Open Letters to Reformers I DON’T Know. Part IV: Arne Duncan

This is the sixteenth in a series of open letters I have written to reformers I know and, more recently, that I don’t know over the past two years.  Go here for links to the other letters and responses.


Dear Secretary Duncan,

Race To The Top was intended to improve education in this country by finally holding accountable the schools and the ‘adults’ who work in those schools — meaning the teachers — for their failure to get students to adequately grow academically.  ‘Ineffective’ teachers need to be identified and fired and ‘failing’ schools need to be identified and closed.  Unfortunately the entire program collapses without reliable metrics to judge which schools are truly ‘failing’ and which adults are truly ‘ineffective.’

To illustrate the issues with the accountability metrics that have been the trademark of your tenure, I’ve applied them to something you know intimately, your senior year Harvard basketball team, the 1986-1987 Harvard Cagers.  Were the 1986-1987 Cagers a ‘failing’ team?  Was Coach Peter Roby an ‘ineffective’ coach?  Were you and Keith Webster ‘ineffective’ co-captains?  It all depends on which metrics you use.


Your last place finish 9 and 17 record is just one way to judge your efforts.  Some would use it as the sole metric and declare this a ‘losing’ season.  But if you just look at points scored, you didn’t do so badly with 2152, which was pretty close to the 1972 Harvard record of 2221 points at that time.  So if we look at just offense, the team was not failing.  But you also gave up 2169 points, which is not so good defensively, though only 17 points more than how many points you scored.  The ‘average’ game that season, you lost 82.8 to 83.4.  Doesn’t sound so bad when measured that way.

But what if Coach Roby was judged on your performance of just one day?  Well, it depended, then, on what day.  The ‘86-‘87 Cagers were streaky.  You started off 0 and 3, all away games.  Then the next ten games you went 7 and 3 bringing your record to 7 and 6.  The last two wins were against Penn and Princeton on January 9th and January 10th 1987, who finished respectively 1st and 2nd in the Ivy League that year.

The Penn game is still considered one of the greatest comeback upsets in the history of Harvard basketball.  With 11:50 remaining you were down by a seemingly unsurmountable 19 points.  With 4:21 left you had chipped away at the lead but were still down by 10.  Then Harvard’s top scorer, you, went on an amazing run scoring 14 points in just 3 minutes to set up an eventual overtime.  Then, you remember, the legendary finish.  Down by 2 with 33 seconds to go in overtime.  Phillips ties it up with a jumper with 9 seconds left.  Then with the Harvard home crowd going crazy, Webster steals the ball from Elzey and hits the winning shot at the buzzer.

Here’s the footage, in good faith, I found it for you.

Crimson sports writer Jonathan Putnam started his article about these two wins with “This past weekend will long remain one of the greatest in Harvard men’s basketball history.”

After that, the Cagers season went downhill.  The next thirteen games you went 2 and 11 tied for last place in the Ivy League in 1987 with the Brown Bears.  You had beaten Brown convincingly on February 6th, 108 to 90, but in the rematch on February 21st, your last game at home at Briggs Athletic Center, you lost a heartbreaker.  But who on that team could guard you?  Who could guard Webster?  Definitely not Lynch.  No way Murray could either.  Even your career high 32 points with 24 of them coming in the second half weren’t enough and Webster had a cool 21.  You still lost 90 to 87.  That was your game to get out of the cellar.  A major missed opportunity.  And was that failure one of coach Peter Roby?  Or of the co-captains you and Webster?  Should Roby have been fired?  Should you and Webster have been replaced as co-captains?

Maybe instead of wins and losses, the team could be judged on ‘growth’ or ‘value-added.’  If before the season a computer predicted the Cagers only had the talent to go 4 and 22, then the 9 and 17 record would credit coach Roby as adding some value to the team.  But if the computer instead predicted you would go 13 and 13, well, then the team did not meet the growth targets.  How would you like it if your hard work was declared a failure by a computer?

Would the same team have really done so much differently had you still had Coach McLaughlin?  By 1989 the Cagers were 4th in the Ivy League under Roby and were 3rd for 1990 and 1991.  Of course Coach Roby went on to have a legendary career and in 2007 was named one of the 100 most influential sports educators in America by the Institute for International Sports.

You and Webster were celebrated at the end of the season with various accolades, and deservedly so.  In Harvard basketball history at that time, only twelve players had ever scored 1,000 points, and you and Webster were two of them.

If the point of playing college basketball isn’t just to win games or score points, but to develop citizens who understand how to be on a team and how to work together and become future leaders, then Coach Roby maybe deserves a coach of the year award for 1987.  That season influenced your future.  You went on to play some professional ball, first in Rhode Island and then in Australia.  Besides Jeremy Lin, there aren’t many other Harvard players who played any kind of pro ball.  And then as far as leadership, you went on to become Secretary of Education.  Did anyone from the ‘87 Brown team land any cabinet positions?  Lynch?  Murray?  No way.

You know a lot about sports, so let me ask you something:  What do you think is in worse shape, our country’s education system or our country’s sports program?  I can apply the same arguments you and others use to declare that our education system is ‘broken’ to sports.  You might think this is ludicrous:  we do well in the Olympics.  Our baseball, football, and basketball professional teams consistently trounce teams from other countries.  But I can say many good things about our education system too:  Our top students, just like our top athletes, can go head to head with the best in any country.  Our universities are the best in the world.  Our education system has produced some of the most innovative thinkers in the world.  We’ve fostered creativity and have also produced some of the greatest musicians and entertainers in the world.

But our ability to produce the top football and basketball players in the world is not proof that our country has a high-performing sports program.  With the obesity rate in this country, I’d say that our ‘average’ athlete is not very good at all.  To compare countries on an even playing field, the sports equivalent of the PISA tests is certainly the other football, or soccer.  In soccer, we are very mediocre.  Watching the World Cup game against The Netherlands last summer opened my eyes to how far behind we are in soccer compared to much much smaller countries.  Yet we have just as much, if not more, opportunity to field a competitive soccer team.

How would you react if the President appointed a Secretary of Physical Education who had never played sports or coached sports?  And what if this person declared that our lackluster performance in the World Cup soccer tournament is evidence that our physical education system in this country is horribly broken?  And what if he made the argument that he has identified the problem as the weakness of one of our most popular games, your beloved basketball?

Here’s the argument why:  In a soccer game, it is very hard to score a goal.  Often for complete games, the score is 0 to 0.  Yet in basketball, teams regularly score over 100 points a game.  What kind of point inflation is this?  With basketball, we’ve been lying to ourselves, patting ourselves on the back for being such great athletes when the reality is that we have not been challenging ourselves with this sport.  For one thing, the hoop is way too low.  Maybe 10 feet was OK sixty years ago, but not anymore in this global economy.  The first thing we need to do to fix basketball is to raise the hoop up to about 15 feet.  Dunking wouldn’t be quite so easy anymore, nor should it be.  The next thing we need to do is cut back on the inflated score.  Why two points for each basket?  It should be just one point.  And the three point line is way too close to the basket.  It should be moved back to about 40 feet.

I do realize that the scores in basketball games will, at least at first, drop drastically.  But that’s just at the beginning until players get used to the new rigorous standards.  By holding the teams and especially the coaches accountable, eventually teams will be scoring 100 points a game again, and even dunking, with the 15 feet high hoop.  How awesome will that be?

You know a lot about sports and basketball in particular so you immediately know in your gut that these suggestions about the 15 foot hoop and the entire premise that basketball is ‘failing’ is nonsense.

But this is how I feel as someone who has been involved in education for almost my whole life about some of the things you have said and done with regard to education in this country.  An example of something you said in a TV interview last year:  “The vast majority who drop out of high school drop out not because it’s too hard but because it’s too easy.”

I suppose that there are a few kids here and there who are bored by school because it isn’t challenging enough.  Most of those kids don’t drop out though, they stick it out and deal with their boredom, I know.  No, the “vast majority” don’t drop out for that reason.  Kids drop out of school for a lot of reasons, but school being too easy is a pretty rare reason to drop out, and I’m concerned that the Secretary of Education is not aware of this.  It would be like the Secretary of Physical Education saying that most kids can’t dunk because the basket is too low.

Secretary Duncan, time is running out.  It’s like that game against Penn on January 9th, 1987.  There are only a few minutes left and the team is down big.  Teachers are fleeing the profession and there is soon, I believe, to be a teacher shortage as new candidates will avoid the profession for the same reason that the older teachers are leaving.  Standardized testing is out of control.  How much time, energy, and resources are being spent on testing?  Your legacy is not looking good right now.  But it is not too late.  Please can you rise to the occasion as you did that time against Penn when you scored 14 points in three minutes to force overtime?  Please captain Duncan, would you muster up the will to lead a final charge and again turn an almost hopeless situation into one of the great comeback finishes of all time?


Gary Rubinstein

Math Teacher

Arne Duncan playing basketball

Me playing basketball

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Open Letter to Reformers I DON’T Know. Part III: Amorphous TFA Blob

I joined TFA in 1991, twenty-four years ago.  How, then could this letter be part of the reformers I DON’T know, rather than to the reformers I know series?  Well, though I do know certain people who are in leadership roles in TFA and have even written open letters to several of them (only Wendy Kopp had the class and courtesy to write back) those people are people who have worked at TFA, even founded TFA, but none of them actually can be said to ‘be’ TFA.

I once asked a TFA staffer about how TFA seems very slow to evolve and why that might be.  I asked what it would take — who would a staffer have to appeal to, for instance — to make a big change to TFA like to make the commitment a four year commitment or to shut down the Chicago region.  This person stared back at me, basically to say “I really don’t know.”

It must be very strange to work for TFA, not having a real sense of who it is you work for.  Who, exactly, is in charge?  Wendy Kopp stepped down as CEO and now there are two co-CEOs who, my sources tell me, at least one of them is soon to step down.  Nobody thinks that Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva-Beard are actually running things, making big new decisions as they telecommute from Houston and Minneapolis.  Is Wendy still calling the shots?  There is a ‘board of directors’ which, I think, Wendy is the president of.  Do they have some kind of vision for where TFA is right now and where it could or should go in the future?

So while I certainly know a lot of people affiliated with TFA, I, and all the other alumni, corps members, and even staffers, can never honestly say that we ‘know’ who TFA is, at least the way things are structured right now.

In this sense, I can make the same criticisms about TFA that ‘reformers’ make about the education system in general, which they sometimes refer to as ‘The Blob.’  It is a good metaphor.  There’s this amorphous Blob.  Does it have a brain?  Fighting the Blob is a frustrating experience.  You poke your sword though one spot and it just becomes a temporary hole which closes up as soon as you remove your sword.  It has no weak spot.  You can’t reason with it either.  Since the TFA Blob just ‘is,’ it will take a long long time for it to evolve.

I’ve been challenging TFA to improve various aspects of the program for twenty-one years.  Pretty much as soon as I finished my two year commitment in 1993.  My issue used to be the training model.  I’d say that fruitless dialogue lasted between 1993 and 2011, eighteen years.  Then in 2011, about four years ago to the day, I had my epiphany at, of all places, the TFA 20th anniversary summit.  It was there that I realized that TFA was aligned with the teacher bashing movement which, in my opinion, will one day lead to nobody wanting to become a teacher.

So this open letter is not to Wendy Kopp or Elisa Villanueva-Beard or Matt Kramer or Jeff Wetzler or Juice Fong or Christina Torres or Seth Saavedra or Garret Bucks or Heather Harding or Craig Weiner or David Rosenberg or to any of the people I’ve communicated with throughout the years, but to the TFA Blob of which everyone associated with TFA is a part of — this includes current corps members, alumni, current staffers, former staffers, even former corps members who have quit.  Though the Blob doesn’t have a centralized brain, if enough of its components make an effort to change a little, perhaps the Blob can change too.

Dear Amorphous TFA Blob,

Wow.  You’ve gotten quite big and blobby!  And I really hope this hole that I’m speaking into is actually your ear hole.  Though I know that you don’t have a central nervous system or something that can officially be called a brain, I’m going to offer you some assistance in how you can survive in your new environment.  Many blob like creatures have existed throughout the history of the world.  Most are now extinct.  By chance, some very lucky ones happened to evolve appropriately, but these were very lucky creatures.  If you want to depend on luck, then I wish you luck, but if you want to try to understand your situation and quickly try to evolve into a creature that is self-aware enough to even take suggestions, you may be able to make your own luck.

You are vulnerable right now.  In the New York Times there was a front page article about how recruitment is way down.  Talented applicants are the lifeblood of TFA.  Without them, you are in real trouble.

I’ve seen a lot recently about how Teach For America has evolved.  The latest cohorts of corps members are more diverse, you are helping fill teacher shortages on Native American reservations, you have piloted a year long training program for corps members who sign on as college juniors, for example.  None of these things are going to help you, however.  These changes are way too superficial to help you survive your new environment.

What you need to do first is take a long look at yourself in the mirror.  What is your plan?  Do you hold meetings for staff members to do more responses for your growing ‘On The Record’ webpage where you respond to critics?  That’s just not gonna do it.  If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re going about it all wrong.  You should not be thinking “How can we change our communication strategy so that people don’t think that what we’re doing is hurting education?”  People like me and other critics will see right through that.  As they say, actions speak louder than words.

No, if you really want to get critics off your back, you’ve got to start asking a different question.  You have to get the staff members together and ask “What sorts of things are we doing that are bothering the critics so much?  What is it about those things that we have such trouble stopping doing them?  Do we want to stop doing them?  What would it take to stop doing them.”  These are the kinds of questions, amorphous TFA Blob, that you need to be asking yourself.

In your response to the New York Times front page article, you wrote that there were two main reasons for the drop in applicants to TFA.  The first was the improving economy.  The other was that potential applicants are discouraged from becoming teachers because of the increasingly polarized education debate in this country.

So the first thing you should ask is:  “What role have we played in fueling this polarized education debate?”  I’d say your role was great.  After all, it is was the movie ‘Waiting For Superman’ starring TFA legend Michelle Rhee that influenced the country’s perception of teachers and helped grow the teacher bashing movement that has since spread around the country.  Yes, you don’t tell Michelle Rhee what to say, but you didn’t really make much effort to counter her claims that teachers in this country are, on average, ‘crappy.’  And though Michelle Rhee is currently out of the picture, working in the shadows instead, most likely, there are plenty of other teacher bashers that TFA has speak at various fund raisers.  Cami Anderson, Kevin Huffman, John White, Tim Daly, the list goes on and on.

You also benefited from the colossal anti-teacher union flop ‘Won’t Back Down’ when the producers sponsored a ‘Teachers Rock’ benefit concert which TFA received money from.

Why couldn’t you come to the defense of teachers?  Maybe it is because your recruitment strategy has been to convince college students that by joining TFA, they will surely be much better than the average teacher, therefore the average teacher must not be so great otherwise why would we need the TFA teachers to save the day?  What is the way out of this dilemma?  Well I think it is possible to still recruit TFA members without implicitly supporting the teacher bashers.  Imagine that you were an organization looking to help people who wanted to become firemen.  Being a fireman is a noble thing.  You could say “Save lives.  Be a fireman” or “Fight fires alongside some of the most heroic men and women in this country.”  See, no fireman bashing.  No, “The firemen in this country are failing because there are too many fires still to put out.  You need to come in and show those lazy unionized firemen how it’s done.”  So my first piece of advice is to find a way to celebrate the career teachers in this country rather than feed the teacher bashing narrative that is driving away old teacher and scaring away potential new teachers.

The next thing you need to ask yourself is “Why do we choose to lie so much and to spread the lies of others?”  Here is an example:

Screen shot 2015-03-01 at 2.06.01 PMWhen you include a statistic like this in your marketing campaign, do you care if this is a lie?  Or do you actually think this is accurate?  Do you think that 19% of high school graduates in this country ‘can’t read.’  Yes, I know that this comes from a ‘report’ put out by the US DOE.

But “can’t read” is a very ambiguous description.  Does this mean “completely illiterate”?  Does this mean “reads at a fifth grade level”?  Do you even know?  The report is not easy to track down, but I did find some statistics from it.  So one of their statistics is that 21% of U.S. adults read below a fifth grade level.  Are we to believe that most of these adults are the ones who also graduated high school?  How can it be possible for 19% of high school graduates to be completely illiterate?

Screen shot 2015-03-01 at 2.13.12 PMBut you chose to use this bizarre statistic in your campaign.  You need to ask yourself ‘why’?  Is it because you fell for it?  You believed that 19% of high school graduates are fully illiterate — that they sign their names with an ‘x’ like in the Old West?  Or did you know that it wasn’t really true, or for sure misleading and didn’t care because it was something that would help inspire people to apply to TFA?  And it might accomplish the goal of recruiting people, but at the same time it advances the teacher bashing narrative which, as you’re seeing, scares away even more people.  Tweeting a false statistic like that was very irresponsible of you.

Or how about this one by co-CEO Matt Kramer:

Screen shot 2015-03-01 at 2.09.02 PMYes, the famous 100% college acceptance trick.  I’m well aware of it.  Every time I’ve investigated a claim like that, it always has meant 100% of the graduating seniors who, it always seems, are about 50% of the original cohort.  In this case it only took me about 5 minutes to verify my suspicion.

Screen shot 2015-03-01 at 2.09.40 PMWhen I let Matt Kramer know about this, did he tweet back to me “You are correct, it was only 100% of the graduating class.  Didn’t mean to imply 100% of the cohort.”?  No.  He just ignored me.  Here I had a legitimate concern and he left me stranded, holding my breath, for a response.  Is that a way to treat an alum who has been active for 23 ½ years and has volunteered in various capacities over those years?  I don’t think so.

So the strategy shouldn’t be “How can we not get caught lying so much?”  It should be, “Why do we lie so much?,”  “Do we even realize when we are lying?,”  “Are we just gullible or victims of wishful thinking?,” “What purpose do these lies serve?,” “Is it possible for us to free ourselves from this web of lies that we have weaved?”  The answer is that the best way to stop lying is to do it ‘cold turkey.’  Just stop.  Yes, there is a risk that without your lies, you will either have to be completely silent or tell the truth.  And maybe that truth will not be exactly what your funders want to hear.  You’re going to have to decide where your priorities are on this one.  I could just say that when you do lie, people like me and others will continue to do our fact checking so the lies will likely be exposed and then you’ll have to do even more ‘On The Record’ responses trying to defend your lies.

I’m getting tired of hearing that 1/3 of alumni are still teaching.  How can it be true that only 20% stay for a fifth year, yet 1/3 become career teachers?  Perhaps it is because the large recent cohorts are doing third years and skewing the numbers?  Still, you should stop misleading people with it.  Also the thing about how secondary math TFA teachers get 2.6 months more of learning.  First of all, that same report says that all the other TFA teachers, which is most of them, are about the same as other teachers.  So if you are with Michelle Rhee that most teachers ‘suck’ then most TFA teachers suck too.  Also, the whole conversion of standardized test questions correct to ‘months’ calculation is very sketchy.  I think that they call one or two more questions right on a test 2.6 months.  You should learn the details before you constantly quote a report just because it makes you look good.

You claim that you want to improve and that you are your own harshest critics.  Why then, when you decided to get an independent auditor to go through all your records and then give you the honest truth of your strengths and weaknesses did you choose to hire your buddies at Bellwether.

Their report was a 97 page puff-piece which, at least in the public report — maybe they issued you another report privately –, offered no useful suggestions for how TFA can evolve in a productive way.  The report is full of ‘reformy’ nonsense, even quotes from a TFA VP saying that resistance to TFA is by unions who are threatened by the status quo.  If you want to earn good will with the public, hire a truly neutral independent auditor, maybe someone from Five Thirty Eight or something.

Amorphous TFA Blob, you are way too bloated.  I learned from that report that you have over 2,000 staff members and a budget of something like $300 million annually.  But what do you do, really?  You train about 5,000 new corps members.  That’s a cost of $60,000 per corps member.  And you have about 2 1/2 corps members per staffer.  (I don’t count the 2nd year corps members.  They, in general, don’t need or want your support.)  Perhaps you could use a bit of that $300 million more productively than that.

Finally Amorphous TFA Blob, you need to take a good look at who your pals are.  You have fallen into the wrong crowd.  Look at your friends and really ask yourself “Why am I friends with this person?,”  “Is it because I respect his or her knowledge about education?,”  “Is it because he or she likes me?,”  “Is it because this person is powerful and gives me power or because this person is rich and gives me money?”  I’m not going to list them all here, you know who your friends are.  Many of them know nearly nothing about education.  They have very big mouths and may be very charismatic, but what they are saying is based on wishes and rumor and not at all on evidence.  I’ve seen TFA sign on to bizarre reports, like the one by Klein and Rice that says that our education crisis is also a crisis of national security or the proposal that teacher preparation programs should be funded based on the value-added scores of its graduates.  With all the data you have, can you honestly say that you trust value-added scores?  Have you not seen great corps members with lousy value-added scores and lousy corps members with great value-added scores?  Why you would side with anyone who sees them as a big part of the solution to fixing education, I don’t know.

These friends never say anything about increasing funding for public schools or about decreasing class size.  Mainly they promote the idea that the average teacher in this country is the problem with education so we need to find a more objective way to rate them so we can fire them more easily.  But they don’t understand the ecosystem.  It’s like someone who knows nothing about the rainforest coming in and disrupting things to fix what they’ve identified as the problem with it.  But in doing so they cause a chain reaction that does not only solve the problem, but causes even bigger problems.  Go find some new friends who know what they are talking about.

I guess the most obvious and most powerful, while the least knowledgeable, friend of TFA is the current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  An example of how out of touch he is, he recently said in a television interview:  “The vast majority who drop out of high school drop out not because it’s too hard but because it’s too easy.”  To me, this is like the Surgeon General saying in an interview that you can contact Ebola by dancing the Hokey Pokey with the family member of someone infected by the disease.  If the Surgeon General said something so inaccurate, the newspapers would be all over it, but it’s only education so who cares if the head of the US Department of Education knows what he is talking about.  In some parallel world where TFA does not depend on money from the US DOE, you would be railing against the fact that our education system is being led by someone so naive.

OK Amorphous TFA Blob.  That’s all I’ve got for you today.  I would email this to you, but I don’t know what your email address is or if you even have one.  These open letters have rarely gotten responses even from humans with fingers who could type a response so I’m not expecting a response from you.  But if any components of the Blob, current corps members, alumni, staff members, whoever — even though you are just a tiny part of the Blob, maybe you are, the one who is destined to save the Blob from itself.  Feel free to comment or to email me.


Gary Rubinstein

Alum 1991 Houston

Institute staff member Houston 1996

Volunteer workshop presenter Houston and NYC 1995 to 2006

Writer for the TFA-Two-Step Houston Newsletter 1992 to 1995

Keynote speaker at various TFA events from 1995 to 2005

Recruiter in Colorado and also at Tufts 1996 to 2002

Participant in the alumni summits, 5-year Washington DC, 10-year New York City, 15-year Washington DC, 20-year New York City

Host of dinners for new TFA corps members in New York City 2003 to 2009


Posted in Open Letters Series, Teach For America, Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Overwhelming majority of families of 143,000 students ‘trapped’ in ‘failing’ schools would recommend their school to others

One of the most dramatic catch phrases that New York ‘reformers’ have been saying, recently, is that there are 143,000 kids trapped in failing schools.

Screen shot 2015-02-23 at 10.31.49 PMThe New York Post described this with the headline 143,000 abandoned kids .

And a press release from an organization called Families for Excellent Schools says

“With 143,000 students trapped in failing schools, it’s clear that another year of multi-year plans will not fix decades of failure,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, Executive Director of Families for Excellent Schools. “The only viable remedy is to immediately empower parents to choose better schools.”

This statistic comes from a seventeen page report released by Families for Excellent schools, themselves, called ‘The Forgotten Fourth.’  They have found that there are 371 schools, about a fourth of New York City schools where less than 10% of students have passed the new Common Core tests.  As the new tests were made much more difficult, compounded by a very unscientific cut score that caused only about 30% of New York City students to pass anyway, it is not clear why they chose the 10% threshold for ‘failing.’  They could have just as easily made it 20% and made the report about the forgotten three fourths.

This post, however, is not about analyzing the word ‘failing’ in the slogan — maybe another time for that — but for the equally charged word, ‘trapped.’  It evokes a picture of a burning building, the people banging on the door, unable to get out.

But with the help of a new data sleuth who is helping me out, Benjamin Lempert, I’ve learned something interesting about these ‘trapped’ students:

In New York City, every student, parent, and teacher has an opportunity to fill out an annual survey about how they feel about their school.  These ‘trapped’ families surely would use this opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with their school.

Question 3a reads “How much do you agree with the following statement:  I would recommend this school to other parents.”  Parents have the opportunity to answer ‘strongly agree,’ ‘agree,’ ‘disagree,’ or ‘strongly disagree.’  For the 371 ‘forgotten fourth’ schools, out of about 54,000 parent respondents, which is, I think, a statistically significant sample, 49,000 responded to this question either ‘strongly agree’ or ‘agree’ and most of those were ‘strongly agree.’  This is 90.7%.

Is it accurate to call students ‘trapped’ if they are satisfied in their school?  Do I feel ‘trapped’ with my children because I can’t trade them in for ones who will do better bedtimes?  Are we all ‘trapped’ on Planet Earth?

For Moskowitz and the Families for Excellent Schools people to use this word ‘trapped’ certainly misrepresents how the families they are supposedly advocating for actually feel.  I might not like the hair style someone chooses, but it is not my right to tell the person sporting it that they are ‘trapped’ with it.  When you feel trapped, you generally don’t say to other families “come join us here in this place.  It’s terrible.”

No, ‘trapped’ is a clever invention of ‘reformers.’  Maybe ‘reformers’ think that the parents should feel trapped and that the families are not smart enough to realize they are trapped.  Of course the solution for these ‘trapped’ families is to give them the ‘choice’ to get away from their schools that they like and then to close down those schools, thus taking away their ‘choice’ to remain in their neighborhood school that they are satisfied with.

‘Trapped,’ ‘choice,’ ‘failing,’ ‘adult interests,’ ‘reform,’ and the rest of their lingo.  It’s all just slick manipulative advertising.



Posted in Debunking | 6 Comments

Open Letters To Reformers I DON’T KNOW. Part II: Bill Gates

Over the past three years I’ve written a series of 13 ‘open letters’ to various reformers, most were reformers “I know” as either old friends or acquaintances.  When I ran out of reformers I know, I started a new series to reformers I don’t know.  This is the second in that series and it is to someone who may be the most powerful person in the country driving the, I think, destructive education ‘reform’ agenda.  Bill Gates was a big promoter of ‘Waiting For Superman’ and his foundation donates a lot of money to ‘reform’ minded organizations like Teach For America (full disclosure:  I was a member of the 1991 TFA cohort) and various charter schools.  Gates also invested heavily in the Common Core Standards and has promoted them widely.

Will I be able to use my analytic skills and my wit to win over the richest person in the world and convince him to redirect his ed ‘reform’ monster thus saving public education in this nation?  You never know until you try …


Dear Mr. Gates,

As a current teacher and a former computer programmer, I am concerned about the education ‘reform’ program you are currently funding.  This focus on primarily measuring and fixing teachers isn’t just bad education policy.  It is bad software design.


Creating a bug-free software package is not something that happens by accident.  You don’t just hire a bunch of programmers and have them, unsupervised, write five million lines of spaghetti code, then without even testing it, hit ‘compile’ and ship it out to customers.  No.  You start with a sound plan and stable architecture.  The specifications must be clear and easy to test to see if they are met.  Throughout the development lifecycle, components of the product are created and tested.  When these components are assembled, there is another round of robust testing to make sure that the components interface with each other properly.  Good software design would include a team of experts that will surely, from time to time, disagree about the best way to make the program work.  This sort of disagreement is useful since if everybody on the team always agrees, there will be an issue when one person is wrong about something, therefore everyone is wrong about something.  What good is a team of ‘Yes Men’?  Excluding people who are known computer experts because they are skeptical of the direction the team is taking is not going to result in a robust program.  Only after the program passes all the quality review tests and the program is declared to be reasonably bug free can the product be deployed to the customers.

I spent several years as a debugger in Colorado working on the one-time giant of desktop publishing Quark XPress.  I’m hoping that my abilities as a veteran teacher and also as a one time professional debugger will make you willing to listen to me when I say this current version of education reform is in need of some serious debugging.  Whatever the original specifications were, maybe to raise test scores in this country, it isn’t accomplishing that.  What it is accomplishing, unfortunately, is making education worse.

I know that it has already been deployed.  But just as buggy computer software can now be updated easily by downloading patches, the ed reform bulldozer you’ve created can also be fixed — but only if you’re willing to accept that it is currently not functional.  Modern ed reform is the Windows ME of education.  But just as you pretty quickly replaced Windows ME with Windows XP which everyone liked, you can do the same with education reform, I’m certain.

Windows ME

Debugging ed reform is not easy.  Since it was never properly designed with a plan to ensure quality, you’ve got yourself a bug riddled mess.  It was not developed modularly so it is difficult to track down where the most critical bugs are even occurring.

To me it’s very clear that the keystone of modern education reform is the belief that there are way too many ineffective teachers in this country.  Many of these teachers have been flying under the radar which has prevented them from being forced to improve or forced to leave the profession.  These so-called teachers have been gaming the evaluation system by putting on a show when their principals came to observe them and have then gone back to their non-teaching ways when the principal left the room.  Consequently their students have not been learning very much.  So a more robust evaluation system takes the human element out of the observation.  A computer predicts what a student should get on the end of the year test and then the actual test result is compared to the computer prediction.  If the actual score exceeds the prediction, the teacher has ‘added value’ for that student.  If the prediction exceeds the actual score, the teacher has not ‘added value.’  It sounds reasonable enough.

A provision of Race To The Top is that teacher evaluations must factor in ‘student learning.’  This has come to mean, unfortunately, ‘value-added’ scores.  In my analysis of actual value-added scores, I’ve found bizarre examples of teachers getting rated both positive and negative in the same year.  It is like stepping on a scale and it says that I have lost 10 pounds and then moving the scale to another room and stepping on it again and learning that I have gained 10 pounds.  I would hate to be the personal trainer who is being evaluated on my progress measured by this inaccurate scale.

In your 2013 Annual Letter, you wrote about how you visited a school in Eagle County School District in Colorado.  You visited there, no doubt, because this was an example where the reforms you have supported seemed to be working.  You wrote:

“Colorado is a pioneer in introducing these principles, and Eagle County is helping lead the way. About 10 years ago the district threw out its traditional seniority-based evaluation system and moved to a performance-based one.”

and later in the letter:

“The system is likely one reason why student test scores have improved in Eagle County over the past five years.”

You should be aware, I’m not sure if anyone has already told you, but Eagle County test scores have dropped for the past few years.  Here is a graph of their math and reading scores over the past seven years.

eaglecountyColorado is certainly the ‘leader’ in the country in having blind faith in value-added.  It counts as 50% of their teacher evaluations.  Their schools are also given a value-added score, as part of the ‘Colorado Growth Model.’

It is ironic that the school in Eagle County, Eagle Valley High School, that you were so impressed by is actually lagging in their ‘growth’ scores compared to the rest of the state.  They have had below average growth for the past three years in reading, writing, and mathematics.  In 2014 the entire district actually had ‘growth’ below the state average in all three subjects.

Screen shot 2015-01-31 at 7.44.58 PMScreen shot 2015-01-31 at 7.45.20 PMScreen shot 2015-01-31 at 7.45.42 PMMany people believe, and I think you are one of them, that ‘value-added’ does correlate with ‘student learning.’  This belief is fueled by the conclusions of the researchers that you have given money to so they can study these evaluation techniques.  But what if that research is faulty?  What if the researchers were not impartial scientists searching for truth?  What if the researchers have let their self-interest interfere with their scientific integrity?

I do believe that you want your money to go to a good cause.  This is admirable.  The problem is that most of your money is going to people I’d describe as education hucksters.  I’m going to be as blunt as only someone who is not on the payroll can be.  In the education game you are what’s known as a ‘fat-cat,’ a ‘mark,’ a sucker.

You are like the Emperor who was swindled into purchasing non-existent clothes.  But that Emperor was brought back to reality when a blunt child said what everyone else was thinking.  In ed reform it is blunt experienced teachers who are willing to say the obvious.

Your researchers are making a lot of money off of your trust.  And in doing so they are misinforming the politicians who use this research as justification for reckless reforms that are nearly guaranteed to have negative side effects that undermine any good that may have existed in them.  This is what happens when the project manager is not familiar with the terrain and you, Mr. Gates, are that uninformed project manager.

When it comes to education reform, your investment strategy was unnecessarily risky.  You are like an investor who has put all his money into Blue Chip stocks.  You need to diversify your portfolio.  I think to you it seems like you are already doing this but I believe if you were to take an honest look at where your money is flowing, about 99% of it is toward the ‘side’ that believes that fixing teachers will fix education, and the best way to fix teachers is to evaluate them through the ‘value’ that a computer believes they ‘added’ to their students’ standardized test scores.

The effects of your investment in defective education reform is growing exponentially as the biased research you fund is now being quoted by politicians to advance their own uninformed opinions which were likely guided by other biased research.  An example of this is in New York where we’ve had a teacher evaluation fiasco over the past few years.  Every district had to have their plan include ‘student achievement’ into the teacher evaluation meaning, of course, value-added.  So they did this and all the districts got their plans approved by former education commissioner John King (who now is a senior adviser to Arne Duncan).  The New York City department of education and the union could not agree on a plan so they agreed to accept whatever John King imposed, which was 20% value-added.  Well, not enough teachers got poor ratings for the Governor’s liking so now he wants the value-added to be increased to 50%.  Where did he get the idea that 50% was an appropriate amount?  Perhaps from one of the research reports that you funded by the value-added ‘guru’ Thomas Kane, who suggested it be somewhere between 33% and 50%.

Raising the percent of value-added to teacher evaluations has not been shown to improve test scores.  Even Kane’s research hasn’t claimed that it has.  All the research says is that it is more consistent than some critics contend.  But if the point is that it should increase test scores, it is certainly time to study why it fails to do it and whether or not is is worth all the money that goes into annual testing and into proprietary value-added formulas, not to mention all the time spent on mindless test prep and the loss of time for things like music and art, whether this is a cost efficient and effective way to raise test scores.  My sense is that it is a resource Black Hole.

Here’s an analogy that you can relate to:  Imagine some very powerful person decided one day that PC computers running Windows are ‘failing.’  They crash once every two weeks.  They get various types of viruses — adware, spyware, things like that — which gum up the operating system, slowing down performance.  This powerful person proposes that Windows should crash no more than once a year and it should never get unwanted viruses.  As a computer expert, you would say that this is an unrealistic expectation.  Though there are systems that are ‘crash proof’ — like something that controls nuclear missiles — these systems are very costly.  So you say that you can make a Windows that only crashes once a year, but it will have to cost more and they say that throwing money at the problem is not the answer.  You propose a virus scan, but they say that virus scans slow down the performance of the system.  They want a virus scan that does not run in the background all the time.  You say that, by definition, a virus scan has to run in the background all the time.  They say that you are just a naysayer and they will shut down Microsoft and instead hire a more optimistic team.  And they have no trouble finding a team who knows little about computers but promises to meet the new specifications without going over budget.  But you know that they will fail and it is frustrating to watch all that wasted time and money which could have been used to truly improve Windows.

You say that spending on education has risen while test scores have not so spending isn’t the answer.  I don’t know about that.  If I want to lose 20 pounds and my exercise regimen is to work out once a month and then I ‘double’ it to twice a month, would any fitness expert expect my results to be much different?  Maybe doubling isn’t enough.  Maybe to get the test scores you want, spending has to increase by a hundred-fold.  For the sake of testing the hypotheses that more money doesn’t lead to higher test scores, I think you are spreading your money too thin.  A million to this district, ten million to that one.  Why not just take a supposedly failing school somewhere like Detroit and see what can be done with a hundred million dollars?  Maybe each student has his or her own personal trainer making $75,000 a year to do nothing but help that kid.  This trainer makes sure that the kid eats well and gets enough sleep.  If the kid is prescribed medication, the trainer makes sure it is taken.  Class sizes in this school during the time of the experiment can have a maximum of 8 students.  The school is provided with every possible amenity.  Rather than replace all the teachers, use the money to get the most out of the teachers that are there.  If class size is capped at 8, each teacher has a pretty small class load, even if this is a middle school.  The teachers will have more time to dedicate to each student as well.  The school would have plenty of guidance counselors, social workers, and nurses.  Students can learn more than just math and reading, but also get the opportunity to paint, do drama, and play a musical instrument.

If test scores go up sufficiently at this school, try the experiment again at another school, but this time give them just fifty million dollars.  If that works, give the next school twenty-five million dollars.  In O(lg n) iterations you would find out what the ideal amount of money is to get test scores sufficiently high.

Over the past few years I’ve seen signs that you are starting to ‘get it.’  You wrote an op-ed against publishing teacher value-added scores in the newspapers.  In contrast to the over-confidence of many charter school zealots, you recently said in an interviewIt would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.”  I also saw that you admitted that technology in education doesn’t work so well for unmotivated students.  Your foundation recommended against using common core tests in teacher evaluations for the next two years.  These admissions have not really slowed down the ed reform steamroller you have put into motion, but if your foundation can continue to make these sorts of admissions, it will help.

It is not too late to correct the course of this disaster you’ve commissioned.  The first thing I’d do if I were you is demand that the researchers who have created all the papers that support the usefulness of value-added to release all the raw data from which they formed their conclusions.  This way other researchers can crunch the exact same numbers and see if they can find alternative theories based on that same data.  Then the two conflicting groups can publicly debate their conclusions.

There are a lot of organizations that you could donate some money to which would help counter the one-sided education reform agenda you have been advancing.  Network For Public Education and Class Size Matters come to mind.  You could also support some great bloggers who have been blogging on their spare time for free all these years.  Here’s what you do:  Go ‘Bing’ the word ‘Google’ and then Google the names Anthony Cody or Bruce Baker or Mercedes Schneider or Jose Vilson or Mark Weber (A.K.A. ‘Jersey Jazzman’) or Jennifer Berkshire (A.K.A. ‘EduShyster’) for a few examples.


Gary Rubinstein

Math Teacher

New York City

Posted in Open Letters Series | 10 Comments

Open Letters To Reformers I DON’T Know. Part I: Joel Klein

Some very big reformers have recently gotten very quiet.  Michelle Rhee has stepped down as CEO of StudentsFirst, Wendy Kopp is no longer the CEO of Teach For America, Kevin Huffman ‘resigned’ from being commissioner of education in Tennessee, John Deasy is out in Los Angeles.  And some reformers who are still in their positions have been less vocal on Twitter and elsewhere.  It seems to me to be part of a new coordinated strategy — they’ve voluntarily entered the witless protection program.

But there are plenty of reformers out there to rotate into the mix and I was interested to see what former NYC chancellor Joel Klein had to say when he started his own Twitter account a few weeks before the release of his latest book ‘Lessons of Hope.’  I’m working my way through the book right now, I got a copy from the library.  So far I’m glad to see that Mr. Klein sounds a lot more ‘kinder and gentler’ than I expected him to be.  The book has not sold well yet.  It made it to number 12 on the Education subcategory of the New York Times best sellers list the first month, but isn’t on the list in this second month.  Number 12 sounds not bad until you see that the current number 12 book on that list ‘Fully Alive’ is ranked over 10,000 on the best sellers list.

The book is pretty well written, actually.  Klein is very vague about numbers in the book.  He’ll mention a principal he admires and write, for example, that “Bryant under Kriftcher was nevertheless a safe and orderly place where the Regents exam success rate had improved considerably.”  Though the book is more reasonable that I had anticipated, it does still have plenty of ‘status quos’ and ‘adult interests’ sprinkled in of course.  Here’s a sample from page 23:

Teachers enjoyed the protection of an extraordinarily powerful union that too often spent its time defending the worst among them.  Any attempt to wipe away the old power structure would meet massive resistance because it would make everyone feel vulnerable and uncertain.  But it would be necessary if the schools were going to serve the needs of children, rather than the needs of the adults who worked in or depended on them.  I suspected Bloomberg knew all this, but I wanted to impress on his team that, if they didn’t want to change the status quo profoundly, I wasn’t their man.

Most reformers have Twitter accounts but they are generally one-way accounts.  They tweet something.  Angry educators tweet back barbed comments and the reformers ignore them.  Most reformers do this, I think, because they have nothing to gain and everything to lose if they get cornered into saying something wrong in a public Twitter feud.  I don’t blame them.  What did Apollo Creed gain by letting underdog Rocky fight him on equal terms?  He ended up getting killed by Ivan Drago in an exhibition match.  But Joel Klein has spent plenty of time arguing in front of The Supreme Court of the United States so he is generally willing to get into it even with angry Twitter followers.  I’ve challenged him a few times.  He generally responded.  I try be civil — stick to data that I can back up, not get personal.  He hasn’t blocked me or anything yet.

A few years ago I wrote a series of ‘open letters’ to reformers I know or knew at one time.  These letters were some of my most popular blog posts ever.  When Wendy Kopp responded to my letter, stories were written about it on the same day in The New York Times and The Washington Post.  Of the twelve letters, there were only three responses.  That was more than I expected.  The point of the letters isn’t so much to get a response but to present clear arguments which could help others when trying to explain the problems with ‘reform’ to their families and friends.  Responses back are definitely a bonus.  Generally the responses are very weak.  I’d say Wendy’s was the most thoughtful.  The ones from Michael Johnston and Mike Petrilli showed that they weren’t up for the challenge.

The letter that follows is the first in what could become a new series ‘Letters To Reformers I Don’t Know.’  Joel Klein is my first recipient.  If I’ve got it in me, the next three will be to Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and President Obama.  I’m not promising these others.  I worked for Klein from 2002 to 2011.  For most of those years I was not up on the whole ‘reform’ agenda.  He seemed like a passionate guy who was helping get the topic of education to the forefront.  We have met at least three times in person.  The last time was when he was the keynote speaker at a Math For America banquet.  I had just heard about the common core and thought that maybe this would be an opportunity for me to get involved in administration, maybe becoming the ‘math czar’ of New York City, which was a long term goal of mine at one point.  We spoke, he put me in touch with Shael Polakow-Suransky, I even went for an interview.  I actually got offered a position with the quality review team, something that I was not interested in, so that was the end of that.

About a year after that was the last time I saw Joel Klein, though it was just when I was in the audience at the Teach For America 20 year anniversary.  This event, readers of my blog may know, was when when I had my ‘epiphany’ realizing that TFA and their reform allies were doing way more harm than good.  Joel Klein was on a panel discussion with Michelle Rhee, Dave Levin, John Deasy, and Geoffrey Canada, which was moderated by Mr. Race To The Top architect himself, Jon Schnur.  It was basically a ‘Waiting For Superman’ love fest.  It is enlightening to look back at that panel now that reformers have been trying to tone down the rhetoric.

The panel starts at the 34 minute mark

Opening Plenary – Reflecting on the Past, Present, and Future: What will it take to achieve educational equity? from Teach For America Events on Vimeo.

I haven’t been blogging a lot lately.  The truth is that after four years of this, I’m getting tired.  I’m so thankful that there are so many other bloggers out there picking up the slack for me.  Maybe 2015 will be a year I get my second wind.  My mini discussions with Joel Klein have motivated me to write this thirteenth ‘open letter.’


Dear Mr. Klein,

I started teaching in New York City at Stuyvesant High School in 2002, just before you became chancellor.  Before that, I taught in Denver and also Houston.  Though being a teacher, I know, gives me no ‘seat at the table’ in today’s education climate where the less you’ve taught the more power you have.  (Duncan taught less than you, you taught less than Rhee, White, and Huffman, who each taught for only three years.)

But I do have some things that give me some credibility, even within the reform community.  I was a Teach For America corps member from the second TFA cohort, 1991.  My first year did not go well, but I was not part of the 10% or so TFAers who quit during their first year.  I stuck it out and had a very successful run for the next three years in Houston, even winning Teacher of the Year at my school during my fourth year of teaching.  I worked for TFA in the summer of 1996.  I also worked for the New York City Teaching Fellows when they began in 2001.  I have been teaching at Stuyvesant High School for the past thirteen years.  I’m also a recipient of the Math For America master teacher fellowship.  I’ve written five books, two are about teaching in general, two are math review books, and one is a children’s book I co-wrote.

I mention all this stuff, not to brag, but to establish that I’m probably not the person that you are referring to when you speak and write about ‘ineffective teachers.’  I’m not the best teacher in the country, or the city, or my school, or even in the math department in my school.  But I can confidently say that I’m an ‘effective’ teacher by most common sense standards.

Yet, I’m opposed to what is currently called education ‘reform.’  I wanted to take this space to explain some of my issues with it with the hope that you’re willing to respond.  This is my thirteenth letter of this type, though only three have responded (Wendy Kopp, Michael Johnston, and Mike Petrilli).

You are a professional arguer who has gotten involved in education.  I’m a professional educator who had gotten involved in arguing.  Surely you’re a better arguer than me and I a better educator than you.  That’s why this should be an interesting exchange that will be interesting for people on all sides of the education reform discussion to read.

I’ve come up with eight sub-topics below:

The language in the reform debate

I resent that someone like hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson is known as a first rate education ‘reformer’ while I’m merely an ‘anti-reformer,’ a ‘doubter’ or a ‘status quo defender.’  I am not ‘entrenched’ in the ‘status quo.’  I think that US education is somewhat underachieving.  One issue is that districts have not done a great job of sharing best practices.  Another issue, at least with Math, is that the curriculum has gotten too bloated and uninspiring (Common core was supposed to address this, but I think they blew the opportunity to improve it.  They just trusted the wrong group of people to be on the team.)  Also, school systems are not efficient with their resources.  I see a lot of this going on right now with spending on technology.  So I feel like I deserve to be called a ‘reformer’ too.  I’m not against reform.  I think that the style of reform favored by you, Rhee, Gates, Tilson, and others is going to, in the long run, make education (and test scores, too!) worse in this country.  There just won’t be any people both smart enough to teach yet stupid enough to become a teacher in this environment.

Another phrase that bothers me is ‘always putting students first.’  If you believe that every policy needs to be made with the short term goal of improving test scores than you’d surely support a rule that teachers have to come to school and work seven days a week.  On Saturday and Sunday they could work on planning more efficient lessons and on collaborating or otherwise developing professionally.  This extra time working would benefit students.  Maybe the students can come in for individual tutoring on these extra work days.  What do you think?  See, even though this would be an example of ‘putting students first’ above the ‘adult interests’ (another phrase that annoys me) it isn’t a good long term policy since it would make teaching so unpleasant that it would scare away many teachers.


I’ve seen you paraphrase Daniel Moynihan “Critics are entitled to their opinions. But they are not entitled to their own facts.”  I have the same feeling about reformers.  I’ve fact-checked statements by various reformers — Duncan, you, Rhee, White, Barbic.  It’s not easy, sometimes, to track down the facts since some states aren’t so transparent with their data.  I think the worst offenders are Louisiana where new charter schools don’t have their scores published for a few years.  With all the schools closing and opening there, this can be a lot of missing data.  I don’t see how a lack of transparency could in any way put students first.

There is too much secrecy in the reform movement.  This is most pronounced in the attempts to crack the code of Success Academy charter schools.  Some say they have large attrition.  They say they don’t.  When I see that their only 9th grade class has 22 students and they were 71 1st graders when they started, it does seem like a big drop off.  I also understand that over 8 years, this is just 10% a year.  And maybe 10% a year is good.  But of course Success Academy doesn’t backfill while non-charters don’t have that option.  Could you imagine a school system where NO school has to backfill?

Success Academy has posted some incredible math and reading test scores.  They say they do it with the ‘same kids’ as the struggling nearby neighborhood schools.  They also say they do it for the same, if not less, money.  Unfortunately they resist audits of their financial records.  If they have really figured out how schools can single-handedly overcome all the different out-of-school factors that prevent kids from reaching their potential, this would truly be something.  It would go against everything I’ve experienced as a teacher with 18 years of experience at four different schools in three different states.  And Success Academy is not just beating the regular public schools, but also beating the other well known charters, the KIPPs for example, who are getting results not much different than the regular public schools.

Proving, as they claim to, that they have cracked the code that has eluded everyone including the other charters, is something worthy of scrutiny.  It is as if someone claimed to invent a pill that cures Cancer.  For sure all medical researchers would want to investigate this claim.  Some would be ‘doubters’ of course and others would be ‘believers.’  To either side, though, the scrutiny would be useful.  The doubters could use the data to prove that it was a hoax.  The believers could use the data to figure out how to mass produce the cancer drug.

What is the secret?  Is it small class size?  I understand that they have two teachers in each room, one lead teacher and one co-teacher.  The lead teacher is never a first year teacher.  Is that part of what works?  A first year teacher does a year of apprenticeship?  They have extended hours most days.  But then I understand that once a week they have half days for professional development.  So parents have to pick up their kids every Wednesday at noon.  Can all families do this?  They have 15 schools and will soon have 30.  How are we so sure they can scale up?

I’d think that reformers would be begging Success Academy to allow educational researchers to put them under a microscope.  For all the money and effort that this country has put into education, what would ten or twenty million more be to put Las Vegas casino style cameras and microphones into every room?  This kind of scrutiny would result in either Success Academy being debunked by doubters or with a set of best practices that could elevate this country to the top of the international rankings.  So why don’t we do it?  I think it is because you and the reformers are not willing to risk Success Academy being debunked.

Teacher quality in this country

If I were to summarize my sense of the ideas behind the modern ed reform movement, I’d say it is:  Since the quality of the teacher is the most important in-school factor driving student test scores, improving teacher quality is the most efficient way to improve student test scores.  There are too many ineffective teachers in this country.  Some are ineffective because they are not trying hard enough and others will be ineffective no matter how much they try.  By making more accurate teacher evaluations, the ineffective teachers who can be better by working harder will start working harder since the more accurate teacher evaluations will expose them.  The incompetent teachers will not be able to improve much so these evaluations will help identify those so they can be fired.

You have often said that improving the quality of the teacher in front of the room is the best way to improving education.  You also have written on “It is not hyperbole to say that the state of education in our country is a challenge to our national security.”  So I think I can infer that you don’t think that the average teacher in this country is doing a very good job.

Reformers claim to be driven by data, yet I’ve never met one who can answer two simple questions that are vital to the foundation of the reform arguments.  The questions are:  1)  What percent of teachers do you think are truly ineffective, average, and highly effective?  2) What grade, on a scale of 0 to 100 would you give to ineffective, average, and highly effective teachers?  The reason the first question is important is that if there are really not so many ineffective teachers, how can this plan to invest billions of dollars in testing and evaluation systems based on the results of those tests in order to identify and target these ineffective teachers really result in much of a bump in achievement?  The second question is important since a reform strategy based on getting teachers to work harder is only viable if we know how good the current average teacher is and then make an estimate of how good the average teacher can be with reforms based on mostly getting them to work harder and not much else.

I think that the average teacher in this country is doing a pretty good job.  I don’t think you would agree with this.  Now there is nobody out there who thinks that teacher quality doesn’t make any difference, certainly not me.  And, on the other side, there is nobody, not even you, who think that teachers are all-powerful and that you can give a ‘great’ teacher a class full of students who are chronically truant and by virtue of that teacher’s greatness, all the students will suddenly come to that class every day and every student will pass the class and the standardized final at the end of the course.

To quantify, suppose an ‘average’ teacher ‘gets through’ to 60 percent of her students.  What does the ‘great’ teacher accomplish?  And what percent of teachers are so ‘great’?  These are such important questions to assess before embarking on a strategy based on raising the quality of the average teacher significantly.


I think the idea of identifying the best teachers so we can try to replicate their best practices is a good idea.  But in the rush to find an objective way to rate teachers, the reformers have latched on to somewhat of a Golden Calf — the Sander’s value-added formulas.  If I were a reformer, I’d be irate about quality of this measure.  It is a complete mess.  Would you believe that middle school teachers who teach two different grades often are rated as great teachers in one grade and poor teachers in another?  I blogged about it here.  Thomas Kane can try to defend it all he wants, but there are so many examples of great teachers getting low value-added ratings that it is laughable.  On the flip side, and this isn’t talked about so much, there are surely as many examples of weak teachers getting very good value-added scores.  So the intent to weed out the poor performers is not being accomplished here.  Statistics people call it, I think, ‘noise.’  Yes, if you make it a high enough percent — New York wants to make it 40% — you can get 10% of teachers or whatever to be evaluated as ‘ineffective’ but it is unlikely that these are truly the bottom 10% of teachers.

Merit pay

The main problem with merit pay is that it isn’t just bonuses for the teachers who are judged to be the best by the value-added algorithm.  If that’s all it was, and considering that the value-added is so inaccurate, teachers wouldn’t mind it so much.  It would be like a little random lottery that we are automatically enrolled in.  The issue, I think, is the possibility of getting fired over the same inaccurate calculations that determine who gets merit pay.  In practice I’ve seen plans that give very few people a bonus while many more people get de-merit pay, something like the withholding of a longevity step increase.  There’s only so much money.  The money for the merit pay bonuses have to come from somewhere.  I don’t think this country will be able to recruit very many teachers this way.  Who would want to gamble the possibility of not being able to send his or her kids to college because a computer has judged you ineffective?  For myself, I would not feel so good about getting a bonus based on shoddy math which also got a peer of mine to not get a raise or even to get fired.  Merit pay as most districts who are trying to devise it because of Race To The Top is a Trojan horse.  It looks good at a first glance.  It benefits a few people, maybe not even the most deserving people, while punishing many more people, also maybe not even the least deserving people.

The best teachers already do get opportunities to get rewarded financially and also other ways.  I generally work at City College over the summer teaching math teachers how to use technology in the classroom.  In order to get that job, I had to present myself at an interview and answer their questions about my knowledge about teaching.  I’ve also made some money from book royalties.  Again, being an effective teacher helped me get book contracts.  Within my school I’ve volunteered to do a lot of extra things, presenting at faculty meetings, for example.  So when I asked if I could teach a math elective — my dream course, math research, I was given that opportunity, which has definitely made my job even more satisfying.  I’ve also been awarded the Math For America master teacher fellowship for which I receive a $15,000 annual stipend.  I’m sure my students’ standardized test scores weren’t factored into the decision to award me one of the fellowships since I was never asked to provide them.  The president of Math For America, John Ewing, is actually an outspoken critic of the misuse of math in value-added ratings.  By being part of Math For America, I have some extra responsibilities.  I attend professional development sessions and also lead sessions for other members.  Something else that I’ve done for the past few years is submit a proposal to present at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) national conference.  My proposals have been accepted and Math For America has provided money for the expenses.  I’m very proud of these presentations (rehearsals of them are up on YouTube).  They have been an opportunity for me to share creative teaching ideas with thousands of teachers throughout the country.

I guess what I’m getting at is that by being a good teacher I’ve had these opportunities to get some extra benefits at school and also to make some extra money without it unfairly coming out of the pockets of other teachers or getting them fired.

Effective teachers who need to make more money also have the option of getting their administrative certificate and becoming APs or Principals.  Being an effective teacher will be something that helps them get into an administrative program and that will also help them get a job.

I’m also actually not opposed to teachers who teach at high needs schools making more money than teachers who don’t.  I know they are trying this in Tennessee, but since it is all based on their value-added model which is so flawed, I’m doubtful that it will have much impact.  It would certainly be interesting from a research perspective to see if a teacher who does well at one school will necessarily do well at another school.  Also it would be interesting to know exactly how much money it would require to generate a lot of interest in people transferring and to see what other things might make people want to teach at schools that are labelled as ‘failing.’  Maybe a guarantee of small class size?  Maybe some kind of leadership role?  These are interesting questions to me that are worth thinking about.

Ed Tech

I love good education technology.  Most ed tech is a waste of money, however.  The Geometer’s Sketchpad is my favorite program.  It is great for virtual hands-on discovery learning in Geometry.  There’s a free version too called Geogebra.  It’s a little less user friendly, but still very good.  Having a class website with all the handouts scanned in has been something that has truly benefited my students when they have been absent.  I’ve also made use of cheap screencasting software to do demonstrations for my YouTube channel.  New York City still doesn’t allow cell phones in school, but when the ban is lifted I do plan to use the many free or cheap platforms to allow students to send answers to my computer so I can have more accurate instant assessment.  I’m not sure what the Amplify tablet will cost, but if the price comes down to twenty or thirty dollars a tablet, I could see myself asking my school to invest in them.  If you want to comp me a class set, I’d need at least 34.

Teach For America

What percent of teachers in this country do you believe are ineffective?  5%?  10%?  Something like that?  Now if you take all the Teach For America teachers currently teaching — this includes the 6,000 first years the 5,500 second years, and the maybe 10,000 who are still teaching beyond their two years — what percent of the TFA teachers are ineffective?  Remember that 10% of those 6,000 first year TFAers will quit so they are likely ineffective.  I’d say the percent of ineffective TFAers is not much different than the percent of ineffective teachers in general.  So what purpose does TFA serve?  Well some TFAers will stay in the classroom for ten years and then decide to go into administration and maybe work their way up through the ranks.  Those people will likely not be big followers of the modern reform movement.  No, the only use for TFA it seems is that some TFAers will teach for two or three years and then, before they have a chance to gain wisdom, they get fast tracked to some major leadership role where they can promote the modern reform agenda.  It seems that only a TFAer can rise to this level after two or three years.  This is what we’ve seen with many of the people you’ve mentored — Rhee, White, Huffman, and Anderson — and predictably they don’t last.  I can’t be sure, but I get the sense that it will be a while before a TFAer with just two or three teaching experience gets another opportunity to lead a big school district or be a state commissioner.

I’m actually not opposed to alternative certification.  Some of the best teachers I know started with TFA or with the New York City Teaching Fellows.  But let’s be realistic.  TFAers, as a whole, are not much better than average teachers which, my sense is, you do not think are very good.

Protecting the movement at all costs

I appreciate that you’ve been engaging with me on Twitter.  Many reformers, I believe, are afraid of me.  I’ve actually written thirteen of these open letters and only three people have responded to them.  But you have been willing to defend your positions, and I appreciate that.

But I’ve ‘won’ some of these mini Twitter debates and you’re never willing to concede on any of my clear victories.

The one that I really got you on was P-Tech.  I wrote about how they only had a school average of about 30% on those tests.  You thought this number was skewed by the fact that they require so many of their students to take the test so it is unfair to compare to a school where not so many kids take it.  But when I dug deeper into the public data I learned that only 1.8% of the P-Tech students passed Geometry and 1.6% passed Algebra II.  Even if every student in the school took those tests, that would be only about 5 kids passing for each test.  That is really bad.  P-Tech is a test score disaster.  I know that you used it in the introduction to your book about how the choice to shut down a school and open another can lead to great improvement.  In this case, this particular school hasn’t accomplished much.  Yet, you defend this school so vigorously.  Why?  I think you would have more credibility if you were to admit that P-Tech is a disaster, at least when it comes to math Regents.  When you give free passes to people you have relationships with — whether it is P-Tech or AP scores in Louisiana or KIPP schools in New Orleans that have low test scores — aren’t reformers supposed to be all about ‘increased autonomy for increased accountability’?  When you selectively hold people and schools that you don’t have a connection to more strict accountability than the ones you do, I don’t respect that.

One of your friends and now a co-worker at Amplify is education reform celebrity Geoffrey Canada.  I actually am very much in favor of wrap-around services as a way of helping kids overcome some of the out-of-school factors that serve as obstacles to their learning.  Unfortunately when you look at the test scores at Harlem Children’s Zone, they are horrible.  I know this may make it seem like wrap-around services are underrated, but in this case the poor test results are an example of a very badly run school, despite the wrap-arounds.  I know this because a former student of mine who is now a very happy teacher at Success Academy spent her first miserable year of teaching at Harlem Children’s Zone.  She said it was a very toxic environment where nobody in charge knew what they were doing.  You surely know that Canada ‘fired’ two different cohorts of students since their bad test scores were, I suspect, dragging down his reputation.  To throw away two groups of struggling kids is completely at odds with the sorts of things you write in your book about how all kids can thrive if permitted to learn in the right environment.

Finally, I’ve noticed many inconsistencies in many of your arguments.  When critics say that graduation rate is up to back up their point that schools are not in crisis, you point to the flat long term NAEP scores to refute them.  Then when critics say that New York City has not made great improvements during your tenure and use the lack of NAEP gains (that first test that was administered before you got there doesn’t count, you know!) you point to the increased graduation rate.  I think you need to pick what metrics you think are valid and stick to them.

Well, that’s all I have for you today.  What the people who have responded to me have done is first just get back to me and say ‘yes’ I’m going to write back, but I need a bit of time.  Those who didn’t respond generally didn’t even give the courtesy of saying that they received the letter.  A few told me that they got the letter but they didn’t have the time to write back.  Either way, the point of these letters is not so much to get the response, but to give a long form presentation of my views on different topics to the readers of my blog.


Gary Rubinstein

Math Teacher

Posted in Open Letters Series | 9 Comments

Guest Post: A Review of Joel Klein’s new book

Below is a review of Joel Klein’s new book written by a very knowledgeable person who wishes to remain anonymous.

By John or Jane Smith

Lessons in Lying: Joel Klein and Corporate Reformer Propaganda

Joel Klein’s book, Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools, surfaces many questions. Foremost among them “does Mr. Klein ever tell the truth?” After reading the first chapter, in which Mr. Klein speaks about his childhood, readers may be somewhat forgiving of his propensity to stretch the truth. As a child his father threatened to “leave and never come back” and “took his frustrations out” on young Joel. “The beatings, while rare, were severe and left an indelible mark.” As a teen he seems to have been unable to get a date because he was “socially uncomfortable” and felt “too intimidated.” But excuses must not be made on Mr. Klein’s behalf. Readers should expect to be told the truth and should hold Mr. Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, accountable for meeting this expectation.

The lies start in the preface. Mr. Klein describes a 2008 stabbing, thankfully the victim survived, that occurred at Paul Robeson High School in Brooklyn. He shares with the reader what he was thinking “as I drive from lower Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge” to visit the school. He was thinking that the school “will have to be closed and replaced.” Let’s start with the small lie. Mr. Klein did not drive himself. He had a chauffeur for his entire career as Chancellor. In fact, early on in his tenure, the New York Daily News reported, “Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who is chauffeured around town in a city car by a bodyguard/driver, has extended the fringe benefit to six of his top deputies – costing taxpayers nearly $600,000 a year.[i]

The big lie is that Paul Robeson did not need to be closed. It was sabotaged by Mr. Klein’s policies. “Robeson took in hundreds of students who would previously have gone to larger high schools but were instead displaced when those schools were closed down. Many such students had a history of truancy and were much older than Robeson students in the same grades…gang activity became more visible at that time, because more students were now coming to Robeson from outside the neighborhood… Enrollment shot up from 1,355 in 2002-03 to 1,530 in 2004-05. Daily attendance declined from 83 percent in 2002-03 to 71 percent in 2007-8. Then, as the school’s reputation suffered, fewer eighth graders selected Robeson on their high school applications—and enrollment began to shrink, falling to 1,176 by 2008-09.[ii]

Mr. Klein goes on to brag about how Robeson was “transformed” by being shuttered and replaced by a school called P-Tech. Robeson was not transformed. The challenging students who had gone to Robeson were not allowed entry to P-Tech. The most challenging students were instead deliberately sent to the next school being set up for failure.[iii] Additionally, despite all the press, the data on P-Tech show that it is not doing a very good job even with the, relatively, more privileged and advantaged students it serves. It performs worse than 96% of its peer schools on the science Regents, worse than 86% of its peer schools on the United States History Regents, worse than 100% of its peer schools on the Global History Regents and worse than 100% of its peer schools on the English Regents.[iv] Where it does do slightly better than its peer schools is in credit accumulation. Students earn credits at P-Tech at a rate higher than in most of its peer schools. So students are failing the Regents exams, but somehow earning credits for their coursework. Of course, this educational strategy will definitely boost its graduation rate. If this is the lesson than Mr. Klein believes his new small schools have to teach, educators may not want to learn it.[v]

After the lies in the preface, Mr. Klein goes on to lie about his childhood. He mentions growing up in “a sprawling public-housing complex,” presumably to draw parallels to the lives of the children he discriminated against by shoveling all of the most challenging students into only some schools without providing sufficient supports. This lie has already been analyzed by Richard Rothstein in The American Prospect. “Klein’s most egregious autobiographical distortion is that he grew up in public housing. That’s because, as Klein must know, the words “public housing” evoke an image of minority unemployment, welfare dependence, unwed motherhood, truancy, gangs, drug dealing, addiction, and violence. Klein, though, grew up in racial privilege, dramatically different from the segregated world of most youngsters in public housing today… Klein did live in public housing… when he was nine years old. But he fails to say—perhaps because he truly doesn’t realize—that some public housing in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, including the Woodside Houses project where his family resided, was built for white, middle-class families. The poor and the problems poverty causes were unwelcome. This distinction is critical to understanding Klein’s history and why it undermines his current policy prescriptions.[vi]” Mr. Klein seemingly has no compunction about repeating this distortion. He must know that he will not be held accountable for it.

Another small lie. Mr. Klein mentions that he “took time off [from Harvard Law School] and decided to try my hand at teaching.” Most readers would not suspect that he is referring to less than two months of teaching in September and October of 1968.[vii]

Throughout his book Mr. Klein meets very few career educators that he respects. Yet every single businessman (yes, they are all men) that he meets he has the utmost respect for. This includes his boss at Bertelsmann, a publishing company he left, though some believe that he was essentially fired after the ouster of his boss[viii], in order to take the Chancellorship. Somehow excluded from the story Klein tells is the fact that his boss, Thomas Middelhoff, was sentenced to “three years in prison for embezzlement and tax evasion.[ix]

Mr. Klein firmly believes that businessmen can show educators how to innovate and lead. That is why he spends many, many pages talking about the Leadership Academy, a fast track principal training program he developed. “The right choices… started with Robert Knowling who became the CEO [of the Leadership Academy].” Mr. Knowling, the CEO of Covad Communications, had resigned under pressure when the company’s stock dropped 84% that year. The stock price rose when his resignation was announced.

Among the other businessmen Klein recruited was John F. “Jack” Welch, former CEO of General Electric, who “we chose…to head the board.” Yes, the very CEO who is known for cooking the books and whose company settled accounting fraud charges with the SEC. Welch “was joined by Richard Parsons,” the former president of Time Warner. Yes, the very president who is known for his involvement with what is perhaps the worst merger of all time, Time Warner’s merger with AOL at the peak of the internet bubble.

It is reasonable to think that there exist practices and strategies in the world of business that would be relevant and helpful to educators. But a more discerning eye than Klein’s is needed to identify them. This uncritical submissiveness to businessmen can perhaps explain the poor outcomes of the program. According to the New York Times “an analysis…shows that schools run by graduates of the celebrated New York City Leadership Academy…have not done as well as those led by experienced principals or new principals who came through traditional routes…The Times’s analysis shows that Leadership Academy graduates were less than half as likely to get A’s as other principals, and almost twice as likely to earn C’s or worse. Among elementary and middle-school principals on the job less than three years, Academy graduates were about a third as likely to get A’s as those who did not attend the program. While Academy graduates do tend to be placed in some of the city’s lowest-achieving schools, the report-card system has built-in controls to account for that, emphasizing progress over performance and comparing schools with similar demographics.[x]

A doctoral thesis found that “investigation revealed no significant differences in student outcomes or principal performance between graduate and non attendee principals of the New York City Leadership Academy. The results offer no evidence that participation in the Leadership Academy is an effective means of preparing principals for successful leadership.[xi]” Another paper found that “the performance drop associated with the transition is larger at the schools hiring an APP [Leadership Academy] graduate, and these relative performance trends are not reversed until three years later, and then only for English.[xii]

Klein, perhaps unsurprisingly, ignores the truth. Instead he chooses to focus on a single report whose first footnote reads “Initial funding for this evaluation was provided by the NYCLA [New York City Leadership Academy] through grants from The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.” The Leadership Academy and its donors funded the study Klein cites! And even so he misrepresents the findings, which conclude that the Leadership Academy does not amount to much. “On balance, we find that APP principals performed about as well as other new principals. If anything, they narrowed the gap with comparison schools in English language arts but lagged behind in mathematics.[xiii]” Klein does not address the fact that fewer than 60% of Leadership Academy graduates could be included in the report since over 40% did not meet the study’s criteria of remaining in the same school for 3 years![xiv] Klein also forgets to mention “the fact that the research organization Mathematica had originally been commissioned by DOE to do an in-depth, multi-year study of the Leadership Academy. Yet after several years of analysis, this study was cancelled by DOE, just months before the results were supposed to be released.[xv]” Anyone suspicious?

All this was years ago, when the Leadership Academy first started and was funded by outside donors. Now it is funded by public dollars to the tune of $10,000,000 a year. Klein took himself and his deputy off the Leadership Academy board a month before the New York City Department of Education awarded them a contract using public funds.[xvi] Since public dollars started paying for this program “the number of graduates from the Aspiring Principals Program has declined, the number actually hired as principals in the city’s public schools has also dropped steadily.[xvii]” So public money is paying for a program whose graduates are in less and less demand.

The lack of demand for the graduates of Leadership Academy and its poor outcomes may have something to do with how the program is run. Leadership Academy supervisors bully the participants and devote inordinate amounts of time and effort to encouraging the aspiring principals to turn on each other. When called on their behaviors in a court of law, the Leadership Academy supervisors show a bald-faced willingness to lie. As a judge wrote “when people change their stories, juries can infer that they are lying.[xviii]” It is no wonder that graduates from the program demonstrate little ability to lead school communities. Look at who their teachers are.

Klein uses many pages of his book to praise charter schools and bash the United Federation of Teachers. Here too, he ignores the truth to suit the desires of his patrons, in this case the billionaires he names; Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Julian Robertson and the Walton family. He repeatedly cites an already debunked report that was funded by the Waltons.[xix] Yet, his praise of charter schools is inconsistent with his chapter praising the school reports cards, also known as Progress Reports, developed during his tenure. The most recent Progress Report data were released this month. And here is what they show.[xx] The charter sector, which now accounts for 9.2% of all elementary and middle schools in New York City, has 3.7% lower student growth in English and 3.5% higher student growth in Math than peer schools. Focusing, specifically on the students who are most academically challenged (students in the city’s bottom 1/3) the charter sector underperforms their peer schools by 6.2% in English and by .4% in Math. And these numbers do not even begin to take into account the extremely high attrition rate that some charter management organizations such as KIPP and Success Academy are notorious for.[xxi]

The critical mistake made by Mr. Klein in his years as chancellor is captured by a line he was fond of repeating, a version of which appears in this book. “Our goal is not a great school system; our goal is a system of great schools.” With such a goal it is no wonder that the gaming of metrics, outright cheating, profound systemic inequity, and self-interest were widespread under his leadership. So as not to repeat all the relevant data and research here, readers should refer to the comprehensive analysis in this essay.

With such a goal each school is incentivized to avoid the most challenging students in order to look like a “great school.” For example, the Progress Report data show that the charter sector serves proportionally half as many incoming overage students and half as many English Language Learners as the public school sector, though such tricks are not limited to charter schools. With such a goal there is no commitment to truly ensuring the success of every single child. The school system, as a whole, must be designed to do just that. It is only toward the end of the book, with 37 pages to go, that Mr. Klein briefly discusses initiatives such as Young Adult Borough Centers, Learning to Work, and the opening of more transfer schools for overage and undercredited students. This betrays his misplaced priorities. Setting communities, schools and teachers against each other will never create a system focused on every single student. Collaboration, professionalism, and the development of social capital within and between schools will.

Throughout the book Mr. Klein claims that the frequent re-organizations of the school system under his tenure were part of a long-term strategic plan. To most observers the constant organizational changes betrayed the total lack of vision and direction exhibited during his leadership. In 2003 Klein re-organized all of New York City’s schools into ten regions. In 2007 he re-re-organized the schools into four school support organizations. In 2009 he re-re-re-organized the schools into approximately sixty networks. Perhaps this was really all just a long con and in 2002 Klein really had a plan for what he was doing. In order to get the reader to believe that, Klein will need to show the document, dated to 2002, outlining this strategy. Since such a document is unlikely to be produced, we can only assume that the chaos was due to the lack of a coherent vision.

The book closes on a rather ironic note. Klein attempts to portray himself, and his benefactor Rupert Murdoch, as leaders in innovating education through technology. Mr. Murdoch, the CEO of News Corporation, was implicated in a phone hacking scandal in Great Britain. As a result a parliamentary report found that he was “not a fit person” to lead his company. After Mr. Klein was fired by Mr. Bloomberg[xxii], Mr. Murdoch hired Klein on a 4.5 million dollar annual contract to run Amplify, News Corporation’s education technology division. Ironically, every single technology initiative initiated by Mr. Klein when he was chancellor has proven to be a total boondoggle. From the $67,000,000 Special Education Student Information System (SESIS) which “is not meeting its overall goal[xxiii]” to the $95,000,000 Achievement Reporting and Innovation System (ARIS) which is now being scrapped as a total failure[xxiv] Klein has shown absolutely zero aptitude for overseeing education technology. One can only wonder why Murdoch offered him the job…


[ii] (page 58)

[iii] shows that this was a standard strategy within the New York City Department of Education under Klein.

[iv] http://scho In math, its best subject, P-Tech performs a bit better than average for its peer schools.

[v] For a comprehensive review of the study Mr. Klein loves to cite claiming that his new small schools boosted the graduation rate see




[ix] -sentence.html













[xxii] According to a story in Newsweek “Nobody had expected Klein to resign, and there were rumors that Bloomberg had been upset with the pace of reform, in particular with test scores that had not risen at the pace the famously impatient mayor sought.”



Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

Is P-Tech a miracle school or a failing school?

In the preface to Joel Klein’s new book, Lessons Of Hope, he writes about the amazing turnaround of Paul Robeson High School.  In 2008 a student was stabbed and nearly died there.  Reacting to this incident, Klein writes:

After six years on the job as New York City’s schools chancellor, I know the scenario and how this will play out:  Robeson will have to be closed and replaced.

The next paragraph fast forwards to February 2013:

I’m watching President Obama deliver his State of the Union address, turning his attention to the problems of American education.  I lean forward, listening attentively as he tells the story of a school I know well, P-Tech, in Brooklyn — housed in what had once been Robeson, the school where the boy was stabbed.  He praises it for putting “our kids on a path to a good job,” noting that students there “will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in computers or engineering.”

Change had come, kicking and screaming.  How did it happen?  How had the place that was once Robeson, where basic safety was imperiled, been transformed in fewer than five years into a national showcase?

P-Tech started in September 2011 so when Obama made this speech, it had been open for a year and a half, then having 9th and 10th graders.  It was surely too soon to declare the school a success.  Today the the test scores from all the high schools in New York City were released (data here) and with all the talk of ‘failing schools’ that is happening out here, I thought I’d take a look at what P-Tech was up to.

In New York we have three different Math Regents tests.  Ninth graders generally take Algebra I, tenth graders take Geometry, and eleventh graders take Algebra II / Trigonometry.  While 65 is passing, I noticed that in P-Tech the average Geometry grade was a 47 out of 100.  This was the 7th lowest average in New York City.  In Algebra II / Trigonometry, P-Tech’s average score was a 36 out of 100.  This made them the 8th lowest school in the city.  To make matters worse, the Regents have a curve so to get a 36 is really like getting 22 out of 88, which is 25%.  In other words, the students did about the same as they would if they randomly guessed on the multiple choice section.  This could be the most un-miraculous miracle school I’ve ever investigated.

By comparison, I checked out another school that has been in the news a lot lately out here, Boys and Girls High School.  The principal just resigned there and all the teachers have to reapply for their jobs.  All the papers are calling for Boys and Girls High to be shut down.  So how did Boys and Girls do on these two tests.  Well, much better than P-Tech.  In Geometry they had a 59, which put them about 96th from the bottom, out of about 300 schools.  In Algebra II / Trig they also got a 59, but this was about 160th from the bottom, or better than about half the schools.

The question is whether or not StudentsFirstNY and Campbell Brown will start calling for this school to get shut down.  If nothing else, this is certainly embarrassing for all reformers who have been using P-Tech as a justification for their policies.

Update:  11/13/14

This post sparked a lot of discussion in the last few days.  Considering P-Tech has been touted and visited by The President, it is sure to get scrutinized.  The first reaction came from an employee at P-Tech, Will Ehrenfeld.  He contended that it was not fair to compare P-Tech’s 36% average on Algebra 2 / Trig to Boys and Girls grade because, he said, they force their 9th graders and, presumably, their 10th graders to take the 11th grade test for extra exposure which would bring down their scores while at Boys and Girls it is unlikely that they do that.

Screen shot 2014-11-13 at 4.55.38 PMI feel pretty strongly that it is not a good use of time or resources to make kids sit for 3 hours and take tests for courses they have not taken yet.  There are three math Regents so I asked Ehrenfeld if 9th graders take three Regents exams, which are 3 hours each.  He was ambiguous about his answer.  The NYC DOE doesn’t release detailed enough data for me to confirm that it is true that 9th graders take the test.  If it is true, for sure that would lower your average score, I admit, but I’d need more information before retracting my post based on this claim.  So I asked him if he could provide more detailed information.  Ideally I’d want to see a spreadsheet with a row for each student who took that test and what they got on the test and what grade they are in.  Since the NYC DOE does not separate the data by grade it seemed like I would need to get the data directly from the school.  And that data was not coming very easily.  My Twitter discussion caught the interest of a reporter at Chalkbeat NY and he wrote this story about it.  Here is an excerpt based on an interview with Ehrenfeld:

Will Ehrenfeld, a former teacher who joined IBM in September as a liaison to P-TECH, said Rubinstein’s analysis was unfair and misleading. And it left out critical information about how P-TECH’s testing policies are different from many other high schools.

For one, not all students at many schools take Geometry and Algebra II Regents since it’s not required for graduation (At 101 schools, no students took Geometry and at 185 schools no students took Algebra II, which Rubinstein did not mention). At P-TECH, Ehrehfeld said, all students have to take those tests, including the ones who are behind or barely on pace to graduate.

In an email, Ehrenfeld said the right test with which to compare P-TECH’s performance in math to other schools’ would be Algebra 1 because most students would have taken that TEST. At P-TECH, the average score was 72, with 76 percent of students passing and 33 percent scoring above 80, CUNY’s standard for being ready to take college-level course. At Boys & Girls, the average Algebra 1 score is 58, with a 41 percent passing rate and 2 percent meeting the college-ready bar.

So he is saying, Judge us on how our students do after one year in the school, not how our students do after three years?  Bizarre.

Joel Klein, who has been active recently on Twitter, even chimed in after reading the Chalkbeat atricle:

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Klein definitely didn’t like my comparing P-Tech to the troubled Boys and Girls High School.  I had written about how Boys and Girls had a 59 average score compared to P-Tech’s 36.  Klein evidently thought that these numbers were percent passing based on his next Tweet.




Screen shot 2014-11-13 at 4.52.44 PMWishing I had more data to prove my case, I went back to the database and found just the thing I was looking for.  In addition to the average score, the database also has the percent of test takers passing.  For Algebra II / Trig, the percent for P-Tech was 1.6%.  So giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming that every student in the school took that test from all grades, that would have been 330 students taking the test and 1.6% of 330 is around 5.  So at most 5 students in this school passed Algebra II / Trig.  Similarly with the Geometry they had a 1.8% pass rate.  This is also at most 5 students.  With just 5 students passing, the argument that the scores are brought down by making students who didn’t take the course collapses.  Almost nobody passed, and that includes all the test takers who had taken these courses.

Boys and Girls High School had 46.9% passing Geometry and 37.9% passing Algebra II / Trig.  Now Klein would argue that having a higher percent passing is meaningless since that number can be gamed by only allowing those who are likely to pass to take the test.  So how can we compare the Geometry 46.9% pass rate of Boys and Girls to the 1.8% pass rate of P-Tech or the Alg II / Trig 37.9% pass rate of Boys and Girls to the 1.6% pass rate of P-Tech?  [Warning, some pretty crazy math coming here …]  Well, giving P-Tech the benefit of the doubt I’ve estimated that they had about 5 students in the school passing Geometry and Algebra.  Assuming that it was the 11th graders who passed Algebra II and their 10th graders who passed Geometry, that’s about 5 out of 100, or a 5% adjusted pass rate.  But how can the 46.9% at Boys and Girls be turned into how many students that is without knowing the number of test takers?  Well, in the worst case scenario, the fraction that becomes .469 with the smallest numerator is 15/32.  So at least 15 students passed at Boys and Girls, and since their cohorts are about 200 per grade, that’s 7.5% adjusted pass rate.  For Algebra II / Trig, the worst case scenario to get 37.9% is 11/29, so at least 11 students passing or an adjusted pass rate of 5.5%.Any way you slice it, Boys and Girls did better than P-Tech in the two more advanced Math Regents, Geometry and Algebra II / Trig.


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