Trainwreck For America

Between 1990 and 2013, Teach For America grew in size and influence from a tiny inconsequential alternative placement provider to a $300 million a year political powerhouse. But the last ten years have been rough on TFA. In 2016 they fired about 15% of their staff. Then their recruitment figures dropped year after year until 2022 when they had their fewest number in nearly 20 years. And now Chalkbeat reports that TFA is set to fire another 25% of their staff in the coming months.

As an alumni of TFA (Houston 1991), I’ve been following the ups and downs of this organization for 32 years. At least to me, it is not a mystery why TFA is crashing and burning.

The first reason is that they have neglected their fundamental task, which is to properly train the new recruits.  Every year their training seems to get worse until now they seem to have given up on trying to train the corps members at all.  I had a ‘mole’ in TFA a few years back, someone who was once a student at the high school I work at.  When I asked them about what they learned about lesson planning, they told me that they were never required to create a lesson plan for the entire institute.

Poorly trained teachers become failing teachers in the Fall and many of them quit and those who don’t quit are certainly not giving TFA good word of mouth.  Eventually the pipeline dries up, which is exactly what is happening.  Yes, with $300 million, TFA will always be able to recruit some new corps members, but without the positive buzz, they won’t be able to be as selective about who they admit.

Another cause of TFA’s current problems is that about 15 years ago they made a Faustian bargain with the so-called reformers like Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan.  TFA jumped on the teacher bashing bandwagon, rode that wave for a while getting several alumni into leadership positions in several large districts.  But all those leaders failed and got fired and TFA seems to have gone down with the ship.

And with all these issues to overcome, TFA would need a great leader. Unfortunately their CEO who has been in charge for about eight years, Elisa Villanueva-Beard (EVB) has just not been up to the task. To understand why, listen to this four minute interview she did a few weeks ago.

Her response was completely incoherent.  It sounded like what you would get if you played Mad Libs and every blank had to be filled with ed reform buzz word.

“We’re living in an outmoded system that really needs to be ‘reimagined.'” Sounds like it comes from Trump’s Secretary Of Education Betsy DeVos in 2017.

‘We know that that [teacher quality] is still the biggest indicator of success for a child’s outcomes’ from Michelle Rhee in 2017

‘Science of reading’ from Obama’s other secretary of education John King. ​​

‘High Dosage Tutoring’ This fits well with a new TFA initiative where they are having college students tutor students.  What’s ironic about this is that for years the ed reformers insisted that class size did not matter and now TFA is saying that one-on-one tutoring is an efficient use of money.

‘They [kids] need us to have high expectations, have deep love and belief in them’ is a favorite of Joel Klein, a big TFA advocate.  Elissa mentions this in every interview I have ever heard with her.  How great it would be if low expectations was even one of the top twenty things that causes students to struggle.

And she actually ends with the words “where we leave no kids behind,” from the education visionary George W Bush whose policy did more damage to schools and students than anything else, even Race To The Top, in the past 20 years.

For the CEO of a $300 million a year organization with 33 years of work in education to spew twenty years of empty cliches in four minutes is definitely a bad sign for the future of this stumbling organization.

I actually feel a little bad for them.  It would have been so easy to just have a more positive message.  Rather than saying that real teachers are so lazy they can’t even muster up some high expectations, TFA could have said something like “Teachers are heroes in this country and we want our corps members to learn from them and aspire to be like them.”  TFA could have also encouraged their alumni who wanted to lead schools to do so by climbing the ranks and become assistant principals and then principals of district schools.  Instead they bought into the mirage of the charter networks who, in various ways, cheat to get their results.

Is it too late for TFA to make a comeback? If they don’t do some serous soul searching, there is not much of a chance I think.

And certainly some of the 1000 disgruntled employees who are about to get fired can corroborate the misguided policies that have landed TFA in this mess. Contact me if you want to speak out.

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Steve Perry and P. Diddy Harlem Charter School: Only One 8th Grader Proficient On State Math Test

Dr. Steve Perry is an outspoken education reformer who has billed himself ‘America’s most trusted educator.’ He also once called the teacher’s unions ‘roaches.’ He founded a chain of charter schools called Capital Preparatory which has a few schools in Connecticut and, more recently, three schools in New York. The Capital Preparatory Harlem school was co-founded by performer Sean P. Diddy Combs.

The statistic that the school uses in all it’s promotional materials which is often quoted in the media, most recently in this Harlem local paper is that 100% of their graduates are accepted into four year colleges. The article also mentions how Capital Prep was a finalist in the YASS charter school competition. As a finalist, they got $500,000.

The 100% college acceptance graduation rate, though, implies that the students at the school have been successful in their academics. So I thought I’d go to the public New York State data site to see if this is the case.

In general, the test scores at the Perry / P. Diddy school are some of lowest in the city. Most notable is that in their 8th grade class of 71 students, exactly 1 scored a passing score of a 3 on the recent state tests.

School wide, only 6% of the students in all grades got a 3 on the math state test.

For the older grades, I see that no students passed the Geometry or the Algebra II Regents exams.

Now I’m not saying that test scores are everything, but when only 1 out of 71 8th graders gets a 3 on the state test, this definitely runs counter to the image that the 100% college acceptance rate is supposed to indicate.

The New York Capital Prep schools have only been open for a few years, but the Connecticut Capital Prep schools have been around for over 15 years. So I also looked at the Connecticut publicly available data, which has a lot of useful information on it.

One thing I found was that their Four-Year graduation rate has been as low as 56% in recent years.

On the college readiness index, the school fared very poorly

Also the college entrance rate for 2020 was not 100% but about 77%

And their state test scores in general are consistently below the state average

And of course there is some attrition so that the 100% isn’t really100%. This is from the U.S. News & World report data for the Capital Prep Magnet School in Connecticut. The New York schools don’t have such bad attrition so far.

That school also had 0% passing an AP exam even though 38% took an AP exam

So anytime you see a claim that some school is beating the odds because they have a 100% college acceptance rate, you should know that there is usually more to the story than that one statistic.

I haven’t heard much about Steve Perry in the past few years. Like Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan, the reformers of the around 2005 to 2012 peak of the reform era have been keeping a low profile. Still, there are puff pieces in local papers that can be misleading so it is good to do a quick debunking of a miracle school for old time’s sake.

Here’s Peter Green on Steve Perry.

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New Data Reveals That Success Academy Attrition Is Worse Than Previously Reported

For all my years of blogging about education, the most important part of any post is pursuing the right questions.

My first investigative post back in 2011 was inspired by listening to an Arne Duncan keynote speech in which he boasted that as a result of school closing that he authorized, the school that replaced the closed school got 100% of their 107 graduating seniors into college. It all sounded good until I researched the question “How big was that cohort when they were in 9th grade?” Throughout the years, most of my blog post have been based on asking questions like that.

Success Academy is the largest charter network in New York City. With 40 schools and 20,000 students, Success Academy is known for its high 3-8 standardized test scores and their rigid rules. Success Academy also celebrates the annual 100% college acceptance rate among its graduates.

Success Academy is a K-12 program and, until recently, the only time that you could enter the school was either in kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade. The size of the first graduating cohort in 2018 was 16 students. The answer to the natural question of how many students started that cohort originally was 73 which meant that approximately 25% of the students who started with Success Academy eventually graduated from there. I say ‘approximately’ because it isn’t fully accurate to just divide 16/73=22% and conclude that 78% of the cohort left the school for one reason or another. Not counted in the 16 is the students who were still in the school but had been left back one or more years. It seems that about 6 more of the students from that cohort graduated a year later so maybe the true number is 22/73=30% is more accurate. But there’s another factor that, until now, has been impossible to factor in. Some of those 22 students are students who transferred into the school after the first year so you would have to subtract those students from the 22 to get the actual attrition rate. The only way to get that kind of data is to do a FOIL request which is exactly what I did.

Success Academy had 315 Kindergarteners in 2008. The graduating class of 2021 had 110 students. Without this new data, it would seem that their persistence rate is about 35%. But this new data I received shows that only 69 of the graduating class had started with the school as kindergarteners. So a more accurate estimate is 69/315=22% which is a little lower than the 25% I had originally estimated.

It is also interesting that 41/110=37% of the graduating class were from the backfills even though the backfills were from a pool of about 100 students. So about 41% of the backfills graduated vs 22% of the original cohort. A reason for this discrepancy could be explained by the way that Success Academy manipulates their backfill students to guarantee that the backfilled students are ‘better’ than the students they replaced. As I reported previously, lower performing students applying to be backfill students are often told that they have to repeat the grade they just graduated from which surely discourages some of them from accepting their backfill offer while higher performing students are not required to repeat the grade.

So like the famed Greek ‘ship of Theseus’ that had it’s planks gradually replaced until it couldn’t be considered the same ship eventually, the cohort of students who graduate Success Academy are very different than the cohort that started it.

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Success Academy Parents Speak Out. Part 2 “I was told my seventh grade daughter had to repeat entire grade because she failed one course by one point”

A few months ago I published the first part of this series where parents of current or former Success Academy students can share their stories.  As I hoped would happen, another frustrated parent found that post and contacted me with his own disturbing story to tell.

Success Academy is known for its high 3-8 standardized test scores and its extreme rigidity.  In a way, the rigidity is part of what causes them to have such high test scores.  They demand compliance from their students and from the families of those students.  When a student or the family of a student is not conforming to the expectations of the school, that student or family are going to be harassed, humiliated, and punished until they either fall into line or ‘voluntarily’ transfer to another school.

The heartbreaking saga of a girl I will call ‘Carla’ began pleasantly enough eight years ago when she was accepted into Success Academy Springfield Gardens as a kindergartener.  From kindergarten through fourth grade, she thrived at the school.  Her fourth grade report card grades were mostly the highest or second highest category, except for writing where she was struggling.

In fifth grade, she started having problems academically, though not catastrophically, and then as we all know, the pandemic hit and schools in New York went remote for the next year and a half.  For the end part of fifth grade and all of sixth grade, Carla struggled to learn remotely.  She had various connection issues and would wait in zoom waiting rooms endlessly.  She was really traumatized by the pandemic year and was eager to return to in person classes for her seventh grade year.

But she was still suffering the effects of the 18 months of remote learning.  She was having mental health issues and was seeing a therapist about them.  At school she was failing several classes.  Carla is a very hard working student and someone who really tries her best and her parents work very hard to support her needs and to keep on top of what assignments Carla was missing.  Everyone knows that Success Academy has one trick in their playbook which is to make students repeat grades for failing courses.  So Carla managed to improve most of her grades but she still failed two subjects, writing and science and was told that she would have to pass those two courses in summer school or she would have to repeat the entire seventh grade.

How Success Academy can make such a threat is incomprehensible to me.  For elementary school grades it makes more sense, but in a secondary school setting, why not just retake the courses that you failed?  But that wasn’t the threat, it was that she had to pass both courses with a 70 or higher or she would be repeating the entire seventh grade, including all the classes that she had passed.

A lot of students had to go to the Success Academy summer school program which, unfortunately, was remote and asynchronous.  So the very thing that set Carla back in 2020 was now back in her life.  She struggled but with her parent’s support she completed most of the work by the time that summer school was ending.  When she got her report card, however, she and her family were devastated when they read it.

She passed one of the courses, but the other she failed with a 69, one point below the threshold.  The school sent the family the news in this cold form letter.

Basically a form letter and ending with the bizarre ‘Warmly, Your Principal’ can there be any less warm way to end a letter than that?

Her father reached out to the school and then the board.  The board responded in a similarly cold way

He then filed a formal complaint with the charter authorizer and never heard anything back from them.

He pulled Carla from the school and she now attends a private school and she is, thankfully, doing well there.

Making a student repeat seventh grade for failing one class by one point is cruel and possibly illegal.  The father told me that he believes that the 69 grade is in error anyway because he has screen shots of all the work she submitted.  Either way, any grading system produces a grade that is really just an approximation for the work the student did and what they learned.  There is certainly a margin of error in the calculation so usually if a student fails a course by one point, you give the student the benefit of the doubt.

This is a student that Success Academy had been teaching for eight years.  They saw her thrive for five of those years.  They saw her start to struggle and then saw her suffer through remote learning and trying to rebound from the remote year.  But Success Academy cares about their systems and their standardized test scores (Carla did get 4s on her state tests still) and about pressuring students and parents to fix mental health issues that the school has no idea, nor any desire to learn how, to help with.

So while this is just the second installment of Success Academy Parents speak out, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of parents with similar experiences and feelings of frustration when they get on the bad side of this heartless organization.

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Success Academy’s Backhanded Backfill Policy

Success Academy is a charter school network in New York City with over 40 schools and approximately 20,000 students. Since it was first formed in 2006, it has been known for having outstanding standardized test scores for grades 3 through 8.

If you ask them how they get such high test scores, they will tell you that it is a combination of their high expectations for students, high expectations for parents, and unified curriculum. But from the first hand anecdotes I have heard over the years including the full length book ‘How The Other Half Learns’ by Robert Pondiscio, there is some shady business lurking behind those shiny test scores. Pondiscio, who is a big ‘school choice’ advocate actually, explains how the lottery to get into Success Academy is not really random because after families are offered spots at Success Academy they are given so many hoops to jump through that half of them don’t even enroll in the school. This leads to a much more compliant group of families and students than the average random lottery school would have.

I’ve learned through a lot of first hand stories that one of the biggest factors in the ‘success’ of Success Academy is the way they weaponize the school’s ability to force students to repeat grades or to voluntarily leave the school to avoid having to repeat a grade. When they have a student who they think is not fitting into their system enough, even if that student is on grade level and passing the state test, they sometimes arbitrarily tell the family at the end of the school year that if the student returns to Success Academy the next year they will have either repeat the grade they just completed or they can transfer to a different school and then they won’t have to repeat the grade.

So one way that holding a student back can improve the school’s test scores is that the weaker students leave the school ‘voluntarily.’ But maybe the family will decide that they want to keep their child at Success Academy and then the student will be more likely to do well on the state test when they have just repeated the year in that grade. But there is another way that Success Academy wields the power to arbitrarily make a student repeat a grade. Each year there are many students who leave the school for all kinds of reasons. While most schools give students on a waiting list a chance to be ‘backfilled’ and transfer from another school, it is known that Success Academy only allows backfilling in grades 1 through 4. So students from the waiting list are offered a slot at the school, but sometimes Success Academy will tell these families who just got a position off the waitlist that because Success Academy is so rigorous, the student will have to repeat the grade they just completed at their other school. They say this to the families whose children, Success Academy thinks, will struggle at the school. So these families who are told this will either take the deal and have their children repeat the grade or they will choose to go to a different school. Either way, Success Academy improves their test scores this way either by denying the student a chance to go to Success or by having them retake the same grade where they will likely do better on the state test the second time around than they would if they were in their proper grade.

I have heard about families having to grapple with this choice after getting into the school as a ‘backfill’ student, but I had no idea how common of a thing this was. So I did a freedom of information request to the NYC Department Of Education. Much to my surprise, the data was just emailed to me today and what it reveals is shocking, even by Success Academy abuse of families standards.

In case this is something that a reader may want to do one day, here is exactly what I sent for the request:


I am studying backfill patterns at the Success Academy Charter School Network.  I’ve heard, anecdotally, that many students who are admitted to the network as backfill students (they enter after kindergarten) are mandated to repeat the grade they just completed at the school they attended.  I want to study if the percent of backfill students made to repeat a grade for different ethnic groups is the same.

To study this, I would like to have the following data:

For the 2019-2020 (pre-pandemic) school year I would like a spreadsheet that has one row for each student who was admitted as a backfill student.  There would be three columns:

Grade student just completed, grade student was in at Success Academy the next year, and race of student (white, black, latino, asian, other).

So it might look something like this:

2,3,latino (this would be a student who just completed 2nd grade and was put into 3rd grade at Success Academy)

3,3,white (this would be a student who completed 3rd grade and was reassigned to 3rd grade at Success Academy)

Thank You,

Gary Rubinstein

The first thing that struck me about the data was that there were about 1,400 backfill students in the 2019-2020 school year for grades 1 through 4. I’ve heard Success Academy say that they only have 10% attrition each year but if these backfill students are meant to replace the students in grades 1 to 4 who have left the school, it should be much fewer since 1,400 students is more than 10% of the students who were just in grades K through 3 at Success Academy.

The second thing I noticed that is very mysterious is that 20 of the students who were admitted to the school through the backfill process were past fourth grade. There were six 5th graders, nine 6th graders, one 7th grader, three 9th graders, and one 11th grader. I don’t know the circumstances of these students but I don’t think that they are siblings since there would be a lot more than 20 if Success Academy took older siblings who were past 4th grade. This is something that should be investigated for sure.

But the main purpose of my data request was to find out: 1) What percent of backfill students have to repeat the grade they just completed at another school? and 2) Is this percent different for different ethnicities?

Here’s what I learned:

For the 1,396 students who just completed grade 1 through 4 in another school and were offered backfill spots at Success Academy, exactly 426 had to repeat the grade they just completed or, in some cases, repeat the last two grades they completed (there were 20 students who had to repeat two grades). This is about 31% of the backfill students in those grades.

By grade these numbers are:

For first grade: 123 out of 443 = 28%.

For second grade: 114 out of 427 = 27%

For third grade: 157 out of 467 = 34%

For fourth grade: 32 out of 59 = 54%

For me, these numbers are staggering. I don’t think that they should be permitted to arbitrarily force a student to repeat a grade they just passed at another school. I suppose there could be some rare times where this would benefit the student, but not 31% of the time.

The next question I analyzed was whether or not there was a difference between these percentages broken down by different ethnic groups. So I calculated these numbers again for grades 1 through 4 and compared in one category the White and Asian students and in another category, the Black students.

For first grade:

White and Asian: 3 out of 52 = 6%

Black: 67 out of 234 = 29%

So for students who have just completed first grade, the Black students were five times more likely to be forced to repeat first grade than the White and Asian students.

The other grades were less disparate.

For second grade:

White and Asian: 9 out of 58 = 16%

Black: 62 out of 218 = 28%

So for students who have just completed second grade, the Black students were about twice as likely to be forced to repeat second grade.

For third grade:

White and Asian: 12 out of 52 = 23%

Black: 82 out of 238 = 34%

There were not very many fourth graders, only 7 White and Asian and 24 Black students so the sample size is small for comparison but for completeness.

For fourth grade:

White and Asian: 3 out of 7 = 43%

Black: 9 out of 24 = 38%

Putting the four grades together, 27 out of 169 = 16% White and Asian students had to repeat the grade they just completed while 220 out 714 = 31% Black students had to repeat the grade they just completed. So a Black student is twice as likely to be forced to repeat a grade during the backfill process as a White or Asian student.

I have to admit that even I was a bit shocked by these numbers. I’m curious what other people think about this. There might be more to read into this data, I will write a follow up post if I think of any other way to crunch the numbers.

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Success Academy Parents Speak Out.  Part 1 “They banned me from attending my son’s graduation.”

The Success Academy charter school network has over 40 schools in the five boroughs of New York City.  About 20,000 students in grades K to 12 attend these schools.  Though Success Academy students have gotten exceptional 3-8 state test scores, the network has been very controversial because of some of their practices which some consider cruel if not illegal.

They have paid out millions of dollars in settlements for their treatment of families of students who the school wanted to rid themselves of and even went so far to create a written ‘got-to-go’ list.

One of their teachers treated a small girl abusively by executing a ‘rip-and-redo’ after the student gave an explanation for how to do the problem that the teacher did not think was good enough.

Maybe Success Academy gets away with these things because they are perceived to be isolated incidents where an administrator or a teacher has gone rogue.  But I believe that these incidents are not uncommon, most of them just don’t make it into the New York Times, they are commonplace because they are an inevitable consequence of their mission.  That mission is to get good 3-8 standardized test scores.  Students and their families are not seen as the people that the school serves, but as either cooperators or obstacles to the mission.  Success Academy can be very cruel to students and families and they can justify this cruelty as serving some higher good.  But when you put a human face to some of these incidents, it can really make you wonder if such cruelty is justified or even legal.

When parents in a public New York City school feel that they are being mistreated, there is a chain of command that they can work their way through.  They can complain to the superintendent’s office, the chancellor, the mayor, even to the New York State education department.  But when families in charter schools feel that they have been mistreated, they can complain to the CEO, but beyond that, there is no clear way to get grievances settled.  One such parent had such a humiliating experience recently and with no clear place to file a complaint eventually ended up googling for reporters who have written about things like this especially involving Success Academy.  Since the newspapers are also pretty friendly to Success Academy, she contacted the only person that she could find who she could tell her story to, and that was me, sole writer of “Gary Rubinstein’s Blog”.  Though I’m happy to do my part and help this parent, I do wish that she had better options than me since I can’t promise that relating her story here will definitely help her get closure on this incident.  She hopes that the network will reconsider their policies so that future families don’t have to experience the same humiliation that she and her son did.

Here’s the history leading up to the incident, as related to me by this parent. If Success Academy wants to challenge any of the details, they are welcome to in the comments:

A single mother, I’ll call her D, entered her son for the Success Academy lottery after he had completed kindergarten and first grade at a district school.  He was accepted to Success Academy as one of their ‘backfill’ students (they admit new students to replace the ones who leave up until 4th grade).

Something unusual happened right away, though.  Success Academy said that since her son did not attend Success Academy for kindergarten and first grade, he would not be able to go into second grade at Success Academy, even though he had just passed first grade elsewhere, but would have to repeat first grade at Success Academy.  She was ok with this and it seems to have worked out for her as her son has been exceptional academically for the past four years there.  But it is still something worth thinking about.  Is this what they do for all their backfill students?  If it is, this would be a way of replacing the weaker students who leave the school with students who are a year ahead of their grade and are even more likely to do well on the state tests later on because they had an extra year of schooling.  I also wonder about the ethics of this.  Is there any consideration to the possibility that the student is not best served by repeating the grade they just completed?  I feel like this policy would not fly with affluent white families.

So her son was doing well and was in the fourth grade at one of the Success Academy elementary schools this past year.  But D is a single mother and some of the demands of Success Academy were hard for her to always meet.  Success Academy has a strict dress code and while D was able to get her son most of the uniform, she was not able to afford the exact pants they needed.  So she sent him with pants that were as close as she was able to obtain.  The school assigned her son months of after school detention because of this.  The school said they had provided a voucher for her to buy the proper pants but she wasn’t aware of this and didn’t remember seeing an email about this and then she was told that the voucher expired and she couldn’t get another one.  It seems that this went on for months without resolution.  Why can’t Success Academy with their $100 million of Bloomberg money help a family get the proper uniform when they are obviously having difficulties adding this task to their already stressful lives?

As a single mother, D would have to take her son as early as possible to school some days.  The building opened, I think, at 7:15 AM and she would sometimes get him there that early.  One day she got a call from New York’s Administration For Children’s Services (ACS).  Apparently the school had reported her saying that she brought her son to school too early, at 6:45 AM one day.  ACS came to her house to investigate.  She said that this accusation was not true and challenged the school to provide security footage showing that this had happened.  The school was not able to provide any evidence of their claim and ACS closed their investigation.

Another day, D was late in bringing her son to school.  She dropped him off a little late and got in a cab to go to her job.  A half hour later, a friend of hers called her to say that her son was wandering the streets.  It turned out that the school did not like that the child was late to school and sent him out of the building, unsupervised, to look for his mother.  By the Success Academy logic, D should have reported them to ACS for sending a 10 year old out into the streets unsupervised.

Still, D kept her son at the school. Her son was succeeding academically and it is a really hard decision to leave a school since her son already had his friends there and liked how he was succeeding there.

One day D went to pick up her son after school.  She wanted to go up to the room where he was and she was told he couldn’t, but she did it anyway and picked him up.

At the end of the school year, D was told the day before graduation that she was barred from attending her son’s graduation.  The reason given was that she had broken security or COVID protocols (she was vaccinated, so it isn’t clear what protocol this was) that day and as a consequence could not attend her own son’s graduation ceremony.  She hoped that they would change their minds, but they stuck to their decision and she had to stand outside the graduation, hoping to hear her son’s name read while her son had to suffer through the pain of looking out into the audience at his graduation and not seeing his sole parent in the audience.  Had they tried to do this with certain white families, this story would not be on “Gary Rubinstein’s Blog” but The Daily News or The New York Times.

D tried to write some letters of complaint to different Success Academy administrators but got no response. Here is an example of one of the unanswered text messages:

The issue, according to D, was the principal of the school.  When she described her as a young white woman who was really inflexible, I figured she was a former Teach For America member, and of course I was right.  This principal taught for 3 years and then has been a Success Academy employee for the past 7.  This is why you should have to teach for more than 3 years before you become a principal.  Usually teachers in their second and third year are overly strict to compensate for a rough first year.   Things are going better for them and it is really hard to be less rigid since you don’t want to risk losing the good things about your classroom.  But before you become a principal you have to learn to make the punishment fit the crime and, in this case, I can’t see that banning a parent from her child’s graduation is appropriate.  It is a vindictive move so this principal was able to ‘win the war’ or ‘get the last laugh’ or whatever it is she needed to exact revenge on a parent who has been making her work a little harder.

I’m going to make a personal plea to this principal here, from one TFA alum to another, you can be an effective leader and also be humane.  If you have confidence in your abilities, you can be less rigid and treat families the way you would want to be treated.  Though this might cause some extra work for you, it is worth it.  One day when you have more wisdom you don’t want to look back at your time as a young principal and regret the hurt you caused.  I know this because there are some things I try not to think about that I said or did during my 2nd through 5th year of teaching when I prided myself on always following through with all my threats.

I asked D where her son is going next year and she said to a Success Academy middle school in a different building with a different principal.  I was, at first, surprised and even a little disappointed about this.  But the more I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that just because the school has this toxic culture where things like banning a parent from graduation are commonplace, it does not mean that she should have to leave the school.  She can stay and use her voice to push the school to become the kind of school that doesn’t do things like this.  It’s like when people say “America, love it or leave it” well, there is a third option, you could stay in America and use your power or combine power with others to change America into a place that you can love.  So she does not have to leave the school and make her son adjust to finding a whole new set of friends.  Instead she is going to share her story and maybe get an apology from this principal or some reassurance from Success Academy that they are going to train their staff to be less cruel to the next parent that has a similar situation.

If Success Academy spokesperson Ann Powell would like to comment on this post, this would be welcomed here.  This is just Part 1 in a series.  If this series is helpful to the families, maybe it will no longer be needed since Success Academy could mend its ways for fear of negative publicity.  If you are a Success Academy parent or staff member who wants their story told, you can DM me on Twitter @garyrubinstein.

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Nearly Half Of Success Academy 9th Graders Do Not Graduate From Success Academy

With 40 schools and 20,000 students, Success Academy is the highest profile charter school network in New York City. It is known for its high standardized test scores and its equally impressive PR campaigns. Here is an advertisement I saw recently at a bus stop. Notice they say we “can” be classmates for life and not we “will” be classmates for life. Based on data I’ve recently obtained, I can see why they were wise to not put “will” or they would be committing false advertisement.

Over the years I’ve tracked the attrition at Success Academy. They are a K-12 program and I’ve found that generally when I compare the number of kindergarteners entering the school with the number of 12th graders that graduate 13 years later, they lose approximately 75% of their students over the 13 years.

Success Academy has argued that losing 75% over 13 years isn’t actually that bad since it equates to about 10% attrition per year, which is what district schools also have. One flaw in that reasoning is that district schools fill in those 10% of seats each year while Success Academy stops ‘backfilling’ in the 4th grade. Another problem with comparing attrition rates from Success Academy to district schools is that a student can pretty easily move from one district school to another and those schools won’t be all that different. But for Success Academy which are supposedly the best schools in the country, it is a major life change to leave Success Academy for a district school so if they really are as good as they say, you would expect their attrition to be less than the 10% per year that district schools have.

I recently got some data from New York State that puts the attrition of Success Academy in a different and scary context. Since Success Academy is a K-12 school and you can’t get in after 4th grade, any student who makes it to 9th grade there has been at the school for anywhere from 5 to 9 years. After making it that long, the last four years should be pretty easy. It’s like running a marathon and getting to the 25 mile mark, of course you are going to finish the race. But some new data I got reveals that this isn’t the case with Success Academy. In general, only about 60% of the students who become 9th graders there eventually graduate within 6 years. And with certain subgroups it is a lot less than that.

Here is the chart I got. Take a look at it yourself and let it sink in.

What this chart shows is that only about 55% of the students who are in Success Academy as 9th graders have graduated from Success Academy after four years. Another 5% graduate after 5 or 6 years. As for the other 40%, they have left the school, maybe graduating on time in another school. The 60% 6 year persistence rate from 9th grade to 12th grade is alarming enough. But you can also see that the persistence rate for students with disabilities was just 50%. And for the 2017 cohort only 20% graduated after 4 years, maybe more will take 5 or 6 years, but these are students that have been with Success Academy for so many years, is it really humane to leave so many of them back? Also notice the lack of ELL students. I’m believe ED stands for economically disadvantaged.

This data is really scandalous. Have you ever heard of a school that sheds almost half their students in a four year period from 9th to 12th grade even though those students have been in the school since kindergarten or maybe 4th grade at the latest? A question I wonder is why do so many students leave the school so late in the game after succeeding there for so many years? My suspicion is that Success Academy does this little game where they tell students that they are going to make them repeat a grade but that they will promote them if they transfer out. I’ve heard so many cases of that over the years. Basically its a legal way for them to arbitrarily expel any students they feel have ‘got-to’go’ without making an actual list.

If New York State really cared about this bizarre attrition between 9th and 12th grade, they could easily investigate it. How hard would it be to find the families who left the school and to ask them “Why did you leave Success Academy?” If any readers are families that have left Success Academy, you can write in the comments what your experience was.

Bloomberg recently gave Success Academy a whopping $100 million to expand. So in future years they may be playing their numbers games with way more than the 20,000 that currently have to ride the whims of this notorious network, always just a few whistleblowers away from being exposed.

Update: It has come to my attention that Success Academy now has two high schools, Harlem 1 and Harlem 3. Harlem 3 just had it’s first graduating class and the persistence data for this school is pretty much the same as the other school.

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Has Ember Charter Earned The Right To Expand?

Currently there are 267 charter schools in New York City. In New York State the charter ‘cap’ is 460, though the cap for New York City is 267 so as of right now, no new charters can open in New York City.

Charter school supporters often complain that the cap needs to be lifted or that some of the out of NYC charter slots could be given to New York City. But there are two ways that charters can get more students even without lifting the cap. The most obvious way is for charters to reduce their attrition rates. So a network like Success Academy has about 40,000 students right now. But about 75% of their students who start in kindergarten don’t make it to graduation. Success Academy could probably increase their population to 70,000 if few of their students weren’t on the official or unofficial ‘got-to-go’ list. The other way to evade the cap is for existing charter schools to expand into more grades.

Ember charter school is a K-10 school that currently has 568 students. They were recently permitted to add high school grades based, in part, on the school’s ability to raise test scores. If you go to their website you will see a very impressive looking graph:

The light green line shows the percent of their first cohort’s math percent passing the state test from grade 3 to grade 7. It went from 28% in grade 3 down to 23% in grade 4 and then again to 14% in grade 5 Then an amazing reversal occurred and in 6th grade they shot up from 14% up to 56% and the next year they had 82% passing in grade 7. It seems to be an incredible turnaround from 14% to 82% in just 2 years.

When faced with a miracle statistic like this, there are two questions that cross my mind. The first thing I wonder is how much of this growth is based on attrition. The second is whether they were able to replicate this success for their other cohorts.

For that first cohort who finished 7th grade in 2018, I found on the New York State data site that this cohort once had 60 students when they were in first grade. By the time they got to the miracle 2017-2018 year where they got 82% passing the math test, they were down to just 28 students. Here is a graph of their percent passing math and their cohort size on the same graph.

As you can see, the two graphs are practically mirror images of each other. When they were 3rd graders, 16 out of 57 was 28%. When they were in 7th grade, 23 out of 28 was 82%. So basically they got 7 more kids to pass the test.

I made a similar chart for the second and third cohorts. The second cohort had similar attrition, they went fro 71 students down to 37 between 4th grade and 7th grade but they did not get the 82% passing by 7th grade. They only got to 43% passing, even with the nearly 50% attrition.

The third cohort was the lowest performing of all. They had almost no attrition, keeping around 65 students throughout. They only had 6% of that cohort passing in both 3rd and 4th grade. And by 6th grade they were up to 23%, well below the district.

So just like so many other charter schools, when they can’t cheat by booting out their students, their test scores are nothing special. How they get permission to expand is definitely a scandal.

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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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