TFA Podcast Showcasing ‘Failing’ Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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6 Responses to TFA Podcast Showcasing ‘Failing’ Schools

  1. Gabriel Maldonado says:

    TFA has spun so many wheels in the last decade that its difficult to keep track of exactly what it is they are proposing or what they stand for. Now they are ditching their historic overemphasis in test scores and gain scores as the arbitrators of school success. Its probably a good thing for education overall, as these cheerleaders were cheering for the wrong team!

  2. mikke madden says:

    dont blame the schools look at the families that do not teach the importance of education…just look at bronx hs of science all asian there because they value education its not that the teachers and the school are so great

  3. ruby says:

    Hey rubenstein why are my posts never showing up…are you censoring the comments to your liking?

  4. mikke madden says:

    TFA is for people who cannot go to college for the duration instead they use this cheap easy trick

  5. Jack says:

    Here’s a article from 4 years ago on the Ravitch blog about another corporate ed. reformer, Paymon Rouhanifard, who did a suspicious or rather ludicrous about face on testing. Here’s the link to that:

    In the COMMENTS section, I posted a video of recent (as of 2018) born-again test-hater Paymon Rouhanifard facing down angry parents at a meeting years earlier where he continually pointed out that “low test scores” were his guiding principle, and all-purpose defense when turning over the school building and its multi-million-dollar budget over to private unaccountable management, all of this done without and against the will of the parents of Camden, N.J..

    Watch the video. These parents ain’t happy:

    Again, that same test-loving (in his pre-privatization, pre-charterization persona) slob Paymon — a few years after the above video, and after Camden N.J. had just been charter-sized under his leadership — had just published an op-ed decrying the over-emphasis and misuse of testing in analyzing the quality of teachers and schools (!!!), and gosh, we need to stop judging Camden’s charter schools/teachers based on their test scores

    BOTTOM LINE: using test scores is great when you’re out to privatize and charter-ize a school district … not so much when you’re done privatizing/charter-izing (since they’re going to make the schools newly converted to private charter management look bad).

    Here’s my post in the COMMENTS section:
    Indeed, all these born-again test-haters (formerly test-lovers … there’s now dozens of these “corporate ed. reform” folks emerging in the last few months) and their new-found skepticism regarding testing rings kind of hollow.

    Before, they operated thusly:

    “The tests prove that all or almost all of these teachers suck! Fire all of ’em!” (Rhee’s reign in D.C., etc.)

    “The tests prove that traditional public schools suck! Close ’em, fire all the teachers, then turn the buildings and multi-million-dollar budgets over to private charter operators”. (NCLB in general)

    “The tests prove that teachers unions are an obstacle to improving (reforming … sheesh) schools! Crush them with lawsuits, laws (Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, etc.), and Supreme Court rulings.(Vergara, Janus, Friedrichs’, etc.)”

    Now, all of a sudden, they’re claiming those same tests are invalid for determining any of this (when evaluating charter schools)???


    Gimme a break!

    It’s just pure coincidence, I suppose, that this new-found anti-testing revelation emerges when or after the privately managed charters — the ones that were sold as promising better test results — are getting worse results, or at the very best, the same results as the public school system on these same tests.

    While the (COUGH! COUGH!) “reformers” were carrying out the above agenda, veteran teachers with decades of experience were screaming out loud that this kind of test-based (COUGH! COUGH! )”reform” was bogus because the using tests this way was/is bogus — all the while sharing demonstrable proof that this was so.

    “It’s all a scam to privatize schools!” so many teachers and parents claimed.

    The response from these same (now) newly born-again test-haters back then was:

    *”Oh no. You lousy teachers just can’t handle accountability. You’re just unwavering roadblocks to ‘reform’. You teachers are all corrupt defenders of a failed status quo that puts your adult interests ahead of children’s interests. If we just fired the bottom ten per cent of you each year” — “as determined by test scores” (Erik Hanushek), “the U.S would have the Number One and greatest education system in the history of mankind.”” (Did I miss any of the stock cliches?)”

  6. Jack says:

    Don’t forget this classic clip of the non-educator and Common Core creator/promoter David Coleman brazenly barking orders at the millions of U.S. teachers:

    “(You) teachers will teach to the test!”

    He even goes on to clarify this further as he mockingly discredits the wishy-washy watered-down alternative that you will “teach to the standards, not a test.”

    NO, he insists, you will “teach to the TEST.”

    At least there’s no ambiguity about where he stands:

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