Success Academy’s Backhanded Backfill Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

So it might look something like this:

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

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

Thank You,

Gary Rubinstein

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

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

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

Here’s what I learned:

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

By grade these numbers are:

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

For second grade: 114 out of 427 = 27%

For third grade: 157 out of 467 = 34%

For fourth grade: 32 out of 59 = 54%

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

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

For first grade:

White and Asian: 3 out of 52 = 6%

Black: 67 out of 234 = 29%

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

The other grades were less disparate.

For second grade:

White and Asian: 9 out of 58 = 16%

Black: 62 out of 218 = 28%

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

For third grade:

White and Asian: 12 out of 52 = 23%

Black: 82 out of 238 = 34%

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

For fourth grade:

White and Asian: 3 out of 7 = 43%

Black: 9 out of 24 = 38%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Has Ember Charter Earned The Right To Expand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bloomberg Donates $200 Million To Success Academy And Promise Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TFA Podcast Showcasing ‘Failing’ Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Incredible Shrinking TFA

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

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

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

Reason #1: Failure to properly train corps members

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reason #2: Ineffective leadership

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

Reason #3: Alliance with teacher bashing reformers

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

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

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

Where Are They Now?

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

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

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

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

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

But what if that wasn’t the case?

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

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

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

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

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

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Success Academy Extends Its 75% Attrition Streak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two KIPPs On The Block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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