Effective Remote Teaching Part 1: Tools of the trade

Like many teachers around the country, I am currently teaching my students in a room by myself. Remote teaching is very taxing. It takes me about five to ten times as long as it used to to prepare my lessons each day. At the end of the day my head is spinning from all the screen time and the lack of walking around. And the feedback that I’m used to getting, the energy I get back from seeing the students learn in person is replaced by students looking into a zoom looking equally struggling.

But if I’m going to do something in teaching, I want to do it as best as I’m able so I’ve taken the task very seriously and I’m hoping that I can share some of the methods I’ve come up with to be as effective a remote teacher as I can.

In this first post, I want to show you my setup. Every component of this setup is absolutely critical to me being able to do all the things I need to: teach, give feedback, get student input, and assess. I know that some teachers will not have access to all this technology and they will say they can’t afford to buy all this stuff. But hopefully many will be able to scavenge their school buildings for at least some of it.

The tools:

2 Computers

3 Monitors

1 iPad

1 Apple Pencil

1 Document Camera

1 Microphone

1 Pair of Blue Blocker Glasses


Airbeam TV app

Here is a photo of the setup

Here is a video I made explaining the setup and how I use the different components of the setup. I will make more videos in the future showing the software I use.

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No Way To Treat A Scholar

Success Academy is the largest and most controversial charter network in New York City. With over 15,000 students, Success Academy is known for their high state test scores.

Though Success Academy has been in existence for about 14 years already, it has only been the last few years that people have begun to question whether the strategies that Success Academy uses to achieve these test results are immoral if not illegal.

Public data shows that very few students who begin at Success Academy actually graduate from Success Academy. The class of 2018 started with 72 students and only 16 graduated. The class of 2019 started with 80 students and only 27 graduated. The class of 2020 started with 350 students and only 98 graduated. Success Academy argues that this is normal attrition over 12 years, but one of the most jarring statistics I have ever seen about Success Academy is the attrition rate from students who are in the school at the beginning of their senior year but who do not graduate with their class 10 months later.

For the recent class of 2020 there were 114 seniors in the school in November 2019. But by graduation time in June there were only 98 graduating seniors.

In June I blogged about an interview I saw with Eva Moskowitz where she explained that some students need five years to graduate high school for various reasons. Success Academy is known for leaving a lot of students back each year. They often use the threat of leaving a student back as a way to get a parent to ‘voluntarily’ transfer out their child even. And though some research has concluded that the cons of leaving students back outweighs the pros, I can see how having 14 years to complete 13 years of schooling could benefit some kids. So somewhere along the way a student repeats a grade and that helps them get on track, I can see that. But for a student to make it through 12 years of school, Kindergarten through 11th grade at Success Academy, and then in their senior year to be told part of the way through that year that they have to repeat 12th grade again, you would think this would be very unusual. Moskowitz says that some students experience trauma and uses an example that if the father of a student is murdered during that student’s senior year, she may not be able to focus on her studies so repeating 12th grade could be necessary. Of course this would be exceptionally cruel to not allow a 12th grader to graduate under these circumstances. I would think that after 12 years at the school, they would do anything they can, make any accommodations they can to help a child whose father had just been murdered, but maybe I’m too soft.

But 16 out of 114 is about 1/7 of the seniors and there is no way that 1/7 of the students had something as traumatic as the murder of one of their parents that year. But Moskowitz gave no other example of why 16 out of 114 seniors did not graduate seven months later.

There is a new Instagram and Twitter account called Survivors Of Success Academy. They get messages from parents and students about their negative experiences with Success Academy and they post them anonymously.

One of the posts on their Instagram last June was about how a senior was told she would have to repeat 12th grade.  The school said that if she would transfer to another school, they can graduate on time, but it would be better for them to just repeat the 12th grade as Success Academy.  The post did not say which option that student chose — transfer out and graduate on time or stay for a second senior year at Success Academy.

In response to this post, though, another student with a similar experience shared her story:

I experienced the same thing.  The principal of the high school would tell me I couldn’t get into community college if I applied senior year.  He would tell me just about anything to convince I needed to stay a 5th year.  They also did so without communicating any of their plans to my mother until they have already decided they were going to put me in the 5th year program.  I had to leave SA February, this year to a credit school just so I can graduate on time.  A week after leaving I got accepted to two great colleges.  (I also got a 1260 on my SAT first time ever taking it junior year.)

I responded to this comment and asked this student “What do you suppose was in it for them?” and they wrote back:

All of the students they targeted had not applied early decision to their colleges.  So they had not gotten accepted to any colleges yet.  Success prioritizes their stats & data for the public & funders of the school.  I think that they truly believed I would not get into a highly selective college & so they did not want that data for their graduating class.  There’s obviously more to this but I think that played a factor in this.

Now I don’t know the entire story and I don’t think it would be worth the time to reach out to Success Academy to comment on this.  But this is a student who was at Success Academy for 12 and a half years.  This student was a Kindergartener in 2008 and went through all the grades, surmounting all the difficulties and seeing 80% of her classmates leave the school for one reason or another over the years.  So I find it pretty cold that Success Academy was not able to find a way for this student to graduate with that student’s cohort.

What I do know for sure is that 1/7 of the students who were seniors at Success Academy in November did not graduate seven months later.  This student says that all the students targeted had not applied early admission to college when they were told they had to stay for a second senior year if they wanted to graduate from Success Academy.  I also know that The New York Post wrote a story about the senior class with the headline “Entire Success Academy senior class accepted to college” which surely came from the Success Academy PR department.  If, as this student contends, this is partly because of Success Academy’s self-interest to boast about 100% of seniors getting into competitive colleges, well that would be a very cruel reason to abandon one of the students they have taught (I almost used the word ‘nurtured’ but, well, this is Success Academy after all!) for so many years.

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My ‘Essential Math For Kids (And Parents)’ Series Parts 1 to 3

There’s nothing I like more than talking about math.  There is no math topic that I find too trivial that it is not worthy of intense discussion.  I remember when I was living in Houston and my roommate was a 6th grade teacher and we talked for a very long time about how it is not totally obvious that just because 7+2 is 9 that 9-2 should be 7.

With this pandemic going on and so many people learning math through videos, I’m making a series of videos that I hope helps some parents and teachers help their children or their students learn math.

When complete, this will surely be over 12 hours long, starting with addition and ending with trigonometry.  So far there are three videos that go from kindergarten through about 3rd grade, ending with the dreaded ‘long division.’

Here is a link to a playlist and are the first three installments



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My New Video Series — Essential Math For Kids (And Parents)

Even though most people who read this blog know me as a critic of ed reform, the thing that I spend most of my time thinking about, actually, is how students learn math and what the best ways to teach it is.

Depending on how you count it, I’ve been teaching math for at least 23 years.  My first year as a professional teacher was in 1991, and that was 29 years ago, but I took a few years off after my fifth year of teaching.  But I was tutoring math when I was a high school student which was back about 35 years ago.  And even before that, one early memory of mine was helping my older sister with counting when I was about 4.  What I’m getting at is that I have been teaching math for a long time.

I teach high school now, but I’ve taught in middle school too, and as far as elementary school goes, I have two children, one is 9 and the other is 12, and I’ve helped them with their math and studied the skills that they have learned in their schools.

In this pandemic, parents find themselves in the position of trying to help their children with their math more than ever.  So something that I’ve thought I might do is create a series of videos that go over what I consider to be the essential skills I think kids should know as they progress through the grade levels.

Depending on whether anyone is watching these, I could see myself making about 50 of these 40 minute videos, starting with lower elementary and going though Algebra II and Trigonometry.  Anyway, here is the very first one in the series and it covers what I think the essential math skills I want my own children to master by 3rd grade.

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Success Academy Quietly Settles Discrimination Lawsuit And Pays Families $1.1 Million

Success Academy is the largest and most controversial charter chain in New York.  By one measure — state test scores — it is the most successful.  But over the years they have been embroiled in several significant scandals.  The two most prominent was the ‘rip and redo’ incident, where a teacher was caught on tape screaming at and ripping up a paper of a very well behaved young child, and the ‘got to go’ list where a principal created a list of students he planned to either expel or otherwise compel to leave.

But beyond these two high profile scandals, there are thousands of unreported mini-scandals that are just as harmful to the students who suffer them.  Over the years hundreds, if not thousands, of families have suffered from the way that Success Academy gets those families to transfer their children out of the school.  One trick they use a lot is threatening to leave back — or actually leaving back — students who are passing their classes and the state tests.  This was documented nicely in a podcast about them last year.  But the most heartless way they get parents to ‘voluntarily’ switch to another school is through coordinated harassment.  When Success Academy has students who do not respond to their strict disciplinary code, what they do is start calling the parents day after day and demand that the parents come get their children.  Sometimes the phone calls start at 8:00 AM.  If the parents are at work and they are not able to come and get the child, Success Academy threatens to call Administration for Child Services (ACS) on them and, in some cases, actually does call ACS or the police or has the child picked up by an ambulance and brought to the emergency room.  Even with all this, Success Academy is still the darling of the education reform movement since, I guess, the ends (high state test scores) justify the means (abusing — in my opinion — families and children).

In December 2015, five families of Success Academy students filed a civil suit against them.  The five families had similar complaints about how Success Academy created what the lawsuit called a ‘hostile learning environment.’  Many of the children had various disabilities, like ADHD.  Some of the court filings that I have read describe how Success Academy did not modify their protocols to address these disabilities.  Also in the documents the families filed, we learn that Success Academy was not cooperative during the five year trial.

I had read about this case a few years ago, but had not heard any resolution.  But according to a document that was filed about a month ago, I have learned that Success Academy decided to settle the lawsuit with the families by paying them $1.1 million plus legal fees which seem like they might add up to another few hundred thousand.

Something that is significant about this, I think, is that this opens the door to hundreds if not thousands of other families who have had similar treatment by Success Academy.  The things that these families suffered were not unusual for Success Academy.  It was all the sorts of things I hear about all the time there.  Especially with this legal precedent of the ‘hostile learning environment’ I would not be surprised to see a larger class action lawsuit once news about this $1.1 million payout spreads.

We always hear about how charter schools get more flexibility in exchange for greater accountability.  But as this lawsuit and settlement show, accountability doesn’t just mean getting high state test scores.


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Charter Schools And Their Enemies — My Review

Thomas Sowell is an economist and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His lengthy career has spanned six decades and he is a well respected conservative scholar.

He has recently published a thin volume called ‘Charter Schools And Their Enemies’ (Basic Books 2020)


Though charter schools have been around for about 30 years, they started getting a lot of attention with the release of the documentary ‘Waiting For Superman’ in 2010. The premise of that movie was that American schools are failing and producing mainly illiterate students and that the blame falls on teacher’s unions. The remedy, according to the movie, is non-unionized charter schools. Charter schools, it claims, prove that in-school factors can overcome out-of-school factors as long as teachers are not protected by their unions.

Waiting For Superman coincided with the rise of education celebrities like Michelle Rhee who was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 2008. The pro-charter / teacher union bashing movement helped fuel the Obama-Duncan Race To The Top agenda which continues to be influential today.
But Waiting For Superman is not taken seriously anymore. The premises in that movie have been dissected and debunked over and over. American schools were not producing mainly illiterate students as it claimed (mainly based on NAEP ‘proficiency’ benchmarks), charter schools were not getting significantly better test results (once you account for factors to make the comparisons more fair), and it appears that even the five children that the movie was about have not had spectacular success in life ten years later (there has never been a ‘where are they now?’ follow up for obvious reasons).

The teacher-bashing movement seems to have hit its peak around 2014 and then, as charter schools failed to deliver on their promises over and over (see the Tennessee Achievement School District for the ultimate example), most education ‘reformers’ began to abandon the hard core anti-teacher’s union line. Whether they did this because they had epiphanies or if it was just a calculation to take on a kinder and gentler tone, there was a welcome shift away from cartoonish scapegoating of teacher’s unions. While there is still some teacher bashing in places like The74 and Education Post, even there they have toned it down a bit.

This is what makes this new book ‘Charter Schools And Their Enemies’ interesting to me. This is mainly a book that starts with the Waiting For Superman premises and follows them through into today’s education landscape.

In the first chapter, ‘Comparisons And Comparability’, Sowell writes about the methodology he uses in order to get an ‘apples to apples’ comparison between charter and non-charter schools. He uses New York City data and finds charter schools that have similar demographics to schools that they share a building with. This is something that is often done when pro-reform journalists want to set a scene and they describe a charter school and then contrast it with the non-charter ‘down the hall.’ But there is nothing special about the building itself that causes students to be more comparable just because they go to schools in the same one. In New York City, especially with regard to charter schools, there is not a ‘neighborhood school’ anymore. Students will travel to go to charter schools and there are often several schools within a few blocks of one another. It would be one thing if you took an existing public school and randomly split the student body into two parts and a charter school taught one of the groups in the same building. Sowell would have us believe that his metric produces the same kind of random sampling that would be needed for an accurate comparison of outcomes. Still, Sowell sets his rules up and shows in chapter two, ‘Charter School Results,’ that in the five charter networks (KIPP, Success Academy, Explore, Uncommon, and Achievement First) that meet his criteria, they all outperform their co-located non-charters in terms of math and ELA standardized tests.

Similar to Waiting For Superman, there is no discussion here about why these might not be ‘apples-to-apples’ comparisons. Nothing about how charter schools experience more attrition than the non-charter schools. Nothing about other types of demographics that can be measures, like whether or not the children live in two-parent homes or whether the hoops that the families have to jump through can produce a group of students more likely to do well on standardized tests.

Like Waiting For Superman, chapters 1 and 2 set up his methodology for getting a ‘fair’ comparison of charter schools and non-charter schools that share buildings. Chapter 3, ‘Hostility’, begins with the question “What reason can there be to be hostile to successful charter schools? Actually, there are millions of reasons — namely millions of dollars.” Here he mentions the oft repeated and highly dubious statistic that there are 50,000 students in New York City on waiting lists to get into charter schools. If you read Robert Pondiscio’s ‘How The Other Half Learns,’ in which he concludes that Success Academy is a net good for students, even he shows the farce of the Success Academy waiting list. So many lottery winners are discouraged from enrolling that motivated families regularly get in off the waiting list.

Sowell argues that since the city pays $20,000 for each student, this represents one billion dollars. Greedy teacher’s unions and schools of education will do anything they can to slow the growth of charter schools so they don’t have to share that one billion dollars.

The first ‘enemy’ of charter schools is mentioned here, Mayor Bill de Blasio. I always find it ironic when de Blasio is cast as such a charter school critic. In his own Department Of Education he allows charter schools to get mailing lists of prospective students each year. Also he and his department surely have access to enough data to uncover so many issues with charter schools with their attrition but, for whatever reasons, he never chooses to reveal such data.

Sowell writes about how de Blasio does not want to pay rent for Success Academy charters. This began an interesting section where Sowell cites different cities in which school districts have denied space to charter schools, even having rules where a shuttered school can be sold to anyone except a charter school. This section could be read side-by-side with the chapter from Diane Ravitch’s recent ‘Slaying Goliath’ where she outlines so many stories of how charter schools capitalize by paying rent to themselves and other double dealings with real estate.

He says that there is no basis for critics who say that charters don’t get results better than non-charters, yet he is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution so he must be aware of the Stanford CREDO reports that frequently conclude that charter school quality is very inconsistent and how even in Waiting For Superman they quietly slipped in the CREDO conclusion that only 1 in 6 charter schools outperformed non-charter schools in one of their studies.

In chapter 4, ‘Accountability’, Sowell reverts back to Waiting For Superman arguments from 2010. The teacher contracts are hundreds of pages long, as if there is some perfect number of pages in a union contract for optimal learning. He revisits the famed ‘rubber rooms’ part of Waiting For Superman where teachers who are awaiting fair hearings go to wait for weeks or months. He describes them as “teachers who did no teaching, nor anything else, because education officials did not want them in the classrooms for various reasons, ranging from incompetence to misconduct. And yet these teachers could not be simply fired, under the highly restrictive provisions of the schools’ contracts with the teachers unions.” No mention of how the teachers in the rubber rooms did not set their own fair hearing schedules. He also mischaracterizes the NYC Absent Teacher Reserve program. Part of an agreement that former chancellor Joel Klein negotiated was that if a school was closed down by the Department of Education for low test scores, the teachers who were displaced did not have to accept a placement that they did not want. They became part of the ATR pool. I have mixed feelings about this policy, but Joel Klein negotiated it and, consequently, some ATRs are working as pricey substitute teachers. But Sowell describes them as “teachers who get full pay to perform substitute or administrative duties because no principal wants to hire them full-time.” This is just another example of an intentional, or maybe just misinformed, explanation of a detail in this book.

Like Waiting For Superman, Sowell says it is almost impossible to fire a unionized teacher, but in charter schools you can be fired for incompetence, no questions asked.

Diane Ravitch is first mentioned as one of the ‘enemies’ of charter schools on page 72. Without any mention of how she was once assistant Secretary Of Education under George H. Bush or about how she was once a supporter of charter schools, his first mention of her says “To Professor Diane Ravitch of New York University — long a critic of charter schools and defender of traditional public schools — ‘tenure means due process’.” He continues absurdly “But if ‘due process’ has any definable meaning, and hence boundaries, then there must also be undue process beyond those boundaries.”

He quotes Ravitch in ‘Reign of Error’ about the impact of out-of-school factors on test scores “If we are unwilling to change the root causes, we are unlikely ever to close the gaps.” He then claims to refute this by referring to his data from chapter 2 where he claims to fairly compare charters to non-charters.

In this ‘accountability’ chapter he defends standardized tests and this is one of his more convincing passages. Basically that life is full of tests in one form another, which is true. But in response to the criticism that standardized tests have caused schools to focus solely on them at the expense of other pursuits, he quotes a D.C. principal who says “I’m not going to put my kids in art when they can’t read.” Sowell then writes “For low-income minority students, a mastery of mathematics and English is a ticket out of poverty.”

The book is just six chapters and so far in the first four we get a pseudo-scientific way of finding comparable schools which leads to pretty much Waiting For Superman — Teacher’s Unions are evil, charter schools are the solution. But then in chapter 5, ‘Student Differences,’ Sowell tries to answer some of the criticisms of charters and in doing so, undermines the point he tried to make in the first four chapters.

One common criticism of charters is that they are highly segregated. In answering this charge, Sowell goes into a lengthy explanation about how some students are more intelligent and motivated than other students for a variety of reasons. “To assume that they [students] all want to be there, and are all striving to achieve success there, is to ignore the most blatant realities.” This is odd since all the reformers I know AND all the reform critics I know would say that students do want to succeed. Maybe they don’t always act like they do — they act out because they are frustrated that they are not successful.

One example of student differences, he says, is that the first born child often has a higher IQ than a younger sibling because they get more parental attention. He also writes about how “nutritional differences among pregnant women have produced IQ differences when their children were old enough to be tested.” He writes that some cultures emphasize education more than others, and then writes”

“The taboo against discussing such things openly in the United States works to the disadvantage of the very people that taboo is supposedly protecting. Those black or Hispanic youngsters who are motivated to learn can pay a social penalty, at least, from classmates of their own ethnic background in some schools.”

So in chapter 2 he claims that his process for finding schools with comparable students shows that charter schools are superior to non-charters. But here in this chapter he says something quite different as he discusses whether it is a bad thing that charter schools are highly segregated. He writes:
“what critics call ‘segregated’ charter schools are schools in predominantly minority communities, where motivated minority students are educated among other motivated minority students. In these settings, such students can freely pursue academic achievement without the negative social pressures that can be acute in some racially integrated schools.”

In the next section of chapter 5, Sowell addresses the common criticism that charter schools have more motivated families. In ‘How The Other Half Learns,’ Pondiscio is pretty clear that this charge is true but says it isn’t a bad thing. Mike Petrilli, a few years ago, made a similar argument, calling the most motivated families and students ‘strivers.’ But Sowell just spent four chapters about how charters have the ‘same kids’ especially when they are learning in the exact same buildings.

But here he writes:

“When there is a charter school in a Harlem neighborhood, for example, there is no need to assume that parents who try to get their children into that charter school have the same cultural values and personal priorities as parents who do not. While some critics of charter schools may depict these schools as cherry-picking the students they admit — despite the widespread use of lotteries for admissions purposes — there is no need to overlook the possibility that highly motivated parents may be more common among the parents of children in charter schools.”

“While those parents who enter their children’s names in the lotteries for admission in charter schools may well be more motivated to promote their children’s education, and to cooperate with schools in doing so …”

Then after basically conceding to one of the biggest criticisms of charter schools and invalidating his first four chapters of the Waiting For Superman rehash, he makes an interesting, but invalid, argument that goes like this: Families who enter the lottery are highly motivated and have children who are students who are highly motivated. But since there are these huge waitlists that must mean that the vast majority of these highly motivated families and children go to non-charter schools. So the non-charter schools have nothing to complain about since they get most of the motivated families who weren’t able to get into the charter school. And it would be a good argument if those waitlists were not as large as he believes them to be and if those waitlists, as described aptly in ‘How The Other Half Learns’ are not just a way for charters to weed out the lottery winners who are not up for the hazing period that charter schools put them through. Basically, Sowell’s entire argument crumbles with the inflated wait-lists and he gives up the original argument that charter school kids are an apples-to-apples comparison with non-charters as long as they are in the same building.

Sowell continues alienating himself in chapter 5, next trying to answer the criticism that charter schools have harsh discipline policies. He is in favor of the harsh discipline since the opposite, no discipline at all (which nobody I’ve ever met is in favor of), is even worse.
He writes: “charter schools would lose more than they would gain by following the same lax discipline policies as traditional public schools. Moreover, anti-charter school ‘reforms’ that force charter schools to accept more disruptive and violent student behavior reduce the charter schools’ attraction for parents seeking both safety and better education for their children. Like most such ‘reforms,’ the real beneficiaries are adults with vested interests in traditional unionized public schools, when the competitive attractions of charter schools are reduced.”

Chapter 6, the final chapter, is called ‘Dangers’ and it is about other ways that politicians and teacher’s unions undermine charter school growth. There are unfair charter caps. There are people who want charters to teach social justice to their students which he calls ‘indoctrination.’ He also does not like charters having to teach ‘sex education’ or ‘ethnic studies.’ Finally, he resents that some charter critics want the charters to have their meetings open to the public and to have their records open to public scrutiny. He says that this will make the board members targets of smear campaigns and have their homes vandalized.

All in all, this was quite a strange read. I don’t imagine that many reformers want to be identified with his arguments from the last two chapters and since the first four chapters have already been done in 2010 with Waiting For Superman, this book is not one that I imagine will be remembered for being very relevant.

Still it is interesting to see how little is left in the reform defender’s arsenal.

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Stewart Swoons, Eva Evades

I recently listened to two illuminating podcasts about Success Academy.  Hosted by Education Post CEO Chris Stewart on the Citizen Ed podcast, the first interview was with Robert Pondiscio, author of ‘How The Other Half Learns’ and the second was with Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz.

The first thing that struck me about these podcasts was that Chris Stewart, when he is not being very immature on Twitter, has it in him to be a thoughtful and humble guy.  Why he acts like he does on Twitter, I guess he thinks it achieves something.  We’ve had some epic Twitter battles over the years — often some TFA supporters join in and gang up on me — I can’t say I look forward to them.  One thing I have earned as result of my sporadic interactions with him is that I have my own ‘tag’ on Education Post.

So to see him interview people who he has long standing relationships is an interesting experience.  It’s like when the curtain is removed and we see the real Wizard of Oz that is voicing the booming avatar.

The first interview was with Pondiscio.  About a year ago he published a tell-all about Success Academy.  Though he set out to give a balanced picture of the good and bad of Success Academy, I wote in my review that I felt that his honest appraisal was devastating to the mythology of this controversial charter chain.  Rather than try to counter the charges that the students in Success Academy are cherry picked, he embraces it.  Who are we, he asks, to prevent families from self-selecting themselves by using their resources, in this case the organizational resources to do all the application steps, to attend a school with similarly advantaged families?

He says that an argument against charters is that people think that taking the most functional families from the public schools harms the kids left in that school.  But he argues that we would never expect a wealthy white family to put up with sacrificing their child’s education for the greater good of society so why should we not give families who are financially poor but who have what he calls ‘social capital’ the same option?  I would argue back that wealthy white families would also not put up with a school that pulls a bait-and-switch and in the end, only 20% of families who start there manage to complete the school.  Success Academy is like a pyramid scheme and while I suppose we all have the right to enter a pyramid scheme if we want to, it’s better to avoid them so families deserve to know the truth about the high likelihood that they will eventually be leaving the school ‘voluntarily.’

Though some very stupid ‘reformers’ like Joel Klein, who wrote a blurb for the back cover, claim to love the book, Chris Stewart admits “If I were on the other side of this I would like your book better than if I’m a reformer. … If I was on the anti-reform side I would like it better.  I actually would think that it validates more of what people have been trying to say.”

Even though Stewart does not agree with a lot of the arguments in the book, he says it is very well-written and worth reading and watching the conversation, he seems to like Pondiscio and respects him even though they may not agree on some big issues.  Watching this interview makes it seem so strange to me the way that Stewart interacts with people who he must consider to be much bigger threats than Pondiscio for making almost the same arguments in their own blogs and Tweets.

A few weeks later, Stewart hosts Eva Moskowitz in a 30 minute interview that I encourage everyone to watch.

It is pretty amazing to watch Eva Moskowitz discuss education.  I can see why Trump considered her for Secretary of Education.

After about 7 minutes, Stewart apologetically says that people are going to be upset if he doesn’t ask her the tough questions.  The first question is whether the disciplinary measures at the school serve to weed kids out and produce an easier population to teach.  Her response is that in fifteen years only one student was ever expelled.  Though they may not officially ‘expel’ many students, they have different ways of dealing with students who have “got to go.”  One trick they use often is telling a family that their child has to repeat a grade.  But — if they act now and transfer out, they can be promoted to the next grade for their new school.  This was well documented in the podcast series startup last year.  A few years ago I was at a meeting in my daughter’s school’s auditorium and I overheard a parent tell another parent that his daughter went to Success Academy.  When asked how it was the guy said “It’s great.  They say here’s how we do it, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door.”

About their suspension rate she uses an extreme example which is likely very rare, “You’re not allowed to throw a metal chair at a teacher’s head.”  I’d like to know what percent of Success Academy’s large number of yearly suspensions comes from a child throwing a metal chair at a teacher’s head.  Personally, I would want to know more about what led to the student throwing a chair and if the student was deliberately trying to assault the teacher or if the student was having a tantrum and as a result a chair ended up coming close to a teacher’s head.  I doubt that it is very often in Success Academy that something like this happens and, just like all schools, they should not be surprised that things like that happen, especially when you don’t know anything about chid development and how to de-escalate volatile situations.

Stewart then mentions “a particular New York critic who like to follow you guys all the time … and his number one thing is retention.”  I hope I’m not too vain, but I do think that this comment is about me.  So he asks how Eva would respond to charges of lack of retention of students and also about lack of backfilling.

I think that lack of backfilling is one of the main advantages that Success Academy has over other schools.  When a public school loses 10 to 20 percent of their students each year — often some of the lowest performing students who have less stability in their lives — those students are replaced with other students who often also have less stability so in that way, the student population does not get any easier to teach.  But Success only backfills up until elementary school, and even that is a bit shady since when a fourth grader, for example, gets a coveted spot off the Success Academy wait list, they are often brought in and tested and told that their reading level is too low so they can only come to Success Academy if they re-do third grade.  Many of those families decline their wait list offer so even the backfilling has ways for Success to stack the deck.  Another reason that backfilling is so important is that it would encourage Success Academy to be more accountable for retaining their students.  As it is, Success Academy is rewarded when a student leaves and is not backfilled.  But if they had to backfill, they might think twice about coercing a student to leave the school if they know that they can’t control who replaces that student.

She says that they don’t backfill after elementary school because it would be unfair to the students if she were to backfill and get a tenth grade who reads at a second grade level.  Stewart just nods in agreement at this and I wonder where is the chops-busting Citizen Stewart from Twitter to challenge this explanation.  Eva then says that their retention is very good and that they lose between 5 and 10 percent of their students each year while the neighborhood schools lose between 20 and 30 percent, to which Stewart responds “I’ve never heard that fact, actually.”  I have see some analyses that have Success Academy losing about 10% a year and district school losing about 15% a year.  Certainly I would expect Success Academy families who already are more stable than the average family in their district and who went through great lengths to get admitted to the school to try to stay at the school while for the district school, leaving one to go to another similar school a mile a way isn’t such a hard decision to make.  So I would say that if Success attrition is below district attrition, it should be even more so.

And it’s not just about the attrition rate, but who leaves the school.  I think I could win any argument about Success Academy with just a few publicly available data points.

This is one of the most telling.  Here are the demographics for the graduating class 2018-2019

Screen Shot 2020-06-16 at 11.54.59 PM

What this shows is that the graduating class was only 20% boys and 80% girls.  Considering that these 28 students were once 80 kindergarteners, the school retained, on average, about 15% of their boys and 40% of their girls.

Eva says that families leave Success Academy for different reasons and she supports parents right to choose a school that meets their needs.  She uses a ridiculous example of a male student who chose to leave the school between 8th grade and 9th grade because he didn’t think that he would have anyone to date at the Success Academy high school.

Moskowitz then wants to make the point that when you look at the low number of graduates she has (There were 16 out of 72 the first year, 26 out of 80 the second year, and 99 out of 350 this year), she says that that does not include students who have been left back but who are still in the school and will graduate the next year.

Moskowitz:  “Some of our kids, often because of trauma, you know, take a fifth year of high school.  And I support that.  If you’ve had your father murdered (nervous laughter), your studies are not the most important thing at that moment.  I have people criticizing that we started senior year with, you know, x number, I believe we started with 111 [author’s note:  It was 114] if I’m remembering correctly, and we ended up with 99.  Most of those kids are still going to our school.  They’re just not graduating.  It’s not a one size fits all.  And we have a lot of kids who experience a lot of trauma and they may need to take a little bit longer.”

OK a lot to unpack here.  A parent being murdered is quite an unusual situation and I seriously doubt that many of the students in the fifteen years of her school get left back for something as horrific as that.  But she is right that Success Academy does leave back a lot of students.  Taking a fifth year of high school, however, doesn’t usually work the way she is describing.  Using her current senior class she says that there were 114 seniors in the beginning of the year and 99 of them graduated at the end of the year.  So there were 15 students, over 10 percent of the class, she is to have us believe, that had to repeat 12th grade because they needed a 5th year of high school.  It is more likely that someone gets left back in an earlier grade.  I would think it very unusual that after making it though 12 years of Success Academy and getting to 12th grade that so many students would have to repeat 12th grade.  It just doesn’t make sense.

I took a look at the numbers and found that the recent 99 graduates were actually 146 11th graders the year before with 44% boys and 56% girls.

Screen Shot 2020-06-17 at 12.22.13 AM

The 99 students who graduated a year and a half later represent just 67% of the 11th graders from the beginning of 11th grade.  And those 99 students were about 2/3 girls, so half of the boys who had made it to 11th grade either left the school or were left back either in 11th grade or in 12th grade and did not make it to graduate with the rest of their class.

Throughout this interview, Moskowitz operates in absurd extremes to defend her positions:  Of course we suspend children when they throw metal chairs at teachers’ heads.  We don’t backfill because there could be a 10th grader who reads at a second grade level, we don’t make things difficult for families which causes them to transfer out — kids choose to leave so they can have more dating options.  We didn’t want to make 15 out of 114 12th graders who started at the beginning of this school year have to repeat a grade — they couldn’t focus on their studies because they were dealing with issues as serious as the murder of one of their parents.  And, just to add one more comment about this one, even if it were true that one or more of those 15 12th graders lost focus because their fathers were murdered, wouldn’t it be the right thing to do to tell them that they’ve done K to 11 at Success Academy and some of their senior year so let’s give them a break and not add extra trauma to a horrific situation by making them re-do 12th grade?  But Moskowitz operates in these extremes because if she were to admit that these extreme — and likely made up — scenarios are very rare.

Well, I definitely found these podcasts interesting to listen to.  I was flattered to be mentioned, if not by name, even though I was being mocked for being a nay-sayer.  It is important to scrutinize Success Academy since it is the only charter network in the country that is, at least in terms of test scores, doing with education reformers claimed would be done all over the place if they ever got into power.  Revealing some of the data that puts some of their statistics into perspective should be something that all education reformers should be interested in learning about and should not be mocking.  Genuine Success should invite and be able to withstand being prodded and examined and if it can’t withstand the scrutiny, that’s important to know that too.  I play my part in raising concerns and even though it sometimes gets me into a Twitter fight, I think that it is important to do anyway.

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TFA Will Train New Recruits Virtually

For the past thirty summers, Teach For America has trained their new recruits in a five-week crash course known as ‘the institute.’  The first institute trained 500 corps members in Los Angeles.  As TFA grew, more institutes were added and last summer they trained around 3,000 corps members spread out among four different sites.

At the institute, corps members are split into groups of about 12 where they have a TFA alum as their Corps Member Advisor.  This group is further split into teams of 4 who will work together to teach a class of students in summer school.  The first week is an orientation period where corps members get to learn the basic principles of teaching and also to have discussions about race and society.  The next four weeks are centered on student teaching.  Since summer school is about 4 hours a day, each teacher gets to teach, on average, one hour a day for the remaining 20 days.  The Corps Member Advisor will observe the student teaching and in the afternoon each day there will be a group meeting with that advisor and also some kind of lesson taught by another alum called the content specialist.

Twenty hours is not a lot of student teaching.  I’ve been complaining for years that they could increase this to eighty hours if they would just get more students for the summer schools so that each teacher could teach four hours a day instead of just one.  Though they only get twenty hours of teaching actual children, all corps members — like all student teachers — would agree that these were the most valuable hours in their entire training.  You can talk about students in the abstract all you want and what sorts of things they will respond to and what will help them learn, but student teaching is where you get to learn the all important chasm between theory and practice in teaching.  Twenty hours of student teaching is certainly not as good as the months of student teaching that a teacher in a traditional certification route receives, and it isn’t as good as the eighty hours that I consider possible with TFA and which I used to nag TFA about when I used to try to make suggestions directly to them.  But twenty hours, though short, is twice as good as ten hours.  And twenty hours is twenty times as good as one hour.  And twenty hours is 1,200 times as good as one minute.  And twenty hours is, of course, infinitely better than zero hours.

COVID-19 has shaken every aspect of American life.  Throughout the country, school buildings are closed and teachers are doing their best to teach remotely.  Colleges are also closed.  It is not even certain that schools will re-open normally this September without some miracle cure or vaccine for COVID-19.

Because of COVID-19, people have had to cancel a lot of things that were very important to them.  Weddings that had been scheduled for over a year had to be postponed.  Trips had to be cancelled.  In times like these, unfortunately, some things are temporarily impossible.  Some things can be done virtually.  A wedding, I suppose, can be done remotely.  It’s not as fun, but there are no real ‘victims’ of a remote wedding.  I had the unpleasant opportunity to attend a remote funeral a few weeks ago.  So there are things that can be done virtually, but there are other things where the remote version is so different from the live version, like trying to play baseball remotely, where it doesn’t make any sense to do it at all.

I learned yesterday that TFA has chosen not to cancel the 2020 Institute, but instead to hold it remotely.  So this means that TFA has weighed out the pros and cons of cancelling training vs. remote training and decided that the reward of remote training outweighs the risks of remote training.  I see this as a huge mistakes that harms children.  But for this decision to harm children, there are three other parties that share responsibility.  I will outline who these other parties are in a minute.

Teach For America surely knows that a remote training with no actual student teaching will produce extremely unprepared teachers.  And those teachers will each teach 30 (or up to 150) students next year and each of those students will suffer for having such an untrained teacher.  I don’t know what alternatives TFA explored, but there was another option besides just cancelling the institute altogether.  If I were in charge I would take some of the $300 million that TFA has in the bank and make this summer a remote training for teacher assistants.  Next year will be a challenge for teachers and having 3,000 teacher assistants who are knowledgeable about the different remote learning options can be very useful.  And TFA could pay the salaries of these 3,000 teacher assistants too.  This way, the 2020 corps members can actually be helping improve education and there would not be student victims who have completely untrained teachers as their lead teachers.  But this is not the decision TFA went with.  They are comfortable sending teachers with zero hours of student teaching into real schools next year with students who have just suffered the emotional, physical, and educational trauma of the previous six months.

But as I mentioned, TFA is not the sole culprit here.  TFA can only get away with this if the states that TFA partners with allow it.  In each state that TFA sends teachers to, there is some kind of contract where TFA promises to provide teachers who have been trained to some kind of minimum standard.  That standard likely includes some minimum amount of student teaching hours.  TFA was already likely claiming that their trainees got 80 hours of student teaching since they were technically team-teaching for 20 days for 4 hours a day even though, in reality, they generally only taught for one hour each day.  But there is no way that any amount of remote teaching for students that these trainees do this summer can count as actual ‘student teaching’ by the original intent of the agreement.  I think it would be fair for any of these states to say that TFA violated the terms of the contract and that the state is under no obligation to issue teaching certificates to those trainees.  So if the states decide not to do this, I see them as equally culpable in this scheme.

But even if both TFA and the states are OK with allowing TFA trainees with zero hours of student teaching to become full time lead teachers for students who are in most need of teachers who have had more than zero hours of actual teaching experience, there are still two more parties that have to be complicit for TFA and the states to actually get away with it.

The next responsible party would be any principals who actually hire these TFA teachers who have only participated in a virtual training experience.  If those principals don’t hire the TFA teachers, then those teachers can’t go on, as well meaning as they may be, and make students be victims of these irresponsible decisions by TFA and by the states.

I know it might seem hopeless now.  If TFA won’t do the right thing by cancelling institute or ‘reimagining’ the role of TFA at this moment.  If the states won’t have the courage to refuse to certify teachers who have not met minimum requirements laid out in a contract that never anticipated the possibility of a pandemic that would make actual student teaching impossible for the trainees.  If principals decide to hire these trainees — I don’t know why they would — who else could possibly stop this impending disaster from happening?

Well, there is one more actor.  It’s not an actor with any money or influence but it is an actor with ultimate power.  The one group of people who could stop this madness is, quite simply, the members of the TFA 2020 corps.  I know that it is sad that this decision must come down to them, but this is the reality.  The incoming 2020 corps members have suffered their own trauma.  A few weeks before graduating college, their schools were closed.  All the fun senior year events, including graduation, were cancelled.  Several months ago they applied to TFA because they wanted to help kids.  When they got into TFA and accepted the offer, they stopped planning for any other future.  They were set for the next two years.  Training was going to start in July and they would be teachers, ready to make a difference, in September.

But this pandemic changed things.  Now that the training has been made into remote training, I’m sure that some of them are having second thoughts.  As much as TFA might tell them that TFA has it all under control — that face to face student teaching was only a small component of the full training — some 2020 corps members must be worried that this type of training will not prepare them to be effective teachers.  And if they will not be effective teachers, by no fault of their own, they will then go on to harm the very students who they signed up to TFA to help.  I am very glad that I am not in this dilemma.  And I think it is a shame that TFA and the states that are willing to certify the under trained teachers have put the 2020 corps members into this dilemma.  Had TFA and the states just said that this is one of those things that there was no choice — student teaching is essential to teacher training — then the 2020 corps would be disappointed, but also relieved.  They know that this situation is unfair to them while they have to be unwitting partners in harming children.  But this is the dilemma that the 2020 corps members are now facing.  COVID-19 may have destroyed their immediate plans, but it does not have to destroy their lives.    The correct thing for a 2020 corps member to do is to resign from TFA.  Deep down they know this.  Will they be brave enough to make the correct decision?

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98 Success Academy Students Accepted To College

But is that a lot?

The New York Post seems to think so.  Three times in a recent article they suggest that this is 100% of the seniors.  The title “Entire Success Academy senior class accepted to college” certainly implies it.  The first sentence “Every senior in one of the city’s largest charter school networks has been accepted to a college this year, officials said.” reinforces it.  And the second sentence “All 98 of the 12th graders at Success Academy’s HS of the Liberal Arts in Manhattan earned admission to universities — including Yale, Penn, Duke and Georgetown.” further drives the point home.

But a responsible reporter would ask the logical follow up question.  Is 98 really all the students in the class of 2020?

The answer, of course is, ‘no.’  What the actual number is depends on how you define the class of 2020.

If you go back to a New York Post editorial from just six months ago, it begins with the sentence “Seniors at the Success Academy HS of the Liberal Arts just got their SAT scores — and all 114 did great, with an average score of 1268, 200 points above the national average.”  So six months ago there were 114 seniors, which is 16 more than the 98 that are now called the ‘entire’ senior class.  For Success Academy to lose roughly one-seventh of the students who were in the senior class just six months ago is stunning.  These 16 students had been at the school since at least 3rd grade.  Where did those 16 students go?

But if you look further back to the state data, you will find that the class of 2020 had 146 eleventh graders for the 2018-2019 school year.  This means that they lost about 1/3 of the class of 2020 between then and now.

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If you go back two more years to see where the class of 2020 was when they were in 9th grade you find that there were 191 students in the cohort back then.  Also notice that when they were in 9th grade the boy/girl split of the 191 was about 50%/50% while when they were in 11th grade the boy/girl split of the 146 was 44%/56% in favor of the girls.  We will have to wait until the official data comes out next year to see what the split was for the ‘entire’ 98 who graduated.

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But Success Academy starts in Kindergarten.  For that you have to go way back to 2010 when they had 353 students in the class of 2020.  If you use that as your baseline then only 28% of the cohort persisted.

Regardless of how you want to define the ‘class of 2020,’ it is disingenuous of The New York Post to call this ‘all’ or ‘the entire class.’

All the data I found is publicly available here.

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KIPP Sinks To New Low. Uses COVID-19 As An Opportunity To Abandon Two Memphis Schools.

The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter network is renowned as the ‘gold star’ of charter schools in the country.  With over 200 schools throughout the country and over 100,000 students, KIPP is the kind of network that reformers are referring to when they talk about ‘high quality charters.’

In researching KIPP over the years, I have found a huge inconsistency in the performance of their schools.  In some states with A to F grading schemes, there are KIPPs with As and KIPPs with Fs.  And even if you’re not a big believer in the A to F school rating system, reformers love them so it must be considered at least ‘ironic’ when schools that operate with the same philosophy and training and materials get such different results in the same state.

The Tennessee Achievement School District, or ASD, is the Edsel of school reform.  Created with a Race To The Top Grant and developed by TFA alum Kevin Huffman, who was state education commissioner at the time, and TFA alum Chris Barbic, the first ASD superintendent, the ASD completely failed in it’s mission to ‘catapult’ schools from the bottom 5% into the top 25% in five years.  It is now eight years into the experiment and hardly any of the 30 ASD schools even made it out of the bottom 5%.  Not to worry, both Huffman and Barbic resigned and are doing very well with their new project called The City Fund.

Three of the 30 ASD schools are run by KIPP.  Five days ago I read in Chalkbeat TN that two of those KIPP schools are shutting down at the end of this school year.  On the KIPP Memphis website they explain to the families “While the community welcomed our network with open arms, we’ve been unable to fulfill our academic promise to our students, teachers and families at KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary and KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle. We understand that these closures will have significant implications on our families. However, we strongly believe this decision is in the best interest of our entire KIPP Memphis community and is a step in the right direction to improve our organization’s ability to build a stronger network of schools.”

Tennessee is where the value-added and growth metrics were developed and these two schools ranked at the bottom of the state.  Out of a 4 point scale, one of the schools got a 1 and the other got a 0.1 in growth.

Incidentally, KIPP currently has 13 schools in Tennessee.  Of those 13 schools, only 11 have growth scores for 2018-2019, five of those (including the two that are now closing) had growth scores between 0 and 1 and two had growth scores between 1 and 2.  So of the 11 schools with this rating, 7 had below to very below average ‘growth.’  Reformers are going to have to make up their minds:  Is KIPP a fraud or are growth scores a fraud — they can’t have it both ways.

But the other reason KIPP cited was COVID-19.  On the Frequently Asked Questions on their website, they wrote:  “The COVID-19 pandemic played a role in the decision to close the schools, as its financial impact prevented opportunities for the schools to receive long-term funding from historic philanthropic resources. KIPP Memphis strongly believes the decision to close KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary and KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle this year is what’s best for our community.”

So as a result of this, over 700 students who are already suffering the trauma that students everywhere are suffering as a result of this crisis — these 700 students now have an additional thing to suffer through, that their school which made so many promises to them is dissolving.

I do not believe that COVID-19 caused the KIPP empire to have to shutter these two schools.  If KIPP wants to admit that these schools should be shut down because KIPP does not have, after 25 years, any real knowledge about improving schools then at least they are being honest.  But I see this as just KIPP using a pandemic as an opportunity to dump two of low performing schools from their ‘portfolio.’  For these families, this is the last thing they needed to go through right now.  I know that the students will likely be better off in the long run by not attending a KIPP school, but in the short run I do not like to see students abandoned by their school no matter how overhyped that school might be.



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