TFA Podcast Celebrates Denver Students Who Fought Reforms That TFA Once Supported

If you want to know which way the wind is blowing in education politics, watch what TFA is doing. In the 2010s when ‘Waiting For Superman,’ Michelle Rhee, and KIPP charter schools were all the rage, TFA was busy touting and even taking credit for these. And now that those types of reforms have proved a bust after 10 years, TFA is altering its messaging.

A recent example is TFA’s new podcast series called ‘Changing Course.’ Each week they feature a school that is doing something innovative. Often they are high schools schools that have been ‘reimagined’ with opportunities for internships and hands-on learning. Though these schools generally have not proved themselves by the only metric that used to matter 10 years ago, standardized test scores, TFA no longer values, apparently, this one thing that had been used to label schools as failures and gotten them closed or ‘turned-around’ not so long ago.

The most recent episode ‘Better Together’ is the most ironic example of TFA jumping off the reform bandwagon to date. The premise is that there was a building that housed two schools. One was a college prep school and the other was a less academic school. As sometimes happens with these co-locations, there was a rivalry between the two schools and students were not happy about it. So the students appealed to the Denver school board to unite the two schools. They were successful and now the one school is a much more vibrant place.

To TFA’s credit, they got some very compelling interviews from current and former students at the school building. One student said that the original decision to split the once-unified school back in 2011 was rooted in systematic racism — that suburban schools do not get split up into two competing schools in the same building. Another student said that the original decision to split up the school was based on the school being unfairly labelled a ‘failing’ school based on just standardized test scores. All throughout, the host, Jonathan Santos Silva, complements the students for their courage and commitment to right this wrong.

But all throughout the podcast there is a looming unanswered question of who was this evil Denver school board who imposed such a punishment on this school ten years ago and why did that same school board suddenly have a change of heart.

Ten years ago, Denver was considered to be a mecca for so-called education reformers. Michelle Rhee, herself, when asked on Real Time With Bill Maher in 2013 told him that one city that was doing things right was Denver. The Denver school board was primarily composed of reformers who were funded by out of state money. This was also around the time that TFA alum Michael Johnston was a state senator and got a punitive teacher evaluation bill S.B. 191 which counted standardized test scores as 50% of the evaluation score and is still unfairly punishing teachers there to this day.

So in 2011 this pro-reform school board voted to do this turnaround on West High School where they split the school into two schools co-located in the same building. One school was run by The College Board and the other by Generation Schools, both New York based companies. Teachers were fired and the schools became ghost towns as they stopped admitting new ninth graders for the years until the students already in the school had graduated.

Eventually the schools devolved into the college prep school and the ‘other’ one. It seems that the ‘bad’ school got re-taken over a few times. It was a mess and the students started a campaign to re-unite the school. And like a true underdog story, the Denver school board agreed! But what the podcast fails to mention is that this Denver school board is not the same people as the one who voted to split the school. The old school board was stacked to board members who loved TFA, loved Waiting For Superman, loved school turnarounds like this. But recently Denver voters have rejected this type of superficial school reform and instead voted in a slate that were unanimously backed by the once vilified teacher’s union.

During the days when the reckless school closings and takeovers were happening in New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and there in Denver, you did not hear TFA talking about how awful this is. Ironically even the host of this podcast Jonathan Santos Silva, tweeted an article that was complimentary to Michelle Rhee style reform efforts in Denver in the early 2010s.

In featuring this story, is TFA finally admitting that they were wrong to support the destructive types of school reform that included turnarounds like this? It seems so for now. But I would like to see TFA go further and publicly renounce their years as cheerleaders and beneficiaries of this kind of school reform. I don’t think it is likely that we will get more than what we have in podcasts like this. TFA has to keep their options open in case Michelle Rhee rises to power again one day. But for now it is nice to see TFA casting the reformers as the villains and the unions as the heroes.

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Bloomberg Donates $200 Million To Success Academy And Promise Academy

Two charter school networks that were featured in the 2010 propaganda film ‘Waiting For Superman’ have just received $100 million each from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Success Academy is a network of 47 schools with around 20,000 students. Harlem Children Zone’s Promise Academy is a network of 2 schools with around 2,000 students. They both have been around for about 17 years. The were chosen because, at least to Bloomberg, they have demonstrated proven results.

Back when Bloomberg was mayor and these schools were just starting, the promise of charter schools was that they would increase standardized test scores. In my analysis of the data over the years I’ve found that most charter schools do not have very good test scores and those that do often get those test scores at the expense of something else, usually student attrition. Harlem Children Zone Promise Academy has about a 50% attrition rate and better than average test scores. Success Academy has a 75% attrition rate but outstanding test scores, especially in the 3-8 tests.

Though these are both well known charter schools that were both in ‘Waiting For Superman’ they have very different philosophies. Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy schools are based on the premise that schools on their own cannot overcome poverty. So Harlem Children’s Zone offers many ‘wraparound’ services. On their website they describe this as:

“Harlem Children’s Zone breaks the cycle of intergenerational poverty with on-the-ground, all-around programming that builds up opportunities for children and families to thrive in school, work, and life. From early childhood, education, and career programs to community outreach and wellness initiatives, HCZ opens pathways to mobility and prosperity.

Our mission centers around the belief that the most powerful way to fight poverty is to invest in every opportunity for people to rise above it. From education and employment to housing and healthy living, we’ll do whatever it takes so that our children, families, and communities can live up to their promising futures.”

Success Academy takes the opposite philosophy that acknowledging the impact of hunger or poor health on education is just an ‘excuse’ and that schools with high standards will get the high test scores regardless of those external factors.

Both schools have had, over the years, scandals where they have dumped undesirable students. Promise Academy, early on, ‘fired’ one of their cohorts of 8th graders when they were not performing well enough. But other than that one class, I have not heard anything about Promise Academy doing something like this. Success Academy has racked up so many episodes like this. They have paid millions of dollars in discrimination lawsuits, one for creating something called the ‘got to go list’ for students they wanted to force out of their schools. Year after year, Success Academy rids themselves of the students they don’t think fit their mold with an unethical strategy where they threaten to have a student repeat a grade — unless, they transfer out of the school and then they will promote them.

Success Academy is going to use some of the money to build a new facility. If this means that the NYC DOE doesn’t have to pay as much of their rent as before then there will be, at least, something good about this donation. It isn’t clear how Promise Academy can possibly spend $100 million. They only have 2,000 students so per-capita this is about $50,000 per student. They mentioned something about financial aid for graduates who go to college and for loan payments for teachers who work there. If some of that money goes toward helping the physical and mental health of their families, that would also be something that would be helpful.

But I wonder how much of this money will be used as a weapon against public schools. One negative use of the money would be for these schools to increase their disingenuous PR campaigns. Both schools spend a lot of money on advertising, so they should be able to ramp that up with this money. Having all this money will enable these schools to lower their class sizes which can help them get their test scores even better (really, Success Academy can’t really get scores much higher than the nearly 100% passing rates they already have), and if it were still Bloomberg’s education reform era, this would serve as a way to shut down schools that have lower test scores. But the whole ‘shut down schools’ thing isn’t really popular anymore. They did it in New Orleans, they did it in Chicago, and they did it in New York City. But this isn’t a reform that has been happening much lately and I don’t see this $200 million really turning back the clock to the Bloomberg days.

Like Mike Bloomberg’s almost comically awful attempt to become relevant again when he briefly entered the 2020 presidential primary, this effort will probably not have a big impact on his goal of demolishing public schools and teachers’ unions.

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TFA Podcast Showcasing ‘Failing’ Schools

For the past fifteen years a talking point of the education ‘reformers’ is the prevalence of the so-called ‘failing school.’ Popularized by the movie ‘Waiting For Superman’ and echoed over the years by people like Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and Campbell Brown, the failing schools narrative has motivated many politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, to seriously consider the charter school expansion and teacher scapegoating that characterizes the education wars in recent times. In 2010 a high school in Central Falls Rhode Island was one of the highest profile ‘turnaround’ efforts supported by Obama and Duncan. The teachers were all fired and this was celebrated by Duncan as necessary.

Teach For America has benefited a lot from the failing school concept. TFA alumni who have risen to power in different school systems have exploited it to help shut down public schools and replace them with charter schools.

A ‘failing’ school, quite simply, is one that has low standardized test scores. And over the years many of those schools have been shut down while cheered on by TFA and their allies. Ironically, the charter schools that replace these ‘failing’ schools often have very low test scores themselves. When I would read claims by TFA that some school that had a lot of TFA teachers and that was started by a TFA alum had great test scores, I would easily be able to show that the school’s test scores were a mirage inflated by student attrition usually. Or I would show that a school supposedly ‘turned around’ by a TFA alum still had very low test scores.

Teach For America recently launched a new podcast series called ‘Changing Course.’ In each episode a school, usually a high school so far, is showcased for having an innovative model. In the second episode “The Gift Of Unlearning” the school is The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, or for short ‘The MET’ school of Rhode Island. According to the host, “We’ll look at how unlearning academic traditions centered around statewide testing (or test scores) and learning to lead with curiosity has helped students not only quickly discover their passions but also, graduate with real world experience.”

For so many years, TFA showcased charter schools that focused exclusively on test prep for standardized test and then used those test scores as proof of the school’s success so hearing them de-emphasize standardized test scores is something I do support, but I’m not sure that TFA has the right to switch sides on the importance of test scores just like that after all the damage they did in advancing the failing school narrative.

This MET school has an interesting model where students do internships and they learn their coursework in the context of their hands-on internships. The school has been around since 1996 (it is a network of six schools now) so there has been plenty of time for them to show some results.

There is no mention of the school’s test scores in the podcast so I looked them up in the U.S. News rankings:

Out of 64 high schools in Rhode Island, this school is ranked 42, one above the ‘failing’ Central Falls High School that was subject to such severe reforms ten years ago.

And, no, I don’t think this is a bad school. But based on its test scores, it is just the kind of school that reformers still describe the students at as ‘trapped in a failing school.’ And I’m not suggesting that TFA go back to focusing on test scores, but I feel like TFA cannot just suddenly celebrate schools with terrible test scores without also coming out with a full explanation of the sudden switch and some acknowledgement of the role they played in adding fuel to the failing school panic that shaped so much of education policy for the past ten years.

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The Incredible Shrinking TFA

Teach For America has an operating budget of $300 million. Their main responsibility is to recruit and prepare corps members to teach for a minimum of two years in low-income communities. They started in 1990 with 500 corps members. In 1991 they grew to 750 corps members. By 2005 they had 2000 corps members and they peaked in 2012 with 6000. Now, according to Chalkbeat, They are at a 17 year low, back to 2000 recruits.

Teach For America blames their recruitment woes on the pandemic, but I have been following the ups and down of this organization for over 30 years, starting when I was a corps member myself in 1991, and I have a different theory.

There are three reasons why TFA’s popularity is fading, and all three of these reasons stem from an overarching problem — arrogance. In my analysis, those three reasons are: Failure to properly train corps members, ineffective leadership, and a close alliance with a toxic and oversimplified type of education reform based on teacher bashing.

Reason #1: Failure to properly train corps members

Teach For America has been training teachers for 31 years. The first few institutes were staffed by experienced teachers since there were no TFA alumni yet. Still, the training was inconsistent and most of us had very rough first years. But the program was new and there were teacher shortages at the time, so this was pretty much expected. In 1994, TFA had major financial problems and they created a new low-budget institute staffed by TFA alumni in which corps members trained in four teacher cohorts who shared a class for student teaching. That class often had only a few students which did not make for a very useful student teaching experience. Corps members from the mid-90s struggled a lot in their first years — as did their students.

TFA expanded this model to different regions and even though the training was terrible, the program grew steadily. The training continued to be awful. TFA would not acknowledge the weakness of the training. I had all kinds of meetings with various TFA administrators in the early 2000s, I just couldn’t get them to see the reality of this. Improving the training was going to cost a lot of money and require TFA to be less arrogant by admitting they needed to do better — they weren’t willing to do either.

Not improving the training is bad for the corps members who had to experience the trauma of having an awful first year of teaching. But worse than that, the students of those new TFA teachers would suffer too. TFA did not care enough about either group to do something about this.

One example of a major deficiency in TFA’s training was that corps members would teach students during the summer training that were in different grades than they were going to teach in the fall. TFA would say that it was logistically impossible to have corps members train with students similar in age to those they would teach in the fall — many corps members didn’t even know what grade they were going to teach in the fall. But if TFA really cared about training the teachers properly, they could have easily created a system where new corps members would replace corps members who were finishing their commitments and leaving their schools. It just wasn’t a concern to them. The training, to them, was good enough.

Except it wasn’t good enough, and when you do such a bad job training teachers year after year, corps members do not recommend the program to others. There aren’t as many ‘whistle blowers’ as you would expect from all these corps members who witnessed the low quality of training, but those people did not speak highly of TFA and, as a result, they are not able to recruit new corps members anymore. The organization has a $300 million operating budget to recruit and train 2,000 corps members now. So that’s $150,000 per corps member. And poorly trained corps members at that.

The contempt TFA showed for the students who had to suffer with these untrained teachers and the arrogance they had to not be willing to improve is what I consider the main reason nobody wants to do TFA anymore, but it isn’t the only reason.

Reason #2: Ineffective leadership

When founder Wendy Kopp stepped down as CEO in 2013, she was replaced by two co-CEOs, Elisa Villanueva-Beard (known in acronym-happy TFA as EVB)and Matt Kramer. Two years later, Kramer left TFA and Elisa Villanueva-Beard became the sole CEO. Her salary now is $450,000 a year, I never got the sense that she was more than a figurehead CEO. Though TFA national headquarters are in New York City, EVB continued to live in Houston. For ten years she has been giving the same interview anytime she gets a chance. The problem with education in this country, she contends, is that teachers are too lazy and uncaring to set high expectations for their students. As evidence of this, she throws her own school teachers under the school bus and blames them for the struggles she had adjusting to college her first semester. The low-expectations narrative is something you might hear in ‘Waiting For Superman’ or some other teacher bashing propaganda film. It is just too oversimplified for it to be a compelling message. To me, it is a deliberate lie. Young TFAers are going to have high expectations and that is going to make all the difference. It bashes veteran teachers and props up the untrained TFA corps members in one shot. Maybe it is a good message for fundraisers, but that’s about it. I would expect her to be stepping down fairly soon, it’s time for a change.

Reason #3: Alliance with teacher bashing reformers

Around 2006 I noticed a big change in the attitude of TFA. They were suddenly the darlings of the politicians who vilified experienced teachers as the main problem with American education. This scapegoating was very ‘Trumpian’ and it led to the rise of the toxic TFA rockstars, most notably, Michelle Rhee who became chancellor of D.C. schools. Rhee was a regular on Oprah. She was on the cover of Time Magazine and Newsweek. She had a simple message — teachers are lazy and abusive and it is impossible to fire them. This message was a hit among Republicans and most Democrats. Obama appointed Arne Duncan who could be best described as ‘a dummy’ who seemed to truly believe that teachers were the enemy.

This also helped TFA raise money. TFA was mentioned in ‘Waiting For Superman.’ TFA accepted money from a fundraiser for the Walton produced bomb ‘Won’t Back Down.’ Other toxic TFA superstars rose to power — Kevin Huffman in Tennessee, John White in Louisiana, Cami Anderson in Newark, Paymon Rouhanifard in Camden, Chris Barbic in Tennessee, Michael Johnston became a state senator in Colorado. Michelle Rhee left D.C. and started StudentsFirst.

TFA’s recruitment peak coincided with the peak of the toxic TFA superstars around 2016.

Where Are They Now?

But the peak didn’t last long. With those leaders unable to deliver with their simplistic solution to bash teachers, they all started resigning. Currently there is just one TFA school system leader, Penny Schwinn in Tennessee where they are banning books and forbidding teachers from teaching about race. StudentsFirst merged with something called 50CAN, and they seem to be becoming more and more irrelevant by the day.

TFA also attached itself to the sinking ship known as the charter movement. Many charter chains were started by TFA alumni, like the KIPP network founded by Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg. Feinberg was fired by KIPP after being accused of sexually assaulting a student. In the trial it was ruled that there was not enough evidence to implicate him, but the accuser’s testimony was pretty compelling. KIPP did not stand by Feinberg. Charter schools, in general, did not live up to their promise that non-unionized teachers will outperform veteran unionized teachers. They were able to keep up the lie for ten years and chains like KIPP still get a lot of tax payer money to expand, but low performing KIPPs around the country that are often pleading with the school boards not to shut them down definitely have make networks like KIPP lose their luster.

Even now, TFA still clings to their oversimplified teacher bashing theory of ed reform. Just last week they produced a new podcast about TFA alumni who have ‘turned around’ failing schools. Here is the introduction to the first episode:

Many of the conversations that I have with folks about education start on the idea that schools are somehow failing children. That like if schools were working better, more kids would be successful. But if we look at the history of education in the United States, that’s probably not accurate. What’s more accurate is that schools are doing exactly what they were designed to do. They were designed to sort: a learning class and a laboring class.

The problem today is that more frequently, we’re able to predict which kids get which track based on where they’re growing up and their skin color.

But what if that wasn’t the case?

What if schools actually did work for kids and for every kid. Regardless of zip code, regardless of their last name, regardless of where they’re from.

Still using all the reform code lingo. They have not learned a thing. Ironically, the North Carolina school, North Phillips School of Innovation (NPSI), is described as a formerly ‘failing’ school because it had single digit proficiency scores in 2016. So they ‘reimagined’ the school and gave students hands-on experiences and opportunities to do research. These are all good things and there was no mention of test prep, which I’m glad about too. But there is also no mention of how, at least by a test score metric that got the school called ‘failing’ in the introduction, of the school improving their scores because this school did not yet improve their test scores.

This has always been the problem with the toxic teacher bashing style of ed reform. Every school with low test scores is called ‘failing’ and every school with high test scores is ‘high performing.’ But so often there are charter schools founded by TFA alumni that have low test scores, yet those are not called ‘failing’ by TFA. It is a double standard and one that has alienated TFA from the education community. This is why being a TFA alumni is now a strike against any candidate applying for a high level leadership position.

All these issues have led to so many articles and reddit pages and different ways for potential recruits to learn about the ongoing weaknesses of TFA. For my own part, I did try to give constructive criticism over the years. I wanted them to improve for the sake of the students the new CMs taught and for the CMs themselves who would find my blog and contact me telling me they were having mental breakdowns and TFA would just give them guilt trips. But had TFA improved, they would have helped themselves to continue to thrive and maybe even grow.

There were a lot of critics publicizing the problems with TFA. Often I was the most high profile and my interviews on NPR and on Adam Ruins Everything certainly couldn’t help them, but I was just a unionized teacher with a chip on my shoulder so my contributions were certainly overshadowed by TFA’s refusal to do the right thing and to choose growth and thirst for power over students and their own recruits.

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Success Academy Extends Its 75% Attrition Streak

Success Academy began in 2006 with 83 kindergarteners and 73 1st graders. The first graduating class in 2018 had 16 students which was a persistence rate of 16/73=22%. The second graduating class in 2019 had 26 students which seems like an improvement since 26/83=31% but since that included students from the first cohort who had been left back, the first class was really a little better than 22% and the second class a little worse than 31%. Also those 26 students from the class of 2019 were 20 girls and just 6 boys.

Success Academy expanded in 2008 so they had around 353 students who, if they stayed in Success Academy, would graduate in the third graduating class of 2020. Instead just 98 students graduated which is around a 28% persistence rate. This group was about 60% girls.

With the pandemic I didn’t work the numbers for the fourth graduating class last year, but based on a recent blog post on the Success Academy website, I have preliminary data for the fifth graduating class of 2022.

According to the post, there are currently 137 students in 12th grade at Success Academy. Though there are still 6 months left in the school year and they usually lose 10 to 15 percent (I believe because some of them have to repeat 12th grade, but I’m not positive), but for now let’s just say that all 137 will graduate. Is this a better persistence rate than previous years?

Back in 2010 Success Academy had expanded even more so they had five schools with kindergarteners back then: Harlem 1, Harlem 2, Harlem 3, Harlem 4, and Bronx 1. Those schools had 145, 147, 76, 83, and 88 kindergarteners respectively for a total of 538 students.

In the past 12 years there was a net loss, then of 401 students. This includes adding students to replace some of the students who left for various reasons. (One common reason that students leave is that Success Academy threatens to make them repeat a grade for arbitrary reasons but then strikes a deal with the families that if they voluntarily leave the school, Success Academy will pass them onto the next grade.) So 137/538=25%, if you are tracking the persistence rate.

Success Academy has argued that a 75% attrition rate isn’t so bad because it is about a 11% attrition per year, compounded, which, they say, is what happens in public schools too. But I don’t think this is a valid argument. Getting into Success Academy is supposed to be like winning the lottery. The attrition rate should be miniscule if Success Academy is as good as they claim. You don’t just give away a winning lottery ticket.

All the data I quote in this post is publicly available at the New York State education portal if you want to check my numbers.

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Two KIPPs On The Block

The first KIPP school opened about 25 years ago and since then the network has grown to about 250 schools throughout the country. KIPP charter schools are known as the ‘gold standard’ of charters. Anytime a politician talks about opening more charter schools, they talk about expanding ‘high quality’ charters like KIPP.

KIPP was one of the featured schools in the 2010 movie ‘Waiting For Superman,’ a movie that was very influential in spreading the narrative that the success of charter schools like KIPP prove that the problem in American schools is that the teachers’ union is protecting bad teachers who put their own interest ahead of the interests of kids. If it really were true that charter schools were outperforming public schools, it would be a very compelling argument.

Of those 250 KIPP schools, some are going to be better than the average KIPP and some are going to be worse. If KIPP really does know a lot about educating low income students, the difference between the ‘good’ KIPPs and the ‘bad’ KIPPs wouldn’t be all that different. Just like the difference between the best McDonalds and the worst McDonalds isn’t so vast.

One thing I’ve noticed about KIPP is that they generally don’t open up too many schools in one city. Houston, where it began, has about 20 KIPPs and then other cities have fewer. New York City has around six.

In the cities of Memphis and Nashville, TN there are a lot of charter schools fueled, in part, by the Race To The Top money they received while Teach For America alumni were in leadership positions at the Tennessee Education Department. By 2019, they had grown to seven KIPP schools in Tennessee. In 2020 the network announced that they were shutting down two of those seven schools. The headline from the Chalkbeat, TN article contains the quote from the network ‘‘We’ve been unable to fulfill our academic promise’. So as of 2020 they were down to five schools in Tennessee.

According to a new article in Chalkbeat, TN, This coming Tuesday, January 25th, the Shelby County school system will vote on whether or not to shut down two of the remaining KIPPs: KIPP Memphis Academy Middle School and KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary.

Reading through this article and doing some more in depth research, there are several things I find noteworthy.

The most blatant reaction is that whether or not they vote to shut these schools, the fact that the schools are even at risk of getting shut down for poor performance definitely should convince anyone that the ‘Waiting For Superman’ narrative that if you give charters flexibility in exchange for accountability, they will outperform the ‘failing’ public schools. But there might be some people who say “There’s bound to be a few bad apples in any bunch so maybe these are just some outliers and the ‘average’ KIPP is still very good.’

To see if that was true in Tennessee I went to the state web portal and looked up the test scores and the growth scores for all five of the remaining KIPP schools there. What I found was that not only did those schools have very low test scores, but all of them had the lowest possible ‘growth’ score (a 1 out of 5). Now I know that sometimes this ‘growth’ score is not the most accurate calculation but if reformers are going to use them to label some public schools as failing, then they would have to label all the KIPPs in Tennessee as failing too.

The next thing that strikes me about this story in Chalkbeat, TN, at least, is the way that the news is delivered in a very sympathetic and often inaccurate way. From the beginning, the headline is ‘Parents plea to save two KIPP Memphis schools from closure.’ The words ‘plea’ and ‘save’ are telling. This is not presented as the scandal that it is. Tennessee has paid hundreds of millions of dollars over the past 10 years in implementing a plan based on the lie that charter schools in general, and especially the gold star standard like KIPP, were going to raise achievement in Tennessee. A more accurate headline would be ‘Two of remaining five KIPPs may get shut down for low performance.’

Of course under the headline is a picture of a KIPP student dancing, showing us how awful it will be if these schools get closed down.

The first sentence of the article has a misleading inaccuracy. “Impassioned community members pleaded with the Shelby County school board Tuesday night to keep two KIPP charter schools operating, despite low test scores.” It is misleading because it is not the ‘low test scores’ that is the problem as much as the low ‘growth’ growth scores. This type of growth calculation was invented in Tennessee and they have invested a lot of money into it and have made a lot of decisions based on it. So to only mention ‘low test scores’ and not ‘growth’ distorts the picture.

The second paragraph says “Shelby County Schools administrators have recommended revoking charters of KIPP Memphis Academy Middle School and KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary based on low test scores at both schools.” again not mentioning the low growth scores.

And in the third paragraph they say “Since coming to Memphis nearly two decades ago with the opening of one school, the regional network has grown to five schools” not mentioning that it has not actually ‘grown’ to five schools but ‘shrunk’ to five since there were seven schools just a year ago.

The response from KIPP comes from the CEO of KIPP Memphis schools, Antonio Burt. According to the article “Antonio Burt, CEO of KIPP Memphis Schools, said he’s not satisfied with the two schools’ academic performance, but said many KIPP students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and often face greater learning challenges.” This is striking to me. The whole narrative of charter schools was that unionized teachers believe ‘poverty is destiny’ and use the economic status of students as an ‘excuse’ for low expectations and for low performance but that charters are ‘no excuses’ and will certainly not say that the students underperformed because of these ‘greater learning challenges.’ But Antonio Burt is saying what he can since he has to give the school board some reason to vote to not close these two schools.

Another bizarre part of this article is the inclusion of numbers from a ‘School Closing Impact Report’ produced by the Office Of Charter Schools in Tennessee. The report looks at where the students from the shuttered KIPPs are likely to go if their schools get closed down. What they found was that about half of the students would attend a school with a lower rating than the current KIPP schools and half of them would attend a school with a higher rating. Seems like a wash to me. It certainly isn’t a reason to keep the schools open. Isn’t the idea of the ‘portfolio’ model that anytime a low performing school, even an ‘average’ low performing school like the KIPPs may be, it encourages the other schools to step up their game. To fire more teachers, bring in more TFA teachers, increase their test prep, whatever they have to do. So I don’t think the thought that half of the students at the KIPPs will go to a school with lower scores is that compelling of a thing to include in the article, but Antonio Burt will surely use this report as a reason for them to vote to keep the schools open. (My guess is that they will vote to give the schools another chance because of this argument, but we will see in a few days.)

The article mentions that “Other board members expressed their support for KIPP and their belief that Burt is qualified to lead a turnaround within the charter network. Burt, who most recently served as SCS chief of schools, received national acclaim for his work turning two low-performing Memphis schools into models of student achievement.” and this caught my attention. So Antonio Burt is some kind of Turnaround specialist? I had to do some fact checking.

Antonio Burt was named CEO of KIPP Memphis schools just two months ago. I traced through his career over the past ten years to see what his track record was in turning around schools that got him ‘national acclaim.’ As you won’t be surprised to learn, Burt did not ‘turn around’ any of the ten schools that he tried to.

The first school he supposedly ‘turned around’ was the Lester School in Memphis where he was principal from 2010 to 2012. The Lester school supposedly increased their test scores in that two year period, but they became one of the original six Achievement School District schools (then they became Cornerstone Prep) and they languished there in the bottom 5% for nine years only to recently get above the bottom 5% and leave the priority list though according to the Tennessee State web portal, their test scores are still so low that they just call them ‘Below 5%’

Maybe their test scores improved from 2010 to 2012, but surely after Antonio Burt left there was a plan in place to maintain or build on his turnaround. A ‘turnaround’ that doesn’t last can’t really be considered one.

Antonio Burt left Lester school in 2012 to become principal of Ford Road elementary school from 2012 to 2015. While Ford Road did make progress by 2014, it remains, 8 years later as one of the lowest performing schools in Tennessee with a 10.3% ‘success rate.’

They also got the lowest possible growth overall and individually in ELA and Math.

It’s really a stretch to say that Antonio Burt ‘turned around’ these two schools.

In 2015, after 3 years at Ford Road, Burt resigned and worked for 5 months at The New Teacher Project. Then he was hired to help ‘turnaround’ eight schools in Tampa Bay in the ‘Transformation Zone’ of Pinellas school district. A year and a half into that job, he resigned, having not turned around any of those eight schools

He returned to Tennessee in 2017 to be the chief of the ‘iZone’ which is kind of like the Achievement School District, but has been more successful. He was there for four years and just recently became the CEO of KIPP Memphis. So I see Antonio Burt as someone who has spent 2 years at one school, 3 years at another, then a year and a half overseeing eight schools. He hasn’t turned around any of those schools in any kind of lasting way yet he is hailed as a turnaround guru who will likely use that inaccurate title as a way to save the two KIPP schools from being shut down because they now finally have an expert to improve them.

I will let you know what happens on Tuesday. Regardless of what happens, it is interesting to me to watch the way the charter schools and the media that covers them change their tunes when they are faced with closure.

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Down Goes Frayser!

In 2011, spurred by Race To The Top money, former Tennessee Education Commissioner, Kevin Huffman, created one of the nation’s first ‘turnaround districts’ called The Achievement School District (ASD). He hired fellow TFA alum Chris Barbic to be the first superintendent.

The mission of the ASD was to take schools in the bottom 5% and within 5 years ‘catapult’ them into the top 25%. They started with six schools and over a period of about five years expanded into around 30 schools. The plan was to turn the schools over to charter operators and then after the schools had been successfully catapulted, they would return to the original school district.

After five years, it was clear that at least five of the original six school were still in the bottom 5%. The other one had maybe risen into the bottom 10%. Barbic resigned, Huffman resigned, the ASD changed their mission to something a lot more vague.

Now, ten years after the takeover of the original 6 schools, we learn from Chalkbeat, TN that some of those original 6 schools are returning to their district. I’ve been tracking those six schools for the past 10 years: 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. Year after year, despite having been turned into charter schools, these schools barely budged in the rankings. One of the six, Humes, was already closed down and now, as reported by Chalkbeat, TN, two of them, Frayser and Corning are being returned to their districts even though they did not improve. Ironically, eight years ago Frayser was hailed as a miracle success story proving the effectiveness of the ASD.

Even though I predicted this ten years ago, it is still amazing to me how this is reported and how the people now in charge in Tennessee react to it publicly. Looking back at the 10 year history, it seems impossible. With a $100 million price tag, they came in and took over schools talking a big game. They did the entire ‘reform’ playbook. Even Michelle Rhee had a supporting role since the Education Commissioner, Kevin Huffman, was her ex-husband. The ASD was heralded as the next big thing and there were panel discussions at the TFA alumni summit and other events with the Fordham Institute where Chris Barbic was celebrated. Even as recently as a year ago, there was a remote event about lessons learned from the ASD where they tried to put a positive spin on their failure.

But here we are ten years later and they weren’t able to improve just six schools. And this program is still going on, they are still getting tax payer money, and around the country places are still trying to replicate it.

And there’s a media outlet, Chalkbeat, Tennessee that doesn’t realize that as far as Tennessee education reporting goes, this is equivalent to Watergate. Yet they understate things in this article with things like “The announcement marks a seminal moment for the Achievement School District, which did not deliver on early promises to transform schools that the state took over in Memphis and Nashville beginning in 2012.”

Tennessee had not learned it’s lesson and it replaced Huffman with another TFA alum, Penny Schwinn. In the Chalkbeat article Schwinn at least admits the failure of the ASD, but I still think that it doesn’t have the appropriate amount of outrage:

Schwinn acknowledged the state has fallen short of its school turnaround goals with the ASD, which mostly assigned schools to charter operators to do the work.

“Growth and achievement and progress is not anywhere close to what would be acceptable to a family,” she told reporters during a morning conference call. “It is not acceptable to me as a parent. And we have to be honest about that.”

I’ve been following the ASD for 10 years. I’ve written at least 23 blog posts about this sad district. If you want to get really depressed, you can see the links to them here.

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David Banks’ ‘Unsuccessful’ Academy Schools

In a few weeks, David Banks will become the next Chancellor of New York City Schools. Unlike many of the previous Chancellors, David Banks has a track record of running a small network of schools. Called the Eagle Academy Schools For Young Men, there are six of these schools serving boys from grades 6 to 12. There is one school in each of the five New York City boroughs and one in Newark.

Before Eric Adams was the next mayor of New York City, he was the borough president of Brooklyn. In that capacity, he worked with David Banks to create ‘The Brooklyn Nine’ where Banks would share some of the best practices from Eagle Academy to improve nine schools in Brooklyn. There is a short documentary about Eagle Academy on HBO currently called ‘The Infamous Future’ , similar to Waiting For Superman, made a few years ago in which Eric Adams says that the practices of Eagle Academy should be used in more schools so that they become ‘The Brooklyn 90’ and then ‘The Brooklyn 900′ and eventually the entire school system can replicate the success of Banks’ Eagle Academies. So this gives us some idea of what to expect in the next 4 or 8 years with Adams as Mayor and Banks as Chancellor.

New York is home to so many news outlets like The New York Times, The Daily News, and The New York Post. There is also something called Chalkbeat, NY, which is a web publication that covers education in New York City. So you’d figure that at least one of them would look up the numbers on the five Eagle Academy schools that David Banks has been involved with, first as principal of the original school in The Bronx in 2004, and then as CEO of the foundation that oversees all six schools for the years since then. One would think that this information would be relevant and people getting paid full time to cover New York education would think, “Maybe I can see what public data is available about these schools that have been around for the past fifteen years.” but I haven’t seen anything about this. So I spent some time immersing myself in Eagle Academies and in learning about David Banks in general from interviews and also from the HBO documentary and will try to report my findings in as even handed way as possible.

The first thing that struck me was that I had never heard of The Eagle Academy For Young Men before. These are not schools that I had ever heard touted as schools that had cracked the code to get high standardized test scores or high college acceptance rates. These schools were completely off my radar. Some people think they are charter schools and even their Wikipedia page says they are charter schools, but I’ve also seen more official places that say that these are not charter schools, so I’m not even 100% about this.

David Banks did write something for The74 (generally not a good sign) where he said “Our schools have pioneered a revolutionary, self-affirming approach to educating young men of color, and the numbers speak for themselves. For the 2018-19 school year, 98 percent of our seniors graduated and 100 percent were accepted to college.” These are the kinds of statistics that charter schools sometimes use to mislead readers into thinking that nearly all the students who started in the school have gotten into college and are in a position to be successful there. Always relevant is what data is not shared as evidence of a school’s success. Reformers, when they are able to, like to tout test scores or, if those aren’t good enough, at least growth scores.

As always, when I present this kind of data, I want to make it clear that I’m not the person who thinks that school quality is the same thing as test scores and growth scores. Reformers like Bloomberg, Klein, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and the rest have justified shutting down schools on these narrow metrics. I don’t think that bad test scores and growth scores mean, necessarily, that the school is a ‘failing’ school. I taught at three such schools that would be labelled as ‘failing’ and I thought the staffs at those school were doing a very good job. On the flip side, I think that Success Academy, despite their high test scores, are awful schools. Still, considering that we are about to have a deputy Chancellor who subscribes to the obsolete reformer philosophy, I need to get the data on Eagle Academies out there publicly, if, for nothing else, to be able to point out the irony when the deputy Chancellor starts pushing to shut down schools that are better, at least by the metrics reformers worship, than Eagle Academies.

If anyone should be worried that I am cherry picking the data, you can go through and look through more of the data from the publicly available data sites I got my data from. One spot is the New York State data system which has data going back about 15 years for any school. Just type ‘eagle’ into the search box and you will find the different places. Another important resource is the New York City performance dashboard. If you type ‘eagle’ into the search box you will get 10 results since each Eagle Academy school is officially a middle school and a high school. Another place is the New York City school quality snapshots, basically the school report card where schools get a ranking between 1 and 4 on various categories. Finally, there’s the US News & World Report site that has good information about AP results and enrollment. None of these give the full picture, but when reformers talk about being ‘data driven’ and they use these numbers to declare entire schools systems as ‘failing’ it is useful to be able to access the data and see what it says about schools that they claim are succeeding.

Before I provide some specific details, let me just say that I’ve immersed myself in all the data from all the schools and I can say that on average, the schools have good reading scores but terrible math scores, terrible growth scores, terrible advanced Regents scores, and terrible AP results. I do think that they focus a lot of energy on reading, and I think that reading is extremely important, but there is no denying that the rest of their metrics are bad.

You can check the others to see if you can accuse me of cherry picking. Here’s Eagle Academy Middle School in The Bronx with their scores compared to the district they are in and also to something called the comparison group which are schools that, in theory, serve similar demographics.

When reformers see a school they like has low test scores, they dismiss them and say not to look at the test scores, but at the ‘growth’ scores since a school should not be penalized for their incoming students being behind grade level. But for nearly all the Eagle Academy schools, they have, by the growth metric, some of the worst scores in the city.

Here is a scatter plot from the NYC performance dashboard. The y-value of the blue point is the growth score and the x-value is the percent of students at proficient. There are 10 schools and three years for each school. See if you can find one where the growth score is above the middle line, there aren’t many.

For the high schools, the HBO documentary would have you believe that since 98% of the seniors are accepted to college, that 98% of the seniors are prepared for college. But if you look at the Regents scores, it tells a different story. Looking at the 2018-2019 at the flagship Eagle Academy in The Bronx, they did well on the ELA but the other Regents are awful. In Algebra I, only 32% passed. In Geometry only 7 students in the whole school passed and in Algebra 2, only 3 students in the whole school passed. I’m a math teacher and I know that Geometry and Algebra 2 are not essential for having a successful life, but if it is something that you are learning in school (and most students take Geometry in 10th grade and Algebra 2 in 11th grade) it is something you should be able to at least pass if you are going to get through some of the required courses in college.

When it comes to AP courses, US News & World Report collects that data. If only 4% of students passed at least one AP exam, and I’m not saying the AP test is the greatest test in the world, but to get a 3 to pass an AP is not such an impressive feat. Some high schools can say that they could only do so much since they didn’t teach the students in middle school, but at Eagle Academy schools, they teach them from 6th through 12th.

Based on what I saw in the HBO documentary, I think David Banks is a good person. He is someone who truly cares about the students at his schools. He has a passion that is clear from the different things he says in the interviews. I think I would get along with David Banks. I can’t say this with certainty, but I would guess that David Banks is not a fan of Success Academy. He knows by how stubborn the test and growth scores at his own schools have been that the only way Success Academy has kept its test scores so high is by various forms of cheating. He mentions in the HBO documentary that his schools take the Black boys that other schools try to get rid of. Surely he knows that the attrition rate for Black boys at Success Academy is well over 50%. When I called Eagle Academies ‘Unsuccessful’ in my title, I was trying to show a contrast between schools like Success that have high scores but are bad schools in my mind compared to Eagle Academy schools that could very well be opposite of Success Academy schools — low test scores but maybe are good schools.

David Banks knows, as well as anyone, that test scores and growth scores do not tell the full picture of a school. Eagle Academy schools seem, at least from what I’ve seen, to be good schools with low test scores. Since Banks is hiring a protege of Michelle Rhee, Dan Weisberg (see my recent post all about him), to be his #2, I have to wonder how this will play out. If they are going to return to labelling 25% of the schools as ‘failing’ based on test scores and growth scores and they are going to try to close down those schools, could Banks be in the awkward position of closing down some of his own schools?

As always with a post like this, I’m going to be criticized for minimizing the hard work of the teachers and the students at the Eagle Academies. I truly have no bad feelings for the students and teachers at the Eagle Academies. If they want to reach out to me, I would be willing to help them improve their math instruction. And if David Banks who is soon to be my boss’s, boss’s, boss’s, boss, I also offer my help if he wants it.

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The Tip Of The Weisberg

Eric Adams will become the next Mayor of New York City on January 1st. He will hire David Banks as the new schools Chancellor. And Banks will bring in Dan Weisberg as his top deputy.

Dan Weisberg

Unfortunately Dan Weisberg is one of the most dangerous people in the country who could rise to be the second highest ranking administrator in New York City.

In the article from Chalkbeat, NY, Alex Zimmerman tries hard to sugarcoat the background of this controversial pick. He writes:

He has tapped Dan Weisberg — who runs an organization focused on teacher quality and handled labor issues under Mayor Michael Bloomberg — to be his top deputy. That move is likely to raise eyebrows with the city’s teachers union, which has previously clashed with Weisberg.

So what is this “organization focused on teacher quality”? Well it is TNTP which once stood for The New Teacher Project. TNTP was founded by Michelle Rhee in 1997. What started out as a Teach For America type program for training career changers to become teachers quickly became an education reform propaganda organization. In 2009 they got into funding ‘research’ and their first publication was called ‘The Widget Effect’ which argued the benefits of merit pay for teachers based on standardized test scores. This publication is still often quoted despite very shoddy statistical practices. Dan Weisberg was the lead author of ‘The Widget Effect.’ More recently they put out something called “The Opportunity Myth” about how most teachers have low expectations because they do activities that don’t completely adhere to the researcher’s interpretation of the Common Core Standards.

Fifteen years ago there were plenty of Michelle Rhee type reformers in leadership positions in school districts around the country. As that brand of reform failed to deliver results, those reformers took positions in think tanks where they could make a lot more money but where they would not have such direct power over school systems.

Back in the Bloomberg/Klein days, people like Weisberg would celebrate judicial rulings where parents would fight to not have their children’s schools shut down. Charter schools, in the wake of ‘Waiting For Superman’, were supposedly proving that all you needed to turn around a school was to staff them with non-unionized teachers. Teacher bashing was all the rage, they even had their own Walton funded movie flop ‘Won’t Back Down.’

But things are different now. Reformers are not as brazen as they once were. The charter bubble has burst a bit, though Bloomberg has $750 million that says he can revive it. But it will be hard. With the failures of projects like The Achievement District in Tennessee, it will a tougher sell to say that we need to replicate their accomplishments. Back in the day, there would be so much talk of charters that were beating the odds with 100% graduation rates or 100% college acceptance rates. Those stories were debunked so often that even The74 hardly runs stories like that anymore. Does anyone know whatever happened to KIPP? The only charter chain that can even claim to get good test scores is Success Academy, and even reformers hardly like to talk about them since they boot (or discourage from enrolling) so many kids who might bring down their precious test scores.

So where does a teacher basher fit into the current system? As a New York City teacher with two kids in the system, I’m a bit scared to find out.

Here are some anti-teacher / anti-union tweets from Weisberg, including an interaction I had with him:

Here are some reformers celebrating Weisberg’s appointment:

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TFA Did Not Teach Lesson Planning At The Summer Institute

Over the past 30 years I’ve thought a lot about teaching and teacher training. I’ve worked as a trainer for TFA and also for The New York City Teaching Fellows. Many of the teachers I trained, I’m happy to say, are still teaching after all these years. I also wrote two books about teaching and many published articles.

So I hope I can say with some authority that lesson planning is at least half of your job as a teacher, maybe 75%. When you plan a lesson, you are making a blueprint of how your class is going to get from point A to point Z in the limited time you have. It requires figuring out how much material you can feasibly cover and determining how to balance direct instruction with student discussion opportunities and, most importantly, what activities your students are going to do throughout the lesson. Lesson planning is my specialty and I love the feeling of starting a class that I just know has a great lesson plan and though sometimes the lesson doesn’t go as well I hoped it would, generally a well planned lesson turns into an engaging learning experience for my students.

This year Teach For America did a remote institute. The new corps members were not going to get any in-person student teaching experience so the training had to be better than ever to compensate for this. Two different 2021 corps members have reached out to me, one through reddit and the other as a comment to a blog post I wrote in August. Both corps members told me that TFA did not teach lesson planning. Apparently the only assignment they had related to lesson planning was to take an existing lesson plan and to mark it up with comments. Here is how one of them described it:

we had 3 total assignments to make “lesson plan adjustments” that our content facilitator also seemed to be confused about what they should look like. Basically, we just had to grab a lesson from Eureka Math and make some annotations that show a) we were being actively anti-racist, b) we were incorporating Universal Design for Learning and c) checks for understanding. There were more rubric sections, but this is all I can recall right now. I was so confused with the little information we were given, so I made a whole new lesson plan and got an 8/24. For the second assignment, I just literally annotated the Eureka plan in Google Docs with a few minor adjustments and got a 24/24!

If I were training new teachers at an intensive five week training program, I would want the trainees to produced about twenty original lesson plans. This is the bread and butter of teaching. You have to have a mental picture of what you are about to do with your classes if you expect them to learn.

Now I am very supportive of being actively anti-racist in the classroom. It is ironic that TFA is using this as their starting point considering their embrace of no-excuses charter schools over the years. But as important as it is to promote anti-racism, I would much rather the teachers have a solid lesson that of course is not racist but maybe not overtly anti-racist than a poorly planned lesson that is actively anti-racist. Going into a class without a plan of how to teach it and without really understanding all the decisions that go into making a lesson and into all the nuances and the sorts of questions you will ask and the groupings you will use and everything that goes into the grueling task of lesson planning is not showing respect for your students.

According to a reddit thread on TFA, it seems like a lot of 2021 corps members are quitting already. If this failure to empathize lesson planning was widespread I’m not surprised by this. If you are a current corps member let me know what your experience was with the training this year and how you feel about it now that you are in the classroom.

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