Follow The Yellow Brick Load

Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) is the golden child of the reformers.  The mission of the ASD is to take schools in the bottom 5% of the state and, within five years, propel them into the top 25% in the state.  Like the Recovery School District (RSD) in Louisiana, the primary turnaround strategies used in the ASD is to convert the schools into charter schools.  Throughout the country it is being touted as a successful model to be replicated in numerous states including Nevada and Pennsylvania.

So far there have been two years of data and, by any objective standards, the experiment is floundering.  Of the six original ASD schools, two now have lower scores, two have about the same scores, and two have improved scores.  Of the two that have improved scores, one of them, Brick Church College Prep, is, supposedly, proving what’s possible and, according to ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, on track to get into the top 25% a year ahead of schedule — after just four years.

From that article:

The special statewide district is taking over the lowest-performing schools in the state with a goal of moving them into the top 25 percent in just five years. Now in year three, superintendent Chris Barbic says he’s encouraged.

“You know, when we first talked about this, this was a goal that folks thought was completely crazy. And I think we’re learning is that not only is it not crazy, but we’ve got three of our first six schools that are on track to do it.”

One of those three schools on the right trajectory is Brick Church Pike College Prep in Nashville, which is slowly being converted into a charter school run by LEAD Academy. Barbic says if Brick Church matches this year’s student growth in math and reading, it would leap into the top quartile a year early.

Reformers are very good at cherry picking to prove whatever point they are trying to make.  In this case, if Brick Church really has proved that it is possible to turnaround a school by turning it into a charter school then, well, all we have to do is replicate this success.  Just one isolated success justifies the entire existence of the ASD.

When I heard about the ASD plan, I was very skeptical and even wrote one of my ‘open letters’ to the ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, who I’ve known for over twenty years.  It’s not that I think that most schools can’t do a better job.  But I don’t believe that most schools will improve much by only replacing their staffs.  When I hear about a a school that increased its test scores by twenty percentage points in a two year period, my suspicion is that it wasn’t the teachers who were replaced, but the students.

The original idea of the ASD was supposed to be that the charter schools would take over district zoned schools so that there could be no accusations that the score improvements were due to having different students.  But of the six original schools, the only two that are supposedly improving both did what’s called ‘phase-ins’ where they, for example, take a 5-8 school and only take the new incoming fifth graders the first year and then add a new fifth grade each year until they have taken over the whole school.  Of course this makes it tough to compare the pre and post takeover scores since none of the students they take were ever actually in the old school.

So let’s look at the Brick Church scores.  Before the takeover 2011-2012 they had 17.7% proficient in math and 19.9% proficient in reading.  After the first year with their 5th grade class in 2012-2013 their numbers were 24.2% in math and 12.8% in reading.  Then in 2013-2014 with their sixth graders and their new class of fifth graders their scores rose to 41.2% for math and 37.2% for reading.  So if they continue to go up by 17% in math and 24% in reading for the next two years they will have met the goal of going from the bottom 5% to the top 25%.

Other charter schools haven’t had such success so I checked out the Tennessee education data.  It wasn’t easy to find, but eventually I came upon what I was looking for, something that would allow me to compare the test scores for incoming 5th graders to different schools to see if the new crop of Brick Church fifth graders are truly the ‘same kids’ as the ones that were at the persistently failing Brick Church Middle School.  Also, these plots allowed me to compare the ‘growth’ of the Brick Church students to see if their high test scores were because they had started with high test scores or if they ‘grew’ to those scores from low starting points.

Below are four revealing plots directly from the Tennessee website which certainly remove some of the mystique of the Brick Church miracle.

5th grade reading all

The above plot compares ‘entering achievement’ to ‘growth index’ for fifth graders at every school in Tennessee.  As can be seen, Brick Church fifth graders came in with about a 42 ‘entering achievement’ which is most certainly not in the bottom 5% and their ‘growth index’ is around a 0 which means that their high test scores were not a result of school induced ‘growth.’

5th grade math all

Similar graph for fifth grade math.  They had ‘entering achievement’ near the middle with near 0 ‘growth.’

Now here’s those same two plots with just the 13 ASD schools:

5th grade reading ASD

This is for fifth grade reading for the ASD schools.  Notice that Brick Church fifth graders had ‘entering achievement’ significantly higher than all the other ASD schools.  Also notice that the 0 growth index is much easier to see on this plot.5th grade math asd

And here we see that Brick Church also had significantly higher ‘entering achievement’ in math than the other ASD schools.  It is no wonder that they are the highest performing ASD school.

Besides a hard rectangular prism used to build houses, the word ‘Brick’ generally has negative connotations.  In basketball it’s when a ball bounces hard off the front rim.  A ‘brick’ of cocaine is something you never want to be found in your trunk when you’re pulled over for a traffic violation.  And as more and more accurate data about the kinds of lying that reformers do to keep their jobs get uncovered, surely they will start ‘pooping’ bricks.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I’ll Huffman and I’ll Puffman and I’ll Blow Your District Down

Kevin Huffman was the first Teach For America alum to become a state education commissioner.  Despite having only taught for two years between 1992 and 1994 and having had no role related to schools for the next seventeen years (he was a VP of TFA for a time) he was appointed to his position in Tennessee in 2011 by the current Governor, Bill Haslam.  In November 2014 after the Governor was re-elected, Huffman ‘resigned’ saying that “it feels like the right time to pass the baton.”  Huffman was one of the ‘Chiefs For Change’ a group of reform-minded ‘leaders’ who have nearly all resigned or been fired over the past few years.

There is a trend I’ve noticed recently where reformer leaders resign their positions rather than get fired and then they disappear from the public.  Besides Huffman, the most notable one is Huffman’s ex-wife, reform celebrity Michelle Rhee, now Michelle Johnston.  My sense is that these reformers are following the old adage sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”  I have mixed feelings about this rotating group of reformers strategy.  On the one hand, it seems like the opposition to their brand of reform is winning some battles as these leaders step down.  But I worry that these are only victories on a superficial level and that these reformers are still very active behind the scenes while new fresh faces, someone like Campbell Brown, get a turn to be in the spotlight before they too go underground.

Sometimes these reformers pop up again in unexpected places.  Huffman was in Pennsylvania the other day where he testified in front of their senate and also wrote an op-ed for one of the local papers with the title ‘Want Pa. schools to flourish?  Try this Tennessee model that worked.”

Tennessee has been getting a lot of mileage out of their 4th and 8th grade NAEP ‘gains’ on the most recently published scores a few years ago.  Obama praised them in a State of The Union address for this.  Reformers do like to cherry pick the results that suit their narrative.  So there was little mention about how Tennessee’s 12th grade NAEP scores had some of the lowest increases or about how their scores on their own test scores have been flat or even down by a little in recent years.  Also the NAEP gains, reformers imply, are a direct result of the reforms they enacted through Race To The Top even though some other states, notably Louisiana, did the same reforms, even more so, and didn’t get any gains at all in NAEP.

Huffman is encouraging Pennsylvania to start a state-run district modeled after the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD) which, itself, is modeled after the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD).  Throughout the country, different states are considering creating their own version of this kind of school district.  It is unfortunate that in the ed reform discussion there is way more PR than there is true transparency.  So Huffman can get the opportunity to speak to the Pennsylvania senate and to write an op-ed where he can say:

The early returns in Tennessee are promising. Last year, schools completing their second year in the ASD had strong growth, and we anticipate that this year’s results will show even stronger performance.

This is not true, even by Tennessee’s own metrics.  The mission of the ASD is to take schools that are in the bottom 5% in the state in terms of test scores and, in a five year period, get those schools into the top 25%.  The initial idea was that there could be no accusation of them doing this with different students since they would take over existing neighborhood schools.  This isn’t quite what happened and now they have gotten permission to recruit kids from further away districts for next year.

But just by the numbers, the results are truly mixed.  Of the original 6 ASD schools that are currently in their third year under the ASD, two school have improved, two have stayed about the same, and two have gotten worse.

There are two ways that the ASD can do a school takeover.  There is the complete takeover where if a school is 5th through 8th, they continue teaching all the students who are continuing at the school and also the new class of incoming 5th graders.  The other model is called a phase-in where the students who graduate to the next grade reman part of the ‘old’ school while the ASD school just works with the students new to the school for the first year and ‘grow’ one grade at a time.  The two schools that have improved their test scores were both phase-ins while the other four were complete takeovers.

ASD uses the fact that the phase-ins have had much more success than the complete takeovers as ‘proof’ that phase-ins are better.  But another interpretation is that phase-ins offer much more opportunity for skewing the results as there are exactly zero students from the old school attending those new schools so it becomes pretty hard to do an accurate comparison.  The crown jewel of the ASD is Brick Church College Prep which supposedly got their scores up from 10% passing to 40% passing in just two years and Superintendent Chris Barbic once said in an interview that at this rate of improvement, Brick Church will get to the top 25% in just 4 years, one year ahead of schedule.  I will definitely keep my eye on Brick Church and their enrollment patterns and things like that in the coming years.

ASD tries to put all the positive spin they can on their results, but the thing that they try not to mention is that in this past year the ASD got the lowest possible score on their ‘growth’ metric, a 1 out of 5.  In Tennessee they take their ‘growth’ scores very seriously.  They have been experimenting with this kind of metric for over twenty years and they base school closing decisions on it and also teacher evaluations.  So it is hypocritical, though not surprising, that Huffman fails to mention that the ASD, on average, got the lowest possible score on this last year, and instead they focus on the two schools that have shown test score improvements.

Huffman dramatically concludes his op-ed by writing:

When I spoke with Pennsylvania state senators last week about school turnaround work, one senator asked me directly, “When you created the Achievement School District, were you worried that it was too risky?” I responded, “The greatest risk would be to do nothing.”

Indeed, doing nothing would be unconscionable.

In other words there are only two possible choices:  Do nothing or do what they did in Tennessee.  Of course there are plenty more options, but reformers like to phrase things this way.

There is absolutely no reason why Kevin Huffman should be given the opportunity to pitch his ideas to the Pennsylvania senate or in the media over there.  It is like a state trying to improve their economy and asking for guidance from a man who got rich by winning the lottery.  Huffman is a person who knows very little about education, but who has been very lucky to get to where he is.  He taught first grade for two years, spent a bunch of years working for Teach For America, got appointed as Tennessee education commissioner mainly because of his famous ex-wife, and only managed to keep his job for three years before basically getting run out of town.  He has gotten credit for the 4th and 8th grade NAEP gains between 2011 and 2013, but has taken none of the blame for the lack of progress for 12 graders or for the recent drops in the Tennessee State reading test scores.  This is a new kind of phenomenon, the edu-celebrity who rises to power, leaves after a few years having accomplished very little, and then making a living as a consultant.  Some gig.


Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

You Reeka Math

At the NCTM conference last year I attended a talk by Scott Baldridge, lead author of the Eureka math curriculum, which is also called EngageNY in New York.  Education Week recently compared different math curricula to see which were truly ‘aligned’ to the common core and only Eureka math had top scores.  Look at all the green blocks for Eureka in the infographic below!

We always hear from common core supporters, including even Randi Weingarten, that the common core is wonderful  — it’s just that darned implementation that is spoiling its reputation.  So if this Eureka math is the one that is the purest interpretation of the common core, well, then it surely will be superior to anything we’ve seen in the math classroom up until now.

After a few minutes of listening to Baldridge it was clear that he was a very passionate man who took a lot of pride in the curriculum that he and his team developed.  It was also clear that he knew very little about crafting good lessons.

His master vision reminded me a bit of the kinds of things I would think about before I became an actual teacher and learned so much about pacing and about the sorts of things that get students motivated to learn and retain math.

Listening to him discuss what he accomplished last year, then reading some of the blog posts on the Eureka math site, and finally by delving into the famous EngageNY ‘modules’ that many teachers are using throughout New York (they can be downloaded for free, but the cost of making copies is so steep for some schools that it becomes cheaper to buy the books from Eureka publishing — wouldn’t ya know it?) I’m certain that this is a curriculum devised by amateurs.

First of all, some lessons are full of errors.  Second, some lessons are unnecessarily boring, and third, some lessons are unnecessarily confusing.

I should note that I have not gone through every module in every grade.  I also did not search through to cherry pick examples that were particularly bad.  I just randomly picked some important topics to see how they covered them and either I just happened to find the only four bad lessons in my first four tries or there are so many flawed lessons in this project that randomly selecting a bad one is quite likely.  It’s a bit like evaluating a singer and the first few songs you listen to are out of tune.  How many more do you have to listen to before you can safely assume that this is not someone with a lot of talent?

Exhibit A is the first lesson in the first module for 8th grade, exponents.  On the second page, they introduce the concept of raising a negative number to a positive integer.  Every real math teacher knows that there is a difference between the two expressions (-2)^4 and -2^4.  The first one means (-2)*(-2)*(-2)*(-2)=+16 while the second one, without the parentheses around the -2 means -1*2*2*2*2=-16.  I have checked with all the math teachers I know, and none have ever seen -2^4 interpreted as (-2)^4.  Yet, here all over lesson one module one for 8th grade EngageNY teacher’s edition, we see this mistake.

Screen shot 2015-05-17 at 11.22.57 AM

Screen shot 2015-05-17 at 12.02.22 PM

In the teacher’s edition for this lesson, they very clearly make this error in their solution to a True/False question.

Screen shot 2015-05-17 at 11.24.33 AM“So what?”, you might be thinking.  They are choosing to imply the parentheses.  Isn’t this just a notational thing?  Maybe, but there are two more oddities.  The first is that the necessity for parentheses when raising a negative to a power is actually one of the two ‘Student Outcomes’ written at the beginning of the lesson.


Screen shot 2015-05-17 at 8.17.54 PM

The second bizarre part is that they are not even consistent since out of the twenty times that this concept is presented, eighteen times are incorrect while in two places it is correct.

Screen shot 2015-05-17 at 11.23.41 AM

Screen shot 2015-05-17 at 11.57.07 AM

So Tim is allowed to write it incorrectly, but Josie and Arnie are not.  How is the student to know what he or she should do on this issue?

To make matters worse, these lessons have been up for two years and this error has not been corrected even though it would be quite easy to simply upload a corrected file to the website.  Does this mean that nobody reported this to them?  Or are teachers following this lesson because they are supposed to?  Who knows.  But it definitely is a bad sign when curriculum authors can make such a basic mistake.  It is much more likely that we are dealing with incompetent curriculum authors than that it was just a careless error.

For an example of a lesson that doesn’t have any major errors in it, but is just a boring missed opportunity that actually isn’t even ‘aligned’ to the original philosophy of the common core, look at 8th grade module 4 lesson 15 which is titled:  Informal Proof of the Pythagorean Theorem.

The Pythagorean Theorem might be the most famous thing in all of elementary math.  Throughout history cultures from around the world have independently discovered and proved the curious fact that in a right triangle, the longest side is always equals to the square root of the sum of the squares of the two smaller sides.

I do appreciate that they want to begin the unit with an informal proof, of which there are hundreds.  The one they chose to use was once that required a lot of computation and manipulation of symbols and would probably fall flat on a group of 8th graders.

Screen shot 2015-05-18 at 11.10.43 PM




It’s not that I don’t like this proof.  I just think that if you’re advising the entire country on which visual proof of the Pythagorean Theorem to use, this, from a pedagogical point of view, is not the ideal one.

Here’s one that’s a bit more appealing and appropriate for 8th graders since it doesn’t require symbolic Algebra to explain:

Or maybe this one:


Also the pacing is off since in one lesson the teacher is supposed to guide the students through an involved proof of the theorem and then also do a bunch of questions practicing the theorem.  This is too much for one lesson which will result in the students likely not understanding the proof or how to apply the theorem.

The examples remind me of something out of an old workbook from the 1960s.  Since the triangles are intentionally ‘not drawn to scale’ this becomes a monotonous exercise with the exact shape where students don’t even have the opportunity to estimate what the answer is likely to be before calculating it themselves.  This is a weak activity, for sure.

Screen shot 2015-05-18 at 11.11.22 PM


Something that hits close to home for me, literally, is the way that the first grade standards are being implemented.  I have a daughter in first grade right now and it definitely frustrates me when she brings home math assignments that are developmentally inappropriate.  In first grade, kids should be getting comfortable with numbers, measuring, telling time, things like that.  In the quest for getting them ‘college ready,’ EngageNY along with other publishers like the Go Math curriculum that she is trying to learn from, have decided that first graders need to know tricks for doing mental math.  Some of these tricks are developmentally appropriate, but some are not.  An example of such a trick is in module 2 lesson 20.  Read this ‘dialogue’ teachers are supposed to have with the students from the EngageNY lesson plan:

Have students come to the meeting area and sit in a semi-circle with their personal white boards.

T:      (Write 13 – 9 = ___.) Solve and share with your partner what you did to get your answer.

S:      (Discuss solution and strategies.)

T:      Explain what you did to get your answer.

S:      We made a 5-group drawing. à We used the take from ten strategy using fingers. à We made a picture in our minds. We just took away 9 from 10 and did 1 + 3. That’s 4.

T:      Everyone, use the number path to show how you can count on to make ten first. Don’t forget to use two arrows to show your thinking.

S:      (Solve by starting from 9. Arrows land on 10 and 13.)

T:      What addition number sentence helped you to solve 13 – 9?

S:      1 + 3 = 4.

T:      How is counting on the number path similar to using our real and imaginary fingers?

S:      After we drop 9 fingers, we have 1 more finger left from 10 fingers. We then add 1 to 3 imaginary fingers. This is just like hopping 1 square to get to 10 and 3 more to get to 13. We had to add 1 and 3 both times.

I can only hope that many first grade teachers out there have the wisdom to quietly skip this lesson.  Ironically, it is not even clear that this lesson is ‘aligned’ to the common core standards.  The closest thing I could find in them for first grade is 1.NBT.C.4.

Use place value understanding and properties of operations to add and subtract.

Add within 100, including adding a two-digit number and a one-digit number, and adding a two-digit number and a multiple of 10, using concrete models or drawings and strategies based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction; relate the strategy to a written method and explain the reasoning used. Understand that in adding two-digit numbers, one adds tens and tens, ones and ones; and sometimes it is necessary to compose a ten.

I think that there are ways to meet this standard without forcing kids to have an unreasonable amount of mathematical sophistication.  My issue isn’t simply that this way of teaching 13-9 is different from the ‘regular’ way.  I’m all for new and improved ways of teaching things.  In my own classroom many of my methods deviate from the ‘regular’ way of doing things.  In one of my classes, recently, my students had to learn how to solve algebra equations using an obscure method invented in Egypt in 1600 BCE.  I thought it was worthy of teaching because it was thought provoking to have students analyze the ancient method and see why it got the correct answer by comparing it to our modern method.  I guess the difference is that I can distinguish between what sorts of non-standard methods are worthy of teaching and which are actually harmful to the learning process.  The authors of EngageNY, unfortunately, lack such wisdom.

I recently started following the lead writer of Eureka math, Scott Baldridge, on Twitter and saw that they have a blog where some of their authors describe some of their revolutionary ideas.  This post was about a presentation one of the authors did at the NCTM conference about a better way to teach one of the most fundamental topics in all of middle school math:  slope.  There are so many creative ways to teach slope in a thought provoking meaningful way.  Even when I started teaching over twenty years ago there were many good resources for teaching this topic beyond just memorizing a formula.  This resource from England published in 1985 is still a classic.

From ‘The Language of Functions and Graphs’

Yet in the post the author says that kids don’t understand slope because we have been just teaching it as a mindless rote formula.  And her solution was to introduce it by relating it to a much more abstract topic, similar triangles.  Any math teacher will cringe, reading that post.  The following Twitter conversation happened:

Not surprisingly, I never heard from him again.

So next time you hear from a ‘reformer’ that the problem with the common core isn’t the standards themselves, but the way that some textbook companies have unfaithfully implemented them, remember this short examination of the ‘pure’ interpretation by Eureka math.

The word ‘Eureka’ was made famous in math as, legend has it, Archimedes ran through the streets of Ancient Greece, naked, shouting it after he solved a tricky applied math problem in the bathtub.  I think if Archimedes were still alive, he would be lunging for some hemlock if he knew his famous catchphrase was being used to promote such an overrated product.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

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 | 24 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 | 13 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