TFA Simultaneously Denounces And Embraces False Dichotomies

There has been a shift in recent years in the sorts of arguments that many reformers use to advance their agenda.  Though some are proudly fanatical, people like Joel Klein, Steve Perry, and Eva Moskowitz and organizations like StudentsFirst and 50CAN and also websites like The 74 and EduPost, most reformers at least pretend that they are more moderate, itself a strategy.

Most reform zealots are very pro-TFA, though TFA itself has often tried to straddle the fence claiming that they value diversity of opinion and that they are their own worst critics and things like that.  Sometimes, though, they let down their guard and show that they can be as simple minded as the most extreme reformers.  An example is a speech that the CEO of TFA Elisa Villanueva-Beard made a few years back where she continually chants the title of the anti-union bomb ‘Won’t Back Down.’

Villanueva-Beard recently wrote a piece on medium.com entitled “Accelerating Progress in Education: Calling for a Coalition That Rejects False Choices”

The history of successful change efforts shows us that a broad, diverse coalition is essential if we’re going to blaze a path to educational equity and excellence in America. No quick fixes, but the courageous commitment to exchange ideas and to respectfully disagree in dogged pursuit of solutions.

But this is not what’s happening.

Instead, we’re allowing the education conversation to be defined without enough nuance, appreciation for, or proximity to the realities students face every day. We’re relying on false dichotomies to frame our work, and this set of either-or choices fails our children.

This is an introduction that I agree with, but I’ve heard reformers say things like this before so I don’t get too excited, knowing that the other shoe will eventually drop.  In this case it happens in the next paragraph.

False dichotomies can be found in the tired idea that we have to choose whether to end poverty or improve education first. That we have to choose between a classroom that is academically rigorous and excellent and a classroom that affirms a child’s culture and community. That we have to choose between public charter schools and traditional district schools. That preparing the country’s future workforce to succeed in our global economy requires a choice between academic results and broader student outcomes.

While our children are watching and waiting, these false choices tear at the fabric of our society and drive a wedge among the many of us who have dedicated our lives to expanding educational opportunity.

I don’t know of anybody on the reform-skeptic side who thinks that we have to wait to fix poverty before trying to improve schools, so this is a false dichotomy in the sense that it doesn’t even exist.  And the other false dichotomies she proposes we stop arguing about are very real dilemmas.  But most importantly, I think, is the dichotomies that she doesn’t list, the one that that pits the ‘status quo’ against the ‘reformers’ and the one that puts ‘students first’ against ‘adult interests.’  These are the false dichotomies that the TFA allies like to use all the time.  Apparently, those are still OK.  Even Villanueva-Beard can’t resist a few ‘status quo’s in her piece.

Since Teach For America’s first corps entered classrooms in 1990, people have tried to apply these false choices to our organization and define us on ideological grounds. Our model challenges the status quo, and therefore has always been controversial.

and

False dichotomies are good at one thing: preserving a status quo. They’re a terrible framework for solving complex problems. They make ideology the stubborn foundation for dialogue. They keep a coalition from becoming more than the sum of its parts. They repel new ideas.

To see how TFA and Elisa Villanueva-Beard really feel about false dichotomies, all you have to do is look at their Twitter feed.

Here is an example of the classic false dichotomy of ‘students first’ vs ‘adult interests’ from a few hours after this latest plea from Villanueva-Beard.

Because the false dichotomies that she wants people to stop using are just ones that reform critics often use, this piece is getting a lot of retweets from various reformers.

Since I find it pretty hypocritical that some of the biggest abusers of the false dichotomy are celebrating an article that, at least on the surface, seems  to be saying that false dichotomies are bad, I tried to reach out to a few of them to see what they thought of my observation.  As expected, they either didn’t respond at all or they responded very rudely.

Chris ‘Citizen’ Stewart is a blogger, podcaster, and contributor to Edu Post and The 74.  He is also a friend of Elisa Villanueva-Beard who sometimes retweets his articles, like this one against the NAACP’s charter school stance.

Recently Stewart wrote a blog post bashing me and several other bloggers with the working title ‘Hello I’m White Which Means I Know What’s Best For You’ (still seen in the url of the post) though he changed it to the even worse ‘Angry White Teachers On The Internet (And Their Colored Friends)’.  (You can read it for yourself, I’m not going to summarize here except to say that he omitted in his bio of me that I was a TFA corps member, a TFA staffer, and a TNTP staffer over the years.)  It is difficult for me to understand how that can be consistent with the Edu Post motto to have a ‘better conversation.’

 

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My Sixteen Years Of Wacky Halloween Costumes

At my school, Stuyvesant High School, there’s a tradition of students and teachers dressing up in some pretty elaborate Halloween costumes.  Now that I’m in my 14th year there, I realize that I’m starting to lose track of all the costumes so I thought I’d collect them in one definitive place so I always have them.

2003 — Einstein.  My first year, this wasn’t such a crazy costume and there’s no photo that I know of.

2004 — Ali Gebra

At the time before Borat, The Ali G show was popular at that time, and this costume is still my wife’s favorite:

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2005 — Homer Simpson

Most people thought this one was just creepy.

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2006 — Calculicious.  A Flavo’ Flav parody with a giant calculator on my neck instead of a clock.  The graph is the exact equation for curves that make the horns on the helmet.  Also, if you look very close, I have a full gold ‘grill’ on my top teeth.

costumeflavorflav

2007 — Tim Novikoff.  A good friend of mine left teaching to go to graduate school so I dressed as him by dying my hair blonde and getting blue contact lenses.  I don’t have a picture of this one.

2008 — Irrational Number.  I had an idea that a bunch of teachers from the math department would dress up as different types of numbers.  Someone would wear a Santa Claus hat and have an ‘i’ on his chest and be an ‘imaginary number.’  Someone would be a ‘perfect square’, etc.  I assigned a bunch of people to be different types and I got a punk rock wig and had a shirt that said Pi is irrational, so I was the ‘irrational number.’  Nobody else dressed up so that was the last time I tried to coordinate a group themed costume.  No picture, I think.

2009 — Facebook.  My Facebook friends on the timeline are all famous mathematicians, mostly dead, discussing math.  This was probably my favorite of all the costumes.  It has a lot of private math jokes in it, and I’d say that this is the one that took the longest to create.

facebook costumefacebook shirt

2010 — FOIL.  This was one of those costumes that ‘you have to figure out’.  FOIL is a thing from high school math, a way of multiplying certain mathematical expressions.  So I had the tin foil costumes with the math expressions and people had to stare and figure it out.  This was a huge his and I’d say that the 2009 and 2010 consecutive year were the peak of my Halloween costume creativity.

foil costume2011 — Stanley Teitel.  Our principal was forced into retirement the summer before because some students had cheated on the Physics regents.  So I went as Mr. Teitel in retirement with a Hawaiian shirt and a bag of money and the Physics regents.  No picture that I know of.

2012 — Occupy Sesame Street.  As ‘occupy wall street’ was happening around that time, this was a funny twitter hashtag that I made into a costume, another kind you ‘had to figure out.’  Most people didn’t but it was still an elaborate costume.  Looks kind of like the Homer Simpson costume.

bert costume

2013 — Walter White.  With my bag of ‘Crystal Math’ this costume went over pretty well.

walter white

2014 — Wolfman Alpha.  This was a spoof on the math website Wolfram Alpha.  In addition to this costume, I had a speaker where I explained in a wolfman voice that I was once a professor and I got bitten by a werewolf and became Wolfman Alpha.

wolfman alpha

2015 — Marty McFly.  Though it is not math themed or likely understood by many of my students, Back To The Future is one of my favorite movies and with October 21st 2015 being the day they travel to the future in the second movie, I really can’t go as anyone else in good conscience.  This picture was taken on October 21st 2015 at the theater where I attended a triple feature of all three movies beginning at 5:30 PM and ending around midnight.

marty mcfly

2016 — Safety School Rejection Letter.  To a Stuyvesant High School student, nothing is more scary than a rejection letter from the fictitious Safety School University.  Though this might have been a tad mean, students seemed to enjoy it with good humor.

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2017 — Citibike.  Though this costume became bittersweet as a terror attack claimed the lives of several New York City tourists riding CitiBikes, all New York City residents are familiar with the ubiquitous royal blue bikes all over the city nowadays.  This was a tricky costume to pull off and the students really appreciated it.

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The Great Tennessee Achievement School District Experiment Finally Comes To An End

Six years ago the Tennessee Achievement School District launched with a five year mission to, in their words, ‘catapult’ schools in the bottom 5% into the top 25%.

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This is their old website, before they changed it when it was evident there were not going to reach their goals.

Tennessee won $500 million in Race To The Top money and dedicated millions of that into the creation, and most importantly, the marketing of it.  The marketing firm they hired is very proud of the work they did and still feature the ASD on their websites as a successful promotional campaign.

The way an ‘Achievement School District’ works is that the district takes over low performing schools and either runs it themselves or, more commonly, gives them to a charter network.  In 2011 the ASD comprised of six schools and now that has grown to over thirty schools.

Two years into the five-year mission, the superintendent at the time, TFA alum Chris Barbic, declared in an interview that of the original six schools, two were on target to get to the top 25% in five years while one of the six schools, Brick Church Elementary, was on a trajectory to reach the goal after just four years.

Three years into the five-year mission, the improvements that he had based these projections on did not continue and Barbic was saying that they underestimated how difficult this would be, even admitting that the ‘immigrant poverty’ he worked with as a charter school founder in Houston is very different than the ‘generational poverty’ he works with in Tennessee.

Four years into the five-year mission, Barbic resigned from the ASD, citing among other things, his health as he had recently had a heart attack.  He soon got hired by the John Arnold foundation to work on education issues for them.

Five years into the five-year mission, the Tennessee ASD was saved by a computer glitch so the state test scores had to be invalidated.  We would never know if the ASD got any of their schools from the bottom 5% to the top 25% in five years.  We would have to wait one more year and see if they could do it in six years.

The results for the sixth year were released today.

On the Tennessee Ed Department website, I downloaded the database with the recent scores.  For each school they had an ELA and a math score.  What I did was add together these two scores and then sort all the schools that have 3-8 scores and see where the original six schools now are, how far they catapulted in six years.

 

School Percentile
Cornerstone 6.7%
Brick Church 4.6%
Humes 2.2%
Corning 1.7%
Frayser 0.5%
Westside 0.1%

The title of this post, ‘The Great Tennessee Achievement School District Experiment Finally Comes To An End’ is a bit misleading.  While it is true that the five (or six) year experiment has come to an end, the Tennessee ASD continues to limp on.  They erased from their website the old mission of catapulting the bottom 5% to the top 25% in five years and have replaced it with an ambiguous mission of “By 2025, we will close the opportunity gaps long persistent in Tennessee’s public education.”  Whether or not the ASD is still around in 8 years is anyone’s guess.  Barbic’s replacement resigned a few months ago and, with her, there are no people left from the original ASD team to be held accountable.

There are actually other states considering starting their own ASDs, I just read that Mississippi is working on it.  Georgia, North Carolina and Nevada already have them in the works.  There was one in Michigan which folded and there is still the original one in New Orleans which continues to post awful test results.

Reformers claim that they care about accountability, but when it comes to people in the reform family, they tend to ignore colossal failures like the Tennessee ASD.

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Education Post Touts Failing Chicago Charter To Give Free Publicity To TFA

Teach For America has done a lot of rebranding over the past few years.  For most of their existence, TFA has had to deal with criticism that their corps members are not very diverse and that most TFAers don’t teach, on average, much beyond the two-year commitment.

For the diversity issue, TFA now says that they are actually the most diverse teacher training program with only 51% of their recent cohorts identifying as White.  And for the reputation they have that TFA teachers don’t generally remain in the classroom, they have all kinds of different schemes they do with the data to claim that about 85% of alumni are still involved in either education or something that impacts low-income communities.

Of course I’m one of the alumni who has remained in teaching and without TFA it is likely that I would have never become a teacher and there are some TFA alumni I know who have also remained in education in various roles and who I have a lot of respect for.  It really is hard to measure the impact of TFA taken as a whole.  Even if only 10% of TFAers remain in education but if that 10% does a lot of good, then TFA could be considered a good thing.  The problem is that TFA has also produced the likes of people like Michelle Rhee, Cami Anderson, Kevin Huffman, John White, Marc Sternberg, and others who have done so much damage to education, it really isn’t possible for the cumulative good to outweigh the bad caused by even just those handful of people.

Education Post and The 74 are the two most biased outlets of reform propaganda on the internet.  I’d say that The 74 is a bit worse, but Education Post is a very close second.  A few days ago I read an article at Education Post entitled ‘Without TFA I Would Have Never Become The Principal I Am Today’  In this post, TFA alum Elizabeth Jamison-Dunn writes about her journey from TFA corps member in 2007 to current principal of a charter school in Chicago.

This post has all the clichés from the reform playbook.  Here are some quotes:

“There was no reason that all children shouldn’t have access to a high-quality education, and where you live should never dictate the type of education that you receive.”

“Although it was very gratifying to see my scholars achieve at high levels, what was more inspiring was to see scholars who had hated math their entire life show over three years growth in one academic year”

“As a school leader, I will do everything in my power to make sure my scholars have access to a world-class education regardless of their ZIP code.”

The education reform movement is built on the lie that public schools are ‘failing’ and that charter schools prove this by outperforming the public schools.  It is critically important for reformers to keep promoting this lie since if charter schools are not much different than public schools and if public schools are ‘failing’ then charter schools are ‘failing’ too.

Elizabeth Jamison-Dunn is the principal of a school called Catalyst Charter Circle Rock in Chicago.  Jamison-Dunn says that when she was a teacher there her students would get 3 years of growth in a single year and now as principal the school has “seen significant increases in our math and reading scores.”  Also the school culture has improved so that “we have retained over 90 percent of our staff each year.”

Illinois has a very good public data site for checking claims like this and it didn’t take me more than a few minutes to learn that this school, which is a K-8 so they cannot claim that they inherited students that were not served well by other schools, had some of the lowest PARCC scores in Chicago.  Only 12% of the students met the standards compared to 34% for the state.

For some of the grades, things were particularly bad with many of their percents in the single digits.

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The data system also has a tool to see how a school’s test scores compare to schools with similar demographics.  In this we see that this school is not any sort of outlier at all, the light dots are all the elementary schools in Illinois while the black dots are the elementary schools in Chicago where the x-axis is the poverty level and the y-axis is the PARCC composite.

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The red triangle for this school is a bit hard to see, so here is the scatterplot again with that school identified.

catalyst parcc

About the claim that this school has a 90% retention rate, there is pdf with basic data for the school for the 2015-2016 school year.  According to this document, the teacher retention rate is 32% with the state having about an 80% retention rate so I don’t know where the 90% she cites comes from.

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Reformers always want to have it both ways.  They want to label public schools with test scores like this as ‘failing’ yet it is a school run by a TFAer they want to ignore the low test scores and present the school as a success.  Whether or not this is a good school or not, and it may very well be one, isn’t the point here.  The point is that if a school with ties to the ed reform movement can be considered worthy of celebrating despite test scores in the basement, why was it necessary to shut down 50 public schools in Chicago with low test scores and replace them with charters that get the same test results?

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I Taught At The XQ Houston Super School

On September 8th Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell-Jobs, purchased a prime time commercial free hour on the four major TV networks to broadcast something called XQ Super School Live.  Reformers were celebrating and tweeting about viewing parties and things like that.  Though about half the broadcast was musical numbers, there was some content, though it is a bit difficult to know exactly what this program was supposed to accomplish.

Now it’s been about two weeks and this thing really has come and gone with little traction.  In some ways it had a little of something for everyone and it also had things that disappointed reformers and other things that disappointed reform critics.

 

The first two minutes of the program had a typical ‘Waiting For Superman’ message that our schools are failing since on the international test scores we ranked 31st in math and 20th in language skills.  Numbers like this always imply to the audience that there was once a time where we were 1st in these tests even though we have actually moved up in these rankings from last place to somewhere in the middle since these kinds of tests were first given.

After a few songs, Viola Davis, who you may remember from the anti-teacher union bomb, “Won’t Back Down” even more directly says (at 7:19) “Tonight we hope to inspire you to join this movement and make sure that our high schools become the best in the world again.”

Then the show introduces an analogy to argue that high schools have not changed in the past 100 years so we are not preparing students for today’s world.  This is something I have heard a lot of reformers saying recently.  Betsy DeVos is fond of this analogy.  Though Teach For America pretends to distance themselves from DeVos, TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard recently used the ‘schools haven’t changed in 100 years’ mantra too.  While it is true that some aspects of school haven’t changed so much in 100 years, other aspects have changed.  And the ones that haven’t changed are things that have proven to be efficient ways for students to learn.  I have two children in elementary school and I’d be pretty nervous if their schools looked nothing like schools looked 100 years ago.

Because of these outdated schools, and here comes an important motif, the narrator of the video says it is time to “rethink” high school and they introduce the #rethinkhighschool hash tag.

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It is doubtful that it is a coincidence that three days later Betsy DeVos announced a tour of the country that was called the ‘Rethink Schools’ tour.  I suppose that it is possible that Powell-Jobs and DeVos independently came up with this phrase.  Also it is possible that DeVos watched this program and copied the phrase.  But I think it is most likely that they worked together to come up with a catchy phrase and one of the purposes of this hour infomercial was to get that phrase into people’s minds so that three days later when DeVos announced her thing with the same phrase, people would already have a good feeling about it.

Later in the program, around the 20 minute mark, Maria Bellos answers the question “Why High Schools?”  It is a great question since the trend nowadays is to fix early education and get kids into PreK programs and things like that which will lead to improved high schools.  But she says, without further explanation, that “If we change high schools so they truly guide and support students, the rest of the education system will follow.”  I don’t think anyone who knows anything about education believes this is true.  That’s not to say that it is a bad thing to want to improve the high school experience, but it shows how little the people behind this program understand the issues.

At the 10 minute mark there is a speech / dance routine by Jordan Fisher where it is explained that the problem with high schools is that there is too much sitting at desks and memorizing.  Students need to be up and moving around more and doing more ‘personalized’ learning where they are following their interests.  At the 11:30 mark we get a nod to reformers where we imagine that everyone will get a quality education regardless of ‘zip code,’ but after that there aren’t many more reformer talking points.

The ‘problem’ with high schools, apparently, is that they haven’t evolved quickly enough into something better.  So Powell-Jobs and her foundation gave millions of dollars to different schools, the “Super Schools”, to show what a more innovative model of education would look like.  And based on what they showed, the new thing is that high schools need less sitting at desks and listening to teachers and more hands-on experiences.

At this point, reformers must be pretty frustrated.  There is not direct talk about ineffective teachers who can’t get fired because of union job protections.  There is also not direct talk about charter schools.  There also isn’t direct talk about DeVos’ favorite thing, vouchers.  But I suppose these things are implied in some way and this program is a good complement to what DeVos will be saying about how school choice including charters and vouchers will help these innovations flourish.  Charter school cheerleaders were not so much celebrating this program after it ended since they know that Charter schools have a lot of test prep and ‘rigor’ and they are not so big on hands on projects and authentic learning experiences.

There is an odd contradiction about the message of this program so far.  They started by bemoaning the low standardized test scores on international tests and then offered a solution that is unlikely to bring up those test scores.  I’m no fan of test prep and I do like when students get the opportunity to learn in a more authentic way than sitting at a desk in a classroom.  The reason that schools look a lot like they looked 100 years ago, and this include ‘high performing’ charters, is that learning in a classroom environment is an efficient way to learn.  Of course teachers should mix it up and have group discussions and group learning and field trips and other out of classroom experiences.  But I think that there is some ideal amount of experiential learning that should happen in a school.  I don’t want to commit to an exact percentage, but I’d say that anything more than 25% of school time done in this ‘non-traditional’ way might be too much of a good thing.

At the 13:26 mark, Justin Timberlake introduces the first Super School.  No show like this would be complete without some school that proves that implementing these reforms can transform it from a dropout factory into a miracle school.  So as he prepares to say the name of the school, my eyes widen.  I’ve made a name for myself as the ‘debunker of miracle schools.’  If a school is held up as a model of how some half-baked reform caused a school to get so much better in such a short period of time, it is my job to show that either there were other factors involved in the transformation that need to be considered or that the data shows that the school didn’t really make much of a transformation after all.  Watching a show like this with my notebook in hand, I can tell when they are about to show a supposed miracle school and, like some kind of hitman receiving the envelope of my next target, I open it and read the name.  And my jaw drops.  Like a hitman getting an envelope and seeing the name of his mother on the directive, the first Super School is none other than Furr High School in Houston, Texas.  Furr High School where I taught in my Teach For America days from 1992 to 1995.  Furr High School where I was voted the teacher of the year in 1995.  Furr High School where about 30 out of my 200 friends on Facebook are my former students, now all in their 40s.  Furr High School where I still know some of the teachers and where the children of some of my former students are now students there.

Back when I taught at Furr from 1992 to 1995, I thought it was a great school.  There were a lot of very good teachers there and the vast majority of the students there worked hard and were a pleasure to teach.  But one issue with the school was that there was a large gang population.  I remember having a 21 year old student appear in one of my 9th grade classes once with a note that said that he had to attend high school as part of his parole agreement.

The gang members would often fail their classes and they would have to repeat 9th grade over and over.  As a result of this, there were about 400 9th graders, 250 10th graders, 200 11th graders, and only 150 12th graders.  So in a sense it was a school that reformers would describe as a ‘dropout factory.’  But the thing was that while the gang population would repeat 9th grade over and over until they got old enough to drop out, they were mostly ignored by the other students.  So the gang members were a bit like ghosts in the school.  They were there and they would be in the 9th grade classes, but the vast majority of students did not let it distract them.  So 9th grade could be annoying in that way for students, but once you were out of 9th grade you were very likely to graduate in three more (or maybe four for some) years.

Test scores at Furr were not high.  At the time the standardized test was called the TAAS and I remember teaching a test prep class for 12th graders so they could pass the test and receive an actual diploma instead of a ‘certificate of attendance.’  The school, though, was not a test prep school.  At that time, there wasn’t this big focus on the tests and how that would affect the school rating.  So we had freedom to do things other than prepare for the tests and it was a very pleasant environment.

There wasn’t a lot of violence in the hallways, though there would be a fight from time to time.  There was a time I got punched in the head while trying to break up a fight — lesson learned, but generally I found the school to be pretty tame.  I left the school in 1995 and four years later in 1999 the principal at Furr was replaced by the current principal, Bertie Simmons.  Though she was nearly 70 at the time, she is the principal to this day, 17 years later.

I guess that violence at Furr increased sometime between 1995 and 2013 since the last time I saw Furr featured in the news was this article from 2013 in The New York Times about how the school had reduced the violence in their hallways by responding to violence with counseling rather than arresting students.

In this program Simmons is presented as one of those movie principals who tamed a school, like Joe Clarke in ‘Lean On Me.’  My friends who taught under her said that she was not much of a leader.  But one thing she apparently was able to do was to win a $10 million XQ grant from Powell-Jobs.

Now I am all for a school like Furr getting a $10 million grant.  It seems like they used it to increase out of the classroom learning opportunities.  For instance, there is now a garden students maintain there, which is something that I think is great.  For some students, something like a garden could be the thing that gets them excited about school and motivates them to even perform better in their other classes.  But surely a garden isn’t the sort of thing that would have motivated the 21 year old parolee I once had there in my 9th grade class, so I got very interested when I saw in the XQ program some of the text they put on the screen about Furr.

For example, at the 15:09 mark a graphic flashes on the screen that says “Furr students meet all their academic standards both inside and outside the classroom.”

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To the regular viewer watching this program on a Friday night, it seems like they are saying that 100% of the students passed their standardized tests.  Since test scores and growth numbers are a big part of the Houston Independent School District school ratings, this would show up in their score.  But it seems that Furr got a F on the 2015-2016 HISD report card and a D- on the 2016-2017 report card.  As recently as 2013, the principal was almost fired for not getting high enough standardized test scores compared to her peer schools.

The next graphic touted the change in graduation rates at Furr since Simmons took over as principal.  It said “Since 2000, graduation rates at Furr have increased from 50% to 95%.”  Pretty impressive if it is true.

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Now in many districts including HISD ‘Graduation Rate’ doesn’t mean exactly what you would expect it to.  Even back when I taught at Furr though there were 400 9th graders and just 150 seniors the ‘dropout’ rate was still something like 10%.  The reason for this was that if a student left school and even signed up for a GED course, which most kids would, they would not officially count as a ‘dropout’ even if they never actually attended the course and never took the test.  Now if by ‘Graduation Rate’ they mean ‘Completion Rate’ I was able to find data going back to 2004.  According to that data, the completion rate for Furr in 2004 was 87.7% which suggests it is highly unlikely that they only had a 50% completion rate in 2000 as the graphic says.  Even if by some chance the graduation rate back in 2000, however they calculated it, was 50%, it would be more meaningful to compare the current graduation rate to the current graduation rates of other schools now.  The 95% rate seems to have come from the 2014-2015 school report card under the category ‘4 year longitudinal rate (Grades 9 to 12)’.  Looking at the current graduation for all the high schools in Houston, I notice that even some of the most chronically low schools in the city, like Yates High School, now have graduation rates around 80%.   If by some definition Furr had a 50% graduation rate in 2000, then a school like Yates would have had a rate of 30% back then.  All the schools in Houston have improved their graduation rates significantly in the past 17 years.

So there may or may not have been a big improvement in graduation rates under the new leadership, but it is possible that there has been a change in the school climate at Furr which has made it a better school.  But if there were improvements, should we assume that they were due to the modernization of the school and the introduction of the garden and other out of classroom learning experiences?  Based on my research which includes people very familiar with Furr as it was and as it now is, there are two reasons to believe that whatever improvements are not due to things like the garden and the radio station.  The first is that, according to a current Furr student, the school is still one in which most of the instruction is done in classrooms with students at desks much like they did it 100 years ago.  Some students, depending on what program they are in, get more of an opportunity than others to use the garden or work at the radio station, but most instruction is still done in the classroom.  For the small percent of time that students get to do the things featured on the video, it would not be enough to transform the school.  So what then did improve the school?  Well the answer to that question has nothing to do with the Powell-Jobs money, but with something called Reach Charter School.

“What the Hell is Reach Charter School?” You ask.

Well that’s a charter school located at 528 Mercury Drive in Houston.

“528 Mercury Drive?  But isn’t that the same address as — I mean, isn’t that where — I mean –”

Yes, you are right, 528 Mercury Drive is the address of Furr High School.  And Reach Charter School is a a school for at-risk students that was started by the principal of Furr, Bertie Simmons, around 2007.  Furr High School had a 95% graduation rate in 1995 with 208 students while Reach Charter School had just a 32% graduation rate for their 161 students.

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So according to my sources, Simmons transfers a significant number of the most at-risk Furr students into this Reach Charter School located at the same campus.  The former HISD superintendent, Terry Grier, felt that the numbers for Furr and Reach should be combined, but Simmons said that this would not be fair since not every Reach student came from Furr.  And while it may be true that not every student who goes to Reach transferred from Furr, enough of them did to significantly influence Furr’s numbers.  Furr graduated 197 out of 208 students to get that 95% graduation rate.  Increasing that 208 by even twenty students who got transferred to Reach would lower Furr’s rate to levels on par with peer schools like Milby.

Now I’m not saying that is a bad thing to have a school within a school for serving the most at-risk students.  If done well, it can help those students and also benefit the students who remain at Furr.  But I wonder if Powell-Jobs is aware that the bump in graduation rate from 88% to 95% (I found no evidence that the graduation rate was ever 50% in any official way) has nothing to do with Furr’s futuristic schooling model and more to do with this school within a school changing who gets counted in Furr’s graduation rate.

OK, that’s all I think I want to say about Furr High School right now.  I loved working at Furr, the kids were great and the teachers were great and the school had a lot of heart.  I never thought it deserved to be thought of as a dropout factory back then.  I felt it was a super school back then and it still is, but now it is also an “XQ Super School” and with that it needs to be scrutinized since I wouldn’t want every school in the country forced to spend $10 million on gardens and out-of-classroom learning opportunities in order to get our international test scores up.  Still I love gardens and I love $10 million even more, it just concerns me when I see someone like Powell-Jobs taking over four networks to claim that she has found the fix for schools.

There really weren’t any other examples of schools that made dramatic turnarounds.  They featured the Hunter school that Lin-Manuel Miranda went to and had his love of drama nurtured in.  This wasn’t an XQ Super School, but the most sought after and exclusive public school in Manhattan.  To get in you have to have your 4 year old take a $300 IQ test.  Then if they are one of the 300 top scorers, they get to go to round 2 where there is a ‘playdate’ and the children are prodded and asked questions and followed around with clipboards to see who the lucky 50 students who will be and who will get to go to the school from kindergarten to 12th grade.

There was also a school in Los Angeles which TFA was very happy about since it was started by a TFA alum.  The school for at-risk students had just 30 students and I’m sure it is a great place, but this is a special situation and not one that can be scaled up very much.

There were some other strange things about this program.  Like the part where two YouTube celebrities who have a viral science channel got up and said that since they are doing something that didn’t exist 50 years ago, schools need to prepare kids for the jobs of the future, not the jobs of the present.  But this doesn’t really make sense.  These two guys are essentially teachers, which is a job that has existed for a while and if it is really a new kind of job, weren’t they prepared for this by their teachers in the old fashioned way of teaching them science?  I really don’t get this whole “prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist yet.”  How does that work?  I’m expecting one day there will be teleportation and surely after someone is teleported there will likely be some residue left in the origin chamber and maybe even some in the destination chamber.  One job in the future will be to collect this residue and feed it into the supercomputer for analysis.  Should we start offering a course on this to high schoolers?

One thing that this program definitely accomplished is product placement.  It seems that one feature of innovative high schools is that students use a lot of laptops and it seems like most of those laptops are Apple products.  While iPads were once considered to be something that was going to be a big part of education, the thing most schools are actually using are a type of laptop called a Chromebook, which is an inexpensive Google product.  Since the kids in these schools are using Apple laptops, maybe one purpose of this show was to help with Apple’s competition with Google for the education market.  Perhaps this is also why the focus of this program was on high schools.  Steve Jobs felt electronic devices were a distraction for young children, so he would not have approved of rethinking elementary schools with so many laptops and iPads.

One thing we did not see a lot of in this was overt teacher bashing.  I suppose this is why Randi Weingarten attended and tweeted about how wonderful a program this is.

Now even though there wasn’t overt teacher bashing, there was some less direct bashing like the part where celebrities were asked what they wish they learned in high school.  Based on their answers, the only conclusion is that their teachers must not have taught those things to them very well.

This program didn’t really seem to resonate with anybody and most people on both sides of the education reform wars have pretty much forgotten about it already.  It was a colossal waste of money and shows that being rich doesn’t mean that you necessarily have the right to dictate education policy.

I think that it is not an accident that there was no mention of evil unions or miracle charter schools or school choice in this program.  My sense is that reformers realize that most of the talking points from Waiting For Superman don’t work anymore.  The public has wised up.  They don’t believe as much that teacher’s unions are the problem or that charter schools are the solution.  So this program is an attempt to get a new rationale that the public can believe and get behind whatever reforms the reformers want to try, which of course will be more union busting and charters and vouchers.  So the new thing is that schools haven’t evolved much in the past 100 years and that’s a problem.  All that matters is that the public believes there is some problem, whatever it is.  It doesn’t need to be the unions, but it must be something so the 100 year thing will likely be repeated a lot of over the next decade as the new villain for them to save us from.

 

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Tennessee ASD Gets Lowest Possible Growth Score In 2017

Six years ago, the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD) was created with the promise that within 5 years they would ‘catapult’ the schools in the bottom 5% to the top 25%.  They would do this by either taking over schools or finding charter schools to take over those schools.

Things were not looking good for the ASD four years into the experiment and then they got a reprieve in the 5th year when the state test results were nullified because of technical snafus.

The spring 2017 test scores would settle the question about whether or not the ASD would be a success or a failure.  But the test scores were not announced at the usual time, over the summer.  Instead they released the high school scores a few weeks ago, which were awful for the ASD with less than 1% meeting the standard in math.  A few days after that, the superintendent of the ASD, Malika Anderson, resigned after less than 2 years on the job.  She had replaced ASD founder Chris Barbic, who resigned after 4 years.

Well, the 3-8 Tennessee test scores still haven’t been released, but the other day the state released the ‘growth scores’ for the districts.  Tennessee is actually the birthplace of the value added growth model and the version of it that they use is called TVAAS.

The Achievement School District probably made a mistake in making their name something that would likely be on the top of an alphabetical list of scores.  Looking at the chart from Chalkbeat Tennessee, it can be seen very clearly, that The ASD students, on average, did not ‘grow’ at least according to the magical TVAAS formula that they have so much confidence in.

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Looking at the individual school results from the state website, we see that 19 out of 29 schools in the ASD got a 1 on their overall growth for 2017.  Among those schools was KIPP Memphis prep

In a few weeks I suppose we will get the actual test results from the schools.  I’d expect that with such low growth, it is unlikely that many of the ASD schools catapulted from the bottom 5% to the top 25% in 5 years.

Before Malika Anderson resigned recently, she was the last remaining member from the original ASD leadership team.  They have all gone on to different jobs and they will not be held ‘accountable’ in any way for the con they played on the parents who allowed them to take over their schools or give them away to charter schools on the promise that they knew better how to improve those schools.

Update:  This post received an interesting comment that pointed out that using the 1 growth score as proof that the ASD is failing is a dangerous thing to do since it gives some credibility to the growth calculation.  I usually say this on posts like this, so let me respond to this.  I definitely think that the growth scores are garbage, just like value added for teachers, they are practically random numbers.  I still like to do posts like this because it forces the reformers into a Sophie’s choice where they have to either admit that the growth scores are meaningless or they have to concede that the ASD is a failure.  I like to be able to say “Even by their own metrics, their schools are failures.”  There is a risk in this because they can just make up new metrics that make those schools get good scores and then I won’t be able to use that argument anymore.  But, yes, I don’t think that the TVAAS scores are a real measure of much.  It is ironic though the way that the reformers only wants to look at growth scores when they make charter schools look good and ignore them when they don’t.

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Underachievement School District Superintendent Resigns In Disgrace

One of the most high profile experiments in education is Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD).  As part of their Race To The Top funding, the former commissioner of education, TFAer Kevin Huffman, hired another TFAer Chris Barbic to make a plan for the lowest performing schools in the state.

Funded with millions of dollars, the ASD launched in 2011 with a very specific goal spelled out very clearly on their website (until about six months ago when they changed it)

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Any school that was in the bottom 5% of schools based on test scores could be either taken over and run by the ASD or could be handed over to a charter organization with the plan to ‘catapult’ them into the top 25% within 5 years.  The ASD started with a cohort of six schools in 2011 and has about 30 schools today.

In 2014, three years into the experiment, Barbic claimed in an interview that of the first 6 schools, three were on track to meet that top 25% goal including one school that was on track to meet the goal one year ahead of schedule.  Around this time, Barbic was inducted into Jeb Bush’s ‘Chiefs For Change’ organization, a who’s who of ed reform, many of whom are now working as high paid consultants rather than as school or district leaders.

In 2015, four years into the experiment, things were not looking good for the ASD.  Of those original six schools, four of them continued to be in the bottom 5% while the other two had merely catapulted into the bottom 6%.  Barbic resigned at the end of 2015, about 8 months before we could learn if he was able to accomplish the goal of moving those schools from the bottom 5% to the top 25%.  Fortunately for Barbic, computerized testing glitches caused the Tennessee state tests in the spring of 2016 to be invalidated so we will never know if the ASD got any of those schools where they promised in the five year window.  Also fortunately for Barbic, he got a job for the billionaire John Arnold working on their education initiatives.

Barbic was succeeded by a member of his leadership team, Malika Anderson.  Some time during her term, the ASD changed their mission on their website.  No longer are they talking about catapulting the bottom 5% to the top 25% in 5 years.  Some time between March 2016 and April 2017, the website now states that their mission is ‘By 2025, we will close the opportunity gaps long persistent in Tennessee’s public education.’  So they want 8 more years and they learned not to make any specific promises, like how much they want to reduce those gaps even.

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Anderson was the superintendent during the latest state tests in the spring of 2017.  Though the scores for elementary and middle schools have not yet been released, the high school scores were and they were so bad that even the normally forgiving Chalkbeat Tennessee wrote an article entitled Tennessee’s turnaround district scores worse in nearly all high school subjects.  In this article it was revealed that the students in the ASD high schools, despite having been in ASD schools for six years had 8 percent passing English and less than 1 percent passing math.

Chalkbeat Tennessee actually tried to make a lame excuse for this poor performance

Four of the ASD’s six Memphis high schools are turnaround schools: Fairley High, GRAD Academy, Hillcrest High and Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory. Two are alternative schools that aim to help off-track or disconnected students attain their diplomas. Comprising a third of the scores across the ASD’s high schools, those two alternative schools likely skew the district’s test results down.

This shows a complete lack of numeracy since even if those other two schools got 0% passing, that would mean that the other four schools would have at most 2% passing in order to have an average of 1% passing.  So, no, those two schools would not ‘likely skew the district’s test results down’ as they claim.

Anderson herself takes the opportunity to defy the ‘no excuses’ philosophy of ed reform by responding to the scores with “[Our] students have often spent most of their educational careers in underperforming elementary and middle schools and have very little time before they will have to transition to postsecondary life …,” even though those students spent much of their educational careers in ASD schools that she helped run.

With the elementary and middle school scores coming soon — and really the final nail in the coffin of the ASD as even with an extra year on that five year plan they likely did not move the bottom 5% of the schools even out of the bottom 5% — I was not surprised to learn four days ago that Malika Anderson (also a recent inductee into ‘Chiefs For Change’) has ‘decided’ to resign and become a consultant.  It turns out that Anderson was actually the final member who remained of the original team that started in 2010 with Barbic.  So not one person will be around to be held accountable for the failure of the ASD we have already seen in the high school and very likely to see when the other scores are soon released (which surely Anderson has already gotten an early preview of).

Chalkbeat Tennessee misses the opportunity to write about this as the scandal that it is.  In describing the failure of the ASD to improve the test scores of the schools it took over they wrote

While scores have been lackluster for most ASD schools (scores released last week for high schools were disappointing), even its critics acknowledge that the district has nudged Memphis school leaders out of complacency and created a sense of urgency to address longstanding deficiencies in neighborhood schools.

Words like ‘lackluster’ and ‘disappointing’ do not accurately convey what a disaster this overhyped experiment has resulted in.  And to give the ASD any credit for ‘nudging’ other school leaders into improving is somewhat deluded, I think.

Chalkbeat Tennessee had another chance to cover this story appropriately, though instead the same reporter did an exit interview with Anderson with the absurd title ‘Outgoing ASD chief reflects on Tennessee’s turnaround journey’ .  She clearly resigned before she got fired so ‘outgoing ASD chief’ is too gentle.  And ‘Tennessee’s turnaround journey’?  It wasn’t a ‘journey’ it was more of a ‘fiasco.’

In this interview, the reporter — I can’t believe that this is actually someone’s full time job to report about education in Tennessee and they can’t even identify a newsworthy story — avoids any tough questions about the test scores.  Anderson answers the last question about what she would tell her successor and she says

Also, to maintain exceptionally high expectations for what our kids can do. When we hit challenges, or don’t see the outside gains that we all want for our kids in a very short time, some people could start to lower expectations for what’s possible for our kids, that’s the wrong move. We have to keep expectations high and adjust our own perceptions and resources to help our kids, who we know get there.

This is ironic since she is supposedly resigning on her own will so if that’s true, she’s giving up on the kids.  And as far as keeping the expectations high, why is it that under her leadership the ASD changed their mission from the ambitious and clearly measurable goal of getting the bottom 5% to the top 25% in 5 years into the nebulous thing about closing the opportunity gaps by 2025, 14 years after the ASD started?

Incidentally, the ASD is being replicated around the country and even in the Every Child Succeeds Act there is a nod to it as states must come up with an intervention for their bottom 5% of schools.

The main thing for Anderson is that, like Barbic, she got her induction into Chiefs For Change which generally gains you a pretty good job as a consultant.  So nobody will be held accountable who was responsible for the ASD failure and the only people who get punished are the children and the parents who had to endure the instability that this program caused.

 

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