The Underachievement School District 2015 Edition Part I

Three years ago, the Achievement School District (ASD) in Tennessee began their mission, summarized in the statement on their website under the heading ‘Building the Possible.’

“The Achievement School District was created to catapult the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee straight to the top 25% in the state.”

The timetable for this goal is just five years from the time the school enters the ASD.  As I wrote to current ASD superintendent, Chris Barbic, who I’ve known for over 20 years from back in the days when we were both TFA teachers in Houston at the same time, this is not a feasible goal.  It isn’t that I don’t think schools or teachers are capable of improvement, I just think that there is a limit to what can be accomplished by only focusing on replacing teachers and giving schools over to charters.

I don’t know if this was an intentional thing or not, but look at the ASD logo.

See that triangle thing?  It is called a Penrose Triangle or sometimes a Penrose Tribar.  It is an optical illusion since something like this cannot be built.  According to Wikipedia, in the 1950’s Penrose, himself, described the object as “impossibility in its purest form.”  In a very candid moment, Barbic admitted during a panel discussion that even if the goal was unattainable, it served a purpose because it created an energy around a lofty goal which attracted funders and talent to the district.

I have been following the progress of the ASD since it started and have been doing a yearly summary, in addition to other posts throughout the year.  The 2013 edition can be found here and the 2014 edition can be found here.  I plan to continue this yearly update until the end of the fifth year in 2017.

At the end of July 2015, Tennessee released the state test score data for all the schools and all the districts.  Every year when the data is released, Tennessee and the ASD are ready with their own spin on the results.

The website Chalkbeat Tennessee titled their article about the data release ‘At critical moment, state run Achievement School District posts big gains at its original schools.’  In the article they had this interesting bar graph supposedly supporting this claim.

So the first thing I noticed is that while math is ‘up’ by about 11% in the past three years, Reading is ‘down’ by about 4%.  And reading had gone up a bit last year, but now its down again.  The Science, I don’t know much about that test so I’m not going to focus on it.  Not that I don’t think science matters, but I’ve never heard a ‘reformer’ talking about anything but math and reading so I’m not going to let science into mix here.

Now reading in the whole state of Tennessee is down 1.5% over the past 3 years, it has actually dropped a little each year since it peaked in 2013.  It is now at the level it was before all the Race To The Top reform happened there, amazingly.  So the ‘big gains’ are the 6 points in math.  But isn’t reading really really important?  What good is a program that increases math scores at the expense of reading scores?  It’s like a drug that gets you to lose weight but also causes Cancer.  The other thing to notice is that these percentages, even the 27% after the ‘big gain’ is way below the state average of 55.6% this year.  And the reading at 13.8% is way way below the state average of 48.4%.

I decided to do a little fact checking on this.  What I found surprised even me.

As the ASD has been around for three years, there are three ‘cohorts’ of schools.  There are the six original schools which have been in the district for all three years.  Then they added eleven more schools the second year, and six more the third year.

For my analysis, I am looking only at the six original ASD schools since I have three years of data for them so they are the most relevant.  The six schools in the original cohort are Brick Church College Prep, Cornerstone Prep — Lester Campus, Corning Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Humes Preparatory Academy — Upper School, and Westside Achievement Middle School.

Last summer I analyzed the scores from these six schools and determined that two had improved scores, two had about the same scores, and two had worse scores than before the takeover.  It definitely seemed like mixed results to me.  On their ‘growth’ metric the entire district actually got the lowest possible score, a 1 out of 5.

Of the six schools, the one that was doing the best, as of last year, Brick Church, was somewhat different than the other four because they were ‘phase in’ schools meaning that instead of the charter operator taking over the entire school, current students and all, they just took the newest students entering the school.  So these schools were grades 5-8 and the first year they just took the new incoming 5th graders and they would ‘grow’ the school one grade at a time until they eventually took over the whole school.  As these two schools were outperforming the others, it seemed to show that the more disruption the better.  Brick Church had such big gains during the 2013-2014 school year that Barbic declared that it was on target to make it into the top 25% one year ahead of schedule, after just four years!

One year ago Barbic said in an interview that three of the first six schools were on track to make it into the top 25% in five years.

Here’s a quote 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.

He made this prediction based on the assumption that Brick Church’s 17 point gain in math and 24 point gain in reading was not a statistical outlier but something that could be repeated for the next two years.  Of course Brick Church was the first school I checked their 2014-2015 scores for and they had huge drops (negative gains they call them!) of around 14 points for math and 17 points for reading, taking them way off the trajectory Barbic had predicted.

Looking over the ASD scores for reading and math I noticed that all six of the original schools had gone down in reading while half of them had gone down in math.  The one bright spot in the original cohort was Frayser’s math scores going from 14.6% to 37.6%, a gain of 23 percentage points.  But looking at Frayser’s reading scores they had gone down 1.3% to a minuscule 7.6% proficient, one of the lowest scores in the state.  I don’t know how they got their math scores up so much while having nearly no students pass reading.  Regardless, I’m not sure that Frayser should be throwing any sort of victory party.

The question that nobody seems to be asking is the most obvious one:  At what percentile are each of these six schools now that they have been part of the ASD for three years?  Originally they were in the bottom 5% in order to be eligible for the ASD.  The mission of the ASD is to get them up to the top 25% in 5 years (though Barbic recently said that it could actually be 6 or 7).  We hear about how Frayser’s math scores went up by 23 points this year and that ASD itself ‘outgrew’ the rest of the state in math by increasing it by 6 points.  We also hear that schools that have been in the ASD for two or three years got the highest possible ‘growth’ score this year, which is a 5.  But they never answer the simple question:  At what percentile are the original six schools at now?

Of course there are different ways to assign a single numerical grade to a school in order to rank them and see what percentile each school is at.  I devised the most simple metric possible and which I think the most data-driven ‘reformers’ would approve of.  Just add together the percent proficient in math to the percent proficient in reading to get a score that has a minimum of 0 and a maximum of 200. If a school had 80% passing math and 70% passing reading, they have a total score of 150, for example.  Yes, there’s a lot more to schools than just these two numbers, but I wanted to keep things simple and inline with the sorts of calculations that ‘reformers,’ themselves, like to use.

By this metric the top performing ASD school from the first cohort was Coming with a score of 48.6 followed by Brick Church (47.9), Frayser (45.2), Westside (42.1), Cornerstone (37.6), and Hume (33.1).  To check where these scores ranked compared to all the Tennessee schools, I calculated this metric for all 1358 schools that had 3-8 math and reading and sorted them from high to low.

Here are the results:

School Score Percentile
Hume 33.1 1.5%
Cornerstone 37.6 2.6%
Westside 42.1 3.2%
Frayser 45.2 4.1%
Brick Church 47.9 5.2%
Corning 48.6 5.5%

As you can see, four of the original six schools are still in the bottom 5% while the other two have now ‘catapulted’ to the bottom 6%.  Perhaps this is one reason that Chris Barbic recently announced he is resigning at the end of the year.

Throughout the country, there are states that are considering creating their own ASD based on the supposed success of this one and the Recovery School District in Louisiana, on which this one is based.  Senate Democrats actually tried, and failed, to get an amendment into the reauthorization of the ESEA that would mandate that the bottom 5% of schools in each state become an ASD, essentially.  I hope that my very simple calculations are compelling evidence that the ASD does not live up to the hype.  Getting two out of six schools from the bottom 5% to the bottom 6% has not earned them the right to replicate around the country.

If you want to crunch the numbers yourself to verify my results or to find some of your own, here is my excel file I adapted from the publicly released state data.  And here is the raw data from the state.

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TFA endorses Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law can be summarized as “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”  Murphy’s Amendment was a proposed amendment to the recently reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  The last reauthorization of ESEA in 2002 was known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and is generally considered a fiasco by both Democrats and Republicans.

The Murphy Amendment is sometimes called the ‘Murphy-Booker ESEA Accountability Amendment’ after Chris Murphy and Cory Booker, two of the six Democratic co-sponsors of the amendment.

I never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness the Republicans won the majority in the Senate in the last election.  The Murphy Amendment which failed by a vote of 43 to 54.  And the 43 ‘yea’ votes were 41 Democrats, 1 Republican, and 1 Independent.  The 54 ‘nay’ votes were 51 Republicans, 2 Democrats, and 1 Independent.

The reason I’m thankful that the Murphy Amendment did not pass is that Murphy’s Amendment was highly susceptible to Murphy’s Law.  A ‘close reading’ (thank you common core standards for language arts!) of the amendment reveals that people concerned about what it could lead to were very justified in those concerns.  In a reauthorization that was intended, as a starting point, to recognize why NCLB was such a disaster, the Murphy Amendment would have maintained some of the worst parts about NCLB.

I have the text from the amendment at the end of the post, but I’ll summarize what I understand of it here from reading it myself.  It says that the states must identify the schools most in need of intervention, which must be at least the bottom 5%.  It seems that the Democrats did not learn the lessons from NCLB about the danger of putting specific numerical targets into federal law and how those numerical targets can be abused.  The fact that there is always a bottom 5% no matter how good the schools are in a state.  Also, schools where the graduation rate is less than 67%, a magic number for ‘failing school’ that is not grounded in any real research (not to mention one that is easy to game with different ‘credit recovery’ schemes, but that’s another issue altogether).  For schools like this some of the federally mandated interventions are to inform the parents that their child is attending a failing school, to establish ‘partnerships’ with ‘private entities’ to turn around these schools, and to give the states the ability to make, and for this I’ll use a verbatim quote, “any changes to personnel necessary to improve educational opportunities for children in the school.”

So where does Murphy’s Law come in?  What could possibly go wrong with this?  Well for starters, there would need to be an accurate way to gauge which schools are truly in the ‘bottom 5%.’  I admit that there are some schools that are run much less efficiently than others and surely the different superintendents should have a sense of which schools they are.  But as NCLB and Race To The Top (RTTT) taught us, with all the money spent on creating these metrics and the costly tests and ‘growth metrics’ that go along with those tests, it is likely to lead to way too much test prep and neglect of some of the things that make school worth going to.  Then those ‘private entities’, could it be any more clear that these are charter schools taking over public schools?  And as far as “changes to personnel necessary to improve educational opportunities for the children in the school”, well, firing teachers after school ‘closures’ in New York City hasn’t resulted in improved ‘educational opportunities.’  My sense is that with enough of these mass firings, it will be very difficult to get anyone to risk their careers by teaching at a so-called failing school and the new staff is likely be less effective than the old staff.  So you can see why the NEA wrote a letter to the Senate urging them to vote against it.  Sadly nearly all the Democrats (and Independent Bernie Sanders!) ignored the plea of the NEA.

Now Teach For America is known to have a team of lobbyists advancing their cause.  These lobbyists generally operate behind the scenes so that TFA can at least make the appearance of neutrality as they embrace the diversity of their alumni.  But when it came to the ESEA reauthorization, TFA did take two stands publicly.

The first was against the parent opt-out amendment.  In The 74, disgraced former Tennessee Education Commissioner and TFA alum (not to mention ex-husband of Michelle Rhee-Johnston) Kevin Huffman wrote a completely incoherent comparison of parents opting their children out of state tests to parents opting their children out of vaccinations.  The title of the article was “Why We Need to Ignore Opt-Outers Like We Do Anti-Vaxxers.”   Not that we need to ‘challenge’ them, but we need to ‘ignore’ them.  Don’t bother learning what motivates them to do what they do, just assume you know and ignore whatever concerns are causing them to want to do this.  Huffman is also a lawyer, though his argument is quite weak.  He says that wealthy opt-outers are selfish since they are doing something that somehow benefits themselves while hurting the other, less wealthy people.  But does he consider that many opt-outers are doing it as a protest against the misuse of their students test scores to unfairly close schools and fire teachers?  Or to protest an over emphasis on testing and testing subjects so they opt out to say “Since I’m opting out anyway, please teach my child as you would have before all this high stakes testing nonsense.”  Now I can’t speak for every opt-out supporter, but I believe that opting-out helps everyone, especially the poor since the way the results of the state tests have been used has hurt them disproportionately with school closures and random teacher firings so the idea that all opt-out supporters do so knowingly at the expense of less fortunate others is something that I find offensive.  Both co-CEOs of TFA, however, tweeted their approval of this article.

On the Murphy Amendment, TFA tweeted their support for this pro-charter, anti-teacher, NCLB loving turkey:

There is still a chance that a version of the Murphy Amendment will make it into the final ESEA rewrite as over the next few months the two versions that were passed in the Senate and The House are merged and smoothed out.  So the defeat of the amendment might not be the end of the story, but it is certainly gives a bit of hope to the more optimistic of us out there.

Note:  The relevant portion of the defeated Murphy Amendment is copied below, emphasis mine:

``(a) State Review and Responsibilities.--
       ``(1) In general.--Each State educational agency receiving 
     funds under this part shall use the system designed by the 
     State under section 1111(b)(3) to annually--
       ``(A) meaningfully differentiate among all public schools, 
     including public schools operated or supported by the Bureau 
     of Indian Education, that receive funds under this part and 
     are in need of intervention and support using the method 
     established by the State in section 1111(b)(3)(B)(ii) which--
       ``(i) may include establishing multiple levels of school 
     performance or other methods for differentiating among all 
     public schools; and
       ``(ii) shall include the identification of at least--

       ``(I) the lowest-performing public schools that receive 
     funds under this part in the State not meeting the goals 
     described in section 1111(b)(3)(B)(i), and which shall 
     include at least 5 percent of all the State's public schools 
     that receive funds under this part;
       ``(II) any public high school that receives funds under 
     this part and has a 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate at 
     or below 67 percent for 2 or more consecutive years, or an 
     extended-year adjusted cohort graduation rate for 2 or more 
     consecutive years that is at or below a rate determined by 
     the State and set higher than 67 percent; and
       ``(III) any public school that receives funds under this 
     part with any category of students, as defined in section 
     1111(b)(3)(A), not meeting the goals described in section 
     1111(b)(3)(B)(i) for 2 consecutive years;

       ``(B) require for inclusion--
       ``(i) on each local educational agency report card required 
     under section 1111(d), the names of schools served by the 
     agency described under subparagraph (A)(ii); and
       ``(ii) on each school report card required under section 
     1111(d), whether the school was described under subparagraph 
       ``(C) ensure that all public schools that receive funds 
     under this part and are identified as in need of intervention 
     and support under subparagraph (A), implement an evidence-
     based intervention or support strategy designed by the State 
     or local educational agency described in subparagraph (A) or 
     (B) of subsection (b)(3) that addresses the reason for the 
     school's identification and that takes into account 
     performance on all of the indicators in the State's 
     accountability system under section 1111(b)(3)(B)(i);
       ``(D) prioritize intervention and supports in the 
     identified schools most in need of intervention and support, 
     as determined by the State, using the results of the 
     accountability system under 1111(b)(3)(B); and
       ``(E) monitor and evaluate the implementation of school 
     intervention and support
     strategies by local educational agencies, including in the 
     lowest-performing elementary schools and secondary schools in 
     the State, and use the results of the evaluation to take 
     appropriate steps to change or improve interventions or 
     support strategies as necessary.
       ``(2) State educational agency responsibilities.--The State 
     educational agency shall--
       ``(A) make technical assistance available to local 
     educational agencies that serve schools identified as in need 
     of intervention and support under paragraph (1)(A);
       ``(B) if the State educational agency determines that a 
     local educational agency failed to carry out its 
     responsibilities under this section, or that its intervention 
     and support strategies were not effective within 3 years of 
     implementation, take such actions as the State educational 
     agency determines to be appropriate and in compliance with 
     State law to assist the local educational agency and ensure 
     that such local educational agency is carrying out its 
       ``(C) inform local educational agencies of schools 
     identified as in need of intervention and support under 
     paragraph (1)(A) in a timely and easily accessible manner 
     that is before the beginning of the school year; and
       ``(D) publicize and disseminate to the public, including 
     teachers, principals and other school leaders, and parents, 
     the results of the State review under paragraph (1).
       ``(b) Local Educational Agency Review and 
       ``(1) In general.--Each local educational agency with a 
     school identified as in need of intervention and support 
     under subsection (a)(1)(A) shall, in consultation with 
     teachers, principals and other school leaders, school 
     personnel, parents, and community members--
       ``(A) conduct a review of such school, including by 
     examining the indicators and measures included in the State-
     determined accountability system described in section 
     1111(b)(3)(B) to determine the factors that led to such 
       ``(B) conduct a review of the policies, procedures, 
     personnel decisions, and budgetary decisions of the local 
     educational agency, including the measures on the local 
     educational agency and school report cards under section 
     1111(d) that impact the school and could have contributed to 
     the identification of the school;
       ``(C) develop and implement appropriate intervention and 
     support strategies, as described in paragraph (3), that are 
     proportional to the identified needs of the school, for 
     assisting the identified school;
       ``(D) develop a rigorous comprehensive plan that will be 
     publicly available and provided to parents, for ensuring the 
     successful implementation of the intervention and support 
     strategies described in paragraph (3) in identified schools, 
     which may include--
       ``(i) technical assistance that will be provided to the 
       ``(ii) ensuring identified schools have access to 
     resources, such as adequate facilities, funding, and 
       ``(iii) improved delivery of services to be provided by the 
     local educational agency;
       ``(iv) increased support for stronger curriculum, program 
     of instruction, wraparound services, or other resources 
     provided to students in the school;
       ``(v) any changes to personnel necessary to improve 
     educational opportunities for children in the school;
       ``(vi) redesigning how time for student learning or teacher 
     collaboration is used within the school;
       ``(vii) using data to inform instruction for continuous 
       ``(viii) providing increased coaching or support for 
     principals and other school leaders and teachers;
       ``(ix) improving school climate and safety;
       ``(x) providing ongoing mechanisms, such as evidence-based 
     community schools and wraparound services, for family and 
     community engagement to improve student learning;
       ``(xi) establishing partnerships with entities, including 
     private entities with a demonstrated record of improving 
     student achievement, that will assist the local educational 
     agency in fulfilling its responsibilities under this section; 
       ``(xii) an ongoing process, involving parents, teachers and 
     their representatives, principals, and other school leaders, 
     to improve school leader and staff engagement in the 
     development and implementation of the comprehensive plan; and
       ``(E) collect and use data on an ongoing basis to monitor 
     the results of the intervention and support strategies and 
     adjust such strategies as necessary during implementation in 
     order to improve student academic achievement.
       ``(2) Notice to parents.--A local educational agency shall 
     promptly provide to a parent or parents of each student 
     enrolled in a school identified as in need of intervention 
     and support under subsection (a)(1)(A) in an easily 
     accessible and understandable form and, to the extent 
     practicable, in a language that parents can understand--
       ``(A) an explanation of what the identification means, and 
     how the school compares in terms of academic achievement and 
     other measures in the State accountability system under 
     section 1111(b)(3)(B) to other schools served by the local 
     educational agency and the State educational agency involved;
       ``(B) the reasons for the identification;
       ``(C) an explanation of what the local educational agency 
     or State educational agency is doing to help the school 
     address student academic achievement and other measures, 
     including a description of the intervention and support 
     strategies developed under paragraph (1)(C) that will be 
     implemented in the school;
       ``(D) an explanation of how the parents can become involved 
     in addressing academic achievement and other measures that 
     caused the school to be identified; and
       ``(E) an explanation of the parents' option to transfer 
     their child to another public school under paragraph (4), if 
       ``(3) School intervention and support strategies.--
       ``(A) In general.--Consistent with subsection (a)(1) and 
     paragraph (1), a local educational agency shall develop and 
     implement evidence-based intervention and support strategies 
     for an identified school that the local educational agency 
     determines appropriate to address the needs of students in 
     such identified school, which shall--
       ``(i) be designed to address the specific reasons for 
     identification, as described in paragraph (1)(A);
       ``(ii) take into account performance on the indicators used 
     by the State as described in 1111(b)(3)(B)(i);
       ``(iii) be implemented, at a minimum, in a manner that is 
     proportional to the specific reasons for identification, as 
     described in subparagraphs (A) and (B) of paragraph (1); and
       ``(iv) distinguish between the schools identified in 
     subclauses (I) and (II) of subsection (a)(1)(A)(ii) and in 
     need of comprehensive supports and schools identified in 
     subsection (a)(1)(A)(ii)(III) in need of targeted supports.
       ``(B) State-determined strategies.--Consistent with State 
     law, a State educational agency may establish alternative 
     evidence-based State-determined strategies that can be used 
     by local educational agencies to assist a school identified 
     as in need of intervention and support under subsection 
     (a)(1)(A), in addition to the assistance strategies developed 
     by a local educational agency under subparagraph (A).
       ``(4) Public school choice.--
       ``(A) In general.--A local educational agency may provide 
     all students enrolled in a school identified as in need of 
     intervention and support under subclauses (I) and (II) of 
     subsection (a)(1)(A)(ii) with the option to transfer to 
     another public school served by the local educational agency, 
     unless such an option is prohibited by State law.
       ``(B) Priority.--In providing students the option to 
     transfer to another public school, the local educational 
     agency shall give priority to the lowest achieving children 
     from low-income families, as determined by the local 
     educational agency for the purposes of allocating funds to 
     schools under section 1113(a)(3).
       ``(C) Treatment.--Students who use the option to transfer 
     to another public school shall be enrolled in classes and 
     other activities in the public school to which the students 
     transfer in the same manner as all other children at the 
     public school.
       ``(D) Special rule.--A local educational agency shall 
     permit a child who transfers to another public school under 
     this paragraph to remain in that school until the child has 
     completed the highest grade in that school.
       ``(E) Funding for transportation.--A local educational 
     agency may spend an amount equal to not more than 5 percent 
     of its allocation under subpart 2 to pay for the provision of 
     transportation for students who transfer under this paragraph 
     to the public schools to which the students transfer.
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TFA continues to set new corps members up for failure

I miss the era when my blog was hosted on the website.  Back then the site was promoted by TFA as a place where current corps members and alumni could blog and communicate through comments.  Until the site went down, it was a happening place with at least twenty different bloggers contributing to the conversation.  It was also my way of finding out what TFA was up to, particularly with regard to the summer institute training sites.

Back before TFA had let their greed for money and power distort their original purpose, my main issue with them was the way they cheat the corps members out of an authentic training experience.  I’ve said throughout the years that I think that most people are capable of becoming competent teachers and that it is even possible to get enough training in a summer that the first year does not have to be a disaster.  And even though TFA has an annual budget of about $300 million, they simply refuse to invest the resources it would take to improve the training.  In the early 1990s there were about 1,000 corps members a year and the annual budget was more like $10 million.  Now they have a bit more than 4,000 corps members yet they have about 30 times the amount of money.  Where is all that money going?

I haven’t heard much from the new TFA 2015 class.  Aside from some “Yay! I got into TFA” tweets, they are an oddly silent bunch of leaders.  They don’t blog, they don’t tweet.  Not to start any conspiracy theories, but possibly they have been discouraged by the organization.  Just seems strange that not one out of 4,000 people is blogging their way through their experience.

Back in the day before was gutted, I’d sometimes, in my less-well-advised posts, take something I’d read on a new corps member’s blog and critique it or analyze it.  This made some people upset, I remember, including a post from another alum called Don’t Let Gary Rubinstein Bully You.

My critiques, from my perspective, serve two purposes:  The first, yes, is to shine a light on how negligent TFA is in their training.  They are pretty much negligent in every aspect of the organization, but coming up with tangible proof of this negligence in perhaps the most important branch of TFA does expose how little they care about improving.  The other purpose, though, is to help the misguided TFA corps member who, by no fault of his or her own, has been a victim of the bait-and-switch and is going through a third rate training experience and headed toward a disastrous first year.  TFA allows this to happen since they don’t really care about individual corps members struggling, even having mental breakdowns, as long as there are a few success stories, the TFA PR machine can continue running.  The reaction to one of my posts that called me a ‘bully’ was not by the corps member that I was critiquing.  That corps member actually wrote a response thanking me and he and I kept in touch throughout his time in teaching.

OK, disclaimer set up is now complete.

So the TFA Houston institute is producing a short five part documentary where they chose six new corps members and interviewed them at different points throughout the five week institute.  As TFA is so careful with their public image, I’m surprised that they would do this, actually.  Also, I commend the six new corps members for being willing to go on camera and be seen at vulnerable times.

Seeing the six corps members, Jae, Jonathan, Madison, Tyler, Julia, and Mary Beth it is clear that TFA did a fine job in selection.  All six are bright, articulate, motivated, and caring.

Of the six, the biggest wild card is clearly Tyler.  It’s not that I don’t think he is a very bright, intense, and passionate young man, nor do I think that he is not capable of becoming a first rate teacher.  I actually think that most people, if given the proper training, can become pretty good teachers.  Teaching is hard, but with proper preparation it isn’t ‘that’ hard.  Kind of like driving a car isn’t that hard, but you want to get a lot of hours of practice on side streets before taking a spin on the Autobahn.

In the first video, Tyler says the quintessential TFA response to “Why do you want to be a teacher?”

“I’m coming to teach because I fundamentally believe that every child can do it.  You just need someone who believes in you and won’t give up, and is willing to work hard to take you to your goal.”

Though this sound innocuous enough, notice the implied ‘teacher bashing’ that has become the life blood of TFA?  Obviously the students he will teach have only had teachers who did give up on them and were not willing to work very hard to take them to their goal.  TFA has to use this message in their recruitment since otherwise many of these very motivated young people would not be willing to do it.  “The kids of America need you since the teachers they have are too lazy and uncaring for this work.”

I should point out again, I like Tyler.  I’d think he has an enthusiasm and energy and quirkiness that will eventually be a real asset in the classroom — assuming that he can channel it in the beginning of his career.  And this is why watching these videos makes me sad since I believe based on another video that was publicly posted that Tyler’s student teaching class has only 5 students in it and this is a disservice to him and to the students that he will soon teach. (Though I do like the professional dress he’s got going.)  Tyler should ask his trainer why he has such a small class and say he wants “no excuses,” as TFA is known to demand of everyone else.

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Some people are natural ‘teachers,’ meaning that their natural personality will instantly command respect in the classroom.  Most people are not naturals in that way and Tyler is one who will need to practice a lot to channel his energy in a way that will not lose his class.  And twelve hours with five students is not going to do it.  I’m going to advise Tyler, if he reads this, to watch the video of the workshop I used to do at the TFA institute where I explain how to adapt your personality to minimize risk in the classroom.

At the end of video two, Michael, a veteran soldier who surely is glad that his training for combat was better than the junk he is now experiencing, says “It is not easy to disrupt the system,” another ‘reformer’ cliche.  Again TFA thrives on the premise that lazy teachers preserve the ‘status quo’ so that hard working teachers are needed to ‘disrupt’ it.  The word, ‘disruption’, certainly takes on new meaning when we see how it gets played out to the extreme, and to the benefit of TFA, in places like New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia, and most recently, Newark where TFA hero Cami Anderson was booted for being disruptive to the point of marginalizing the desires of the community there.

Two of the six corps members have family members that are in education.  Julia says her parent are both teachers.  What do her parents think of the Race To The Top that TFA so loves?  Mary Beth’s father is a current high school principal.  What does he think when TFA icon Michelle Rhee comes on TV and says that American schools, even the ones that are supposedly ‘good’, are actually all doing a horrible job?  What is his reaction when he hears about Alabama needing more charter schools that TFA so treasures?  My guess is that their parents haven’t made the connection between TFA and the corporate school ‘reformers’ who have been wreaking havoc on American students and teachers since the passage of No Child Left Behind under Bush and intensified with Obama’s Race To The Top.

In video three, we see Julia speak about how behind her students are and offers this as one of the reasons:

It’s another world.  It’s a world where these kids get tested in writing every three years and, thus, are only trained in writing every three years.

I wonder why she thinks this.  While it is true that reading and math have dominated the curriculum ever since state test scores in reading and math have become the goal of all education, especially with the TFA-trained leaders and their ‘reformer’ allies.  Maybe she is saying that teachers are being negligent because they only teach to the two big tests?  I’m not sure if this is a critique of the over testing of things that don’t include writing, or a wish that there were more testing which would include more writing tests.  Or is this another faulty assumption that the majority of teachers these students had until now (of course it is likely that many of these students in Houston had TFA teachers at one time since Houston is a big TFA city — Houston 1991 in the house!) were negligent in their teaching of writing.

In video three we also see the typical TFA narrative with Madison’s and Mary Beth’s transformation from a rough start to things starting to turn around after about a week.  With tiny classes of about 15 students, I suppose this can happen, but I worry they will have a false idea of what the arc of a typical first year is.  That workshop I used to do (and my books — if any of these six contact me, I’ll gladly send them free copies) go into this in grueling detail.

In video four, Julia (Wearing jeans while teaching!  Why is the TFA staff OK with this?) is seeing big improvements after six day.  Jae’s class is noticeably larger than the classes of the other corps members from what I can see.  Michael and Madison both say that they are learning how to “be themselves” which is some of the more oversimplified advice for new teachers and can be quite dangerous.  The most encouraging part is the revelation by both Tyler and Madison about breaking down the process of analyzing a story with a graphic organizer.  We hear so much about “have high expectations” yet there is also the somewhat opposite practice of “scaffolding” which, by definition, is lowering your expectations in order to help students learn a skill with a certain degree of hand-holding.  This is why I do think there is hope for Tyler and why I am angered that their training experience is inadequate.

Episode five is coming soon (assuming the entire project isn’t shut down by my bringing attention to it!  Why does everything I touch turn to mud?) and, not to put any pressure on these six I know they have enough to worry about, I hope that they’ll be willing to have a follow up interview with me six months from now (and that TFA permits them to).

TFA is like a very ugly mosaic despite each of the individual little squares being perfectly fine.  I think TFA did a nice job in selecting these corps members and also in choosing them for this video.  I can see all six of these corps members teaching beyond their two year commitment and they do not seem like the type that are going to grow up and become heartless TFA ‘reform’ leaders and join the profitable world of teacher scapegoating.  I know I’m going to take some criticism for this post, as happens whenever I do one like this.  Listen, it’s not my fault that TFA continues to neglect the training program.  I’ve been begging them to fix it for twenty years and I have email threads to prove it!

Teachers are constantly being evaluated by administrators, and even by their own kids, so I hope a bit of free, though not requested, evaluation from a veteran teacher who was a one time teacher trainer for TFA and also wrote a few books about teaching isn’t so bad.  I don’t do this to ridicule them, but to bring attention to TFA’s failure to take seriously their responsibility to provide their trainees with proper training.

Note:  This has been a bit of an annual tradition for me.

For my advice to 2014 corps members go here.

For my advice to 2013 (including my famous not-quite ‘viral video message) corps members go here.

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The Three Stooges of School Turnaround

Earlier this week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute hosted a panel discussion, moderated by Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli, called ‘Turnaround Districts:  Lessons from Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michagan.”  On the panel were three turnaround ‘gurus’ Patrick Dobard of Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD), Veronica Conforme of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA), and Chris Barbic of Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD).

According to Fordham’s description of the event on their website:

So-called “turnaround school districts,” inspired by Louisiana’s Recovery School District and its near-clone in Tennessee, have been gathering steam, with policymakers calling for them in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and other states scattered from coast to coast.

But just how promising are these state-run districts as a strategy to bring about governance reform and school renewal? What lessons can we take away from those districts with the most experience? Can their most effective features be replicated in other states? Should they be? What are ideal conditions for success? And why has Michigan’s version of this reform struggled so?

I’ve watched this event twice to spare you the pain of having to watch it once, but feel free to watch the 90 minute video if you’d like and let me know if you think I’ve left anything vital out of my analysis.

Turnaround Districts are the new fad.  Based on the supposed success of the two initial ones, the RSD and the ASD, proposals to create similar districts are either underway or already approved in places like Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia.

I actually don’t have a problem with the idea of taking the schools that have low test scores, whatever the reason for those might be, and for creating a district where those schools get extra resources to help overcome whatever obstacles have been holding them back.  I’d want to see the extra resources going toward wrap-around services and smaller class sizes and extra curricular activities and things like that.  These ‘Achievement School Districts’ as the name of the Tennessee one seems to have caught on, rely on the strategy of turning the schools into charters and firing a lot of veteran teachers.  In my research of these turnaround districts, I was not surprised to learn that they have not been successful, not even by their own narrow measure of test scores.

So I was eager to see this panel discussion since there has been so much attention to replicating these school districts and the public statements by the leaders of these three in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan have been so scripted and careful, it would be nice to see all these leaders together sharing their wisdom.  Keep in mind that these aren’t just three random people up there.  In recent times we have seen a mass exodus of ‘A-list’ reformers.  Gone are Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Cami Anderson, and Kevin Huffman.  They have gone into their underground bunkers safe from any fallout as the ed ‘reform’ edifice crumbles.  So these three on the panel actually represent the new ‘A-list’ reformers.  Which is why the incredible lack of wisdom and insights by these three was very revealing.  I am certain that in his private moments, Michael Petrilli wishes that he hadn’t done this panel.  Sometimes, as the proverb goes, it is better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

In his introduction, Petrilli reminds us that since teacher’s unions capture school boards it is not often possible to quickly make big changes to how schools are run so state run Achievement Districts offer a way around that.  Kind of like a huge charter school, it is a district that is given the flexibility to innovate in return for, supposedly, more accountability.

Before the panel started, there was an introduction by Nelson Smith who wrote four different reports, one for each of these districts and one summary report.

Of the three districts, the one I know the most about is the Tennessee ASD.  His report on the ASD came out before the first year of the district was even complete.  About the ASD goal of taking schools in the bottom 5% in terms of test scores and, within 5 years, getting them into the top 25% in terms of test scores, Smith writes:


Is this last target realistic? That bottom-to-top jump becomes just a bit less daunting when translated into actual numbers. Each school must attain, at minimum, a proficient/advanced rate of 55 percent in both reading and math in order to perform in the top 25 percent statewide. Barbic thinks it’s doable and is betting on gains of 8 percent a year to get there.

I don’t know Smith’s background, but anyone who knows anything about schools knows how silly this is.  Most of the ASD schools are 5-8 middle schools.  So for any testing year, 25% of the students in the school are ones they only had for less than a year, 25% they had for two years, 25% for three, and 25% for four.  So on average each year they have had the average student for 2.5 years.  Then of course they lose their 8th graders and get a new crop of 5th grades.  So how is it they can expect to increase 8% a year continually when they keep on getting new students who are in the bottom 5% of test scores, supposedly.  Even if they are amazing at what they do, they just don’t have the students long enough to get continual improvement that way which is why it has never been done.

In his summary report of all three districts, just recently released, Smith fails to mention that the ASD got the lowest possible score on their value-added growth metric for the 2013-2014 school year.  Not that I am a big believer in the validity of those metrics, but ‘reformers’ certainly believe in them so that statistic is conspicuously absent from his report.

Then the panel gets underway and three times I hear a new catch-phrase three times.  In terms of accountability, schools that are not measuring up and teachers who are not getting the test scores they should will “lose the privilege of educating kids.”  Such a nice way to say ‘get shut down’ or ‘get fired.’

RSD’s Patrick Dobard tells us that proficiency in the RSD has gone from 23% in 2007 to 57% today.  The swamp of Louisiana data is a dangerous one to explore, I’ve learned.  They make up so many different statistics and measuring things until they find one that makes them look good.  I checked with the master of Louisiana data, Mercedes Schneider, and she pointed out to me that their 4th to 8th grade test scores gains are not consistent with their flat high school scores.  In the Smith report he points out that the RSD ACT scores (despite having specific ACT classes in their high schools, I know) are way below the already very low Louisiana average.  I’ve also studied the AP results from the RSD and they have virtually no students passing AP tests so it is hard for me to get enthusiastic about the miraculous results they are getting in Louisiana.  According to The College Board, Louisiana is second to last in the country, just ahead of Mississippi, in terms of AP test results.


Even the Smith report concedes:

So while the RSD turned around the downward trajectory of many New Orleans schools and pointed them toward success, those schools are still far from producing the “college and career readiness” that students need today. Just 12 percent of RSD pupils were at the Mastery level on the 2014 state exams, compared to 42 percent in the OPSB schools


As far as scaling up these Achievement School Districts to other states, Barbic worries that there are only a limited number of charter schools who are capable of pulling off this kind of turnaround so there will be a major supply vs. demand problem with different states fighting for this limited resource.  What’s ironic about this is that Barbic was one of the founders of YES prep in Houston.  Next year YES was supposed to take over a school in the ASD but they pulled out at the last minute causing Barbic to say that some schools aren’t cut out for this kind of work — saying this about the charter school that he founded!  I also learned here that not all the ASD schools are run by charters.  The ASD, themselves, run five schools.  One of those schools, however, had the worst performance of any of the ASD schools.

Barbic’s comments about the difficulty of scaling up is one that should be considered seriously.  You would think that if there are some charter schools that have the ability to perform these kinds of turnarounds, that the school districts would be privy to what their secrets are.  If they are using a certain set of textbooks or teaching methods or some kind of technology, it would make sense for the ASD to be permitted to observe what is going on in one of their schools and to replicate what that school is doing.  It should be part of the deal that these amazing charters do not keep their methods so secret so that everyone can benefit from their wisdom.

And the same goes for these superstar superintendents.  These three were recruited because they were the gurus of school turnaround.  Surely they have some secrets that they could share with us, maybe toss us a crumb or something?  After all they probably got flown out to DC for this thing, come on give us something.  But throughout the 90 minutes there are no secret morsels of wisdom they share leading me to believe that they truly have nothing, these rock stars of ed reform.

An interesting part is where Petrilli asks them what sorts of targets do they have to define their success.  In the RSD, we learn, charters have 5 years to get from an ‘F’ to a ‘D’ and then five more years to get from a ‘D’ to an ‘C’.  Even though I don’t know about the scientific validity of these letter grades, that does sound like a reasonable rate of expected progress.  But look at the other two districts.  The ASD says they can get from the bottom 5% (they don’t have letter grades, but this would be ‘F’ by most measures) to top 25% (I’d think a ‘B’ if not an ‘A’) in five years (though Barbic recently said it might take six or seven after all.)  In a recent interview, Barbic claimed that three of the ASD schools are actually on track to meet the goal.  I”ve investigated these claims in other posts and they are nonsense.

In a very revealing moment, Barbic explains that he’s the one who came up with the bottom 5% to top 25% in five years.  He could have just said bottom 5% to bottom 10% and he wouldn’t be taking such heat now, but having such an ambitious goal had a positive side effect since “It created a momentum and an urgency that we needed to create to get this off the ground” and allowed them to recruit ‘partners’ and leaders and teachers. In other words, it was a lie, but it was a worthwhile one since it tricked people into giving us their money.

Barbic makes some bizarre claims about the success so far of the ASD like that the bottom 5% ‘priority schools’ are growing ‘four times faster than the rest of the state.’  To put this in context, the rest of the state of Tennessee has had flat math scores and declining reading scores.  So if the state went up, on average, of .25%, then ‘four times’ that is just 1%. [Update: Chris Barbic, whom I have known for over 20 years, has gotten back to me with clarification on this. Separate from the typical math and reading scores, Tennessee has a metric called SSR (School Success Rate) which is a composite score for all the different test scores. Even though math and reading scores have been flat, in this metric K-8 priority schools have gone up from 15.5 to 23.2 or 7.7 ‘points’ over a two year period while non-priority schools have gone from 52.7 to 54.0 for a change of 1.3. For high schools, priority schools increased by 15.6 points from 17.1 to 32.7 while non-priority only increased 3.2 points from 58.8 to 62.0. There are some metrics that make it tough to compare two things that have such different starting points. Like it might be tougher for someone who is already in good shape to lose 10 pounds than it is for someone who weighs 500 pounds to lose 40 pounds. I don’t know a lot about this metric, but at least there is some justification for this claim.]

Petrilli is skeptical of the ASD goal, just commenting “That’s a tough goal.”  When Veronica Conforme speaks about Detroit’s EAA and their goal of having schools move from the bottom to the 50% mark in three years, Petrilli just says that it “would be a remarkable accomplishment.”  If ‘reformers’ are so big on accountability, I would have like to see Petrilli really ‘push back’ on them and find out what the purpose is of setting impossible targets and if this, in the long run, will be bad for the ‘reform’ movement as they need to admit defeat and probably resign (don’t worry about them, though, they will surely make quadruple in retirement).

About community resistance to schools being replaced with charter schools, Barbic notes that the community resistance is deceptive since at the school takeover meetings, 95% of the people in the room are teachers.  About those teachers and their views he says “Teacher voice and community voice are not the same thing” and that “Teacher voice should be a voice, not the voice.”  This implies the ‘selfish teacher’ narrative.  They don’t care about the students, just about themselves and their jobs.  As I know some of the people who attended those meetings, I can say with confidence that the teachers I know who stood against giving away a school to a charter school, they were speaking on behalf of the community not for themselves.

Since improving schools is costly, Petrilli asks about how these districts decide where the money should go.  Here, Dobard is quite ambiguous, saying that they have had to be strategic “we have to put more money into x and not y.”

There is a ‘reformer’ theory that the threat of competition with charters and with Achievement School Type districts will foster health competition which will raise the game of nearby schools. In one of the more amusing parts of this discussion we see Dobard at RSD actually take some credit for the fact that the nearby Orleans Parish School District has seen rising test scores much more than RSD. But Orleans Parish has not been doing the reckless types of reform of the RSD, so how can this be? Also Barbic at the ASD takes some credit for the fact that another intervention district in Tennessee, called the iZone, has been cleaning the clock of ASD when it comes to test score improvement.

During the question and answer period, a KIPP teacher got up and said that he’s seen kids make amazing progress but felt that “poverty might be a limit eventually” and wanted to know what these leaders thought about applying resources to anti-poverty measures.

A few years ago, at least one of these leaders would be quick to quote Michelle Rhee with a “poverty is not an excuse.”  This time, that did not happen.  The RSD and the EAA people both said that they invest in wrap-around services.  Conforme said that they provide three meals a day.  Barbic was quiet on this one.  I don’t think wraparound services are at all part of the ASD mission, even though he recently said in an interview that the students in the ASD have been tougher to help than his students back at YES Houston since the YES Houston had ‘immigrant poverty’ while the ASD students had ‘generational poverty.’

Watching these three turnaround gurus quote misleading statistics, give vague abstract answers, and really offer nothing in terms of concrete ideas from what they’ve learned in trying (unsuccessfully) to turnaround their respective districts, made me think that rather than call these ASDs, it would be more accurate to call them BSDs.


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What’s Next at TFA? So maybe we’ll Back Down a smidgen

Teach For America recently broadcast their second annual ‘What’s Next at TFA?‘ event.  One answer to the title question could simply be “Who cares?”  In the scheme of things, what’s really the difference whether TFA changes its strategies and its messaging?  But the reason that I play such close attention to these now annual events is that these events provide new insights into the current state of the education reform debate in this country.

TFA has been around now for 25 years and they have been very slow to change.  Aside from growing, they have not evolved very much since they started in 1990.  When they do choose to do something different, it is because the environment in which they exist has changed and they must change to continue to be the ‘fittest’ in the new environment.  And since they must spend more time than anyone else analyzing the trends in education, TFAs decisions of how to change — even if the change is just in how they present themselves — is quite relevant, I think, to the big picture.

Last year, for example, the first ‘What’s Next? at TFA’  took place in Tennessee.  A year ago the ‘reformers’ seemed to have control of the discussion of how to improve education, and it was all about math and reading standardized test scores.  So it made sense to have that event at the site of the Tennessee NAEP miracle.  That broadcast began with keynote by TFA hero and short-lived Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.  Huffman was, at the time, one of those prominent TFA alum ‘reformers’ who TFA liked to get to speak at their events.

Last year we also got to see the good Kopp / bad Kopp dynamic between the two co-CEOs Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva-Beard.  Kramer was the good Kopp with his remarks entitled “Embracing Change” while Villanueva-Beard played the role of bad Kopp as she delivered a speech entitled, if you can believe it, “We Won’t Back Down.”  Aside from constantly using the phrase that will forever be associated with pro-charter school bomb of a movie, Villanueva-Beard exposed herself as a first class reformer complete with cartoonish caricatures about the ‘status quo’ and critics of the modern reform agenda who believe in low expectations for all but rich white kids.  If one of the purposes of the ‘What’s Next?’ event was to help critics to see that TFA truly cared about their concerns, that speech certainly did not help with that.

What a difference a year makes.  On June 3rd, the 2015 edition of the ‘What’s Next?’ broadcast was filmed, this time in St. Louis.  Rather than choose a place that was notable for standardized test score improvements, they chose a place where TFA actually did some good during the Ferguson protests.

The fact that this year’s event did not have an alumni ‘reformer’ leader making a keynote speech is telling that TFA is likely realizing that getting too cozy with people like Huffman who vilify teachers may be too risky.  Instead the introductory keynote was by the executive director in St. Louis Brittany Packnett, who was very involved during Ferguson and was even appointed to a Presidential Task Force of how this country can learn from the injustices that happened there.  Packnett gave a sincere speech in which she reminds us that we cannot ignore poverty and that Teach For America needs to evolve so that their teachers can better serve the students they will teach.

Though I do think TFA does much more harm than good, I can admit that they do some good and I support the social justice efforts in their regions.  Recently TFA was blasted by Michelle Malkin for using tax payer money to fund their left-wing activism.  As this is one of the good things that TFA does, I definitely did not agree with this point of view.  I also don’t need amateur TFA critics tainting the pristine body of valid criticisms that I’ve been writing about for the past few years.  I don’t need to get lumped in with her in the future when TFA uses her as an example of how misinformed and insensitive TFA critics can be.

The next hour was a carefully scripted back and forth between co-CEOs.  I’m always intrigued by these two.  In 2011, while Wendy Kopp was still sole CEO, Kramer and Villanueva-Beard  made about $600,000 between them for their old positions.  I can only surmise that now that figure is closer to $800,000.  You’ve got to admit is is kind of bizarre that you have co-CEOs of a $300 million a year company and one lives in Houston and the other in Minnesota while the corporate headquarters of TFA are in New York City.  What is it they bring to the table that makes this a good use of the TFA money, as abundant as it might be?  Well, there is one thing that TFA certainly gets from this arrangement.  Whereas before you had a specific leader, someone you could like or not like, someone you could credit or blame.  Now they have two people, both very timid public speakers.  I don’t think anyone really thinks they are more than mere puppets so they are not really targets of any criticism.  Before you could accuse Wendy Kopp of talking out of both sides of her mouth at times.  Now there are literally two mouths so one can be expressing one idea and the other can be doing another and they can never be accused of being ‘a hypocrite.’  I doubt that this hedging the bets thing was the reason for this co-CEO arrangement, but it has given TFA this new dynamic which can make them more immune to criticism.  Kramer and Villanueva-Beard:  Which is the Yin and which is the Yang?   Which is your buddy and which is your enemy?  Which is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern?

Kramer spoke first, and the first surprising thing I learned is that even though Kramer is from a family of charter school zealots in Minnesota, his grandfather, Aaron Maloff, was a New York City superintendent and also a former principal of Jamaica High School.  Now Jamaica High School was recently shut down as a final part of the Bloomberg administration process of breaking up large schools.  I wonder how Maloff felt about this.  We’ll never know since he died at 96, about six months ago.  It is kind of strange to me that I never heard about this prominent public education supporting ancestor of Kramers until, conveniently, when it is too late for me track him down to see what he thinks about what the ‘reformers’ have done to his school.  Have no fear:  As soon as I find my trusty Ouija board, I’ll find out.

Kramer says that when working on his grandfather’s eulogy, he came across an article (presumably this one) from 1977 in which an AFT spokesperson said in an article about school discipline, “Students who run amok at home will also run amok at school,” and Kramer uses this to subtly bash the union, saying “Forty years later, too many people in America still don’t believe that students from every community can succeed academically, but in our community, we know the truth.  Today, there are hundreds of schools and thousands of classrooms in urban and rural communities across this country where kids have the opportunity to get an excellent education, and more and more kids are getting it done.”  Of course there are way more than ‘hundreds of schools … where kids have the opportunity to get an excellent education.  Maybe what he means is that there are a small group of miracle schools whose standardized test scores are proving that ‘great teachers’ can overcome all external obstacles that prevent kids from meeting their potential?  That’s how ‘reformers’ used to describe things.  But wisely Kramer does not commit himself to a specific school since so many miracle schools have been debunked over the years for playing various games to achieve high test scores.

We also learn from Kramer the dire state of TFA recruiting.  While two years ago TFA had about 6,000 new corps members, he says about the new group just that there are “more than 4,000″.  Of course “more than 4,000″ can mean a lot of things, but I get the sense that it is less than 4,500 since he’d likely say “nearly 5,000″ if it were.  This is about a 30% decline in just two years.  He sounds a bit like a PBS fund raiser when he makes a dramatic plea for people watching the webcast to refer people to apply.  Just like TFA, never looking to what might be causing the decline in TFAs reputation and instead focusing on fixing the effect without addressing that cause.

Villanueva-Beard is much more careful in her speech this year especially compared to last year’s fiasco where she attacked the ‘status quo’ and ‘low expectations’ in a cartoonish Michelle Rhee circa 2010 style.

Of course no TFA event would be complete without the bizarrely inflated statistic Villanueva-Beard quotes that “nearly 85 percent of our 42,000 alumni have committed their lives to either work in education or have a career in a low-income community.”  I’d love to see a list of all the people they consider to ‘work in education’ or ‘have a career in a low-income community’ together with what those people’s job’s actually are.

She addresses frustrated alumni for the first time:

Alumni — you need to feel like you are part of a community and a movement.  You need to know that your work — whatever path you choose — is valued by this organization, and you need opportunities to engage in the various supports that we offer.

You also need to feel valued and respected by fellow alumni.  Listen, we all have our own principled views on the best pathway to One Day, but we can learn from each other, disagree respectfully, and still be united in the fierce belief we have in our children.

Well I certainly don’t feel valued by this organization, particularly after Villanueva-Beard un-followed me on Twitter last year.

But she also spews the Bill Gates education agenda, though in friendlier sounding terms, for example:

As we look at academic outcomes, we’re asking every one of our 52 regions to know if students in our classrooms are on a path toward college readiness, and know how our teachers’ are doing as they perform alongside their peers.  We’ll do this by using locally-relevant test scores and third-party studies.

Unfortunately those ‘third-party’ studies are usually funded by Gates.

Villanueva-Beard does, however, let her guard down when addressing critics when she says: “We want this year to be the year that the Teach For America community stops feeling bad about feeling good about our contributions.”

Of course TFA recognizes a good sound bite and their graphic designers quickly got busy to make it into a twitter bumper sticker:

When exactly was there a year when TFA was feeling bad about feeling good?  Come on.  They’ve always felt good about every one of their ‘contributions’ and they will continue to do so no matter what critics say.  This is not much different, in spirit, from the ‘We won’t back down’ mantra from the previous year.

In general, though, the messages in the two speeches this year were better than last year’s.  There is a lot of talk, for example, of collaboration with the community, and also some sincere sounding “we need to do better” at several things.  “We need to recognize our strengths, our mistakes, and our opportunities for improvement, and recognize the same things in our partners, knowing that we each have an important role to play.  We do not have a chance to reach our shared aspirations if we do not get better at this.”  This is a more humble sounding TFA.

Whether this is just a new communications strategy to reverse the declining popularity of TFA in recent years or something they really believe, I don’t know.  Even if they are just saying some of these things to make critics a bit less critical, I still think that it helps the cause of all the teachers out there opposed to the kind of education reform championed by people like Kevin Huffman.  Though actions do speak louder than words, words are pretty important in their own right.

TFA’s words over the year, particularly the ones that were lies, have fueled many politician’s war against teachers.  Whether it was a fake miracle school that TFA wanted to take credit for since it was founded by a TFA alum or some ‘research’ proving that TFA teachers were more effective than non-TFA teachers since this was useful in their fundraising efforts — Many of TFA’s words have done a lot of damage over the years.  If this latest ‘What’s New at TFA?’ event is typical of the more careful choice of words from TFA, then I think it’s a step in the right direction.

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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.

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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.


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