased more than the state averages.  I wrote here, about how that really wasn’t saying very much, particularly since the 4% the ASD reading scores had gone up by still meant that the 2013-2014 reading scores were lower than the 2011-2012 ASD reading scores.  Then, in August, they finally released the final part of their data, the ‘growth’ scores of the districts and the test scores and growth scores for the individual schools.

A year ago the ASD, despite the fact that their reading scores dropped by almost 5%, somehow scored the highest possible score, a 5 out of 5 on the Tennessee ‘growth’ metric.  This was, they said, a sign that things were moving in the right direction.  This year, however, despite the fact that at the end of July we learned that the ASD ‘grew’ better than the state did in general, the final report in mid-August revealed that the ASD didn’t get another 5 in ‘growth.’  For the 2013-2014 school year, they got the lowest possible growth score, a 1.

Screen shot 2014-09-10 at 10.06.30 PM

You’d think that this would damper their spirits, but as they’ve got to show that they’re still on track to reach the goal of moving the schools from the bottom 5% to the top 25%, they released a report highlighting some of their successes.  It turns out that some of the schools are doing quite well while others are bringing down the growth average.

They even produced this nifty scatter plot showing how some of the schools are well on their way to cracking the top 25%.

Screen shot 2014-09-10 at 10.20.31 PM

So, according to this graph, there are four schools that are really moving up the charts, and one of them, oh my! Frayser 9GA is way up there, having moved from the bottom 5%, apparently, to nearly the top 50%!  Most of of the other schools haven’t made much movement, however.  In the ASD report, there were some graphs showing how different schools ‘grew’ from last year to this year.

Screen shot 2014-09-10 at 10.28.29 PM

Screen shot 2014-09-10 at 10.28.45 PM

So there are schools getting it done, like Frayser 9GA, and other schools that are still failing, like, say, Westside Achievement Middle School, with its declining scores in both categories.

So I did what no Tennessee education reporters have the ingenuity to do, I did some research and analysis.  The first thing I noticed was the fine print at the bottom of the scatter plot showing the movement of some of the schools.

Notes:  1-yr success rates; 2014 percentile calculations based on 2013 data;  Carver and Frayser HS used for historical data for GRAD and F9GA, respectively.

Hmmmmm.  What does that mean?  So I investigated further.  What I learned is that Frayser 9GA isn’t, technically, a school for which it is possible to calculate the growth between 2013 and 2014.  Also, it is debatable, if it can be counted as a school at all.  Here’s why:

Westside Achievement Middle school, the one that had the dropping scores in the bar graphs above, serves students in grades 6-8.  They were one of the original 6 ASD schools in 2012-2013.  Rather than send their eighth graders to Frayser High School in 2013-2014, they decided to expand Westside Achievement Middle school to have a 9th grade in their building.  They enrolled 99 students and called the ‘school’ Frayser 9GA for ‘9th Grade Academy.’  2013-2014 was the first year that this school existed, which is why comparing their scores for their 99 9th graders to the scores of already existing Frayser high school is not a fair comparison.  This article from the local Memphis newspaper explains that 85% of the 8th grade class at Westside Achievement Achievement Middle School wanted to continue at that school for the new 9th grade program.

Now in the 2013-2014 school year, Westside Achievement Middle School dropped from a 5 on their ‘growth’ to the lowest possible 1.

Screen shot 2014-09-10 at 10.41.14 PMBut the ASD decided to call the 9th grader program at Westside Achievement Middle School, all 99 students there, its own ‘school’ rather than what it actually is, a grade in the school.  It is not playing by the rules to pick a grade out of a school, call it its own school and then plot it on a graph as if it was an actual school that was once in the bottom 5% of schools and that with the help of the ASD catapulted to the top 50%.  So the question is, how is it that this school is failing to grow their 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in 2013-2014, yet they are getting miraculous results with their 9th graders?  And what would the score for this school be if they counted the four grades as one school rather than pulling out the 9th grade class and calling that its own school?Arne Duncan was in Tennessee today and spent time with Chris Barbic and even took a selfie with him.  Tennessee and the ASD are favorites of Duncan to tout his success.duncanselfieIt is fortunate for Duncan that he will be out of office when the house of cards that is the ASD comes tumbling down, three years from now.  I’ve noticed that many reformers have been going into hiding lately:  Wendy Kopp stepped down from being CEO of TFA.  Michelle Rhee stepped down from being CEO of StudentsFirst.  Others will surely follow into the safety of their underground bunkers.  Duncan will leave office and will surely find a safe place to hide from all the questions as the reform movement continues to collapse.  What will happen to my old friend Chris Barbic when this all goes down?  He’s always been a decent guy.  I worry he might be the only one with enough principle to go down with the ship while the others cowardly abandon it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Kane and Chetty: Witnesses for the defense?

Things are heating up in Campbell Brown’s New York franchise of the Vergara trial.  It was just announced that one of the top trial lawyers in the country David Boies (lawyer for Gore in Bush v. Gore trial among many other high profile cases) is going to be involved in the prosecution.

Now I’m not a lawyer, but I’m a pretty good arguer and logical thinker, and I’d say that the defense in Vergara did a terrible job.  Even so, I think the decision will get reversed but if it doesn’t, it will be because of the bad defense.

There were so many contradictions in Vergara.  The prosecution miraculously managed to argue that value-added was not accurate enough to earn teachers tenure in 18 months yet was accurate enough to justify getting rid of LIFO and replacing it with layoffs based on those same inaccurate value-added scores.  Here is some testimony for Thomas Kane, who, based on the judgement, was the star witness for the prosecution.


A     YES.


A     SO I –

Q     YES OR NO?

A     YES.



This was from questioning by the prosecutors about why the 18 month tenure rule was unconstitutional.  The defense should have exploited this admission that the value-added was unreliable especially when there is just one year of data and use this to argue why using value-added instead of LIFO would be an unfair system.

Also a major witness was Raj Chetty who published a big paper about how students who had teachers with higher value-added scores made more money in life.  These conclusions have been challenged pretty convincingly, but still even the President paraphrased the paper in one of his State of The Union addresses.

So now there will be a Vergara-like trial in New York City.  The prosecution has some very heavy hitters.  For the defense, I don’t know.  The defendants are people like John King.  I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the defendants hope to lose the trial and maybe won’t get the best representation to go against a dream team rivaling the OJ Simpson lawyers.

But the New York trial, with competent defense attorneys, should be much easier to win.  First of all, New York has a three year tenure process, which is something that was argued would be a reasonable amount of time, even by the prosecutors, during the Vergara case.

But the biggest problem the prosecutors are going to have is that in the Vergara case, Kane had said in his testimony that poor kids in Los Angeles had a disproportionate percent of ineffective teachers, according to his research.  To show how bad it was, he compared it to New York where this same phenomenon did not occur.

Here is a slide from Kane’s slide show:

Screen shot 2014-08-04 at 9.36.53 PMHe was questioned by the prosecutors about this:


A     NO.

Q     WHY NOT?


Later on, Kane explains to the defense that Chetty also did not find that ‘ineffective’ teachers were disproportionately assigned to poor students.



So it seems that this would make Kane and Chetty pretty bad witnesses for the New York case.  Perhaps they will get other witnesses, or they will get Kane and Chetty and hope that the defense doesn’t have (or doesn’t care to do) what it takes to go up against the big hired pro-bono guns.  If only I had gone to law school, like I had originally planned, rather than do TFA, I’m sure I could win this case.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Underachievement School District 2014 Edition

The Achievement School District (ASD) in Tennessee is an attempt to replicate the ‘success’ of the Recovery School District (RSD) in Louisiana.  The main difference is that while Louisiana’s RSD was set into action because of a natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, Tennessee’s ASD was set into action because of a man made disaster, Hurricane Kevin Huffman, the commissioner of education in Tennessee, and an old acquaintance of mine from the days when we were both in TFA in Houston in the early 1990s.  (I was Houston 1991 and Huffman was Houston 1992).  In charge of the ASD is someone who was a good friend of mine back in Houston, Chris Barbic.  Chris started the YES chain of charter schools.

The goal of the ASD is to take the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee and in five years transform them into schools that are in the top 25% of schools in Tennessee.  As Tennessee schools are supposedly all improving at record rates, this would require that the ASD school progress at much faster rates to get from the bottom to near the top.

Last year I wrote my first annual report on the status of the ASD in a post called The Underachievement School District.  At that time, they boasted that they got the highest growth score possible, a 5 out of 5, but also revealed that their reading scores dropped from 18.1% proficient in 2012 to 13.6% proficient in 2013 while the rest of the state rose from 49.9% proficient to 50.3% proficient.  I questioned the validity of the five point growth scale based on these numbers.

The state tests in Tennessee are called the TCAPs.  This year there was a fiasco where the TCAP score release was delayed so long that schools were not able to use the scores in the student’s grades.  Tennessee is all about ‘accountability’ so this was one more straw that made parents and also Republican state legislators to call for Huffman’s resignation.

Early July 2014, I wrote about how the state released a summary of the TCAP scores.  It was revealed that 3-8 math increased by less than 1% while 3-8 reading went down by less than 1%.  Nothing to celebrate there.  Instead they focused on supposed high school ‘gains.’  This was ironic to me since Tennessee was so proud of their grade 4 and grade 8 NAEP gains yet when the 12th grade NAEP showed that Tennessee didn’t do so well there, they said that they can’t be held responsible for high schoolers since those students had most of their academic careers before the reforms set it.  So they can’t take blame when high schoolers do poorly, but they will take the credit when they do well.

Tennessee is releasing TCAP results in stages.  The big picture came out around July 4th, the school results are coming, they say, around August 15th, and the district results were released today, July 30th.  With the release of the district data, they also had some press releases telling the newspapers what to say.  In the whole country I’d say that the education reporters in Tennessee are the worst.  They just take whatever the press releases say and print that without any delving into the numbers themselves.  It is a shame I have to do their job for them, but I guess someone’s got to do it.

With the release of the district data, there are the Louisiana style invented statistics like this one:


  • From 2011 to 2014, the percentage of districts with the majority of their students proficient or advanced in 3-8 math increased from 18 percent to 57 percent.

Keep in mind that for the whole state of Tennessee, the percent of students passing 3-8 math rose about 10% from 41% to 51% between 2011 and 2014.  How this translated from 18% of districts having half the students pass to 57% having half the students pass is something that can very well happen when everyone is hovering near 50%.  It is a made up stat since there was so little to celebrate with the flat math and reading, including reading going down by about 1%.

So I was interested to see how the ASD fared.  Looking over their scores, 21.8% passing 3-8 math and 17% passing 3-8 reading, the first thing I looked for is what sort of progress they are making in going from the bottom 5% to the top 25% in five years.  Two years in and they are still in the bottom 5%, dead last with the second to last district not even close to them.  They will surely have to pick up the pace on their growth.

Then I saw this tweet

Screen shot 2014-07-30 at 10.08.14 PM

and thought, “that’s interesting.”  The link led me to a pathetic attempt to dress up the horrible numbers posted by the ASD this year.  I went to the link and found a page with the headline “ASD Grows Faster than State in Reading and Math, High Schools Make Double Digit Gains.”

They included this bar graph showing their ‘growth’ over the past two years in math, ELA, and science.  I noticed that while they technically did ‘gain’ 3.4% in their reading scores, they are still 1.1% down from what they were in 2012.  This reminds me a bit of a guy who is gambling and you ask him how he’s doing and he says “I’m up $1,000 in the past hour without mentioning the $1500 he lost in the hour before that.”  Also these bars since they are only being compared to each other do not make it clear how low these scores really are.

Screen shot 2014-07-30 at 10.41.37 PM

But in reform, when convenient, it’s not about score it’s about ‘growth’ compared to the rest of the state.  Well since from 2013 to 2014 the whole state went down by .4% in reading, any ‘growth’ no matter how little by a district is ‘out-gaining’, as the tweets said, their peers.  And since math across the state was flat from 2013 to 2014, rising only by .6%, almost any other possible gain by a district will be better than the state.  Still it made for this impressive looking graph comparing ASD growth to state growth.

Screen shot 2014-07-30 at 10.14.38 PM

Of course the 2.2% bar is quite large the way they did their scale.  But it is accurate that the ASD had better growth than the state between 2013 and 2014.  But the ASD has been around for two years, so wouldn’t it make more sense to compare the ‘growth’ of the ASD to the whole state for the two year period.  Well, they were wise not to, but I was wise to make it for them, and here’s what it looks like:


Suddenly, it’s not so good anymore.  The ASD grew by 1.1% more than the state in that period while the ASD actually went down by .7% more than the state went down.  At this rate of losing .35% of ground each year to the state, the ASD will never get out of the bottom 5% in reading, and for math where there is a 30% difference between the ASD and the Tennessee average, if they creep up at .5% a year it will take 60 years for them to get to the 50% mark, let alone the top 25%.  Here is another graph I made that you won’t find in the press release.  The are those proficiency numbers of the ASD side by side with the Tennessee average.


This demonstrates, as much as anything how the fact that the ASD had a better 1 year ‘growth’ than the state, the two year growth is about the same and that the ASD better start ramping it up if they plan to get their schools from way way back in dead last to beating 75% of the districts in the state of Tennessee in just three years.

But there does need to be something to celebrate so the ASD made up the most outrageous statistic of all and presented it in this graph.

Screen shot 2014-07-30 at 10.41.05 PM

According to this graph it seems that ASD high schools had 42.4% ‘growth’ in English 1, 24.2% ‘growth’ in Algebra 1, and 28.9% ‘growth’ in Biology 1.  Whoah, those are big numbers.  When I went to the page with all the databases I found that there were no numbers at all for the ASD.  Other districts had ‘growths’ generally between -10% and +10%.  But why no ASD?  Then I noticed in the fine print on this graph the very mysterious explanation:


I’ll give a hearty thumbs up to any Tennessee education reporter who gets to the bottom of what this could possibly mean.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I was once good friends with Chris Barbic, and maybe he still sees me as a good guy, though an annoying one.  I hope so.  A year and a half ago he was the recipient of one of my ‘classic Rubinstein’ open letters.  I write him emails from time to time, mostly yelling at him for having become a ‘reformer.’  He hasn’t written me back in a while, actually.  But from time to time he will respond to one of my tweets.  I’ll then tweet back and a bunch of others will usually join in and then Chris, like the groundhog seeing his shadow, but this time it is him seeing his own reflection, and he goes into hiding for a few months.

Screen shot 2014-07-30 at 10.08.45 PM

This concludes this edition of the 2014 report on the Achievement School District.  For sure there will be three more of these 2015, 2016, and 2017.  After that I will determine if the ASD has met their goal of getting the bottom 5% of schools up to the top 25% in just 5 years armed with only a healthy dose of high expectations and a whole bunch of new TFA teachers.



Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Guest Post Series. Part 4: Why Dalton Goodier completed his commitment to TFA.

Especially since the website has been essentially shut down, I like to give writers the chance to reach a wider audience with guest posts here on my blog.  This one is by a new TFA alum who has just completed his two year commitment to TFA.

I became aware of Dalton Goodier right at the beginning of his first year when TFA quoted him on their Twitter feed.


As I’m known to do, I offered this young rookie some constructive criticism in a blog post post called ‘How many things wrong with this first day’ .  Unlike some of the more defensive new TFAers, Dalton actually appreciated my critique and we became friendly and exchanged emails throughout his two years.

In this guest post, Dalton adds his own thoughts to the ongoing ‘I quit TFA’ / ‘I didn’t quit TFA’ pont-counterpoint that has been happening on the web for a few years.  Maybe it goes without saying, but as he mentions in his article he is not going to be continuing for a third year so, in one sense, he certainly did quit.  But why quibble about semantics?  The post is still very thoughtful and smart.  I believe that most corps members are smart enough to not be fully intoxicated by the TFA Kool-Aid.  Why so many stay quiet is a strange dynamic that I don’t think TFA purposely created, but one that serves them well.  I’m not sure what Dalton is doing next year, but I always appreciated his blog titled ‘Middle School Hero’  — named before he went through his two year learning experience (which will hopefully be more accessible if is ever fixed) and also appreciated Dalton, himself.  I hope he finds more ways to share the wisdom he has gained over the past two years.

Why I Stayed

By Dalton Goodier

As Teach For America gains traction on college campuses and within the national media and as the education reform movement with which TFA aligns itself becomes more prevalent, an entire genre of op-eds has risen out of this surging popularity. The “Why I Quit TFA” blog post is a subject that myriad different former Corps Members have tackled. Olivia Blanchard’s account was published in The Atlantic Monthly while I found Sydney Miller’s account to be particularly well-written and poignant. Gary Rubinstein’s “Why I Did Teach For America and Why You Shouldn’t” is (to my understanding) one of his most widely-read posts and even satirical website The Onion has contributed to the discussion with a sardonic piece.

Generally speaking, there are a few common threads throughout these writings. The criticisms around TFA center around the idea that incoming Corps Members are undertrained do not fully ingrain themselves into the communities they serve, and often leave during or immediately following their two-year commitment, creating a vacuum of experienced, dedicated teachers.

Reading these posts and the many others like it was an important part of my Teach For America experience. While I was applying for TFA, I read these blogs voraciously, intent on learning what it was really like to teach at an economically disadvantaged school. After I began my own teaching career, I remained an active part of this particular community, blogging my own experiences while following others. Reading others’ experiences kept me connected when I felt like no one understood what I was going through. There were moments when I was bitter, frustrated, and upset that TFA had placed me in a situation that, admittedly, I sometimes found to be hopeless. I related to those who quit. I understood.

But I didn’t quit. I didn’t leave. I stayed, and while I never felt totally satisfied with my work and while I didn’t become the type of “transformational leader” that I entered the classroom believing was my destiny, I’ve never once regretted my decision to fulfill the commitment that I made.

I’m not better than anyone who quit and I’m not worse than anyone who is staying for a third year. I’m no hero. I firmly believe that Teach For America isn’t for everyone, not even for every person who is accepted into the program. That being said, I feel like everything I read on the internet is either anti-TFA to the point of mobilization or PR-friendly enough to gloss over the harsh realities experienced by incoming Corps Members. I don’t often hear the perspective of Corps Members who are ambivalent, who care deeply about Teach For America and the cause it advocates but also sense that there are flaws within the movement, who emerged from their experience jaded but haven’t lost all their idealism, who didn’t change the world but did make a difference.

That is how I feel. This is my story. This is why I stayed.


When I stepped into my classroom for the first time, I felt like I was viewing a scene from a movie. I saw myself standing alongside Jaime Escalante from “Stand and Deliver” and Erin Gruwell from “Freedom Writers”, ready to make a difference, ready to push my kids, read to save them. On the first day of school, I told my kids that they would be the best writers in the state by the end of the year. I didn’t have lesson plans, I didn’t have a knack for classroom management, and I didn’t have relationships with my students, but that didn’t matter to me: I had ambition, heart, and unwavering idealism. These would be more than enough to push both me and my kids to greater heights, I knew it.

What followed was the toughest year of my life.

Nothing I tried worked with my students. I was supposed to teach writing but my students, most of whom were part of the school’s English Language Learner or special education programs, were so far behind that I didn’t know where to start. All day I would try to manage class after class of 7th graders who were alternately apathetic and destructive. When the school day finally ended, I would go home and spend hours writing lesson plans, grading assessments, and calling parents. I coached softball and ran with the cross country team and taught Saturday School in addition to everything else. Not dry heaving in the morning before leaving for work felt like a personal victory.

I lost sight of what had made me join Teach For America in the first place: the belief that all kids can learn, the idea that every child needs a sturdy adult role model, the understanding that change is not possible without tremendous sacrifice. I lost faith in my students and in myself. I distinctly remember saying things like, “My kids are just so far behind” and “If they don’t care and they don’t want to learn then what am I supposed to do for them?” I yelled at kids. I wrote office referrals. During my first official evaluation, I scored poorly in many domains. I worked myself to the bone but felt shame because I wasn’t doing better. Outside of the classroom wasn’t much better. Mandatory professional development sessions and staff meetings sapped my energy further but rarely did I leave feeling empowered and able to implement what I had learned. My classroom was toxic for both myself and my students and I was deeply, visibly unhappy.

As the bell rang for the final time of my first year of teaching, I remained seated in my chair. I did not listen to music. I did not write. I did not call any of my friends to celebrate. I sat slumped, completely empty. My energy, my very soul had drained out of me and lay pooled around me, evaporating into the May air.

When that first year ended, I did not feel content. I did not feel like I had accomplished anything or like I had made a difference. I did not feel like my students were better prepared for the challenges of the world because they had me and, just as painfully, I did not feel as though they knew that they were unequivocally loved and cared for. A year of struggling, fighting, and grinding had resulted in an impact that I felt to be negligible.

That feeling carried on into the summer. It was a hangover from a year spent physically, mentally, and emotionally draining myself. All I wanted to do was sleep. I went west on a backpacking trip with my dad and my brother and couldn’t fully appreciate the beauty around me; I went to New Orleans with my friends and didn’t want to leave the hotel room. It took almost six weeks before I began to feel excited again, before I felt worthwhile and whole and human.

If there was a time to quit, that summer was it. I’d made it to the end of the year and in likelihood my school would be able to replace me. There was another Corps Member at my school who was leaving as well. No one would have blamed me. When, a week before classes started, my assignment was changed from teaching honors to teaching remediation with many of the same students who had made my life miserable the year before, I was afforded another opportunity to walk out.

But I stayed.


Why did I stay?

As with most real-life questions, the answer is nuanced and complex. A big part of it was the friends that I’d made during my first year in Oklahoma. They wouldn’t let me quit and I wouldn’t let them. Another factor was the fact that I’d never quit anything in my life and I didn’t want to start then. But ultimately, it came down to a simple reason:

These kids need me.

I wasn’t who I wanted to be for my kids. I wasn’t a good teacher and I wasn’t a good support for my students. Still, in the face of the gangs, poverty, and abusive home lives that many of my students faced, I was something. Maybe I wasn’t the savior that I had set out to be and maybe I wasn’t changing kids lives, but I had to do something. Right?

So I dug in.

I didn’t do anything heroic. I didn’t put forth some sort of Herculean effort or come up with any innovative systems. I simply recommitted myself to loving my kids and doing the best I could with them, resolved to learn from last year’s mistakes, and made sure that my first three weeks of lessons were airtight.

When my students entered my classroom for the first day of year two, nothing was different and yet everything had changed. I was enthusiastic and engaging. My procedures were efficient. My content was engaging and exciting. The class moved so quickly from one meaningful task to another that the students didn’t have time to act out. Buoyed by my positive attitude and the promise for real, tangible results, students bought into my classroom.

Once I had them hooked, I never let go. A true culture developed in my class. By the end of the fall semester of year two, I had developed a stronger relationship with nearly all of my students than I had with hardly any of my kids during my entire first year. I didn’t write a single referral. I didn’t have to lecture kids or dole out punishments like Oprah giving away cars. My students grew as readers and more than a few of my 8th graders read entire books for the first time in their lives. I found that I actually enjoyed the company of my kids. They made me laugh. At the end of the semester, several kids said that I had taught them how to love reading, how to appreciate the stories the world has to tell.

The next semester, I had my teaching assignment changed again and I went back down to 7th grade and the same thing happened. I got close to my kids and they grew close to me. We learned from each other and I saw my kids make strides, not only as learners but as human beings. My soccer players had a phenomenal season and through that I became even more firmly entrenched in the lives of my kids. For most of my students, I was a fun language arts teacher; for a couple I became a surrogate parent, providing rides and meals and advice.

Let me reiterate: what I did was not special. During my time in Oklahoma City I was surrounded by teachers, both at my school and within my Corps, who worked harder than I did, got more academic growth out of their students, assumed greater leadership roles, and ultimately did more to help raise their students. I was a good teacher, yes, but my numbers weren’t astronomical. I was a few kids’ favorite teacher, but not everyone’s. A couple of kids might look back on me the way that we all look back on certain teachers as those who made tremendous impacts on our lives, but only a couple. All this goes to say that I was good and I was effective, but I also did not and do not deserve to be put on a pedestal.

But I chose to stay. And that made all the difference.

I stayed because I realized that my kids didn’t need a savior, they just needed someone who would listen and care.

I stayed because even though I couldn’t solve all of my schools problems, I could help mitigate them.

I stayed because many of my students needed a father figure and even though at 23 years old and scared, I was still worth more than nothing.

I stayed to show my students that when you commit to something, it matters that you honor that commitment.

I stayed because I said I would.


Honestly, I don’t know what the lasting legacy of Teach For America will be in this country. I don’t know if the organization as a whole is adding or taking away from the United States’ education system. If you’re reading this and trying to decide if you should apply for Teach For America, I don’t know whether or you should or shouldn’t.

However, I do know that if you are there already, if you are falling asleep at three night after night only to wake up at six to do it all again, if you are walking into a classroom every day and feeling like no one, including yourself, wants you there, if you are nodding in solemn agreement with every editorial and memoir that claims that Corps Members are underprepared and overmatched, then you should not quit. Whether you realize it or not, even on the days where you aren’t your best and even on the days where you feel you’re at your worst, those kids need you. Those schools need you. When you leave, it creates another hole, another gap where a role model should be. The problems facing us, our kids, and our entire institutional system are large, but leaving does not solve them.


Author’s Note: I didn’t write this piece as a show of political support for either side of the ed reform debate but instead to share one person’s experience. I tried to present this experience in a nuanced, complex way because that’s what human experiences are: nuanced and complex. However, I understand that putting these thoughts into writing sometimes simplifies them and turns them into empty rhetoric. I did not intend them as such and do not wish to be attacked as such. Please, comment. Tweet at me, email me, reply and engage in a dialogue. But do not make blanket statements about all Corps Members. Let’s work to find solutions together.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

TFA tries, yet fails, to honor teachers

Last week TFA held their annual educator’s conference in Las Vegas. TFA claims that 2/3 of the 30,000 alumni are still ‘in education’ so one would expect this event to have quite a turnout. My understanding is that about 1,000 people came, some of them brand new 2014 corps members. Maybe this is considered to be a good showing, I don’t know.

The last TFA event I attended was the 20th anniversary / corporate ‘reform’ love fest in 2011. I do plan to attend the 25th anniversary, too. I have a lot of TFA alum friends who I have much respect for, and I do like to reunite with them. I also have no problem attending the reunion since I sincerely believe that my frustration with TFA is that they have strayed so far from their original vision and that I actually have more of a right to be there than all of these ‘reformers.’

Though I did not attend this conference in Las Vegas, I followed some of the live streaming and the twitter feed and have a pretty good sense of what went on there. I do think that TFA tried to do a better job of not celebrating teacher bashing at this event, but they just don’t seem to get it. Perhaps my analysis will help them do better next time.

The thing I watched with the most interest were the two speeches by co-CEOs Elisa Villanueva-Beard and Matt Kramer, followed by a Q and A with them. This was streamed live and also archived on YouTube.

The text from the two prepared speeches is also available here.

Less than a year ago I wrote Villanueva-Beard and Kramer one of my ‘open letter’s to which they have not (yet?) responded to.  About four months ago I last critiqued speeches by Villanueva-Beard and Kramer when they spoke in Tennessee.  I felt that Kramer generally stuck to safe uncontroversial material while Villanueva-Beard spent much of her time arguing against straw man positions against ed reform.  So when I watched these two speeches, I was hoping that they would show improvement, particularly in the case of Villanueva-Beard.

Elisa went first, and she began with a story about a 2012 Houston CM who just completed his second year at Kashmere High School.  TFA has been sending CMs to Kashmere since they started in Houston in 1991, and it has always been a very tough school.  She explained how at this very low-performing school (the average SAT scores are under 800 combined on the three sections) the TFAer, Adeeb Barqawi, was honored by the mayor because his physics students had the highest percent of students passing in the entire Houston Independent School District on the physics district level assessments.

Reading up on the guy, he does seem like quite a dedicated teacher, but anytime I hear a miracle story, I do have some concerns.  Since these tests were given in the Fall of 2013, Barqawi had only been teaching some of the students for one year and two months and others for just two months when this miracle occurred.  Surely there were other teachers who had taught the students before him that deserve some of the credit for this success.  Another thing I noticed is that Kashmere now has a STEM magnet program.  To apply to this program you have to submit previous year’s test scores and report cards, presumably for screening.  I’m not sure when this program was created, but it could explain the miracle test scores a little.  Also since his students were 11th and 12th graders, and since this school has 160 9th graders, but only about 100 11th graders and 100 12th graders, these students were the top performing students from their cohort.  I’m not trying to dismiss any of the hard work of Mr. Barqawi, but when a speech by a TFA CEO begins with a miracle story, I do have to investigate a little.

Later on in the speech Villanueva-Beard says “There will never be superheroes in education, and you cannot change a system overnight,” yet of course her opening anecdote contradicts that.  As in all TFA PR about a super-teacher, he takes low-performing students and turns them into top-performers in as little as two months.  Still, it is a step in the right direction for her to say this.

Then she starts defending against the anti-reform straw men.  My favorite quote from this part is “Folks will tell us it’s irrational to try. Folks will tell us it’s irrational to teach.”  Who, exactly, is saying not to try or not to teach?  Nobody I know.  Certainly not me.

Near the end of the speech, she says:

We know the dropout rates and the ACT scores. The chances of college or a criminal record. Some folks see those statistics as a life sentence. Poor kids, black kids, brown kids, Native kids, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander kids– the statistics say they can’t make it—they won’t make it.


They said I wouldn’t make it. They said many of you wouldn’t make it. But we’re all here today—all of us—saying, screw the statistics. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Elisa often uses herself as an example of someone, a Latina from a border town, who ‘they’ said wouldn’t make it, and how she is living proof of how wrong ‘they’ were.  I don’t think there is anyone out there who says that every student who is born poor is doomed to remain poor for their entire lives.  Statistics do seem to say that a lower percent of poor students go on to graduate college and that they generally get lower standardized test scores.  And maybe ‘they’ sometimes pick a specific person and predict that that person will not be successful financially.

Elisa did grow up, as she says in the Q&A period in McAllen Texas, and graduated in 1994.  And of the two high schools in McAllen, McAllen High School and McAllen Memorial High School, there seems to have been about a 50% dropout rate in that year, as both schools had about 700 9th graders, but only 350 12th graders.  Now all those kids who didn’t make it had the same teachers as Elisa did, so it is not clear what Elisa’s success proves.  Was it the high expectations of her great teachers?  If so, why did so many kids not make it with the same teachers.  Of course some of the kids who made it to graduation also went on to graduate college.  Who would be surprised by that?  Elisa mentions during the Q&A that only two adults from her hometown had college degrees, and that one of them was her father.  So if I were asked to predict back in 1994 which of the high school seniors had the greatest chance of graduating college, I would have predicted Elisa, knowing that the child of a college graduate is much more likely to also graduate college than the child of someone who did not graduate college.  This is not to take away from what Elisa has accomplished in life.  Certainly she’s done a lot better than me, and both of my parents graduated college.


Matt Kramer made his speech second.  I’ve met Matt and he seems to be a nice enough guy, but he’s about as unqualified to be the co-CEO of TFA as Arne Duncan is to be the Secretary of Education.  He speaks carefully, knowing, it seems, that he could be prone to putting his foot in his mouth.  Just like the speech in March, I thought this one was good.

I liked when he said “Exceptional teachers are a singularly important part of the solution. But not the only part—if nothing else changes, it isn’t sustainable to ask teachers to bear the brunt of so much societal dysfunction.”  I’ve heard other ‘reformers’ say things like this, but it is an important point.

He spoke about TFA’s diversity, something they have been working on for the past few years.  Supposedly 55% of new CMs ‘identify themselves’ as either people of color or low-income.  If this is true, I applaud that.

Responding to a big criticism about TFA, he says “Teach For America—the organization—is not and should not be trying to control the policies or priorities of education reform.”  I’m not sure if I buy this, but it is a good thing to say.  TFA has built up so many alumni ‘leaders’ and promoted them and used their connections to get them into high level jobs.  And, as I’ll describe later, they continue to parade these ‘leaders’ out at public events as the heroes of TFA.

He mentions early in the speech “if you read too many blogs, it can seem like there’s a lot we’re fighting about, that people are taking sides, and that we’re all pretty dug in.”  Later addresses this by saying:

And to help sort fact from fiction in all the discussion around our work, we’re taking a more proactive approach to sharing our story in our own words, and we’ve launched On the Record, an online portal that gives you the tools to answer hard questions about what we do.

So this ‘On the Record’ is a somewhat comical column on the TFA blog where they do PR spins on negative press.  The most recent one responds to something Diane Ravitch wrote about the irony of Obama launching an initiative where all kids will get highly qualified teachers, and how if taken literally, this would disqualify first year TFAers from teaching.  In the response, they say that:

Our teachers are considered highly qualified under current law. We support rigorous enforcement of this law, which requires alternatively certified teachers like our own to be considered “highly qualified” only if they receive high-quality, sustained, and intensive professional development as well as participate in a program of intensive supervision with structured guidance and regular ongoing support (see paragraph (a)(2) in link above).

The do not mention that TFA helped lobby to make sure that that ‘current law’ defining ‘highly qualified teacher’ included TFAers.

Generally, the two speeches were better than the two speeches back in March.

In the Q&A period, when asked “What gives you hope?”  (Like a slow ball down the middle of the plate.)  Elisa tells a story about a miracle school district, IDEA academies, which her husband co-founded, and which had 100% of its graduates go on to college.  Not mentioned, as I researched previously, some of their cohorts lose 62% of their students between 6th and 12th grade.  Yet these numbers are what she says have convinced her about what is possible.  Unless they acknowledge their attrition numbers, there can’t be an honest conversation about what the IDEA academies have proved about what’s possible.

Also during the Q&A, Matt defended his and Elisa’s decision to come out in strong support of the Common Core Standards.  He said that TFA tries to stay out of the politics, but when something is grounded in their values, they will come out in favor or against something.  Like TFA was in favor of anti-bullying laws since TFA is so opposed to bullying.  But Matt also says that they support the common core standards because TFA believes in high standards.  I’d argue that you can be for high standards yet against the common core standards, like I am.  If there is something good about them, there is nothing stopping teachers from using those aspects of them even if the common core standards are not mandatory.  And the stuff that isn’t good, no teacher should be forced to teach something for which there is no evidence that it works.

So these speeches and Q&A did show an improvement over what I’ve seen before from TFA.  But whatever good will they earned by saying some of the right things and by toning down the nonsense, they gave it all away and more by their choice of keynote speakers.

Surely the very worst person they could have brought in to inspire the educators, particularly the teachers, would be Michelle Rhee.  Even TFA knows not to do that.  But who do they bring in instead, the two next people on the list of who teachers don’t want to hear from:  Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband, commissioner of education of Tennessee, Kevin Huffman, and Michelle Rhee’s former deputy chancellor for DC, and now current chancellor, Kaya Henderson.  Of course Tennessee and DC are currently the thing in ed ‘reform’ since they had NAEP gains even though other states that do the same sorts of ‘reform’ didn’t get those same gains.

For TFA to bring these two in really makes me worry about what sorts of things they still don’t get.  In Tennessee, Democrats and Republicans are calling for his resignation.  He has lowered teacher pay, tried to take away teacher tenure, and has been a blind follower of the power of standardized test scores to calculate value-added.  He is one of about 15 ‘chiefs for change’ some of the most despised people in public education by teachers.  I think 10 of those ‘chiefs’ have already resigned or been fired, and it is likely Huffman will be gone fairly soon too.

Here’s something that Matt Kramer tweeted during Huffman’s speech

Screen shot 2014-07-20 at 3.25.53 PM

Like Rhee with her “I’m a ‘radical’ and proud of it,” and even Villanueva-Beard in her speech talking about how it is ‘irrational’ to dream big in education, Huffman is despised in Tennessee because he has ‘guts.’

Kaya Henderson does seem to be better than Rhee.  She has scaled back the percent of value-added in teacher evaluation from 50% to 35%.  Also she recently called a charter school “cannibalistic.”  But she is still all about the test scores and even quoted a ‘research’ paper from The New Teacher Project which claimed that merit pay was working in D.C. because 92% of their ‘highly effective’ teachers have not quit yet.

I could get that number up to 100%.  Just make the evaluation system so that just one person is rated ‘highly effective’ and give that person a $100,000 bonus.  Surely that one person will come back to teach next year and then you will have 100% of your ‘irreplaceables’ returning.

About the common core tests, Henderson said, according to Matt Kramer live-tweeting, “

Screen shot 2014-07-20 at 3.16.39 PM

This isn’t a very positive thing to say.  And since DC generally is at the bottom in ‘achievement’ on national standardized exams, why should we expect them not to be near the bottom on the national common core tests.

That’s all I gleaned about this conference from the video and the various tweets.  Maybe the next conference will be better and maybe much closer to New York City, and then I can give a live report of it.  I probably won’t be a keynote speaker, just yet, but you never know.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Pay No Attention To The Falling Tennessee Reading Test Scores

To ‘reformers,’ particularly ones in Tennessee, only two things matter in education: Grades 3-8 Math scores and grades 3-8 Reading scores.  This was what got them the shout out from The President of The United States in the last State of the Union address.  Tennessee had the greatest combined 4th and 8th grade math and reading gains of any state.

When it came out later that their 12th grade NAEP scores did not have these gains, they said that the 12th graders didn’t have the opportunity to get the full ‘reform’ treatment that the younger students got.

The Tennessee state tests are called the TCAPs.  This year there was a fiasco when the education department, led by former TFA VP and former husband of Michelle Rhee, Kevin Huffman, announced that they were going to be late with the test scores.  This raised a lot of suspicion that maybe they were thinking of ways to spin this data.  I’m not sure if this is what happened since in Tennessee, they can spin data very fast so I don’t think this would cause the delay.  Still, there was a delay which at least made them demonstrate that they could not meet an important deadline.

So the scores came out this week and, in true Louisiana style, they are celebrating the results.  But in the celebration they are downplaying the two most important tests of all, 3-8 math and 3-8 reading.  For a few years those scores were steadily increasing.  Reformers always assume that score increases can continue year after, when, of course, they are bound to level off or even go down.  This is what happened this year on the two big results.

3-8 Reading dropped from 50.3% to 49.5% while 3-8 Math increased from 50.7% to 51.3%.  Now these are small changes and not tremendously ‘statistically significant’ either way.  But they are pretty ‘flat’ which is an embarrassment to them.  Here is the graph showing the past 5 years of scores for Math and Reading.  You math geeks out there will understand when I say that the second derivative of their test scores graph is negative.  (Note:  They also had a Science bar graph showing steady improvement.  It was there, I figure, to draw attention away from the lack of progress on the big two scores, so I removed it.)

2014_tcap_3-8aLooking at the scores broken down by grade, one irony is that the largest drop of any grade in any subject was 3rd grade reading which dropped from 48.8% to 43.8%, a drop of 5%.  This might be statistically significant, but more importantly, this is the group of students who had the most opportunity to benefit from the reforms put in place in Tennessee, so ‘reformers’ should expect that group of 3rd graders to outperform previous groups.  Third grade math also dropped from 59% to 56.5%.

I don’t want to make too much about test scores since they are controlled by the state, with cut scores and things like that and they can easily manufacture a miracle next year and say that 2014 was an anomaly.  I suppose the national common core tests, which TN recently pulled out of, would have one benefit in that it wouldn’t be as easy for states to manipulate the results.  There are other, much less costly, ways to ensure that state tests are of comparable difficulty.  I’m pretty good at looking at a math test and judging how difficult it is.  Maybe state tests can go to some impartial people who can expertly gauge the difficulty of the test.  I haven’t worked out all the details yet.  Certainly there are tests like the SAT, AP, and ACT which are national tests and states can lie all they want on their own tests, but eventually they will have to explain why their SAT, AP, and ACT scores are so low, like in Louisiana.

‘Reformers’ are slick.  They get a whole bunch of data and focus on the things they want.  The next year they can focus on completely different things if it makes them look good.

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

Michael Johnston’s Education Hero Principal Hammered by Johnston’s ‘Growth’ Metric

A few weeks ago, Colorado State Senator Michael Johnston, a leading ed ‘reformer’ because of his law that made teacher evaluations based 50% on student ‘growth’ on standardized tests, spoke at Harvard University.  There was a lot of resistance to this selection, and various students and alumni unsuccessfully petitioned to have the invitation rescinded.  Before Johnston delivered his speech, he was interviewed by someone at Harvard for something called Harvard EdCast.  This fawning interview did not challenge Johnston at all on why so many students and alumni were upset about his positions on education policy.

I’ve tried to ‘engage’ Johnston in debate since I’ve known him for quite some time, but have not gotten much response from him.  So I was a bit amused when he described his approach to opposition like this:

I’ve tried to throughout my work, you know, even when we disagree, not be disagreeable and always be the first one to extend a hand and to sit down and to talk through problems.  And I find in debates, policy debates or school debates, I try to spend the most time with the folks who disagree the most with what I’m proposing because I find you learn the most from them.

A few minutes later, Johnston spoke about why he prefers to meet critics in person rather than debate through twitter or emails.

I find I always learn the most and get the most from face to face conversations.  It’s hard sometimes to get a thoughtful comment into 140 characters.  It’s a lot easier to get it into two hours.

Later in the interview, the interviewer asked Johnston who he looks up to in the education world.  The first person he said was Marcia Fulton as “Maybe the best principal I’ve ever seen in Colorado.”  Fulton is the principal of a K-8 charter school, of course, in Denver called The Odyssey School.

The most controversial thing about Johnston’s education politics is his firm belief in the accuracy of the Colorado Growth Model.  This model is used to compare different schools based on ‘growth’ rather than just ‘achievement.’  Colorado has quite a good website for exploring data like this.  So I thought I’d see how the Odyssey School did on their ‘growth.’

The Odyssey school got different scores for elementary school and middle school.  For elementary math, the Odyssey school did very poorly:


Notice that they are in the ‘Higher Achievement, Lower Growth’ section, really the lowest ‘growth’ for any school at their achievement level or higher.  For the middle school they are, at least, average:


In this case, the numbers say that this school missed its ‘growth target’ by a little, while the elementary school just met its growth target.  On reading the middle school did much better, though the elementary school still lagged on ‘growth.’

I wonder how Johnston’s hero feels about these ‘growth’ scores.  It is pretty ironic that he seems to blindly follow these sorts of metrics when they contradict his first-hand experience in seeing a person who I don’t doubt is an excellent principal.

I wrote to Johnston to tell him about this.  He didn’t write back.  I guess he’s waiting to set up a two hour face to face meeting with me.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments