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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After Seven Years, The Failure Of Tennessee’s ASD Is Finally Made Official

Seven years ago, as part of Tennessee’s Race To The Top plan, they launched The Achievement School District (ASD).  With a price tag of over $100 million, their mission was to take schools that were in the bottom 5% of schools and, within five years, raise them into the top 25%.

They started with six schools and three years into the experiment, Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the ASD had a ‘mission accomplished’ moment where he declared in an interview that three of those six schools were on track to meet that goal.

But a year later, the gains that led to that prediction had disappeared and it wasn’t looking good for any of those six schools.  By the time the five year mark had been reached, in the Fall of 2016, Chris Barbic had already resigned and taken a job with the John Arnold Foundation.

The thing about 2016, though, the exact progress of the ASD schools could not be determined, officially.  Tennessee releases their official ‘priority’ list of the bottom 5% schools every three years.  And, conveniently enough, the last one was in 2015.  So even though it was clear in 2016 that the original 6 ASD schools would not be in the top 25%, an even more important question — how many of those schools remained in the bottom 5%?  — would not be known officially for two more years, in the Fall of 2018.

A few days ago, Tennessee finally released the long-awaited 2018 priority schools list, and for the ASD, the results were decisive and devastating.

The original six ASD schools were:  Brick Church College Prep, Cornerstone Prep — Lester Campus, Corning Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Humes Preparatory Academy — Upper School, and Westside Achievement Middle School.  Humes Prep was already shut down for poor performance two years ago.  Of the remaining five, all five remain on the priority list after seven years.  So the promise to get these six schools out of the bottom 5% and into the top 25%, to say the least, was not met.  They didn’t even get them into the top 95%.

Also on the list is a school called Neely’s Bend.  This school is of interest because it is one of the last schools to be taken over by the ASD.  Back in December 2014, the ASD said it was going to either take over Neely’s Bend or Madison Middle School.  This was a very controversial decision especially when they held the community meetings for those two schools simultaneously.  Well, they decided to take Neely’s Bend so this provides an excellent ‘separated at birth’ opportunity.  Two schools that were very similar, both facing takeover at the same time.  Four years later, the school that was taken over, Neely’s Bend is in the bottom 5% while the other school does not appear on this list.

Tennessee received $700 million for winning a Race To The Top grand.  This money was controlled by former commissioner Kevin Huffman, who was a TFA alum, a former TFA Vice President, and a former husband of reform folk-hero Michelle Rhee.  $100 million was spent on the Achievement School District.  For seven years to go by and these original six school making zero progress must be the most ironic — in a sad way — story of education reform gone awry.

 

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Open Letters to Reformers I DON’T Know. Part V: Seven Figure Success Academy Donors

A few years back, I wrote a series of letters to ‘Reformers I know,’ trying to engage publicly with education reformers I was, at least at one time, on a friendly basis with. I then expanded to ‘Reformers I DON’T know.’ Over the course of nearly twenty letters, only three reformers ever wrote back.

For many reasons, there are not many high profile reformers remaining. Even the word ‘reform’ has become toxic, so nobody wants to be an outspoken ‘reformer’ anymore. Now reform work is done behind the scenes out of public view.   In an example of how much the pendulum has shifted, the current TIME Magazine cover story is about how teachers are underpaid. This is the same TIME Magazine that put Michelle Rhee on its cover in 2008.

So I don’t really have specific reformers to try to engage with anymore. But there is a category of people who have a lot of influence over education and these are the rich philanthropists who still like to donate to reform-friendly organizations. Bill Gates has admitted that his teacher evaluation plan was a $575 million bust, yet he still donates a lot of money to various reform groups. Mark Zuckerberg just donated a bunch of money to reform groups, including $10 million to Teach For America — as if they need it. And in addition to these household-name rich people, there are others who drop millions if not tens of millions on different reform organizations.

One place they donate is to the famous Success Academy Charter School Network in New York. Success Academy is known for its high test scores, its strict discipline, and its obsessive secrecy about much else. Its leader, Eva Moskowitz, it is said, was in contention for Betsy DeVos’s job as Trump’s Secretary of Education.

Success Academy has raised a lot of money.  Financier John Paulson gave $8.5 million in 2015, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb gave $15 million in 2018, and another hedge fund manager Julian Robertson gave a whopping $25 million in 2016.

Would these people give as much if they knew some of the dirty secrets of Success Academy? There’s only one way to find out.  This is my letter to them.

Dear Seven Digit Success Academy Donor,

Obviously if you have seven (or eight!) figures to donate to Success Academy, you are a person who does not easily fall for scams. But this time, I’m afraid you did.

There are really only two possibilities: Either Success Academy is the greatest miracle in the history of education — or the greatest Hoax.

If Success Academy’s methods are effective, we should see other charter schools with similar demographics that use all or most of these strategies getting a range of success stories. Maybe there would be a charter school in the top 10%, or one in the top 20%  But we don’t. Despite using some variation on the ‘no excuses’ philosophy’ — some maybe accept a few excuses, some are even more tolerant of excuses. But they surely have the same sorts of high expectations and the same culture of fear for their staff. Yet we see no charter school showing the test scores anywhere near Success Academy. Even the famed KIPP charter chain gets results that are only marginally better than average. And this is not just in New York City, but around the country.  The only charter schools with such high test scores are the Arizona BASIS schools, which serves a low number of Black and Hispanic students.

If Success Academy is hiding some secret methods that could be scaled around the country so that other schools could achieve results even in the same ballpark, these methods would be worth billions of dollars to Eva Moskowitz. If she is for real, she has found the equivalent of Ponce De Leon’s famed fountain of youth.

I believe that Success Academy, in various ways, obtains their high test scores through unethical behavior. By this, I don’t mean that I think they change their students’ answers on the state test. Instead they find other ways to dishonestly inflate their test scores.

I believe that their methods are not educationally sound. A few years ago I came upon about 500 videos they had published publicly on the web. Among those videos was one of a teacher reading the book ‘Caps For Sale’ to a group of Kindergarteners. Seeing the hostile way in which this story was read — the way the teacher forbade students from sitting comfortably as they read, making them sit as straight as they could at all times and admonishing them anytime one of them slouched — it was, in my estimation, a form of torture. After I wrote about what I had seen in this video and posted the link to it, Success Academy took down not just that video but all 500 videos. And it was not because they were afraid of anyone stealing their valuable secret methods, but because these methods are best kept secret since they were embarrassed by what they thought makes for appropriate childhood education. For your generous donation, perhaps you can get a copy of that video and you could show it to any childhood education expert from any university in the country. I’m quite confident that the expert will concur that the video reveals a teacher that has no understanding of the needs of small children as they first learn about literacy.

I assume you were inspired by the mind-blowing statistics from Success Academy’s PR department. I assume you were impressed by the way that their 3rd grade through 8th grade test scores would make them the top district in New York State. You assume that their methods can be replicated, but no other charter school in the state has done so.

To anyone who is knowledgeable about schools and education, these results seem too good to be true. Even the most staunch education ‘reformers’ are wary about talking much about Success Academy. If they truly believed that Success Academy is accomplishing the things that encouraged you to donate so much money to them, they would be calling for the banishment of all the other famous charter schools — the KIPPs, the Achievement Firsts, the Green Dots. But they stand by these other schools since they know there is something fishy about Success Academy.

The impressiveness of Success Academy’s test scores is based on the assumption that their students, admitted by random lottery, are a true random sampling of students throughout New York City. If that assumption is not true, any conclusions based on their test results are no longer valid.

This is an easy assumption to test.  Just choose a Success Academy school and compare the demographic data of its students to that of the nearest other elementary school.  I looked up the data for Success Academy Washington Heights and compared to nearby PS 152 Dyckman Valley.

Screen Shot 2018-09-15 at 10.12.40 PM

SA Washington Heights PS 152 Dyckman Valley
Girls% 55% 49%
Hispanic% 75% 95%
Black 16% 3%
White 6% 1%
ELL 10% 31%
Disabled 17% 25%
Economically Disadvantaged 50% 91%

I do not think their students are a random sampling. First, the families who apply are a self-selecting group. Also, students who are siblings of students already attending there get to bypass the lottery. This could be a substantial number of students now and these would be the siblings of students who have, of course, not already left the school for various reasons. So these siblings are a select group who are much more likely to be able to handle the pressures of Success Academy than a random student in New York City public schools. Of the students who ‘win’ the lottery, only about half choose to go to Success Academy anyway. Why the other half elects to go elsewhere is interesting to me. I think that many are discouraged from sending their students to the network. Some because the school refuses to provide special education services for whatever disability that student has. Some might get discouraged by some of the rules that families are forced to promise to abide by. One of these rules, for example, says that on the ‘parent report card’, the parent will receive a ‘red grade’ if the student is late more than twice in the year. Finally, considering that Success Academy is supposed to be so amazing, there is a significant amount of student attrition.

Even though Success Academy boasts that their student attrition rate is equal if not lower than that of neighboring schools, this is not correct.  Take a look at the Success Academy graduating class of 2018. Back in 2006-2007, they were a cohort of 73 first graders. They eventually graduated just 16 seniors last spring. To compare to other schools is very simple. By 2016-2017, the 73 students had dwindled to 20 juniors. This is a loss of 73% of their students over ten years or about 12% compounded per year. Now compare this to New York State as a whole. In 2006-2007, New York State had 200,272 first graders. Ten years later, the number of juniors in New York State was 194,119, a loss of about 3%, or, just 0.31% compounded per year. By my calculations, the annual attrition rate of Success Academy is nearly 40 times the annual attrition rate of students in New York State. The issue, of course, is that when Success Academy students leave after 4th grade, they are not replaced or ‘backfilled’ while the other schools in New York State generally do backfill.  If a student walks in the door mid-year, the public schools must find a place for them.  Success Academy defends its decision not to replace the students who leave after 4th grade with students from their famed waiting list by saying that it would be too disruptive to their school to bring students in who are academically behind. How can it be fair to compare a school that does not backfill to all the others that do?

But the biggest dirty secret of all (though everyone knows about this) is the way Success Academy wields the power of making a student repeat a grade. This is their secret weapon, and I do mean weapon. By one of my estimates, about 15% of Success Academy students are left back for one reason or another. Leaving a student back is something that should only be done in the most extreme circumstances — it has so many negative ramifications for students later in life. Yet Success Academy uses it recklessly. Here’s how it works: They call in the family of a student who has ‘got to go.’ They say that even though the student passed the state test, they failed to meet some other requirement. This leaves the family with two options: The first is for the student to repeat the grade they just completed. This means that they will be the ‘old kid’ in their class while all their friends (or around 85% of their friends — other kids get threatened with this too) move on to the next grade. This is a devastating consequence. But fortunately, there is one other option. The student can get promoted as long as that student ‘voluntarily’ transfers to a different school. If you want to have lunch some time with me and the father of a student who went through this to hear first hand about how the school did this for his special needs daughter after she finished fourth grade, I can arrange this.

The students aren’t the only group of people that Success Academy treats, in my opinion, abusively. Success Academy makes demands on families that they are not able to meet. The school knows how to make things especially rough on families whose students struggle with behavioral issues. They make parents repeatedly come and get their kids, even if it means the parent is jeopardizing his or her own job by having to leave the job frequently in the middle of the day. An education news site, Chalkbeat NY reported that at one of the schools Success Academy held a mandatory family meeting. For families that miss that meeting, they are told that the assumption is that the child will not be returning to the school the next year. In a pending lawsuit, some parents report that Success Academy has even resorted to reporting families to Administration For Children’s Services (ACS) for being unable to pick up their children in the middle of the day after the child apparently violated one of the many strict rules of the school.

The chaotic situation in the Success Academy high school is a huge red flag. If the Success Academy students peak in 8th grade and then have such poor results in high school, it means that their achievement through 8th grade (as measured by those state test scores) were illusory. The unusually high teacher turnover at their high schools is a symptom of this. When you are working in the most incredible educational experiment in the history of education, you don’t just quit after a year or two.  Yet over half of the high school teachers did not return this past year. This would be like the researchers at the medical lab that cured Cancer leaving at such a rate. The teachers who leave have been generally quiet about why they left. But I think it is the same reason that people have left the Trump White House. They just can’t bear being an accomplice to such an abuse of power.

Despite the fanfare surrounding these schools, from my perspective Success Academy excels most at abuse. They abuse their students through overuse of making them repeat grades, they abuse the families when they punish them — even call ACS on them — for not being able to meet their impossible demands, and they abuse the staff causing many of them to quit each year.

Success Academy is built on a foundation of lies and it is only a matter of time before it comes crumbling down. We already see so many scandals. There was the ‘rip-and-redo’ tape, the ‘go-to-go’ list, the failure to get students into the specialized high schools for the first two years in which students were eligible to apply, the summer homework revolt, and the mass exodus of almost the entire high school staff.

It is only a matter of time before enough insiders spill the beans. When that happens, you don’t want to be known as the chump who helped fund this.

Sincerely,
Gary Rubinstein

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‘Adequate Yearly Progress’ A Teacher Novel For The Modern Era

There was a time that the ‘teacher story’ was a popular archetype along with the buddy movie, the romantic comedy, and the spaghetti western.  Starting with the novel ‘Blackboard Jungle’ in 1953, there have been a string of popular books which often became even more popular movies including ‘To Sir With Love,’ ‘Up The Down Staircase,’ ‘Escalante: The Best Teacher In America’ (became the movie ‘Stand And Deliver’), ‘My Posse Don’t Do Homework’ (became the movie ‘Dangerous Minds’), and ‘Freedom Writers.’  These novels had similar themes, one enthusiastic new teacher brings out the potential in his or her class by never giving up on them.

I’ve read all these books and seen all these movies over the years and always used to enjoy them.  Sure, they were oversimplified, but still they were harmless.  Back then when you watched a movie like ‘Stand And Deliver’ you thought “Wow, that guy worked hard” you didn’t think “We really need to fire all the other teachers at that school” for some reason.

Maybe this is why in recent years, the hero-teacher story has mainly disappeared.  The most recent attempt at a movie like this was the Walton funded box office bomb ‘Won’t Back Down’ in 2012 which had a clear anti-union message.  There was also a movie called ‘Bad Teacher’ and a TV series called ‘Teachers’ which portrayed teachers in a very negative light.  These did not really resonate with anyone either.

It seemed like the ‘teacher-genre’ was dead.  Dead, that is, until the just released novel by Roxanna Elden called ‘Adequate Yearly Progress.’

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‘Adequate Yearly Progress’ follows the lives of the staff of a Texas High School through a school year marked by the hiring of a flashy new reform minded (though educational outsider) superintendent.  Their school gets singled out as a school in need of turnaround when their principal inadvertently has a very public interaction with the new superintendent.

The story, though, is a backdrop for getting to know the main characters of the books, the teachers at the school.  In this book we are reminded that, unlike most teacher fiction, these teachers have actual lives.  There is the math teacher who is a single mother.  There is the sarcastic slam poet who is searching for her identity.  There is the TFAer (called Teach Corps in this world) who writes viral blog posts about her success in class while we get to see how much she is struggling in class to get the real world to match with her ideal.  There is the football coach who is like a father to his players yet has two daughters by two women and he doesn’t have much of a relationship with either.  There is the science teacher who bends the rules to have a plant nursery in his room and has a crush on the slam poet.

Most teachers, like most non-teacher, have plenty of stresses in their lives.  These stresses are also part of the things that have sometimes led them to teaching in the first place.  What makes this book unique is that the reader gets to experience what it feels like to be a teacher, in the middle of the grind, when you’re having a bad day for reasons that have nothing to do with school and you try to do your best though it is tough to not let it affect your teaching.  The principal characters in this book are multi-dimensional.  If someone has issues, we learn why they have them, and we see their struggle to try to overcome these issues.

The stories of the individual teachers were great and the plot moved rapidly in a way that readers are really looking forward to finding out what happens next.  Elden makes you care about these teachers and their intertwined lives.

Elden was an English teacher for 11 years and, like me, got her start though Teach For America.  Her portrayal of the Teach Corps meeting group was one of the most amusing scenes in the book.

Throughout the book, and this is something that will particularly appeal to teachers, is a sharp insight into the absurdity of initiatives by top-down reformers.  Non-teachers would be surprised that the humorous fictions that Elden invents — like that teachers are rated on something called a ‘Believer Score’ which is how much you believe all your students can succeed — are not much more outrageous than things that real-world teacher have to deal with nowadays.  Also, any educator will love that the Texas State test in this world is called the ‘TCUP.’

From my point of view of course I love the satire about the absurdity of education reform driven by someone who knows little about education.  But what drives this book more than anything, is the story — the twists and turns, the conflicts, and the drama.  It’s a great read for anyone, teacher or non-teacher alike.

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