TFA CEO’s Recent Podcast Interview

For the past six years, Elisa Villanueva Beard has been a CEO of Teach For America.  Over the years I have followed her various speeches and interviews to get a sense if TFA is evolving at all about its historically distorted view of education in this country.

In a podcast called SwampED, hosted by former Obama staff members, and leaning heavily in the ‘reform’ camp and Arne Duncan idolizing, they interviewed Villanueva-Beard the other day.

Villanueva-Beard starts with a story I’ve heard before about how she was the number one student in her high school in Texas yet she struggled to adjust to DePauw University.  She uses this story to support her claim that she makes in nearly every speech and interview that teachers in this country have low expectations for low-income students.  Her own high school teachers had low expectations for her and that’s why she was not prepared.  Those teachers, apparently, don’t deserve any credit for the great success that she has enjoyed throughout her life with the exception of maybe her first semester in college.

As always, Villanueva-Beard gets some ‘status quo’ references.  In response to a question about how TFA corps members fit in with the staff at their schools, she says:

We are bringing a type of person who is unafraid to challenge the status quo, whose on a mission to deliver for children and brings an energy to that.

Later on she get’s her second ‘status quo’ in:

You emerge from this … with a deep personal commitment to want to do something about this and then just really resolved to be part of the solution, challenge the status quo.

About TFA, she repeats the misleading claim that 85% of alumni are still working in education or impacting low income communities in some way even though only 15% of them originally wanted to be in education.  The first thing about the 85% number is that it comes from a checkbox question on a self-selected alumni survey where they have you check a box ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question:  “Is your current occupation in education or impacting low income communities.”  I’d be curious what percent of people, in general, would answer yes to that.

At the 21 minute mark, she says something very familiar, right out of the TFA ‘messaging’ guidebook:

Twenty years ago we were still asking can children in low income communities do as well as any other kid.  And now we have data and proof, hundreds of schools that show us otherwise.

Compare this to this 2009 interview that Wendy Kopp did with The Dallas News

Twenty years ago, the prevailing notion was that socioeconomic background determined educational outcomes. Today, hundreds and hundreds of teachers and schools are proving it doesn’t have to be that way and are showing us the path to success.

Early in the podcast, and then again at the end, Villanueva-Beard references a charter school she just visited in D.C., Ingenuity Prep, a school that hires lots of TFA corps members, you can bet.  She speaks about the high expectations the TFA teacher has for the kids there and how much energy she experienced in her visit hearing from the kids about their future ambitions.

But does Elisa Villanueva-Beard know that according the the school report cards, Ingenuity Prep is just considered ‘average’ even by D.C. standards.

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 9.33.13 PM

And does she know that their test scores are only a little better than the average D.C. school which, as we know, isn’t very high.  And for math, they even had a growth score that was below the average for D.C.

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Not that I take these numbers too seriously, but it is at least ironic that the TFA leadership of Rhee, Henderson, and Kamras who created these rating systems has judged this school, Ingenuity Prep, that so impressed Elisa Villanueva-Beard as a school that is just a bit above average.

TFA is an organization that is very slow to change.  They really only change when they think that not changing will impact their power and funding.  Still, I’ll continue to try to hold Elisa Villanueva-Beard to the high expectations that her high school teachers were unwilling to and continue analyzing her various speeches and interviews until I feel she’s met them.

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TFA Celebrates New Research That Suggests That Corps Members Are Ineffective Teachers

Over the years there have been various studies comparing the ‘effectiveness’ of TFA teachers to non-TFA teachers.  Though these studies are based on the results from standardized tests that may or may not be appropriate for this purpose, the results of these papers are still interesting to look at.

Many of these studies have concluded that TFA teachers, especially, corps members who have not become alumni yet, are a little less effective at teaching reading and a little more effective at teaching math compared to non-TFA teachers with the same amount of teaching experience.  Considering all the teacher bashing allies of TFA, I always find it pretty ironic that if the average teacher in this country is supposed to be so bad and that the TFA teachers are about the same, then what does this say about the TFA teachers?  But the reformers don’t really mind that TFA teachers aren’t so good.  Most of those TFA teachers aren’t going to be in the classroom for very long anyway and some of them are going to be fast-tracked to help join in the fight to bash teachers.

The other day I noticed this tweet from TFA:

So I took a look at the research paper and found that when you look at the whole thing, there is actually a lot of data that suggests, according to their way of comparing teachers, that TFA corps members, particularly the ones who are in their first of second year, are actually underperforming compared to non-TFA teachers with the same amount of experience.

This diagram summarizes most of the results, though it does require some explanation.

Screen Shot 2019-02-22 at 9.08.23 PM

There are five regions that corps members in TX are placed in, these are the A to E columns.  Most important to look at is the middle rows of this chart, the ‘All CMs’ rows.  Any black rectangle is a place where according to the methods of the study, TFA corps members in their first or second year performed significantly worse than their matched non-TFA counterparts.  For regions C and D, you can see that there are two black rectangles for the ‘R’ and ‘M’ rows which means that in the all-important (for Reformers) 3-8 reading and math exams, TFA corps members were significantly less effective that non-TFA teachers with the same amount of experience.

The gray rectangles mean that the TFA teachers were less effective, but not significantly less effective.  The dark blue rectangles indicate significantly more effective and the light blue rectangles indicate more effective, but not significantly.

When it domes to 3-8 reading, the study says

Of all content areas explored, the largest difference in likelihood to pass STAAR that favored the non-TFA group was found in Reading. Students of TFA corps members are 3.7% less likely to pass STAAR Reading than students of new non-TFA-affiliated teachers

One thing I found a little strange in the report was that first years corps members were a bit better than the average of the first and second year corps members, which goes against common sense.

But the paper, especially in its summary, does make it sound like TFA did very well, on average in the study.  This is because there are some TFA corps members who continue teaching beyond their two-year commitment.  In this study, those alumni did very well and brought up the results of TFA in general.  Since about 50 to 60 percent of corps members do stay for a third year and about 25 percent stay for a fourth year, it is feasible that at any given time, about 1/3 of TFA teachers are first year corps members, 1/3 of TFA teachers are second year corps members, and 1/3 of TFA teachers have more than two years of experience.  And, yes, if you average these three groups together, the alumni do bring up the average to get a positive final result for TFA.

But is averaging the three groups really appropriate?  If you were to tell me that there were three TFA teachers, two who are less than effective and one who is very effective and one of them is going to be assigned to my own child, I might not like those odds, a 2/3 chance of getting someone ineffective.  While if I will get a random teacher from a pool of three non-TFA teachers where the best of the three isn’t quite as good as the top TFA alumni teacher but the other two are much better than the two TFA corps members, I would go with the non-TFA teacher for my own child — it’s just too much of a risk even if ‘on average’ a TFA teacher is effective.

I guess the issue is the irony about how TFA will surely use some highlights from this study to claim that TFA teachers are superior to non-TFA teachers, the report really has a lot more to say than that, and seeing all those black rectangles in the summary diagram, it really is negative about first and second year corps members.  TFA should think about this next time they use this report for PR.

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Does TFA (Illegally) Take A Side On Recent Teacher Strikes?

When teachers in a school district decide to go on strike, Teach For America corps members who teach in public schools in that district have a decision to make.  This happened in the 2012 Chicago strike, the recent Los Angeles strike, and the upcoming Denver strike.

Teach For America says, and they have to as a non-profit, that they cannot take a position, one way or the other, on the strike.  They can neither encourage nor discourage their corps members from participating in these strikes, by law.

So it seems, then, to be a pretty easy decision for corps member.  Considering that they would be risking becoming pariahs in their own schools after the few days of the strike, it would not be worth it to cross the picket line.  But there is another caveat — Teach For America corps members are also part of something called AmeriCorps, which provides them additional money, I think $10,000 over the two years.  Now AmeriCorps has some additional rules and one of them says that you cannot participate in a strike when you are getting credit for AmeriCorps hours.

In 2012, during the Chicago teacher strike, Teach For America made it very clear that corps members who strike would not be penalized in their AmeriCorps grant because the number of hours that they teach is so far beyond what is required by AmeriCorps that they will still have plenty of hours left so they just won’t be able to log those hours when they were striking, but it would not come at a financial cost to them.

The statement from the TFA executive director in Chicago, Josh Anderson, said:

“In the event of a strike, the normal schedule of classes will be cancelled. It is up to you to decide what you do during the strike day(s)…The choice is truly and fully up to you and we hope you will give it thoughtful consideration. Being a TFA corps member does not prohibit you from making any specific choice.”

 “We’ve heard several people ask the question of whether being an Americorps award recipient means you cannot strike or picket. The simple answer to this question is that being an Americorps member does not prohibit you from striking or picketing. The only stipulation is that you cannot count strike days towards your Americorps hours. This is not a problem because you will work more than enough time to qualify for your award.”

But when it came to the recent Los Angeles strike, Teach For America told the LA corps members that it is their choice whether or not to strike, but they would lose AmeriCorps money if they choose to strike.

They sent this as part of an email to all alumni:

No one has inspired me and my team more than our 2017 & 2018 corps members who work in LAUSD schools. They’ve had to make a near impossible decision.  With few exceptions, they are eligible to enroll in AmeriCorps and receive an AmeriCorps Education Award (a federal grant funded by taxpayer dollars), at the end of each corps year, as many of you did. However, federal law requires that AmeriCorps members not engage in specific prohibited activities, including hindering or participating in union organizing activities and engaging in strikes. In addition to these federal limitations, corps members faced immense pressure to either cross the picket line or participate in the strike. Ultimately, as private citizens, corps members made the decisions that are unique and personal to their own beliefs and circumstances, even if it meant sacrificing a portion of their AmeriCorps award.

This week at TFA LA, we’ve prioritized our corps members’ ability to make the choice that is right for them and their students ahead of everything else, and we support any and all decisions they’ve made. Many of you also had to make hard choices and we support those, as well.

The corps members in Los Angeles made their decisions based on the information that TFA gave them — which was that they would suffer financially if they joined the strike, even though when the same situation happened in Chicago, they did not lose money.

I was asking around on social media about what exactly TFA was telling the corps members and I tweeted about the Chicago precedent when one of the 50CAN/TFA guys who likes to challenge me from time to time, said that the LA strike was completely different because unlike the Chicago strike where the schools were completely closed down, the LA schools remained open.  This was an interesting legal argument, but the 50CAN people are sometimes kind of loose with the truth so I kept looking into this.

Since there might be an Oakland strike any day, it seems that a group of TFA alumni drafted a letter to TFA explaining that AmeriCorps actually leaves it up the discretion of Teach For America whether or not to penalize their AmeriCorps grant in the event of a strike.  The letter also says that other groups that have AmeriCorps grants have thought of ways to not punish their members for participating in the strike.

Now it might seem like TFA is in a tough position.  As a non-profit, they say that they cannot discourage nor encourage their corps members to strike.  All they can do is provide information so the corps members can make the decision that is best for them.

Well, in researching this, I came upon some videos from TFA in Colorado, which makes it very clear about how they are manipulating their corps members to not strike by not only threatening their AmeriCorps money, but by providing them very biased information about the issues involved.

I have four examples below.  You can watch or listen to each, the first three are only a few minutes long while the fourth one is about twenty minutes.  I’ll comment after each one.

So there is going to be a town hall.  He makes it seem like this is going to be a balanced discussion because one of the panel members is going to be from ‘the union.’  What he doesn’t say is that there are going to be five panelist.  Four of the five are going to argue against the strike.  Even though this is just one minute long, there are two things he says that are worth noting:  One of the issues (and not the only one as the panel will make it seem, the main issue is teacher pay in general) of the strike is a merit pay system where teachers in low-performing schools that are showing ‘growth’ according the Colorado growth calculations currently get bonuses under some plan that voters voted on a few years back.  So when this guy says a few seconds in “The central question is whither and how we value are teachers” and then again at the end “what are the issues for deciding how we value teachers here.”  As will become clear in the panel, especially based on who TFA chooses to invite to be on the panel, the current plan is trying to value the teachers who are supposedly more effective because of their growth scores.  This might sound good if you don’t know how arbitrary those growth scores are and even the process of deciding which schools qualify for these bonuses is based on wildly inaccurate value-added growth measures.

So here he again says that by law, TFA cannot take a position.  But does it not count as taking a position, when you provide incomplete and skewed information to the corps members, especially the ones that attended the town hall or, even worse, the ones who watch the highlights reel from the town hall which I’ll look at next?

Also look at his expression when he says that while you can make your own choice, “there may be implications for your AmeriCorps award.”  He says that they are trying to find out more information, but to my knowledge, Denver TFA teachers currently believe that they will lose some AmeriCorps money if they strike.

The best part is where he says that it is tempting to sort people into us and them and how kids’ interests are divergent with teachers’ interests.  Of course this is the StudentsFirst/TFA philosophy that they’ve been at least suggesting for about ten years.  But they can’t take a side right now, though he slips pretty badly when a few second later he encourages us “to find those intersections, however narrow, where kids interests and teachers interests are actually overlapping.”  So obviously TFA still believes that there is a very narrow intersection between teacher interests and student interests.

These are the highlights of the panel.  This panel was very one-sided, and the highlights made the union guy look like a fool.  The first thing the union guy says makes the merit pay sound like a great thing.  The second guy from ‘A+ something or other’ describes the merit pay as “you get more money for making a bigger impact.”  We don’t hear about how arbitrary the math calculations are that determine who gets bonuses.  The woman from the district talks about how this pay scheme has caused an increase of 6% retention at those schools.  So there are 30 schools that the teachers get bonuses at.  What about someone who teachers at the 31st most challenging school?  Of course retention goes up at those schools when you pay them more.  It still doesn’t mean that the system was implemented fairly.

The TFA guy asks a leading question about how this is about teachers feeling valued.  It implies that the merit pay system values teachers while the other way only values years of service.

When the union guy explains the salary step that most districts use salary steps, it really comes off as sounding lame.  It sounds like there is this exciting thing that helps kids that the unions are against and instead they want something that only helps teachers.

The student then says something about putting “Students First.”  Since this is a 3 minute summary of an hour long meeting, it is interesting that TFA managed to edit in a “Students First” I wonder if Michelle Rhee gets royalties on that.

The other people sounded passionate and reasonable and really caring about the kids and those kids getting the best teachers and how this merit pay scheme helps kids.  Does TFA know that with all the ‘reform’ that Denver and Colorado in general has had over the past ten years, their achievement by test scores has hardly changed?

And it ends with the TFA guy saying that “most importantly” the students are going to be watching.  This is, I think, a subtle way of saying that if you strike, your students will be learning something negative from you.

There is also a 21 minute, longer highlight audio reel from that town hall.  In that one, we get the same sort of bias.  But at least in that version, the union guy makes some more important points about how teachers want the stability of knowing how much money they are going to make each year.  The 21 minute version also gives the ‘A+ blah blah’ guy more time to make it sound like he has research backing the idea of merit pay.

What I find interesting is that TFA fails to release an unedited video of the entire panel discussion.  There is the 21 minute recap and the 4 minute recap, but no hour or two hour video showing the whole thing in context which would include questions from corps members.  So TFA seeks to control the narrative once again, and the choices they make about what to show and, more importantly, what not to show reveals their biases.

https://app.stitcher.com/splayer/f/232381/58450637

It is clear that TFA is against the strike.  The only question is whether or not they are breaking the law or if they are subtle and ambiguous enough to get away with it.

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Whatever Happened To ‘The Waiting For Superman’ Kids?

The PR of education reform focuses on the feel-good, beating the odds, stories about heroic teachers and and rock-star superintendents who never give up on their students.

There are the 106 original graduates of Chicago’s Urban Prep Charter school that Arne Duncan saved by shutting down the failing school that they would have attended if not for his policies.  There is the boy whose Memphis Teach For America teacher taught him rugby — his ticket to college which got the boy featured in an ESPN documentary and got the TFA teacher on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list.  And there are the four inner-city kids who were featured in ‘Waiting For Superman’ — Anthony Black, Daisy Esparza, Bianca Hill, and Francisco Regalado.  After ‘Waiting For Superman’ came out, they were even invited to The White House.

But what happens to these kids after they have served their purpose as PR pawns for education reformers?

For the most part, we don’t know.

Urban Prep had promised that they were going to publish their 6-year college graduation rate for that first class.  They were supposed to do that, but never did, to the best of my knowledge.  Recently one of the three Urban Prep campuses has been put on the school closure list in Chicago.  This, despite it also having a 100% college acceptance rate like the other campuses.

Maybe we don’t hear much about whatever happened to the kids saved by the heroic ed reformers because for some of them they turned out like the rugby player who helped vault his TFA teacher into the 30 under 30 list.

According to the article.

Young told the story of an MICR player who eventually enrolled in Tennessee State University. “He had no family, no support. He would never have gotten into college if we hadn’t helped with his application, his financial aid, gotten him a ride to Nashville.

A year later, we found him homeless in Memphis because of a stupid $100 student affairs fee he couldn’t pay. They wouldn’t let him register for any more classes. He didn’t know who to call. It was just a disaster.”

Of course there is a lot more to this story than the “stupid $100 student affairs fee he could not pay.”  But it doesn’t matter if the kid was saved by his TFA rugby coach or not.  All that matters is that it seemed that way for long enough to get the guy on the Forbes 30 under 30 list.

You’d think that Davis Guggenheim, the director of ‘Waiting For Superman’ would keep in touch with his subjects — see if they graduated high school — see how they’re doing.

My own private detective skills led me to find one of them, Daisy Esparza, on Twitter.  I tried to contact her, but didn’t get a response.  The other three, I wasn’t able to find anything.  Maybe they are on Instagram.  If anyone knows anything — six degrees of separation and all that — leave a comment.

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TFA puts ‘Waiting For Superman’ on its must-see list for 2018

I joined Teach For America in 1991 as part of their second ever cohort.  Over the past 28 years I’ve had a relationship with them that has had various ups and downs.  For a short period of time I was someone that they would invite to address groups of corps members.  I was even once on staff at the summer training.  But for the past seven years it’s mostly been negative.  I call them out for supporting some policy or for lying about some education research and a bunch of TFA zealots attack me on Twitter.

For the past two years, TFA — along with other ‘reform-minded’ people — have gone under the radar.  They have realized that the reform agenda pushed at first by George W. Bush and then continued by Obama with Arne Duncan has become toxic.  Even reform pundits have been writing about how reformers have to reboot and rebrand since they have not been able to deliver on the lofty promises they made when they took control of education policy about ten years ago.

Teach For America has generally taken on a more neutral tone in their social media.  They even recently shared an article about how some TFA alumni are union leaders including Alex Caputo-Pearl, the head of the Los Angeles teacher’s union.

But TFA occasionally lets it slip that they are still very much rooted in the reform ideas advanced by people like Michelle Rhee.  Anytime the current CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard is interviewed for a podcast or makes a speech she is sure to say something about how one of the biggest problems in education is that teachers have low expectations for minority children.  This is really just a less hostile way to say that teachers are lazy — why else would they not just raise their expectations?

A few days ago, TFA tweeted their “list of must-reads and must-sees.”

This list, written by ‘The TFA Editorial Team’ contained as one of the dozen recommendations for learning about issues in education, the 2010 documentary ‘Waiting For Superman.’  This is how they describe it:

This emotional documentary follows the lives of five students as they traverse challenging educational experiences. With clips from educational advocates like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee woven in, this film gives an honest portrayal of education in America today.

Considering that Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee have faded into obscurity — Geoffrey Canada’s charter schools have done very poorly and then he became an executive for a failed ed-tech company that was led by Joel Klein.  Michelle Rhee left D.C., started StudentsFirst, then all but disappeared, shut down StudentsFirst and went to work as a board member for Miracle Gro.  Her legacy in D.C. is one of a cheating scandal and more recently a graduation rate scandal.  One of her top deputies, Jason Kamras, became superintendent of Richmond and did not try to implement the controversial IMPACT teacher evaluation program he developed with her in D.C. — it is a stretch to call them ‘educational advocates.’

The movie Waiting For Superman is not generally quoted or referred to, even by prominent reformers, they know how absurd the claims in that movie were.  The biggest whopper occurs 24 minutes into it when the narrator says “For generations experts tend to blame failing schools on failing neighborhoods.  But reformers have begun to believe the opposite — that the problems of failing neighborhoods might be blamed on failing schools.”  This movie makes so many false claims — they bring in ‘experts’ to say that money doesn’t matter in schools or that 90% of students in certain states cannot read at grade level even though NAEP proficiency is not, and is not supposed to be, the same thing as ‘grade level.’  It really has taken about eight years to undo the damage done by that movie and all the media blitz that accompanied it — Oprah, Obama, NBC’s Education Nation Week.

I’m not so surprised that Waiting For Superman is still gospel to the TFA staff.  What surprises me is that they are so dim that they would not realize how dumb it is to admit this in their 2018 must-see list.  This list was written 5 days ago and to me it shows how TFA has learned nothing from the failures of Michelle Rhee and other TFA allies over the past eight years.

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CPS Considers Closing An Urban Prep Campus For Poor Performance

After the New York Times debunked the success of the T. M. Landry school in Louisiana, some very prominent reform cheerleaders have been writing about how the media needs to be more skeptical of stories in education that seem too good to be true.  Alexander Russo, for example, wrote about it in Phi Delta Kappan.

However, the ground rules for reporting on miracle schools should be clear by now: No passing along a school’s claims of test scores or graduation or college acceptance claims without independent verification. At this point, claims of 100 percent graduation rates should raise immediate red flags.

Considering the constant trolling I’ve endured over the years by reform body guards anytime I’ve uncovered a 100% college success that was worthy of further scrutiny, this is quite an admission.

Urban Prep Charter School in Chicago is the original ‘miracle school.’  Seven years ago at the Teach For America 20th anniversary alumni summit, I heard Arne Duncan talk about how they had 100% of their senior class graduate and how 100% of them went on to college after they shut down the public school in that building and replaced it with a charter school.

In my very first school policy blog post in March of 2011, I wrote about how that school had a very high attrition rate since 166 freshmen three years before had shrunk to 107 seniors.  I also showed how they had some of the lowest standardized test scores in the state.  Diane Ravitch used this school, along with two others, in her ‘Waiting For A School Miracle’ Op-Ed in the New York Times on June 1, 2011.

Urban Prep first opened in 2006.  And over the years they have grown from their original Englewood campus to two other campuses — Urban Prep West Campus opened in 2009 and Urban Prep Bronzeville Campus opened in 2010.  The 100% college acceptance rate applies to all three schools in their network.

One aspect of the reform mantra is that charter schools get increased flexibility but along with that they have increased accountability.  In other words, if you don’t perform your charter can be revoked.  I think when they made that rule, they assumed that they would rarely need to use it since of course the charter schools, with the additional pressure of getting closed and the absence of unionized teachers, would perform better than the public school that they replaced.

About a month ago, there was an article in Chalkbeat called ‘Chicago tags two charter schools for possible closure, warns five others‘ .  I had to do a double take when I saw that one of the two charter school’s threatened with closure was one of the Urban Prep campuses, Urban Prep West Campus.  CPS has not made a final decision yet, but it is clear that an Urban Prep is considered one of the lowest performing schools in Chicago.

So Urban Prep has three high school campuses, all with 100% college acceptances, and one of them is one of the lowest performing schools in all of Chicago yet, somehow, one of the others is still held up as a success story of Arne Duncan’s education reform strategy of closing schools and replacing them with charters.

But how different can these two schools be, the Englewood Campus and the West Campus?  They have the same central leadership the same teaching philosophy and leadership and the same 100% college acceptance rates.

So I went to the Illinois State Report Cards (feel free to fact-check my results) to compare the three Urban Prep schools.

Measure West Campus Bronzeville Campus Englewood Campus
2018 SAT verbal 6% 0% 5%
2018 SAT math 2% 2% 14%
2016 PARCC verbal 2% 5% 0%
2016 PARCC math 0% 2% 0%
2018 Chronic Absence Rate 31% 34% 43%

So it is pretty clear that there’s not a big difference between these three schools and by at least one measure, the last administration of the PARCC tests for them in 2016, the West Campus is better than the famed Englewood campus.  Any reformer should take note that Englewood Campus had no student passing either section of the PARCC which was supposed to the be state of the art in the next generation of standardized testing and where the district average was around 25% on both math and ELA.

When I first wrote about the lie of the 100% college acceptance rate, I was ridiculed by the TFA trolls at 50CAN and Education Post.  When Diane Ravitch wrote the ‘Waiting For A School Miracle’ on the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times she was also challenged on various radio shows by various reformer writers, like Jonathan Alter.  Now that the New York Times has exposed T. M. Landry on their news pages, reformers like Alexander Russo are suddenly saying that 100% college acceptance stories should be immediate red flags.

Maybe it’s time for The New York Times to finally give Urban Prep the investigative scrutiny that it deserves.

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Education Rebranders

For the past ten years, there have been two ‘sides’ in the debate over how to best improve schools in this country.

On one side, you had people like Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Mike Bloomberg, and Rahm Emanuel.  On the other side, you had people like Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch, Deborah Meier, and Leonie Haimson.

Both groups had ideas of how to best reform education.  The first group favored things like charter schools, test based accountability for schools and teachers, and, for some of them, vouchers.  The second group favored things like increased funding and reducing class size.

Though both groups wanted to reform, only the first group claimed the name ‘reformers.’  That first group also branded the other group with various negative monikers such as ‘status quo defenders.’  The ‘reformers’ were rich and organized and they came out with the movie ‘Waiting For Superman’ and they got Michelle Rhee on Oprah and there was really no way to take the name ‘reformer’ away from them, even though the other group wanted reform too, just of a different variety.  Some rich hedge-funders started Democrats For Education Reform and suddenly people who knew absolutely nothing about education, like Whitney Tilson, were influencing politicians including former President Obama.

The ‘reformers’ had a pretty good run.  From about 2008 until just recently ‘reformers’ had their way.  With Race To The Top they got states to invent complicated, though supposedly objective, ways to measure teacher quality by analyzing standardized test scores.  Bill Gates funded many studies to show that this was working.  But after ten years, it became clear that the ‘reformers’ didn’t really know much about improving education and maybe they didn’t deserve to have the steering wheel anymore.

But people don’t give up power easily.  So they changed their strategy.  They ditched the toxic Michelle Rhee — last I heard she was working for Miracle-Gro.  They set up some propaganda websites, like The74, and got a new leader, Campbell Brown.  Then Campbell Brown was out and not really replaced by anyone.

Not all ‘reformers’ agreed on all issues.  Some liked vouchers and private schools, some didn’t.  But what all ‘reformers’ had in common was the belief that the main obstacle to education improvement in this country is people, including the majority of teachers in this country, who are defenders of the ‘Status Quo’.

But the term ‘reformer’ was still out there and, to teachers especially, it means that someone who knows little to nothing about education who is making top-down decisions that will result in students learning less.  So some ‘reformers,’ realizing that they had a tainted brand, began abandoning the term.

The first that I remember was Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel saying in 2015 “I am Not an Education Reformer”   In 2016, one of the brightest thinkers in the reform camp, Rick Hess, published a post in Education Week called “Of Big ‘R’ and  Little ‘r’ School Reform” where he made a distinction between the people still holding on the the oversimplified Michelle Rhee style reform and the new, more nuanced, type of reform that he subscribes to.  His piece got a lot of retweets from some serious Big ‘R’ reformers who now could go around saying that they too are Little ‘r’ reformers, and what is wrong with those Big ‘R’ reformers anyway.

And, most recently, there have been three pieces — one in Chalkbeat and the other two in, of all places, The74, denouncing those big ‘R’ reformers and preaching the gospel of the little ‘r’.  The reform superstar former TFA alum and former superintendent of Camden schools Paymon Rouhanifard made a speech and then wrote in Chalbeat ‘Like most superintendents, I cared a lot about test scores. Too much, it turns out‘.   In The74, Robert Pondiscio’s take on Rouhanifard’s speech was called ‘It’s Time to End the Testing Culture in America’s Schools — and Start Playing the Long Game to Produce Better Life Outcomes for At-Risk Kids‘ and just the other day Robin Lake published ‘Don’t Call Me an Education Reformer — I Don’t Know What That Means Anymore. I Do Know We Must Keep Evolving to Improve Schools’

If I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, I’d say that they are evolving in their thinking and realizing that they have not produced the results they were so confident they would a decade ago.  I’d say that they are now willing to be less suspicious of teacher’s motives and listen more to their concerns.

Of these three pieces, the most revealing one is the one by Robin Lake.  To me, this demonstrates that a reformer by any other name smells just as foul.

Here are some telling excerpts:

I have no idea what the term means anymore. Who is not a reformer? Are nonreformers people who believe that we can get dramatically different results by standing pat, doing things largely the same way, without any structural or policy changes in public education? If so, I have little to discuss with them.

By asking the seemingly rhetorical question ‘Who is not a reformer?’ it seems like Lake is acknowledging that everyone wants things to improve and we can all claim to be ‘reformers’ in that way.

But a few paragraphs later, she undermines her entire argument:

There has never been a group of reformers with one agenda. But it helps the stand-patters to make people believe there is so they don’t seem like the minority, which I believe they are. It’s always easier to fight against change than for it, but who can look at the data, the inequities in the current education system and what’s been tried in the past, and honestly say stronger accountability, more flexibility for educators, and more options for families are not needed?

So Lake doesn’t like what she considers to be an oversimplified characterization of ‘reformers’ but she is fine to continue making an oversimplified characterization of ‘reform’ (or whatever she now wants to be called) critics.  Though she doesn’t use the cliched “Defenders Of The Status Quo” she comes up with a new one “The Stand-Patters.”

There was a time when I used to spar with reformers on Twitter a lot.  I’d read their tweets and they’d read mine and we’d argue about things.  I felt I got the better of them most of the time and I’ve noticed they don’t troll me much anymore.  I can’t blame them, they really had nothing to gain.

But Robin Lake isn’t so aware of me so I had this little interchange with her about this piece:

“Have a good night” is the Twitter way of saying, “I’m not going to respond to you anymore.” so even though I tried to engage a little more, I never heard from her again.

Whether this new strategy to soften the tone and to change the language they use will work in the long run is still an open question.  Personally, I don’t think a simple dropping of the term “Reformer” and a replacing of “Defenders Of The Status Quo” with “Stand-Patters” is going to be enough to stop the decline of the influence of “The Idiots Formerly Known As Reformers.”

 

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