The Detroit Lyin’s

When asked about the low test scores of Detroit’s charter schools during her confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos said that she “looks forward to correcting some of the record regarding Detroit.”

While it is common knowledge that Michigan’s NAEP rankings have gone from the middle of the pack down to the bottom 10 in the time that DeVos has supported her style of education reform there, there are still people out there writing about a Detroit miracle.

On January 12th, James Goenner wrote an Op-Ed in the Detroit News about the miraculous Muskegon Heights School District.  Goenner was a consultant to the Muskegon Heights ‘transformation’ so anything he says should be, at least, fact checked.

According to Goenner, Muskegon Heights was broken beyond repair until the district became an all charter district where parents have choice about which school their children go to.  As a result:

Fast-forward to today and you’ll find that the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy has strong leadership, balanced books, and improving academics. It is on a glide path to pay off its old debt. All of its nearly 1,000 students attend by choice. No one is assigned. Like all Michigan charter schools, it’s prohibited by law from levying taxes. Because charters receive less money than districts, it provides taxpayers with a bigger bang for their buck.

And this solution is replicable. It’s a strategy that could be deployed with struggling districts throughout the nation to create a fresh start for kids in a taxpayer-friendly way.

All of this was accomplished by people who cared enough to persist and had the stamina to overcome the numerous obstacles that were thrown in their way. Betsy DeVos was one of them, and so was I. Without her quiet support, leadership, and encouragement, I doubt we would have ever been able to turn this innovative idea into a real solution.

So I went to the Michigan Dashboard & Accountability Scorecard website, and here’s what I learned about Muskegon Heights School District.

While there were once five schools in this district, now there are just two, Dr. Martin Luther King Academy and Muskegon Heights Academy.  The other three schools are now listed as ‘closed.’


So it seems like there isn’t much of a choice there anymore with so few schools.  But Goenner says that the schools there have ‘improving academics’ so I though I’d check those two schools out.


So one school is in the bottom 2% of all schools and the other is in the bottom 0%.  Unless the second school once had a ranking with negative numbers, there is no way that being in the 0% can be an improvement over anything.

So this is yet another example of a lie to support the narrative that charter schools are superior to public schools.  If this turnaround was supported by Betsy DeVos and it is any indication of her ability to devise real solutions to complex issues, I’m feeling pretty pessimistic about the direction education will take if and when she is confirmed as Secretary of Education.

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KIPPie Does Dallas

Dallas is the childhood home of Wendy Kopp.  And Wendy Kopp begat TFA, and TFA begat Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, and Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg begat KIPP, and KIPP begat KIPP Destiny Elementary School in Dallas-Fort Worth.  So you’d figure that KIPP Destiny Elementary School had better be pretty good since it is like Wendy’s gift back to the city that nurtured her in her youth.

Texas is adopting a new A-F rating system for all the schools there.  Recently they did a ‘test run’ to show schools what their ratings would be under the new system.  Each school is rated from A-F on four different domains.  Out of 9,000 schools, about 75 of them got 4 Fs.  Then another 175 or so got 3 Fs and a D.

One of those 3 F’s and a D school was, of course, KIPP Destiny Elementary School in Dallas.


So this KIPP school is rated in the bottom 250 schools out of 9,000 schools in Texas which is around the bottom 3%.  There’s a reformer mantra, “Zip code is not destiny.”  I guess in the case of KIPP Destiny, zip code is, in fact, destiny.

There are two other rated KIPPs in Dallas and those have done much better.  But for the KIPPs in Texas, I’ve written already about how about 25% of them got an F in ‘growth.’

I’ve argued in other blog posts that these types of A-F report cards are not really statistically valid and have been used to unfairly label a school as ‘failing.’  I still feel this way.  But I report things like this because I’m so curious how ‘reformers’ respond when they learn that they have to choose between their prized charter chain or their prized weapon for shutting down schools.  Generally, though, they avoid any discussion about dilemmas like this.

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TFA CEO’s Husband Heads One Of The 73 Lowest Rated Schools In Texas

YES Prep is a charter school network of sixteen schools in Houston.  Founded by a TFA alum and staffed by many TFA teachers, it has been hailed as a TFA success story.  Fueled by being the school to invent the invented ‘100% college acceptance rate’*, they received $1 million from Oprah in 2010.

In Wendy Kopp’s book ‘A Chance To Make History,’ she wrote (page 41)

When its fifty campus begins graduating seniors in 2014, YES Prep will be sending roughly the same number of low-income students to college as all of HISD’s other thirty-four high schools combined, unless HISD improves its outcomes (which, as I’ll describe later, it is working hard to do).  In fact, Chris (Barbic) told me that if the YES network can maintain the quality and progress it has demonstrated so far, it will operate thirteen schools and produce nine hundred college graduates each year by 2020 — double the number of low-income college graduates currently generated by all of HISD each year.

Considering that they currently graduate something like 500 seniors a year and that HISD graduates 10,000, these numbers are pretty outrageous.

Elisa Villanueva Beard is the current CEO of Teach For America.  Her husband, Jeremy Beard, is the ‘Head of Schools’ for YES Prep.  I first became aware of Jeremy at the TFA 20 year alumni summit in 2011 when he brought the house down with a speech.  I actually tracked him down to tell him what a great job he did afterwards.  At that time he was working for Houston Independent School District running a program called Apollo 20, eventually a failed program to use charter methods to improve public schools.  The next time I encountered him was last February at the 25 year alumni summit in 2016.  This time he was moderating an extremely one sided panel discussion called “What Should We Do When The Whole School Fails?”

There is a new rating system in Texas using A-F scores in four categories.  They recently released a ‘test run’ showing what all schools in Texas have under the new system.  Out of about 9000 schools only 73 of them, or one tenth of one percent of them, got Fs in all four categories.  Any reformer worth his or her mettle would be crying for these 73 schools to be shut down, their teachers fired, and to be turned over to a high performing charter network like YES prep.  But the ironic thing is that one of those 73 schools is one of the sixteen YES prep schools.


If you can’t scale up 16 schools without having one that is in the bottom one tenth of a percent, something’s wrong.

Reformers would say that the difference between this failing YES prep school and the other ones that are not failing is that the teachers at Yes prep Southside don’t have high expectations, don’t care about the kids, and really need to find new jobs.  So why doesn’t YES prep, which has fewer restrictions on what demands they make of their teachers, just transfer some of their better teachers to Southside and some of their deadweight at Southside either out of the classroom altogether or into some of their other schools?

The CEO of YES, Mark DiBella, wrote a response to the release of the new ratings on the YES website.  In it he wrote:

In this early assessment, YES Prep Public Schools well outperformed the state average in Closing the Achievement Gap and College Readiness with As in both of those categories. By comparison, most schools across the state earned Cs or lower for Closing the Achievement Gap (67%) and for College Readiness (66%). At the same time, we recognize YES Prep Public Schools’ C rating for Academic Achievement and D rating for Progress, though in line with the state averages, highlight important areas for improvement.

But when you follow the link he refers to, it clearly says that for student progress, arguably the most important measure of all,

12 percent got As, 21 percent got Bs, 34 percent got Cs and 33 percent got Ds and Fs in student progress.

So it would not be accurate to say that a D in student progress is ‘in line with state averages’ since it clearly puts them in the bottom third.  Also, as reformers are always about giving parents as much information as possible about these accountability scores so they can make the most informed ‘choice,’ why no mention of the clunker YES Prep ‘quadruple F’ Southside school?

A few years ago, Elisa Villanueva Beard made an impassioned speech with the repeated refrain ‘Won’t Back Down’ reminiscent of the anti-teacher movie by the same name.  In it, she implies that low performing schools are the result of nay-sayers who have low expectations for kids.  I’m not sure if Villanueva Beard knows that her husband is the head of one of lowest rated schools in all of Texas.  If she learns it from this blog post, it’s going to make for some awkward dinner conversation.

Now I understand why Jeremy Beard moderated that panel ‘What Should We Do When The Whole School Fails?’  He was soliciting ideas for how to fix one of his own.

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The Student Progress At KIPP Is Small And Dim (Clap Clap Clap Clap) Deep In The Heart Of Texas

Reformers love A-F school ratings.  They think that giving a school a single letter grade will inform parents to make the best ‘choice’ of where they should send their child.  The idea is that these ratings will improve schools in two ways:  1) When a school gets an F rating, the staff will stop being so lazy and negligent in the future so they can get their rating up to passing, and 2) Parents will ‘vote with their feet’ to ‘escape’ the ‘failing’ school which will cause that school to get closed down for under enrollment.

New York City used to have such a system and when the new mayor was elected I had a meeting with the accountability team at the NYC Department of Education to share my feelings about the A-F ratings.  I said that I did not like them because they were based on some very sketchy statistics and that these crude calculations could improperly label a school as failing which would then become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the most motivated families flee that school.  I was pleased to see, a year later, that New York City did abandon the A-F rating system.

But throughout the country, the A-F system is spreading.  In the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) states are required to identify the bottom 5% of schools.  It doesn’t demand an A-F system, but there definitely does have to be some sort of ranking to determine which schools are in the bottom 5%, which is like an F in the A-F rating.

In 2015 Texas passed something called HB 2804 which said that by 2018 all Texas schools and districts would get A-F ratings on several different categories and also a single letter grade overall.  They recently did a ‘test run’ to show what all the schools and districts in Texas would get right now under this system.

Each school and district were graded on four domains, all based on standardized tests:  The first domain is ‘Student Achievement’ which is basically percent proficient on the state tests.  Reformers always talk about how the most important measure of a school is not so much the test scores as much as the ‘growth.’  So the second domain is called ‘Student Progress’ and this is the mythical one that tries to isolate the school’s impact on the students.  I think that this isn’t a bad idea to try to find a way to calculate this accurately.  I’m not convinced, though, that they have found a reliable way to do this.  Still, reformers often say that though these measures are not perfect, we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, or something like that, and they have been using these metrics to shut down schools and fire teachers with abandon.

Reformers always talk about expanding ‘high quality’ charters.  And one of the most famous examples of such a high quality charter chain are the KIPP network of schools.  There are about 200 KIPP schools around the country and surely there will be many more now that a very charter friendly president has been elected.  KIPP schools are staffed by a large number of Teach For America teachers and alumni and was founded by two TFA alumni.

When I saw that Texas released the trial run of their new A-F system, I checked to see how the KIPP schools did on them, particularly on the ‘Student Progress’ domain.  What I found, and you can double check this here, is that out of 37 KIPP schools in Texas that received a grade in this domain, 9 of them or 25%, received an ‘F’ in student progress.


I thought that maybe this was one of those things where a lot of schools got an F in this domain so I looked at the 280 Houston Independent School District schools and found that only 34, or about 12.5%, got an F in ‘Student Progress.’  So the percent of ‘failing’ KIPP schools is double the number of ‘failing’ schools in the biggest district in Texas.

I wonder what the reformers would think of this?  Would they say that the progress ratings are not accurate, thus disparaging the most powerful tool they have for closing schools and firing teachers?  Or would they say that KIPP is not a ‘high quality’ option that deserves to be expanded?  Likely they will just ignore it.  Things like A-F ratings are good for labeling district schools as failures, not major charter networks.

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Big Name Charters Flee Tennessee’s ASD

Tennessee’s Achievement School District, or ASD for short, is one of the most high profile education experiments in the country.  In 2011, fueled by winning a Race To The Top grant, then education commissioner and former TFA vice president and former husband of Michelle Rhee, Kevin Huffman hired TFA alum and founder of Houston’s YES Prep charter schools Chris Barbic to be the ASD’s first superintendent.

Every three years Tennessee releases a ‘priority schools’ list.  These are the schools whose test scores put them in the bottom 5% of the state.  The way the ASD was set up, schools on the priority list can be taken over by the state and managed by the ASD or the ASD can authorize a charter school to take over one of those schools.  According to their website, “The Achievement School District was created to catapult the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee straight to the top 25% in the state.”  Their time frame for accomplishing this was five years.  They started with six schools in 2011 and they currently have about 30 schools in the ASD.

In April 2016, Chalkbeat Tennessee published an unofficial priority list, four years into the ASD experiment.  Of the original six schools, Frayser (0.8%), Cornerstone (2.1%), Westside (2.2%), Corning (2.3%), Humes (2.5%), and Brick Church (6.6%), five were in the bottom 3% while one ‘catapulted’ to the bottom 7%.  But they still had one more year to make a comeback.  Unfortunately because of glitches in their state testing, the standardized tests for grades 3-8 in Tennessee were invalidated last year so we will never know if they would have accomplished their goal of getting these six schools into the top 25% in five years.  It seemed like we would have to wait for that sixth year.

But there’s a new problem with that.  The next priority list scheduled to come out in the summer of 2017 was supposed to be the one that finally proves or disproves if the ASD could keep their promise of getting schools from the bottom 5% to the top 25% in five (OK we’ll give them six) years.  The problem is that the criteria for being on the priority list is going to change.  When the schools were originally taken over by the ASD it was because they were on the priority list based on test scores alone.  But according to Chalkbeat Tennessee, the 2017 priority list will be based not just on test scores but also on the nebulous ‘growth’ scores.  (The state document outlining this can be found here around page 60.)  So this means that the 2017 priority list will be based on different criteria than the priority list that landed these schools in the ASD in the first place.  It also means that we might see headlines in a year that the ASD schools did catapult out of the priority school list, without much mention that the metric had changed.  ASD schools exiting the priority list means that new schools enter the priority list opening up new opportunities for the ASD to take over schools.  When the time comes, I’ll do my best to reconstruct what the priority list would have been under the old system to see if the ASD was a success or a failure.

By making such a grand proclamation of what they were going to accomplish, the ASD invited a lot of scrutiny.  After a few years there was a Vanderbilt analysis that said that students in the ASD were not making very much progress.  In November 2014, Green Dot abandoned their plans to take over a high school.  This started a parade of high profile charter operators leaving or reducing their stake in the ASD.  In March 2015 a bizarre thing happened.  YES prep, the charter chain that Chris Barbic started, at the last minute abandoned their plans to open a school in the ASD.  In October 2016 Gestalt Charter Schools announced that they will stop running their two schools which included Humes, one of the original six ASD schools.  Their other school, Klondike Elementary School, will actually close next year because of this, the first ASD school to be shut down.  And most recently, just a few weeks ago, the gold standard of charter schools, KIPP Charter Schools, announced that they will pull out of KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools.  Watching the ASD unravel does make me look quite prophetic when I predicted this in my open letter to Chris Barbic back in 2012.

One thing that was good about the ASD experiment was that these charter schools were taking over existing schools so that they would truly have the ‘same kids’ that they always claim to have when they compare themselves to the nearby ‘failing’ schools.  In this way the ASD made it more difficult for these charter schools to do as many of the tricks they do elsewhere to choose the students who will raise their test scores.  The fact that all these high profile charters are turning around and fleeing the ASD just shows what a fraud these charter chains are when they are stripped of the smoke and mirrors that they have used to build their influence and fame.

Reformers are all about increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability.  So how have the architects of the ASD been held accountable for their failure?  Well Kevin Huffman resigned in November 2014 after 3 1/2 years as commissioner.  Chris Barbic resigned in July 2015 after four years as superintendent of the ASD, a year before he could be judged on whether or not he met his five year goal.  Barbic is now working for billionaire John Arnold’s Foundation to promote his education policies.  I’m not exactly sure what Huffman is up to but I suspect he’s not having trouble making ends meet either.


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Success Academy High School Students Do Not Take Regents Exams

In New York State the standardized tests for high school students are called ‘The Regents Exams.’  The first Regents exams were administered way back in 1866 and they have been one of the more successful examples of a standardized testing program in the country.

Like all standardized tests, the Regents exams serve many purposes.  One is to make sure that students in all schools are learning mostly the same things in their courses.  In more recent times the Regents have also served as a basis for ‘growth’ and ‘value-added’ scores on which to evaluate (and close) schools and to evaluate (and fire) teachers.

The Success Academy Charter Network is the education reformer poster child on the basis of their 3-8 Math and ELA test scores.  Though the vast majority of Success Academy students are in elementary school, there are a small number of students in their only high school.  Their oldest students are in eleventh grade and there are at most twenty students in that cohort.

In New York State students at nearly all the schools need to pass five Regents exams to receive what is known as a Regents diploma.  If they pass nine Regents exams, they get something called an Advanced Regents diploma.  There are 28 schools in New York, known as The Consortium Schools, that have gotten permission to have their students exempt from taking the Regents exams as a graduation requirement.  Those school have been permitted to use other assessments and things like portfolios and projects instead.  Success Academy, to my knowledge, is not a Consortium School.

Success Academy has gotten so much attention (and money) for their high 3-8 test scores that it is only natural to wonder how the few older students they have in their schools have fared after 8th grade.  One thing we know is that Success Academy eighth graders have not done well on the specialized high school entrance exam to gain admissions to one of the eight specialized high schools.  They have had three cohorts of students take the entrance exam and the first two cohorts had no students gain admission and the third cohort had six students out of two hundred eligible gain admission to one of the eight specialized high schools.

Last year I checked to see how their students had done on the Regents exams and was unable to find their scores on the public data site.  I made some calls to the state, but they said they did not have the scores or know how to get them.  This year I tried to find their 2016 Regents scores and also had no luck.  I speculated that either Success Academy is not reporting their Regents scores or that maybe their students are not taking the Regents.

After my last post about this, I have learned from two credible sources that Success Academy students do not take the Regents exams.  So one mystery is solved, but an even bigger one rises to take its place:  Why don’t Success Academy High School students take the Regents exams?

I have three theories:

Theory 1:  They think that the test prep they do for the 3-8 tests will not work for the Regents exams and that their students will bomb these tests so they got permission for their students to not have to take them so it doesn’t become public knowledge that their students peaked in 8th grade.

Theory 2:  Since ‘growth scores’ that evaluate schools and teachers are based on how high school students perform on the Regents relative to their scores on the 8th grade tests, Success Academy would risk getting low ‘growth scores’ since their students do so well on 8th grade tests so even average Regents scores could lead to low ‘growth scores’ which would be a blemish on their reputation.

Theory 3:  When Regents data from a school is reported and posted on the public data site, a lot of other information comes along with it, like the breakdown of how students in the different subgroups scored.  Since Success Academy is so secretive about their data, having all these numbers to analyze could reveal something they are trying to hide.

Whatever the actual reason is that Success Academy does not have their high school students take the Regents exams, it is certainly not for the benefit of the students.  Reformers are supposed to be all about ‘exposure to rigor’ and things like that.  In some states they even force students to take the AP exams and even when students do poorly, the districts brag about how the number of test takers has increased and they are doing students a service with their ‘exposure to rigor.’

For Success Academy, the champions of the standardized tests, to evade ‘accountability’ by not having their own students take the Regents exams is one of the more ironic things I have ever seen in my years following the modern education ‘reform’ movement.  Who would have ever guessed that the highest profile ed reformer of them all, Eva Moskowitz, would be such a fierce proponent of the opt-out movement?

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Success Academy Fails (again) To Report Regents Scores

About a year ago I found myself in a snafu of red tape as I attempted to track down the high school test results for the famed Success Academy Charter School Network.  Though Success Academy is known for its stellar 3-8 Math and ELA test scores in New York State, much less is known about how students perform after 8th grade.

One reason for this is that most of the Success Academy schools only have younger students.  Of the schools that do have the upper grades, the number of students in each grade is very small because of attrition and Success Academy’s refusal to ‘backfill’ student who leave with other eager students from their mythical waiting list.

The oldest Success Academy students began the school known as Success Academy Harlem I in 2006 as first graders.  At that time there were 73 students in the class of 2018.  By 2015 those 73 first graders had dwindled to just 20 tenth graders, down from 26 ninth graders the year before.  How many of those 20 students are currently 11th graders in Success Academy is unknown to the public, though that data does get released sometime next year.  It’s a safe bet to say that the number of eleventh graders right now is somewhere in the teens.

High School students in New York State take standardized final exams known as ‘The Regents.’  Students must take these Regents exams to graduate.  The ‘college ready’ statistic is based on these Regents exams, and schools are judged on how well their students do on these tests.

Last year I noticed that unlike the other charter schools, there was no data for the Regents scores at Success Academy on the New York State public data site.  I emailed the data department of the state and they said they did not have the data, that Success Academy did not report any data, and that if I want to know those scores my best bet would be to simply call Success Academy and ask them for the scores  — something I did not try, though it would have made for an amusing telephone conversation.

The other day I checked the data site again to see if the newly posted 2016 Regents scores were available for Success Academy.  Again I found no data available.  Again I emailed one of the people at the data center for the state.  Again they said that Success Academy did not report their results.  But this time they provided some new information in their email:

NYSED Helpdesk Team (New York State Education Department)

Dec 7, 1:59 PM EST


Thank you for reaching out to our Data Support help desk again for this same request.  The school you have inquired about did not submit their Regent’s data on time.  They will have an opportunity, as all schools do, to correct their data when the Level 0 Historical application opens in 2017.  Corrected or missing data submitted through this application is not updated on our public data site as the information posted is from the data set submitted on time and made available to the public at that time.  Therefore you will not see their data on the public data site (

In addition, when people who are related to the press want data requests they are to be submitted to our Communications Office.

This ticket will be closed.

In some other reality I could imagine that this data person would be grateful that I identified a giant missing data point and they would be thanking me for noticing it, and basically doing their job for them for free.  Instead they are telling me that even if they do get the data from Success Academy they will not update their databases with that information anyway.  So basically any school can avoid having their Regents scores published publicly by conveniently missing the first deadline.

So then I wondered if maybe the 2015 scores, the ones I couldn’t get last year, were maybe available somewhere and the communications office could supply them.  So I called the phone number they gave me (there was no email address so there is no paper trail about what I’m about to describe).  I explained that I was a teacher who was looking for Success Academy’s Regents scores from 2015.  They told me that they didn’t have access to any data so they were confused why I would be calling them.  I told them that I was referred to them by the data person and then the communications person suggested that I simply call Success Academy to ask them for the missing scores.  I said that it was unlikely for Success Academy to provide the scores to me and the communications person took my contact information and said she would get back to me.

I’m inclined to believe that the state is not part of a conspiracy to cover up embarrassing test scores for Success Academy.  But the state does not seem overly concerned with the fact that they are not getting the Regents scores from them.  Another possibility, and this would be a pretty big scandal, I think, if this is the case, perhaps students at Success Academy don’t even take Regents exams.  Maybe part of their flexibility in their charter does not require it.

The strange thing about Success Academy debates is that this is a school that exists right now and not just in the abstract.  There is a group of between 1 and 20 students who wake up each day and attend the eleventh grade at Success Academy Harlem I.  There are also a bunch of teachers who teach those kids and surely the number of ‘degrees of separation’ between me, or any teacher in the city really, and those teachers and students is likely less than three.  Yet something as simple as finding out how those students performed on a standardized test — the bread and butter of the Success Academy empire is something tjat seems as elusive as finding out the meaning of Stonehenge or how the Pyramids were constructed.

If I learn more details about the mysterious Success Academy Regents scores, I will update this post with them.

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