Do Charter Schools Outperform Public Schools In New York City?

On August 12, New York City released the test scores for the 2015 3-8 common core tests in math and ELA.  The Daily News reported that in the public schools, 34.2% of students met the math standards while 30.4% met the ELA standards, which was up by 1% and 2% respectively from the 2014 tests.

I remember a few years ago when the new harder tests were rolled out and many ‘experts’ predicted that scores would take a drop initially but then as teachers ‘adjusted to the new standards’ the scores would eventually increase until they approached the pre-common core levels, which were about double the current scores.  This belief was fueled by the bedrock of the entire school reform program that low test scores are caused by lazy teachers who can’t be fired.

Some of the top scores were recorded by the Success Academy charter chain.  Success is having a rally next week as part of their #dontstealpossible campaign funded, in part, by Families For Excellent Schools (FES).  They want the city and the state to raise the charter cap and to give more money to charters.  Implied in this campaign is that charter schools are, in general, outperforming their public school counterparts.

For years, charter school critics, like me, have been demonstrating that many of the highest performing charters serve different populations than their ‘failing’ neighboring public schools.  The charters often have higher attrition, higher suspensions, fewer high needs students, and fewer students eligible for free lunch.  For a while the charter school defenders denied these accusations, but more recently some charter cheerleaders have been admitting this and even celebrating it as Michael Petrilli put it as ‘a feature not a bug.’

On the 2015 state tests, charter schools outperformed public schools in math with 44.2% meeting the standards while also doing worse than the public schools in reading with 29.3% meeting the standards.

To put these numbers into context, I crunched the numbers and summarized the results in a graph.  For each school I took the average of their math and ELA scores.  Then I took the most recent numbers for the school’s ‘Economic Need Index’ which includes the free lunch percent along with some other factors.

With graphs relating percent of free lunch to test score proficiency, there is always a strong negative correlation, as most people know.  The thing I wanted to see was if the charter schools had a higher percentage of ‘outliers’ than public schools.  In a sense, this is a bit like the coveted ‘value added’ measure that reformers like so much.  A school that is above the trend line would be a school with a greater than average value added.

In the graph below, the light blue dots are the public schools, the red dots are the charter schools, and the green triangles are the Success Academy schools.


It seems pretty clear to me that, on average, the charter schools are not outperforming the public schools, based on how about half of of the charters are above the trend line and half below.  Also it is relevant that most of the charters have an economic need index between .7 and .9 while there are a significant number of public schools that have an economic need index above .9.  This runs contrary to the charter school supporters who continue to insist that charters serve the ‘same kids’ as the nearby ‘failing’ public school.

Success Academy are such outliers that I can’t understand why charter supporters who are so focused on test scores are not out there insisting that all charter school resources be sent to expand Success Academy and the ‘yesterday’s news’ charters like KIPP, Democracy Prep, Harlem Children’s Zone, The Equity Project, etc. get shut down for poor performance.

For anyone who wants to check my numbers, the public school ELA data came from here, the public school math data came from here, the charter school ELA and math data came from here, and the economic need index (the most recent available was not from 2015, but from 2013, but this should not change the results very much) came from here.  Because the economic need index and the test data came from different years, there were some schools that I had test data for, but no economic need index for those schools so those are left off of the graph.

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Teach For America co-CEO Matt Kramer has announced that he is ‘stepping down.’  His partner in crime, Elisa Villanueva-Beard, will be promoted to sole CEO.  I expected some kind of top-level shakeup and predicted six months ago that one of them was on the way out.

When Wendy Kopp resigned and they took over in March of 2013, TFA’s stock was at an all time high.  There were over 6,000 new corps members, TFA alumni like Michelle Rhee, Kevin Huffman, and Cami Anderson were shaking things up at StudentsFirst, Tennessee, and Newark.  Like a giant ship with a lot of momentum, it seemed like it didn’t matter who was steering it — just keep your foot on the gas (not sure that ships have gas pedals, but surely they have something that serves that purpose) and don’t make any sudden movements with the steering wheel.

I found the co-CEO arrangement very odd.  For a company bringing in over $300 million a year, the person, or people, in charge need to relocate to the city of the home office, in this case New York City.  Yet Kramer remained in Minnesota and Villanueva-Beard remained in Texas.  Whereas Wendy Kopp made around $400 thousand as the sole CEO, Kramer and Villanueva-Beard made, combined, over $700 thousand as co-CEOs.

I started monitoring their activity right after their appointment.  I then met up with them on their ‘Listening Tour’ and gave them a piece of my mind (Don’t worry, I had plenty to spare).  Kramer was much more friendly to me than Villanueva-Beard was.  He told me that he liked reading this blog, which I appreciated.  Then over the next year and a half I really didn’t see much substance in either of them in their public appearances.

I didn’t expect much from Kramer.  He’s never taught.  The only time he ever sees a school is when he is some kind of honored guest where the kids are on their best behavior (the students with behavior challenges, in some schools, could be warehoused elsewhere when there’s a guest at some charter chains).  He just never had a feel of how difficult teaching is.  Villanueva-Beard, in her public comments, seems to have forgotten how difficult teaching is also.  Both of them seem to cling to the over-simplistic view that the biggest problem in education is that too many teachers have ‘low expectations.’  This is part of why they are both so enthusiastic of the supposedly raised expectations of the Common Core.

I guess this goes back to the so-called Pygmalion effect “Children will rise to the expectations of their teachers” and conversely the Golem effect that children will do poorly it their teachers have low expectations.

How I wish that low expectations were the main difficulty in education.  It would be so easy to improve.  Teachers would just raise their expectations:  Teach a little faster, assign a little more homework, make the tests a little longer, a little more difficult — more ‘rigorous’ if you will.  While I’m certainly not an advocate for low expectations, I think it is definitely naive, and even a bit dangerous, to too blindly believe that the act of just having high expectations will cause students to learn more.

I suppose if I overheard a teacher in the lounge saying something like “I don’t assign homework anymore.  I used to, but they never did it, so why waste time with that?” I’d think that that teacher’s students suffer from his low expectations.  On the other hand, I pride myself on not giving an extreme amount of homework.  I think that you hit diminishing returns after a while so a few well-chosen problems in Math serve much more of a purpose than assigning page 117 1 to 39 odds.

As a teacher, one of the most important skills to have is known as ‘scaffolding’ where you break down a skill into sub-skills and then teach the kids those sub-skills which you then build up to the big skill.  Is that not some form of low expectations?  If I’m an English teacher I suppose I could tell my class to read ‘The Grapes Of Wrath’ in one night.  That’s setting some pretty high expectations.  But will this work?  Or will it discourage kids by asking them to do an unrealistic task.  So I guess I’m an advocate for appropriate expectations, something that a teacher is best able to gauge.  I definitely don’t see ‘low expectations’ as a major reason our country isn’t at the top of the PISA scale, nor do I see ‘high expectations’ as something that will cause us to be at the top of the PISA scale anytime soon.

Yet this is pretty much all I’ve heard from Kramer and Villanueva-Beard.  Do they ever talk about fair funding for schools?  Do they ever talk about the need for wraparound services so that kids can be less distracted from their learning?  How about that month long hunger strike in Chicago to save a public high school?  Do they have any feelings about that?  Not much.  No, it’s all the lazy teachers faults with their low expectations.

I don’t think there is anyone out there who really believes that Kramer just ‘stepped down.’  In his open farewell letter he says

While I believe this is right for the organization at this stage in its development and for me personally, it was nevertheless a difficult decision, and one I make humbly and with gratitude for my incredible journey here.

What does that mean?  He feels that this is ‘right’ for the organization so, in other words, TFA is better off without him?  Basically he’s saying “TFA should fire me but they don’t want to so I’ve decided to leave.”

Every step of the way, I’ve tried to be conscious about the experiences I bring to this work and the ones I don’t. Importantly, I’m not a Teach For America alum, a teacher, a student of corps members, or a graduate of urban or rural public schools. I believe deeply that this effort will never succeed without a diverse leadership force, inclusive of people who share the backgrounds of our students and those who come from more privileged backgrounds, of alums and non-alums, and of teachers and non-teachers. I also know that my background requires that I approach each day seeking to understand the perspectives of alums, educators, students, and parents. I’ve strived to honor that, and also take strength from it—I’ve found that, for me, embracing the assets and blind spots that come from my experiences is the best path to doing this work in a way that is sustainable, authentic, and consistent with my deepest values, and it guides me in challenging moments.

Yes, we need a ‘diverse’ leadership force, which means include people who know a lot about education and others who know nothing at all about education.

It’s been a privilege to lead alongside Elisa, and our partnership has produced many benefits, but co-leadership comes with real costs too—we spend a lot of time maintaining alignment, and we often speak in a voice that reflects our daily compromises. Ultimately we determined that Teach For America will be best served in the period ahead by a single CEO—who can act more decisively, speak more authentically, and evolve more rapidly.

Here we hear that there were some behind-the-scene conflicts between the two co-CEOs.  As a result of this divided front, they have had to present weakened compromised messages.  How I would love to see what some of these supposed conflicts were.  Basically you had two people each making nearly $400 thousand a year.  They each got to telecommute from their respective homes and, I believe, they were basically two puppets of whatever the nebulous TFA board told them to say.  So now that Kramer is out, how will things be so different?  Instead there will be just one puppet leader.  But the forces pulling the strings are still the same.  Are we to believe that Villanueva-Beard whose $400 thousand salary may seem like a lot, but isn’t such a large percent of the $300 million annual TFA budget, has the power, now that Kramer isn’t around to undermine her anymore, to finally grab the reins of this horse and see where she can take it?

More than ever, TFA needs competent leadership.  I believe that TFA would like to have fired both Kramer and Villanueva-Beard, but it would have been tough to present something like that as them both voluntarily stepping down.  So instead Kramer can ‘step down’ and then a few years from now — need to at least wait until after the 25th anniversary celebration, Villanueva-Beard can ‘voluntarily’ step down too and TFA can bring in a new leader, someone who is a little more savvy in the messages he or she conveys, intentionally or not.  I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see Wendy Kopp return to her old position, kind of like when Jay Leno returned to the Tonight Show after Conan O’Brien started to take a nosedive in the ratings.

I’d like to see Wendy in charge again.  She has always treated critics like me with respect and, even now, quickly answers any emails I send her (I maybe email her once every two years, but still).  On the other hand, Kramer and Villanueva-Beard won’t even take the few seconds it would take to respond to my Twitter taunts.  Wendy even responded to my open letter to her while Kramer and Villanueva-Beard blatently ignored the one I wrote to them.  I think that Wendy understands that even though I’m just one person, I’m certainly some sort of ‘litmus test’ where if I’m content with the direction that TFA is taking, then many other people will be also, so even if I may seem unnaturally obsessed with the improvement of TFA, the energy that I’ve invested in this task does matter.

I actually have no ill will toward Matt Kramer.  He does seem like a nice enough guy.  I feel a little bad for him that he was set up for failure, taking a position he had no qualifications for.  Being fired (or asked to voluntarily step down — whatever you want to call it) is certainly a bad feeling, something that will surely take a little while for him to come to terms with.

As another piece of unsolicited advice to the nebulous TFA board:  You can fire all the CEOs you want and replace them with other ones with different names and faces, but the problems that TFA is currently facing will not improve as long as they are following the same script as the ones they replace.  TFA is struggling because they have attached themselves to dishonest education ‘reformers.’  Each time ‘reformer’ lies get uncovered, TFA’s reputation takes a hit.  This is why the corps size is down.  This is why cities are canceling their contracts with TFA.  This is why most the TFA alumni who were once leading various districts and even states have resigned recently.  TFA need not go down with the ‘reform’ ship.  But this can only change if they are able to admit that this is what is currently happening.

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Why I Opted Out Of The TFA Alumni Survey

As a Teach For America alum (Houston 1991), I am invited each year to participate in the annual TFA alumni survey.  This year I decided to ‘opt out’ of it since I don’t need them misusing my information to help them gain any more money and power that they have already undeservedly secured.

For example, just a few days ago TFA released a ‘research’ paper in which they contradict everything we know about TFA attrition and claim that, what do ya know?, TFA teachers don’t have low attrition at all.  According to their new analysis, about half of TFA alumni teach for more than 7 years!  (I’ll analyze this report in a future post.  I’m first awaiting some relevant data from TFA if they’re willing to share.)

Perhaps the most ubiquitous statistic that TFA infers from the annual alumni survey is the one that says that 2/3 of all alumni are still in eduction.  Here it is quoted as far back as 2004.  For the past ten years this number hasn’t budged one way or another.

One issue with this stat is that about 10 to 15 percent of TFAers don’t make it through their two year commitment so they never, technically, become ‘alumni’ so they don’t get surveyed.  Though some of them probably did end up ‘in education’ also, those TFAers would likely bring down the numbers.

Also, a survey isn’t the most accurate way to measure what percent of alumni are still ‘in education’ since the alumni survey is voluntary and there could be bias in who chooses to answer the survey.  The way to reduce bias is to create a representative random sample of alumni, it doesn’t have to be a very large sample, maybe 30% surprisingly, and then to work diligently to track down every one of that random sample and find out how many of them are ‘in education.’  This would be more accurate than what they get from the self-selected 70% who do respond to the voluntary survey.

Finally, there is the expression ‘in education’ which can mean so many things.

When I didn’t answer the survey, I started getting emails from TFA asking if I’d be willing, at least, to do an abbreviated survey, just two yes/no questions.  Here they are:

  • Q1: My current position impacts the field of education or issues affecting education (Yes/No)
  • Q2: My current position serves low income communities or relates to improving quality of life in low-income communities (Yes/No)

Notice that the first question does not ask what my current profession is which could give them the chance to determine if I’m ‘in education’ or not.  But even more troubling, the question doesn’t even ask if I’m ‘in education.’  It asks if my current position ‘impacts’ the field of education or issues affecting education.  I could argue that if I’m a nutritionist, for example, then my current position impacts issues affecting eduction.  Anyone who answers ‘yes’ to this question immediately becomes a member of the 2/3 of alumni ‘in education.’

Next time you hear someone from TFA say that 2/3 of alumni are in education, remember that this is the way the data for that statistic was collected.

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TFA Tries To Marginalize Critical Alumni Voices

A few weeks ago the book ‘Teach For America Counter-Narratives:  Alumni Speak Up And Speak Out’ was released.  Edited by T. Jameson Brewer and Kathleen deMarrais, the book features 20 chapters, each written by a TFA critic, many of whom are alumni.  I think this is a great book, and not just because I wrote one of the chapters.

TFA seems to have peaked in popularity about 5 years ago, right around the time I attended the 20th anniversary summit, which was basically a charter school/Waiting For Superman/ Michelle Rhee love fest.  Since that time, criticism has swelled and now TFA is really struggling to recruit as the number of new corps members is a little more than 4,000 compared to around 6,000 just a few years ago.

As an alum, I’m on various TFA mailing lists.  One of them is called ‘TFA Briefing’.  This is a series of summaries, including links, to news about TFA and things that TFA alumni are up to.  Most of it does have a ‘reform’ slant, so I was kind of surprised to see mention of the counter-narratives book, though as the very last item in a briefing from July.  Notice the dismissive nature in the language of their description:

Screen shot 2015-09-09 at 11.04.16 PM

See the subtle way they offhandedly say “The book Teach For America Counter-Narratives collects essays from about 20 of the 50,000 TFA corps members and alumni across the country.”  They try to use the fact that 20 out of 50,000 is a small percent to minimize the validity of the hard work by all the contributors.  Are they implying that the other 49,980 alumni are all big fans of what TFA has become?

Yes, the book has only 20 chapters.  How many chapters should there be?  There was a lengthy process for getting a chapter accepted into that book which took several months.  Does TFA have any idea how many people submitted proposals that were rejected?

Another thing to consider is that while there may be 50,000 alumni, over 10% of the people who start TFA quit before they finish their two years so they never actually become alumni.  This means that over the years there are at least 5,000 of these people who quit who doubtfully have a very favorable view of TFA and could easily fill an extremely large book of stories if they were so inclined.

And even if it were just 20 alumni out of the 50,000 who wanted to voice concerns about the program, why should those 20 voices be dismissed?  It would be like saying that out of the thousands of women that Bill Cosby has interacted throughout his life, only 30 of them are now saying that he raped them.

For an organization that at least likes to pretend that it honors all alumni voices, even those with differing opinions to their funders, this was a revealing way to describe this work.

Teach For America published this response to the book back in July in which they dismissed the alumni voices by saying “a small group of former corps members involved in the book Teach For America Counter-Narratives have chosen to focus on past experiences that are not in line with how we operate.”  I expected them to say this, that the points of view are obsolete because TFA has evolved so much and these alumni just aren’t up to date on these changes.

One mystery about this ‘review’ of the book is that they reviewed in back in July when even the editors did not receive their copies until mid-August.  It seems that someone ‘leaked’ an advance review copy to TFA so they could be prepared with their reaction before the book even came out.

Now the book is out and has gotten a good amount of attention so far.  You can order it from Amazon (If you’re a fan of this blog, you’ll surely get a kick out of the story of my lunch ‘date’ with Michelle Rhee back in 1996.)

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The Underachievement School District 2015 Edition Part I

Three years ago, the Achievement School District (ASD) in Tennessee began their mission, summarized in the statement on their website under the heading ‘Building the Possible.’

“The Achievement School District was created to catapult the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee straight to the top 25% in the state.”

The timetable for this goal is just five years from the time the school enters the ASD.  As I wrote to current ASD superintendent, Chris Barbic, who I’ve known for over 20 years from back in the days when we were both TFA teachers in Houston at the same time, this is not a feasible goal.  It isn’t that I don’t think schools or teachers are capable of improvement, I just think that there is a limit to what can be accomplished by only focusing on replacing teachers and giving schools over to charters.

I don’t know if this was an intentional thing or not, but look at the ASD logo.

See that triangle thing?  It is called a Penrose Triangle or sometimes a Penrose Tribar.  It is an optical illusion since something like this cannot be built.  According to Wikipedia, in the 1950’s Penrose, himself, described the object as “impossibility in its purest form.”  In a very candid moment, Barbic admitted during a panel discussion that even if the goal was unattainable, it served a purpose because it created an energy around a lofty goal which attracted funders and talent to the district.

I have been following the progress of the ASD since it started and have been doing a yearly summary, in addition to other posts throughout the year.  The 2013 edition can be found here and the 2014 edition can be found here.  I plan to continue this yearly update until the end of the fifth year in 2017.

At the end of July 2015, Tennessee released the state test score data for all the schools and all the districts.  Every year when the data is released, Tennessee and the ASD are ready with their own spin on the results.

The website Chalkbeat Tennessee titled their article about the data release ‘At critical moment, state run Achievement School District posts big gains at its original schools.’  In the article they had this interesting bar graph supposedly supporting this claim.

So the first thing I noticed is that while math is ‘up’ by about 11% in the past three years, Reading is ‘down’ by about 4%.  And reading had gone up a bit last year, but now its down again.  The Science, I don’t know much about that test so I’m not going to focus on it.  Not that I don’t think science matters, but I’ve never heard a ‘reformer’ talking about anything but math and reading so I’m not going to let science into mix here.

Now reading in the whole state of Tennessee is down 1.5% over the past 3 years, it has actually dropped a little each year since it peaked in 2013.  It is now at the level it was before all the Race To The Top reform happened there, amazingly.  So the ‘big gains’ are the 6 points in math.  But isn’t reading really really important?  What good is a program that increases math scores at the expense of reading scores?  It’s like a drug that gets you to lose weight but also causes Cancer.  The other thing to notice is that these percentages, even the 27% after the ‘big gain’ is way below the state average of 55.6% this year.  And the reading at 13.8% is way way below the state average of 48.4%.

I decided to do a little fact checking on this.  What I found surprised even me.

As the ASD has been around for three years, there are three ‘cohorts’ of schools.  There are the six original schools which have been in the district for all three years.  Then they added eleven more schools the second year, and six more the third year.

For my analysis, I am looking only at the six original ASD schools since I have three years of data for them so they are the most relevant.  The six schools in the original cohort are Brick Church College Prep, Cornerstone Prep — Lester Campus, Corning Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Humes Preparatory Academy — Upper School, and Westside Achievement Middle School.

Last summer I analyzed the scores from these six schools and determined that two had improved scores, two had about the same scores, and two had worse scores than before the takeover.  It definitely seemed like mixed results to me.  On their ‘growth’ metric the entire district actually got the lowest possible score, a 1 out of 5.

Of the six schools, the one that was doing the best, as of last year, Brick Church, was somewhat different than the other four because they were ‘phase in’ schools meaning that instead of the charter operator taking over the entire school, current students and all, they just took the newest students entering the school.  So these schools were grades 5-8 and the first year they just took the new incoming 5th graders and they would ‘grow’ the school one grade at a time until they eventually took over the whole school.  As these two schools were outperforming the others, it seemed to show that the more disruption the better.  Brick Church had such big gains during the 2013-2014 school year that Barbic declared that it was on target to make it into the top 25% one year ahead of schedule, after just four years!

One year ago Barbic said in an interview that three of the first six schools were on track to make it into the top 25% in five years.

Here’s a quote from that article:

The special statewide district is taking over the lowest-performing schools in the state with a goal of moving them into the top 25 percent in just five years. Now in year three, superintendent Chris Barbic says he’s encouraged.

“You know, when we first talked about this, this was a goal that folks thought was completely crazy. And I think we’re learning is that not only is it not crazy, but we’ve got three of our first six schools that are on track to do it.”

One of those three schools on the right trajectory is Brick Church Pike College Prep in Nashville, which is slowly being converted into a charter school run by LEAD Academy. Barbic says if Brick Church matches this year’s student growth in math and reading, it would leap into the top quartile a year early.

He made this prediction based on the assumption that Brick Church’s 17 point gain in math and 24 point gain in reading was not a statistical outlier but something that could be repeated for the next two years.  Of course Brick Church was the first school I checked their 2014-2015 scores for and they had huge drops (negative gains they call them!) of around 14 points for math and 17 points for reading, taking them way off the trajectory Barbic had predicted.

Looking over the ASD scores for reading and math I noticed that all six of the original schools had gone down in reading while half of them had gone down in math.  The one bright spot in the original cohort was Frayser’s math scores going from 14.6% to 37.6%, a gain of 23 percentage points.  But looking at Frayser’s reading scores they had gone down 1.3% to a minuscule 7.6% proficient, one of the lowest scores in the state.  I don’t know how they got their math scores up so much while having nearly no students pass reading.  Regardless, I’m not sure that Frayser should be throwing any sort of victory party.

The question that nobody seems to be asking is the most obvious one:  At what percentile are each of these six schools now that they have been part of the ASD for three years?  Originally they were in the bottom 5% in order to be eligible for the ASD.  The mission of the ASD is to get them up to the top 25% in 5 years (though Barbic recently said that it could actually be 6 or 7).  We hear about how Frayser’s math scores went up by 23 points this year and that ASD itself ‘outgrew’ the rest of the state in math by increasing it by 6 points.  We also hear that schools that have been in the ASD for two or three years got the highest possible ‘growth’ score this year, which is a 5.  But they never answer the simple question:  At what percentile are the original six schools at now?

Of course there are different ways to assign a single numerical grade to a school in order to rank them and see what percentile each school is at.  I devised the most simple metric possible and which I think the most data-driven ‘reformers’ would approve of.  Just add together the percent proficient in math to the percent proficient in reading to get a score that has a minimum of 0 and a maximum of 200. If a school had 80% passing math and 70% passing reading, they have a total score of 150, for example.  Yes, there’s a lot more to schools than just these two numbers, but I wanted to keep things simple and inline with the sorts of calculations that ‘reformers,’ themselves, like to use.

By this metric the top performing ASD school from the first cohort was Coming with a score of 48.6 followed by Brick Church (47.9), Frayser (45.2), Westside (42.1), Cornerstone (37.6), and Hume (33.1).  To check where these scores ranked compared to all the Tennessee schools, I calculated this metric for all 1358 schools that had 3-8 math and reading and sorted them from high to low.

Here are the results:

School Score Percentile
Hume 33.1 1.5%
Cornerstone 37.6 2.6%
Westside 42.1 3.2%
Frayser 45.2 4.1%
Brick Church 47.9 5.2%
Corning 48.6 5.5%

As you can see, four of the original six schools are still in the bottom 5% while the other two have now ‘catapulted’ to the bottom 6%.  Perhaps this is one reason that Chris Barbic recently announced he is resigning at the end of the year.

Throughout the country, there are states that are considering creating their own ASD based on the supposed success of this one and the Recovery School District in Louisiana, on which this one is based.  Senate Democrats actually tried, and failed, to get an amendment into the reauthorization of the ESEA that would mandate that the bottom 5% of schools in each state become an ASD, essentially.  I hope that my very simple calculations are compelling evidence that the ASD does not live up to the hype.  Getting two out of six schools from the bottom 5% to the bottom 6% has not earned them the right to replicate around the country.

If you want to crunch the numbers yourself to verify my results or to find some of your own, here is my excel file I adapted from the publicly released state data.  And here is the raw data from the state.

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TFA endorses Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law can be summarized as “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”  Murphy’s Amendment was a proposed amendment to the recently reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  The last reauthorization of ESEA in 2002 was known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and is generally considered a fiasco by both Democrats and Republicans.

The Murphy Amendment is sometimes called the ‘Murphy-Booker ESEA Accountability Amendment’ after Chris Murphy and Cory Booker, two of the six Democratic co-sponsors of the amendment.

I never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness the Republicans won the majority in the Senate in the last election.  The Murphy Amendment which failed by a vote of 43 to 54.  And the 43 ‘yea’ votes were 41 Democrats, 1 Republican, and 1 Independent.  The 54 ‘nay’ votes were 51 Republicans, 2 Democrats, and 1 Independent.

The reason I’m thankful that the Murphy Amendment did not pass is that Murphy’s Amendment was highly susceptible to Murphy’s Law.  A ‘close reading’ (thank you common core standards for language arts!) of the amendment reveals that people concerned about what it could lead to were very justified in those concerns.  In a reauthorization that was intended, as a starting point, to recognize why NCLB was such a disaster, the Murphy Amendment would have maintained some of the worst parts about NCLB.

I have the text from the amendment at the end of the post, but I’ll summarize what I understand of it here from reading it myself.  It says that the states must identify the schools most in need of intervention, which must be at least the bottom 5%.  It seems that the Democrats did not learn the lessons from NCLB about the danger of putting specific numerical targets into federal law and how those numerical targets can be abused.  The fact that there is always a bottom 5% no matter how good the schools are in a state.  Also, schools where the graduation rate is less than 67%, a magic number for ‘failing school’ that is not grounded in any real research (not to mention one that is easy to game with different ‘credit recovery’ schemes, but that’s another issue altogether).  For schools like this some of the federally mandated interventions are to inform the parents that their child is attending a failing school, to establish ‘partnerships’ with ‘private entities’ to turn around these schools, and to give the states the ability to make, and for this I’ll use a verbatim quote, “any changes to personnel necessary to improve educational opportunities for children in the school.”

So where does Murphy’s Law come in?  What could possibly go wrong with this?  Well for starters, there would need to be an accurate way to gauge which schools are truly in the ‘bottom 5%.’  I admit that there are some schools that are run much less efficiently than others and surely the different superintendents should have a sense of which schools they are.  But as NCLB and Race To The Top (RTTT) taught us, with all the money spent on creating these metrics and the costly tests and ‘growth metrics’ that go along with those tests, it is likely to lead to way too much test prep and neglect of some of the things that make school worth going to.  Then those ‘private entities’, could it be any more clear that these are charter schools taking over public schools?  And as far as “changes to personnel necessary to improve educational opportunities for the children in the school”, well, firing teachers after school ‘closures’ in New York City hasn’t resulted in improved ‘educational opportunities.’  My sense is that with enough of these mass firings, it will be very difficult to get anyone to risk their careers by teaching at a so-called failing school and the new staff is likely be less effective than the old staff.  So you can see why the NEA wrote a letter to the Senate urging them to vote against it.  Sadly nearly all the Democrats (and Independent Bernie Sanders!) ignored the plea of the NEA.

Now Teach For America is known to have a team of lobbyists advancing their cause.  These lobbyists generally operate behind the scenes so that TFA can at least make the appearance of neutrality as they embrace the diversity of their alumni.  But when it came to the ESEA reauthorization, TFA did take two stands publicly.

The first was against the parent opt-out amendment.  In The 74, disgraced former Tennessee Education Commissioner and TFA alum (not to mention ex-husband of Michelle Rhee-Johnston) Kevin Huffman wrote a completely incoherent comparison of parents opting their children out of state tests to parents opting their children out of vaccinations.  The title of the article was “Why We Need to Ignore Opt-Outers Like We Do Anti-Vaxxers.”   Not that we need to ‘challenge’ them, but we need to ‘ignore’ them.  Don’t bother learning what motivates them to do what they do, just assume you know and ignore whatever concerns are causing them to want to do this.  Huffman is also a lawyer, though his argument is quite weak.  He says that wealthy opt-outers are selfish since they are doing something that somehow benefits themselves while hurting the other, less wealthy people.  But does he consider that many opt-outers are doing it as a protest against the misuse of their students test scores to unfairly close schools and fire teachers?  Or to protest an over emphasis on testing and testing subjects so they opt out to say “Since I’m opting out anyway, please teach my child as you would have before all this high stakes testing nonsense.”  Now I can’t speak for every opt-out supporter, but I believe that opting-out helps everyone, especially the poor since the way the results of the state tests have been used has hurt them disproportionately with school closures and random teacher firings so the idea that all opt-out supporters do so knowingly at the expense of less fortunate others is something that I find offensive.  Both co-CEOs of TFA, however, tweeted their approval of this article.

On the Murphy Amendment, TFA tweeted their support for this pro-charter, anti-teacher, NCLB loving turkey:

There is still a chance that a version of the Murphy Amendment will make it into the final ESEA rewrite as over the next few months the two versions that were passed in the Senate and The House are merged and smoothed out.  So the defeat of the amendment might not be the end of the story, but it is certainly gives a bit of hope to the more optimistic of us out there.

Note:  The relevant portion of the defeated Murphy Amendment is copied below, emphasis mine:

``(a) State Review and Responsibilities.--
       ``(1) In general.--Each State educational agency receiving 
     funds under this part shall use the system designed by the 
     State under section 1111(b)(3) to annually--
       ``(A) meaningfully differentiate among all public schools, 
     including public schools operated or supported by the Bureau 
     of Indian Education, that receive funds under this part and 
     are in need of intervention and support using the method 
     established by the State in section 1111(b)(3)(B)(ii) which--
       ``(i) may include establishing multiple levels of school 
     performance or other methods for differentiating among all 
     public schools; and
       ``(ii) shall include the identification of at least--

       ``(I) the lowest-performing public schools that receive 
     funds under this part in the State not meeting the goals 
     described in section 1111(b)(3)(B)(i), and which shall 
     include at least 5 percent of all the State's public schools 
     that receive funds under this part;
       ``(II) any public high school that receives funds under 
     this part and has a 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate at 
     or below 67 percent for 2 or more consecutive years, or an 
     extended-year adjusted cohort graduation rate for 2 or more 
     consecutive years that is at or below a rate determined by 
     the State and set higher than 67 percent; and
       ``(III) any public school that receives funds under this 
     part with any category of students, as defined in section 
     1111(b)(3)(A), not meeting the goals described in section 
     1111(b)(3)(B)(i) for 2 consecutive years;

       ``(B) require for inclusion--
       ``(i) on each local educational agency report card required 
     under section 1111(d), the names of schools served by the 
     agency described under subparagraph (A)(ii); and
       ``(ii) on each school report card required under section 
     1111(d), whether the school was described under subparagraph 
       ``(C) ensure that all public schools that receive funds 
     under this part and are identified as in need of intervention 
     and support under subparagraph (A), implement an evidence-
     based intervention or support strategy designed by the State 
     or local educational agency described in subparagraph (A) or 
     (B) of subsection (b)(3) that addresses the reason for the 
     school's identification and that takes into account 
     performance on all of the indicators in the State's 
     accountability system under section 1111(b)(3)(B)(i);
       ``(D) prioritize intervention and supports in the 
     identified schools most in need of intervention and support, 
     as determined by the State, using the results of the 
     accountability system under 1111(b)(3)(B); and
       ``(E) monitor and evaluate the implementation of school 
     intervention and support
     strategies by local educational agencies, including in the 
     lowest-performing elementary schools and secondary schools in 
     the State, and use the results of the evaluation to take 
     appropriate steps to change or improve interventions or 
     support strategies as necessary.
       ``(2) State educational agency responsibilities.--The State 
     educational agency shall--
       ``(A) make technical assistance available to local 
     educational agencies that serve schools identified as in need 
     of intervention and support under paragraph (1)(A);
       ``(B) if the State educational agency determines that a 
     local educational agency failed to carry out its 
     responsibilities under this section, or that its intervention 
     and support strategies were not effective within 3 years of 
     implementation, take such actions as the State educational 
     agency determines to be appropriate and in compliance with 
     State law to assist the local educational agency and ensure 
     that such local educational agency is carrying out its 
       ``(C) inform local educational agencies of schools 
     identified as in need of intervention and support under 
     paragraph (1)(A) in a timely and easily accessible manner 
     that is before the beginning of the school year; and
       ``(D) publicize and disseminate to the public, including 
     teachers, principals and other school leaders, and parents, 
     the results of the State review under paragraph (1).
       ``(b) Local Educational Agency Review and 
       ``(1) In general.--Each local educational agency with a 
     school identified as in need of intervention and support 
     under subsection (a)(1)(A) shall, in consultation with 
     teachers, principals and other school leaders, school 
     personnel, parents, and community members--
       ``(A) conduct a review of such school, including by 
     examining the indicators and measures included in the State-
     determined accountability system described in section 
     1111(b)(3)(B) to determine the factors that led to such 
       ``(B) conduct a review of the policies, procedures, 
     personnel decisions, and budgetary decisions of the local 
     educational agency, including the measures on the local 
     educational agency and school report cards under section 
     1111(d) that impact the school and could have contributed to 
     the identification of the school;
       ``(C) develop and implement appropriate intervention and 
     support strategies, as described in paragraph (3), that are 
     proportional to the identified needs of the school, for 
     assisting the identified school;
       ``(D) develop a rigorous comprehensive plan that will be 
     publicly available and provided to parents, for ensuring the 
     successful implementation of the intervention and support 
     strategies described in paragraph (3) in identified schools, 
     which may include--
       ``(i) technical assistance that will be provided to the 
       ``(ii) ensuring identified schools have access to 
     resources, such as adequate facilities, funding, and 
       ``(iii) improved delivery of services to be provided by the 
     local educational agency;
       ``(iv) increased support for stronger curriculum, program 
     of instruction, wraparound services, or other resources 
     provided to students in the school;
       ``(v) any changes to personnel necessary to improve 
     educational opportunities for children in the school;
       ``(vi) redesigning how time for student learning or teacher 
     collaboration is used within the school;
       ``(vii) using data to inform instruction for continuous 
       ``(viii) providing increased coaching or support for 
     principals and other school leaders and teachers;
       ``(ix) improving school climate and safety;
       ``(x) providing ongoing mechanisms, such as evidence-based 
     community schools and wraparound services, for family and 
     community engagement to improve student learning;
       ``(xi) establishing partnerships with entities, including 
     private entities with a demonstrated record of improving 
     student achievement, that will assist the local educational 
     agency in fulfilling its responsibilities under this section; 
       ``(xii) an ongoing process, involving parents, teachers and 
     their representatives, principals, and other school leaders, 
     to improve school leader and staff engagement in the 
     development and implementation of the comprehensive plan; and
       ``(E) collect and use data on an ongoing basis to monitor 
     the results of the intervention and support strategies and 
     adjust such strategies as necessary during implementation in 
     order to improve student academic achievement.
       ``(2) Notice to parents.--A local educational agency shall 
     promptly provide to a parent or parents of each student 
     enrolled in a school identified as in need of intervention 
     and support under subsection (a)(1)(A) in an easily 
     accessible and understandable form and, to the extent 
     practicable, in a language that parents can understand--
       ``(A) an explanation of what the identification means, and 
     how the school compares in terms of academic achievement and 
     other measures in the State accountability system under 
     section 1111(b)(3)(B) to other schools served by the local 
     educational agency and the State educational agency involved;
       ``(B) the reasons for the identification;
       ``(C) an explanation of what the local educational agency 
     or State educational agency is doing to help the school 
     address student academic achievement and other measures, 
     including a description of the intervention and support 
     strategies developed under paragraph (1)(C) that will be 
     implemented in the school;
       ``(D) an explanation of how the parents can become involved 
     in addressing academic achievement and other measures that 
     caused the school to be identified; and
       ``(E) an explanation of the parents' option to transfer 
     their child to another public school under paragraph (4), if 
       ``(3) School intervention and support strategies.--
       ``(A) In general.--Consistent with subsection (a)(1) and 
     paragraph (1), a local educational agency shall develop and 
     implement evidence-based intervention and support strategies 
     for an identified school that the local educational agency 
     determines appropriate to address the needs of students in 
     such identified school, which shall--
       ``(i) be designed to address the specific reasons for 
     identification, as described in paragraph (1)(A);
       ``(ii) take into account performance on the indicators used 
     by the State as described in 1111(b)(3)(B)(i);
       ``(iii) be implemented, at a minimum, in a manner that is 
     proportional to the specific reasons for identification, as 
     described in subparagraphs (A) and (B) of paragraph (1); and
       ``(iv) distinguish between the schools identified in 
     subclauses (I) and (II) of subsection (a)(1)(A)(ii) and in 
     need of comprehensive supports and schools identified in 
     subsection (a)(1)(A)(ii)(III) in need of targeted supports.
       ``(B) State-determined strategies.--Consistent with State 
     law, a State educational agency may establish alternative 
     evidence-based State-determined strategies that can be used 
     by local educational agencies to assist a school identified 
     as in need of intervention and support under subsection 
     (a)(1)(A), in addition to the assistance strategies developed 
     by a local educational agency under subparagraph (A).
       ``(4) Public school choice.--
       ``(A) In general.--A local educational agency may provide 
     all students enrolled in a school identified as in need of 
     intervention and support under subclauses (I) and (II) of 
     subsection (a)(1)(A)(ii) with the option to transfer to 
     another public school served by the local educational agency, 
     unless such an option is prohibited by State law.
       ``(B) Priority.--In providing students the option to 
     transfer to another public school, the local educational 
     agency shall give priority to the lowest achieving children 
     from low-income families, as determined by the local 
     educational agency for the purposes of allocating funds to 
     schools under section 1113(a)(3).
       ``(C) Treatment.--Students who use the option to transfer 
     to another public school shall be enrolled in classes and 
     other activities in the public school to which the students 
     transfer in the same manner as all other children at the 
     public school.
       ``(D) Special rule.--A local educational agency shall 
     permit a child who transfers to another public school under 
     this paragraph to remain in that school until the child has 
     completed the highest grade in that school.
       ``(E) Funding for transportation.--A local educational 
     agency may spend an amount equal to not more than 5 percent 
     of its allocation under subpart 2 to pay for the provision of 
     transportation for students who transfer under this paragraph 
     to the public schools to which the students transfer.
Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

TFA continues to set new corps members up for failure

I miss the era when my blog was hosted on the website.  Back then the site was promoted by TFA as a place where current corps members and alumni could blog and communicate through comments.  Until the site went down, it was a happening place with at least twenty different bloggers contributing to the conversation.  It was also my way of finding out what TFA was up to, particularly with regard to the summer institute training sites.

Back before TFA had let their greed for money and power distort their original purpose, my main issue with them was the way they cheat the corps members out of an authentic training experience.  I’ve said throughout the years that I think that most people are capable of becoming competent teachers and that it is even possible to get enough training in a summer that the first year does not have to be a disaster.  And even though TFA has an annual budget of about $300 million, they simply refuse to invest the resources it would take to improve the training.  In the early 1990s there were about 1,000 corps members a year and the annual budget was more like $10 million.  Now they have a bit more than 4,000 corps members yet they have about 30 times the amount of money.  Where is all that money going?

I haven’t heard much from the new TFA 2015 class.  Aside from some “Yay! I got into TFA” tweets, they are an oddly silent bunch of leaders.  They don’t blog, they don’t tweet.  Not to start any conspiracy theories, but possibly they have been discouraged by the organization.  Just seems strange that not one out of 4,000 people is blogging their way through their experience.

Back in the day before was gutted, I’d sometimes, in my less-well-advised posts, take something I’d read on a new corps member’s blog and critique it or analyze it.  This made some people upset, I remember, including a post from another alum called Don’t Let Gary Rubinstein Bully You.

My critiques, from my perspective, serve two purposes:  The first, yes, is to shine a light on how negligent TFA is in their training.  They are pretty much negligent in every aspect of the organization, but coming up with tangible proof of this negligence in perhaps the most important branch of TFA does expose how little they care about improving.  The other purpose, though, is to help the misguided TFA corps member who, by no fault of his or her own, has been a victim of the bait-and-switch and is going through a third rate training experience and headed toward a disastrous first year.  TFA allows this to happen since they don’t really care about individual corps members struggling, even having mental breakdowns, as long as there are a few success stories, the TFA PR machine can continue running.  The reaction to one of my posts that called me a ‘bully’ was not by the corps member that I was critiquing.  That corps member actually wrote a response thanking me and he and I kept in touch throughout his time in teaching.

OK, disclaimer set up is now complete.

So the TFA Houston institute is producing a short five part documentary where they chose six new corps members and interviewed them at different points throughout the five week institute.  As TFA is so careful with their public image, I’m surprised that they would do this, actually.  Also, I commend the six new corps members for being willing to go on camera and be seen at vulnerable times.

Seeing the six corps members, Jae, Jonathan, Madison, Tyler, Julia, and Mary Beth it is clear that TFA did a fine job in selection.  All six are bright, articulate, motivated, and caring.

Of the six, the biggest wild card is clearly Tyler.  It’s not that I don’t think he is a very bright, intense, and passionate young man, nor do I think that he is not capable of becoming a first rate teacher.  I actually think that most people, if given the proper training, can become pretty good teachers.  Teaching is hard, but with proper preparation it isn’t ‘that’ hard.  Kind of like driving a car isn’t that hard, but you want to get a lot of hours of practice on side streets before taking a spin on the Autobahn.

In the first video, Tyler says the quintessential TFA response to “Why do you want to be a teacher?”

“I’m coming to teach because I fundamentally believe that every child can do it.  You just need someone who believes in you and won’t give up, and is willing to work hard to take you to your goal.”

Though this sound innocuous enough, notice the implied ‘teacher bashing’ that has become the life blood of TFA?  Obviously the students he will teach have only had teachers who did give up on them and were not willing to work very hard to take them to their goal.  TFA has to use this message in their recruitment since otherwise many of these very motivated young people would not be willing to do it.  “The kids of America need you since the teachers they have are too lazy and uncaring for this work.”

I should point out again, I like Tyler.  I’d think he has an enthusiasm and energy and quirkiness that will eventually be a real asset in the classroom — assuming that he can channel it in the beginning of his career.  And this is why watching these videos makes me sad since I believe based on another video that was publicly posted that Tyler’s student teaching class has only 5 students in it and this is a disservice to him and to the students that he will soon teach. (Though I do like the professional dress he’s got going.)  Tyler should ask his trainer why he has such a small class and say he wants “no excuses,” as TFA is known to demand of everyone else.

Screen shot 2015-07-08 at 12.49.55 PM

Some people are natural ‘teachers,’ meaning that their natural personality will instantly command respect in the classroom.  Most people are not naturals in that way and Tyler is one who will need to practice a lot to channel his energy in a way that will not lose his class.  And twelve hours with five students is not going to do it.  I’m going to advise Tyler, if he reads this, to watch the video of the workshop I used to do at the TFA institute where I explain how to adapt your personality to minimize risk in the classroom.

At the end of video two, Michael, a veteran soldier who surely is glad that his training for combat was better than the junk he is now experiencing, says “It is not easy to disrupt the system,” another ‘reformer’ cliche.  Again TFA thrives on the premise that lazy teachers preserve the ‘status quo’ so that hard working teachers are needed to ‘disrupt’ it.  The word, ‘disruption’, certainly takes on new meaning when we see how it gets played out to the extreme, and to the benefit of TFA, in places like New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia, and most recently, Newark where TFA hero Cami Anderson was booted for being disruptive to the point of marginalizing the desires of the community there.

Two of the six corps members have family members that are in education.  Julia says her parent are both teachers.  What do her parents think of the Race To The Top that TFA so loves?  Mary Beth’s father is a current high school principal.  What does he think when TFA icon Michelle Rhee comes on TV and says that American schools, even the ones that are supposedly ‘good’, are actually all doing a horrible job?  What is his reaction when he hears about Alabama needing more charter schools that TFA so treasures?  My guess is that their parents haven’t made the connection between TFA and the corporate school ‘reformers’ who have been wreaking havoc on American students and teachers since the passage of No Child Left Behind under Bush and intensified with Obama’s Race To The Top.

In video three, we see Julia speak about how behind her students are and offers this as one of the reasons:

It’s another world.  It’s a world where these kids get tested in writing every three years and, thus, are only trained in writing every three years.

I wonder why she thinks this.  While it is true that reading and math have dominated the curriculum ever since state test scores in reading and math have become the goal of all education, especially with the TFA-trained leaders and their ‘reformer’ allies.  Maybe she is saying that teachers are being negligent because they only teach to the two big tests?  I’m not sure if this is a critique of the over testing of things that don’t include writing, or a wish that there were more testing which would include more writing tests.  Or is this another faulty assumption that the majority of teachers these students had until now (of course it is likely that many of these students in Houston had TFA teachers at one time since Houston is a big TFA city — Houston 1991 in the house!) were negligent in their teaching of writing.

In video three we also see the typical TFA narrative with Madison’s and Mary Beth’s transformation from a rough start to things starting to turn around after about a week.  With tiny classes of about 15 students, I suppose this can happen, but I worry they will have a false idea of what the arc of a typical first year is.  That workshop I used to do (and my books — if any of these six contact me, I’ll gladly send them free copies) go into this in grueling detail.

In video four, Julia (Wearing jeans while teaching!  Why is the TFA staff OK with this?) is seeing big improvements after six day.  Jae’s class is noticeably larger than the classes of the other corps members from what I can see.  Michael and Madison both say that they are learning how to “be themselves” which is some of the more oversimplified advice for new teachers and can be quite dangerous.  The most encouraging part is the revelation by both Tyler and Madison about breaking down the process of analyzing a story with a graphic organizer.  We hear so much about “have high expectations” yet there is also the somewhat opposite practice of “scaffolding” which, by definition, is lowering your expectations in order to help students learn a skill with a certain degree of hand-holding.  This is why I do think there is hope for Tyler and why I am angered that their training experience is inadequate.

Episode five is coming soon (assuming the entire project isn’t shut down by my bringing attention to it!  Why does everything I touch turn to mud?) and, not to put any pressure on these six I know they have enough to worry about, I hope that they’ll be willing to have a follow up interview with me six months from now (and that TFA permits them to).

TFA is like a very ugly mosaic despite each of the individual little squares being perfectly fine.  I think TFA did a nice job in selecting these corps members and also in choosing them for this video.  I can see all six of these corps members teaching beyond their two year commitment and they do not seem like the type that are going to grow up and become heartless TFA ‘reform’ leaders and join the profitable world of teacher scapegoating.  I know I’m going to take some criticism for this post, as happens whenever I do one like this.  Listen, it’s not my fault that TFA continues to neglect the training program.  I’ve been begging them to fix it for twenty years and I have email threads to prove it!

Teachers are constantly being evaluated by administrators, and even by their own kids, so I hope a bit of free, though not requested, evaluation from a veteran teacher who was a one time teacher trainer for TFA and also wrote a few books about teaching isn’t so bad.  I don’t do this to ridicule them, but to bring attention to TFA’s failure to take seriously their responsibility to provide their trainees with proper training.

Note:  This has been a bit of an annual tradition for me.

For my advice to 2014 corps members go here.

For my advice to 2013 (including my famous not-quite ‘viral video message) corps members go here.

Posted in Uncategorized | 34 Comments