Protect Yourself From ASDs

If you’re a student, a parent, a teacher, or otherwise interested in education policy, you will soon likely hear about the latest fad in education reform ― ASDs.  An ASD, short for ‘Achievement School District,’ is something modeled after ‘The’ ASD in Tennessee.  Tennessee’s ASD was an education experiment started in 2011 where the state either took over, or turned over to charter networks, schools with test scores in the bottom 5% of the state.  These takeovers are the school district equivalent of martial law.  Most, if not all, of the teachers and administrators are fired.

In return for this ultimate flexibility, the Tennessee ASD promised, according to its website, to ‘catapult’ these schools into the top 25% within 5 years.  Two years after the creation of the Tennessee ASD an optimistic superintendent, Chris Barbic, claimed that three of the six original ASD schools were on track to achieve that ambitious goal, one of them having made so much progress it could break the barrier after just four years.  But this turned out to be a very rosy view.  Now five years have passed and the number of schools that achieved this goal is exactly zero.  Of the six original ASD schools, actually, five out of six remain in the bottom 5% while the other one has only catapulted into the bottom 7%. An independent report from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College from December 2015 concluded after crunching the numbers that “the performance of ASD schools has been inconsistent across school years, in most cases showing no difference from the comparison schools.” Another report recently released by George Washington University came to the same conclusion and tried to identify what the causes of their failure were.  It might be time to rename it the Underachievement School District.  It is no wonder that many members of communities that the ASD has invaded are angry.  The other established ASD, Detroit’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA), has been such a failure that it is getting phased out.

But publicly available facts like this have played little role in the proliferation of such districts.  This approach to school reform has been popping up in state after state.  ASDs currently exist in Tennessee, Detroit, Nevada, Milwaukee, and North Carolina while legislation has been proposed to create them in Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Rochester.  This approach has been endorsed, even encouraged, by the US department of Education, as targeting the ‘bottom 5%’ of schools in each district has been written into the latest education law the Every Child Succeeds Act, which replaced the much maligned No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top initiative.

Each time the idea of creating an ASD is introduced by a state legislator, testimony from people whose own professional futures depend on the perception of success in the Tennessee ASD are used to get the required votes.  Various education reform lobbyist groups produce reports and blogs about how successful these ASDs have been.

I think that education is a true science and one that deserves to evolve according to the scientific method.  In the case of these ASDs, the initial conjecture would be that tenured teachers cause low test scores.  The experiment to verify this conjecture is to create an ASD somewhere like Tennessee, fire the tenured teachers, and let the charter schools take over and teach the students.  Education reformers seem to have no problem with these first steps.  But the power of the scientific method is completely nullified when the results of the experiment are ignored when they contradict the working conjecture.  That is what has happened in this case and why ASDs are gaining momentum around the country.

Any state considering making an ASD would be wise to listen to the words of the pioneer of the Tennessee ASD, former superintendent, Chris Barbic.  A few months ago on a panel discussion Barbic was asked if he thought it was good that various states were considering replicating his program.  Even he had his doubts.  He said that there is a very limited supply of charters capable of executing these difficult turnaround efforts.  If twelve states, he said, are all trying to get the same four or five charter operators, “it’s gonna create an issue.”  Considering his dream team of charter operators could not move the original ASD schools out of the bottom 5%, this is a sobering assessment of the viability of creating franchises of these turnaround districts around the country.

Education reform is full of false promises and magic beans.  Whether it is charter schools, test-based teacher evaluations, school closures, merit pay, making a more difficult curriculum, common core standardized tests, computerized learning, these strategies should not proliferate based on skewed PR, but on actual merit.  How can we expect kids to become critical thinkers when decisions about their future are made by people who refuse to be critical thinkers themselves?

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

TFA’s Latest PR Stunt

The ‘advertorial’ is, in my opinion, the lowest form of advertising.  Perhaps you’ve never heard this word before, but you have surely nearly fallen for this kind of deceit when reading what you think is a newspaper article with a flashy headline before noticing, in small print, the words ‘advertisement.’

An ‘Advertorial’

Education Week used to be the gold standard in education reporting.  I can remember how proud I was in October 1995 when, at just 25 years old, I got my first ‘published’ article in a ‘real’ publication, Education Week’s Teacher Magazine, for a piece I wrote called ‘Natural Born Teacher.’  Over the next six years, I was always so proud whenever I’d get a piece accepted into either Teacher Magazine or Education Week.

As the internet grew and Twitter gained popularity, I joined and of course followed Education Week.  Though I’ve found Education Week to be generally slanted toward the Reform side, they are not nearly as bad as something like some of the other sites posing as journalism and they do run some columns by people critical of Waiting For Superman style reform.

Earlier this month I started noticing a lot of tweets from Education Week about the amazing work that TFA is doing.

Here are some examples:

To see the 40 or so like this over the past month, go here.

I found these frequent tweets to be very odd, but it wasn’t until yesterday that the intrepid Katie Osgood noticed the ‘fine print’ on all these tweets.


So those #sponsor #ad hashtags indicate that these tweets are just the modern version of the deceptive ‘advertorial’ seen in newspapers.  The difference, though, is that most people do not click on the links to read the entire article and take the headline as ‘news’ from Education Week, a very popular place to get education news.

The idea that Teach For America is actually paying money for these sorts of ads with their taxpayer grants is something I really find offensive.  If TFA wants better PR, they need to earn it, not buy it.


Incidentally, the cities that TFA is highlighting in these advertisements, Denver, Washington D.C., and New Orleans, are doing very poorly on the only metric that matters to the Reformers, test scores.  Just today, I saw an amusing exchange on twitter where Joe Siedlicki posted how these three cities did on the PARCC ELA exams this year.

Eric Lerum, formerly of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, but now of the kinder and gentler, though just as dangerous, Jon Schnur’s America Achieves, gave this response:

So these Reformers insist on test score accountability as the sole measure of success and then when the New Orleans RSD bombs a test relative to the rest of the country after they implement every reckless Reform strategy in the book, charterizing the district, school choice gone wild, bringing in TFA to replace their veteran teachers, yet he doesn’t know what to take away from these.

I’d advise him to study Education Week, but he might inadvertently stumble upon an advertorial.

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

The Underachievement School District 2015 Edition Part II

Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) is one of the most high profile ‘turnaround’ experiments in the country.  Launched with the amazing goal to ‘catapult’ schools with test scores in the bottom 5% of the state into schools with test scores in the top 25% of the state in a five year time period, this district has gotten a lot of attention and there are plans to replicate it in various states.

Here is an image that used to be on their website back when they started:

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 10.23.03 PM

Back when it was formed I wrote an open letter to the former superintendent, actually a friend of mine, Chris Barbic and told him that this was an absurd goal that can only be accomplished by some kind of trickery.

It hasn’t been easy to track the progress of these ASD schools.  I remember when they were three years in, there was an article in which Barbic claimed that three of the six original schools were on track to meet the goal of being in the top 25% after five years.  Last summer Barbic resigned a few months after former commissioner Kevin Huffman resigned also.  Chris recently got a new job as a ‘senior education fellow’ with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and Hastings Fund which has been known for their pro-charter anti-union school reform platform.  Chris will now have access to millions of dollars to help other ASD type efforts to flourish.

Nine months ago I used some public data to estimate the progress of the ASD and by my calculations, four of the original six were still in the bottom 5% while two were in the bottom 6%.  This was a pretty big revelation, though I don’t think it got so much attention since these were my calculations and they were not the official ones using whatever weighting they did to determine the schools were originally in the bottom 5%.

Then, a few weeks ago, Tennessee released a new list.  This list validated my conclusion that the ASD schools had made very little progress.  According to this list the ASD is doing even worse than I had estimated.  Four years into the five year experiment, five of the six original schools are in the bottom 2.5% while one of the six is in the bottom 7%.

School Percentile
Frayser .8%
Cornerstone 2.1%
Westside 2.2%
Corning 2.3%
Hume 2.5%
Brick Church 6.6%

Next year marks the end of the five year experiment and since Tennessee had to cancel its tests this year because of technical glitches, there won’t be scores to show that they did not, to put it lightly, make their targets.

It was good that Chalkbeat, TN wrote about this new list.  I’m not expecting this to be reported by Education Post or The Seventy Four anytime soon.

Posted in Debunking, Research, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

How did Success Academy high school do on the Regents?

Reformers are all about ‘outcomes’ and that’s why they love Success Academy charter schools.  Year after year Success Academy students outperform the rest of the state on the 3-8 ELA and math tests.

For sure if there was a hospital out there that was claiming to have the ability to cure Cancer or something like that, there would be all kinds of independent investigations and different tests to see if their claims were for real.  But when it comes to education, we don’t see this so much.

The oldest Success Academy students are now in 10th grade.  They have had two different cohorts of 8th graders take the specialized high school test for admission into one of the 8 specialized New York City high schools.  Amazingly, none of those students made it into any of the specialized schools.  That is pretty unusual that a group of students does so well on one standardized test but does so poorly on another.  Aside from knowing that none of their 8th graders made the cut score on that test, there are no other details about their specific scores.

But there are other tests those students have taken, namely the New York State Regents exams.  Most advanced students take the Algebra I test in 8th grade and then various Regents in 9th grade, maybe Geometry and also a few others like Living Environment, Earth Science, and Global History.

I had not heard about how they fared on the Regents exams for the past two years so I went over to the revamped New York State data site.  I went to the page for the school, Success Academy Harlem I, but could not locate the Regent scores.  I did take notice of their enrollment by grade, however.

The first Success Academy cohort began as kindergarteners in 2006-2007 ago with 83 kindergarteners and 73 first graders.  That group of 73 first graders had been whittled down to 26 ninth graders last year and who knows how many of those 26 are now tenth graders this year.  So they have lost about 2/3 of them so far so we’d expect the Success survivors to be pretty strong academically.

I did see the enrollment by grade for the 2013-2014 school year and compared it to the enrollment by grade for the 2014-2015 school year.  For the 424 students that were in grades 4 through 8 in 2013-2014 only 369 students were in grades 5 through 9 in 2014-2015.  This represents a net loss of 55 students or about 13% of the students.  The biggest percent change was the 32 8th graders in 2013-2014 shrinking to 26 9th graders in 2014-2015, nearly 20% of their 8th graders not continuing in 9th grade.

When I couldn’t locate the Regents scores I inquired with the state data department.  They responded back that the data from Success Academy was missing.  I wrote back asking why the data was missing.  Doesn’t Success Academy have to submit their Regents scores?  The state data department said yes they do, but they didn’t.  I then asked if they could ask Success Academy for the scores so they can be in compliance and so the data can be publicly posted along with everyone else’s Regents scores and the state data department said that they can’t help me anymore and that if I want the Regents scores from Success Academy, I should contact the school directly — something I’m not going to attempt for obvious reasons.

So there you have it, Success Academy playing by its own set of rules, not reporting its Regents scores.  Considering charter schools get to mark their own Regents, unlike non-charters who have their Regents graded by teachers at other schools, and that they have so few students left, just 26 out of 73, I’d think that their Regents scores would be pretty decent.  Then again, maybe they didn’t report those scores since it would make them look bad.  Either way I think everyone would agree that they should be required to submit their Regents scores like every other school has to.

Posted in Uncategorized | 20 Comments


About a year and a half ago I blogged about the extremely poor Regents scores of one of the most touted high schools in the country, Pathways in Technology Early College High School — or more widely known as P-Tech.

P-Tech even got a shout out in one of President Obama’s State of The Union addresses.

At the time I was using data provided by the New York City Department of Education which revealed that only 2% of the P-Tech students who had taken the Geometry Regents had passed it and also 2% passing rate for Algebra II.  This was picked up by ChalkBeatNY and pretty soon I was in a Twitter war with P-Tech defenders including Joel Klein, who featured P-Tech in his memoir about his experience as head of NYC schools.

The reason that their passing percent was so low, they said, was that they force all the 9th graders and 10th graders to take the 11th grade Algebra II test to get exposure to it.  Since NYC didn’t report the number of test takers, just the passing percent, this was, it seemed at first, a pretty good excuse, though I argued that even if the percent would have been higher without all the underclassmen taking the test as practice, it would have only been a little higher, maybe 6%, so it was still pretty bad.

I recently followed up on my P-Tech research and found that New York State has revamped their data page extensively.  Now all the data including the number of test takers is all available with a very user friendly interface.  The P-Tech state data page can be found here.

I’m focusing on Algebra II since P-Tech is an engineering school where students attend for six years to earn a high school degree and an associates degree and a job offer from IBM.  Since Algebra II is taken by advanced 10th graders I figure that P-Tech should be able to get a good percent of their students to eventually pass this test.

The first thing I checked was their 2014 scores last year again.  They had 128 students take that test, which went against their claim that they made all their freshmen and sophomores take the test.  If that were the case, it should have been about 300 test takers.  In 2014 only two students passed that test with a score over 65 and four other students got between a 55 and a 65.  Pretty brutal — but not as bad as how they did a year later.

In the most recent Regents administered last June, P-Tech decided to only allow the students who were most likely to pass the test, knowing that making too many unprepared students take the test would affect their passing percent.  So last year only 41 students took the Algebra II Regents.  Of those 41 students exactly one student passed and one other scored between 55 and 65.  That’s it.  The 39 other students all failed with scores under a 55.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 7.57.50 PM

Still P-Tech gets a lot of undeserved good PR.  Less than a year ago US News and World Report ran an article called ‘Proving P-Tech Success’ because 6 students finished the 6 year program in just 4 years.  According to this article in Education Week, there are already 27 P-Tech franchises in 3 states with $3 million going toward six new P-Techs in New York.  The article says there will soon be 40 P-Techs.  I suppose if each of those 40 P-Techs gets one student to pass the Algebra II Regents, that would add up to 40 kids.


Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

TFA25 Post Mortem

As I promised I would, I attended the TFA 25 year anniversary celebration in Washington DC last month.  Having been involved with the organization for 24 years in different roles including a corps member, a staff member, a recruiter, a keynote speaker, and, now, a critic, I had a lot of different reasons I wanted to go.

I have lots of friends I’ve made throughout my years in TFA.  There are also a lot of people who I’ve helped train as teachers through the different workshops I used to present at the different institutes, and I always enjoy meeting some of the people who have attended these and still remember them.  But a main reason I went was to keep an eye on TFA.

If I had to summarize what I learned there in five words, they would be:  TFA appears to be improving.  ‘Appears to be’ because I’m not confident that they are actually improving, but whether they are or not, they want to make it look like they are.

TFA in many ways has it’s finger on the ‘pulse’ of education reform.  Whether they are leading the ed reform movement or whether they are just followers who are benefitting from it, I’m not always sure.  But either way seeing what sorts of messages they are transmitting through their public events is always interesting to me and sometimes very revealing about how things are going in the current ed reform wars.

Five years ago was the 20th anniversary and it was a complete union bashing, teacher bashing, charter loving, reform fest.  Indicative of this was the interview with Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, and other reformers at the opening ceremony.

Some key moments from that event are at 56:50 where Klein talks about how ‘poverty is not destiny’ and from 1:10:15 to 1:14:17 where Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada talk about how unions are so good at doing their function which is to protect teacher jobs.  Also this is where Rhee talks about how the unions are so organized while the reformers are just isolated and not coordinated in their efforts which is why she founded StudentsFirst.

Five years ago I was disgusted by what I witnessed, so I embarked on a journey in which I started blogging about education policy and became part of a very passionate team of education activists.  I’ve also made a name for myself as one of the top critics of TFA and certainly the top critic who is also an alum.

While five years ago, I was just another alumni, this time I was there as somewhat of an antagonist.  I wasn’t sure how it would all play out.  Unlike five years ago, this time there would be people at the event who truly hate me and have accused me of all sorts of horrible things.  Would I have to deal with any of them?  I didn’t know.

The event was mainly on Saturday, though there was optional stuff for Friday afternoon and evening and also Sunday morning.  I took the TFA chartered bus from New York City at 6:00 AM — a subdued and sleepy group of TFAers.  When I got to DC around noon I met up with Lyndsey Layton, one of the national education reporters for The Washington Post.  We spoke for about an hour.  I had no idea that three hours later she would publish a lengthy article about me called ‘He’s The Stinkweed at the Teach For America Garden Party’  I can’t imagine that I could have announced my arrival at the event any more effectively than that.

Friday there was a five hour workshop moderated by Alexander Russo about how to be a Twitter Education ‘influencer.’  I had volunteered to be one of the presenters at this workshop, but TFA would not allow me to, even though some of the other presenters were people I had never heard of who had very few Twitter followers.  I found it interesting that Russo, during his presentation, talked about how until recently reformers were losing the social media war to reform critics and how people should not be fooled into thinking that the reform critics are not highly organized.  As a reform critic, myself, and one of the more active ones, I had to chuckle at this since I’m certain that I’m not being guided what to write by some organizing force the way that the various reform websites are, like Education Post and The74.

I found myself in a break out session with RiShawn Biddle, editor of Dropout Nation, and someone who has made it clear that he does not have much respect for me.  After the session I introduced myself to him and he was very cold.  On his blog he once wrote that I’m only known for having a bad first year in TFA and I told him that I’ve done a lot more than just have a bad first year, winning teacher of the year at my school in my fourth year, and having trained many teachers, and written several books.  He didn’t really react.  I invited him to come to an unauthorized panel discussion I planned for Saturday at 5:00 PM and he said he’d think about it.  (Spoiler alert:  He didn’t show.)

At the Twitter thing I also met Brittney Packett, the executive director of TFA in St. Louis and someone who has been very active in the Black Lives Matter movement.  I wasn’t sure whether or not I had ever trolled her on Twitter.  I didn’t think so, so I introduced myself and she seemed to be happy to meet me and we spoke a little.

DeRay Mckenson also made an appearance at this session and gave a very uninspired, impromptu, talk about using Twitter.  Much of his talk was about whether Twitter would change the 140 character limit and how that would work — would they not count links maybe?  I don’t think this was his best work.

Leading up to this conference, I was contacted by some fellow critics who had heard I was attending, and we set up a mailing list and a text group so we could coordinate.  Three things we planned were to meet up on Friday night for dinner, to have an unsanctioned panel discussion on Saturday after the scheduled panel discussions, and to participate in a TFA sanctioned bunch led by Amber Kim, called ‘Critics Not Haters.’  I did appreciate that TFA allowed such a brunch to be on the schedule though of course it was going to be on Sunday after the conference was over and while most alumni would have either left already or were sleeping.

In addition to my team ‘in the field’ I had a few other TFA alumni critics who were remotely monitoring from Los Angeles and Chicago the twitter account I had created just for the occasion @TFA25FactCheck.  Together with the associated hashtag #TFA25FactCheck, this turned out to be a pretty successful social media campaign.  It ended up with 250 followers and hundreds of mentions.

Friday night were the regional receptions and we all went to a big area where people could mingle.  A few people came up to me, recognizing my name from my name tag and thanked me for the work I’ve done with ed reform fact-checking.  I met up with my critics-not-haters ‘team,’ Amber, Jameson, Leah, and Brandon, four critical TFA alumni who I had been chatting with through emails and text messages in the weeks leading up to the event.  We went to a restaurant and did some planning for our unauthorized panel discussion we were going to stage on Saturday.  It was great meeting them in person finally.  We had a great time together and planned our events.  Throughout the weekend, we stayed in touch with a text group and it was nice knowing that we never had to feel like we were in this without any support.

On Saturday there were 50 different sessions to attend in the three time slots.  Most of these sessions were videoed and if the more inspired reader of this blog wants to watch some of the sessions and report any interesting information about them, they can be found here.

To see the difference in tone between the reformers in 2011 vs those same reformers in 2016, compare Joel Klein at each of them.  In 2011 on the opening panel he was loud and arrogant.  Five years later we see a much more subdued Joel Klein, seen in this speech speaking about how complicated education reform is and how poverty is definitely a complicating factor.

This panel then featured a very reasonable sounding Kevin Huffman, former commissioner of education in Tennessee and then Kira Orange Jones, known to reform critics for having tens of thousands of dollars from Michael Bloomberg help fund her campaign to be on the New Orleans school board.  She sounded pretty reasonable too, talking about building bridges with communities.  Then Abigail Smith, a TFA alum who was deputy mayor of education in Washington DC appointed by Vincent Gray, spoke for a while about how ed reform without acknowledging structural racism is unlikely to work.

I was one of the first to show up and get a seat for the morning session called ‘alumni trailblazers’ which included Michelle Rhee, Dave Levin, Mike Feinberg, and John White.  I sat in the second row and talked to Dave and Mike who I’ve known, now, for 23 years, since they were in Houston in 1992, my second year there.  I’ve known Michelle Rhee since I worked with her at the 1996 institute and though I was five feet away from her before this session was set to begin, I decided that it would be best for me to not approach her.  She also didn’t make any eye contact with me.  I think it was better that way.  Surprisingly, John White approached me, introduced himself very friendly — seemed to know who I was — we didn’t talk really, but I did appreciate that gesture.  I’ve had a lot of debates with him on Twitter about AP tests in Louisiana.

This first session was interesting to me since Michelle Rhee gave a very happy speech.  Nothing about teacher’s unions and ineffective teachers.  I don’t think I ever heard a Rhee speech before this one without the claim that three consecutive effective teachers will erase the achievement gap.  She did do some revisionist history, reminiscing about the decision to fire 200 teachers, just before an election, never mentioning that many of those teachers had to be hired back.  After Rhee went, John White sounded very reasonable too.

There was also a panel featuring three of the biggest names in education reform, John White in Louisiana, Kaya Henderson, chancellor in DC, and Chris Barbic, former superintendent of the Tennessee Achievement School District.  This panel was moderated by Dale Russakoff who recently wrote a book about the Newark school reform fiasco and how they blew a $100 million gift from Facebook.

In this part we have John White, who was mentored by Joel ‘poverty is not destiny’ Klein, talking about the importance of wraparound services.  Chris Barbic, also in this panel, discusses how it is more difficult to teach kids from zoned schools than it is to teach kids at charter schools where the parents have to navigate an admissions process.

In a panel featuring Colorado state senator Michael Johnston and Race To The Top Architect Jon Schnur, Johnston was asked about his legislation that made test scores 50% of teacher evaluation scores in Colorado.  He says at one point that we don’t know whether we should make it 40% or 50% or 20% and that it should never be just on one test on one day.

One session I attended was called “What should we do when the whole school fails?”  This panel featured five reformers and one reform critic, Steve Zimmer, president of the LA school board.  On this panel was also someone I have clashed with over the years Chris ‘Citizen’ Stewart.  It was interesting to see how the A-list reformers in the other sessions, Rhee, Klein, Huffman, Barbic, and White, had all toned down their message and were all about collaboration now, while the B-listers like Stewart and also seen on that panel Vanessa Rodriguez, who is evidently still hanging on in Newark after the departure of her boss Cami Anderson, are still doing the Waiting For Superman anti-union rants.

Here’s one of the few instances I saw where there was some push back from a reform critic.  It was too bad that more panels didn’t have more diversity of views.  Watch Stewart and Rodriguez explain the problem with unions.

I was interested to see which teachers TFA had picked to participate in a panel where alumni TFA teachers discuss controversial issues in education.  Over a year ago I reached out to TFA saying that I would like to be on some panel.  I’m not sure how many other alumni have been involved with TFA for 24 years, written five books, and been invited to speak at six NCTM conferences.  I figured they would not let me be on one, but I felt this was a good ‘litmus’ test to see if TFA really was willing to demonstrate that they could be more balanced.  This certainly would have been an ideal panel for me to have been on, but instead they had mostly charter school teachers and just one ‘voice of reason’ a former public school teacher.

The last session I attended was about the Tennessee miracle.  Featuring mainly Kevin Huffman, and moderated by former TFA co-CEO Matt Kramer, this panel convinced me that much of the nice talk that people like Huffman and Barbic were saying earlier in the day were just acts.  When you get them really talking, they revert back to what they’re really thinking.  The premise of the panel is that because of Tennessee’s NAEP gains from 2011 to 2013, when Huffman had just started as ed commissioner there and none of his policies had really gotten rolling yet, Tennessee was a proven model of what works.  No mention that Tennessee’s state reading scores have dropped for three years in a row.  No mention that from 2013 to 2015 Tennessee’s NAEP scores were flat.

The fawning that Kramer does over Huffman is actually pretty comical.  Huffman is getting so much love in this session he is literally glowing.  This is quite a different Huffman from the one just a few hours before.  And Barbic is no longer mentioning about how generational poverty is harder to overcome than immigrant poverty like he was earlier.  One of the more interesting parts is when Kramer asks Huffman why he resigned.  What he says is pretty accurate so I’m surprised he said it.  He said that it’s hard to be the person who burned down all these bridges and then try to be the guy who gets the team together to rebuild the bridges.  This is just what we are seeing around the country with the reformers.  You have the aggressive reformer who isn’t intended to stay on for that long, Rhee, Huffman, Anderson, Barbic, how is John White still hanging on?, and then you get the replacement who is seemingly a better listener while maybe they are just continuing the work of the other person, but more discreetly.

Even though I was blackballed from being a presenter, I did get a kick out of two different shout-outs I got during the sessions, one from one of the most well known reformers and one from one of the most well known reform critics.

First, Mike Feinberg, co-founder of KIPP

And later, Randi Weingarten

After the last session, the critics-not-haters crew tried to do our unauthorized panel discussion out in a main meeting area.  It seemed like about 20 people showed up and it was kind of loud and not an ideal setting, but I did get to meet a very nice TFA couple, Ricky and Rickie, I think, who had attended one of my workshops when I used to do one about classroom management at the TFA institute.  They also followed my blogging and were so nice to meet.  So maybe my plan for a giant panel didn’t pan out, but sometimes quality beats quantity.

Saturday night after the sessions there was the ‘main event’ where we all went to the basketball stadium for a program kind of like the Oscars.  There were old timer alumni making inspirational speeches, a TFA corps member who was taught by TFA corps members, and a very good speech by TFA-CEO, Elisa Villanueva-Beard.  In the past I have critiqued her speeches for fighting the straw-man status quo defenders who think that poor kids can’t learn.  In this speech, there was even talk about how some alumni have different ideas about how to improve education and as long as we have the same goals, she’s with us.

The next day, maybe as a response to the ‘Stinkweed’ article about me, there was another article in The Washington Post where Villanueva-Beard is quoted as saying “We have people who are not Kool-Aid drinkers, which is great and people who are Kool-Aid drinkers, which is great.”

The most disappointing part of the main event was a presentation by a group of community members called ‘The Memphis Lift.’  Introduced by Natasha Kamrani, who was one of my good friends when she and I were corps members together in Houston in 1991, she is married to another reformer friend of mine, Chris Barbic, former ASD superintendent in Tennessee, the Memphis Lift is apparently a group of parents and grandparents in Memphis who have been told by reformers that their schools are ‘failing’ and that they need to go around getting signatures so their schools can be turned over to charter schools so they will no longer be failing schools.  I see this as exploitation and these parents are probably unaware that in the new charter schools in the ASD, the test scores are still in the bottom 5% so the schools are still failing, but now that they are run by charter management these parent will have no say in how those schools run.

If you want to see the whole event, it was recorded and can be seen here

The show ended with a lengthy performance by Janelle Monae, who, I have to admit, put on quite a performance.  I felt that this was a bit over the top, however.  I’m not sure what they paid her, maybe she did it for free.  I just felt it was a bit gluttonous.

After the main event, there were some receptions, I went to one for early 1990s alumni.  I got to hang out with some old friends and also saw some of the people I had trained when I was a staff member.  I talked to Chris Barbic a bit and ran into Whitney Tilson and even exchanged pleasantries with Wendy Kopp.  As it became 2:00 AM, it was time for me to call it a night and, I figured, a weekend.

A few hours later I was up and packed and needed to make one last stop at the TFA critics-not-haters brunch.  I was a bit late and figured how many people are going to be there anyway?  Well, I was shocked to see a practically full room.  There were at least 80 people there having brunch and Amber Kim was running a full session complete with butcher block paper and prompt questions.  Then there was a panel I participated on.  I got my public panel after all, wouldn’t you know it.  Afterwards I spoke to different people from all over the country at the brunch.  It was a great end to a very productive weekend.

My feeling is that TFA is changing their messaging to stay current with the current strategy of the US Department of Education and the different ed reform groups.  They realize that their anti-teacher narrative is wearing thin and it is time to be a lot nicer.  Are they doing this because they want to or because they have to, I think it is because they have to.  Still, they do ‘appear’ to be improving, as I wrote in the beginning of this post.

It will be interesting what happens when we have a new President and, hopefully, a new Secretary of Education.  Maybe if that person has better ideas than Duncan and King, TFA will suddenly be parroting those better idea.  I guess I’ll go to the 30 year thing in 2021 and let everyone know how that one goes.


For people who read this blog, there are about 120 hours of video from the conference and I do appreciate that TFA put them all up on the web.  In my younger days I’d probably watch most of them, a little each day, and see what interesting things I could find in them.  For instance, there is one about Success Academy and another about Joel Klein’s influence on education.  If you get a chance to watch a few videos and see something noteworthy, either bad or good, leave a comment on this post.  Some of the things said in the videos were pretty good, so if you are a TFA defender and want to comment on some parts that you think show the organization is getting better, you can comment on this post about it here too.

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments

A Miracle Grows In Brooklyn

Five years ago, when I started blogging about education reform, much of what I did was debunking schools that had supposedly beaten the odds by doing things like firing the teachers or by converting a school into a charter school.  At first, this was a lot of work since every few days there would be yet another ‘proof point’ that the Waiting For Superman narrative was true.

After using public data to reveal that these schools were over-hyped, politicians and reformers alike have learned that they probably shouldn’t do this so much because after their claims are fact-checked, they are going to look silly for trying to lie about the results of their experiments.

Still, now and then, a see an article, like the one recently in the New York Daily News by charter school and Michelle Rhee cheerleader Richard Whitmire.  In this case it is an article about a partnership between a charter school and a public school in Brooklyn that has yielded miraculous results.  The article is titled ‘Dogs and cats, working together’, and can be found here.

The premise of the article is that there is this failing elementary school that has been turned around after an unlikely collaboration with Uncommon Schools.  After one year of this partnership, the district school, Leadership Elementary School, now has the top math scores in their district and is doing very well in ELA too.

From the article:

The new working relationship has paid off: Last year’s state test scores for District 23 puts Landmark at the top — by 20 percentage points in math, and well ahead in literacy. And that’s just in one year.

So the first odd thing about this story is that Leadership Elementary School is a very new school.  It opened in 2013 with Pre-K, 1st, and 2nd grade.  Then this partnership started one year later in 2014.  So this is not one of those schools that has been ‘failing kids for decades’ as reformers like to talk about school turnarounds.  No, this school had just opened.  Since there were no 3rd graders in their first year, there is no state test data to serve as any kind of benchmark to compare their data before and after their partnership with Uncommon Schools.

Last spring their 3rd graders took the state test.  There were only 32 students in the school who took the ELA test and 33 who took the math.  So 13 out of 32 passed ELA and 22 out of 33 passed math.  While these are better percentages than the neighboring schools, this is a very small sample size, one that Whitmire conveniently does not mention.  Since the only data is from after the partnership, it is impossible to conclude that this partnership had anything to with with those 13 students passing ELA or 22 passing math.  Without baseline data, this simply cannot be done.  What would these 33 students have gotten in the parallel universe where the Uncommon partnership did not happen last year is anybody’s guess.  This group of 3rd graders were 33 students who had attended other schools for kindergarten and first grade and entered second grade in Leadership Elementary when it opened so perhaps the schools those students attended for Kindergarten and first grade deserve some of the credit.

A story like this shows that reformers are really grasping at straws when it comes to proving that charter schools are so amazing that they can, in one year, turnaround a ‘failing’ school.  There is just no data to show that Landmark was a ‘failing’ school before the partnership.  Really there is no way to measure the impact of the one year Uncommon partnership.  Whitmire surely is aware of this, but chooses instead to mislead.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments