Stewart Swoons, Eva Evades

I recently listened to two illuminating podcasts about Success Academy.  Hosted by Education Post CEO Chris Stewart on the Citizen Ed podcast, the first interview was with Robert Pondiscio, author of ‘How The Other Half Learns’ and the second was with Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz.

The first thing that struck me about these podcasts was that Chris Stewart, when he is not being very immature on Twitter, has it in him to be a thoughtful and humble guy.  Why he acts like he does on Twitter, I guess he thinks it achieves something.  We’ve had some epic Twitter battles over the years — often some TFA supporters join in and gang up on me — I can’t say I look forward to them.  One thing I have earned as result of my sporadic interactions with him is that I have my own ‘tag’ on Education Post.

So to see him interview people who he has long standing relationships is an interesting experience.  It’s like when the curtain is removed and we see the real Wizard of Oz that is voicing the booming avatar.

The first interview was with Pondiscio.  About a year ago he published a tell-all about Success Academy.  Though he set out to give a balanced picture of the good and bad of Success Academy, I wote in my review that I felt that his honest appraisal was devastating to the mythology of this controversial charter chain.  Rather than try to counter the charges that the students in Success Academy are cherry picked, he embraces it.  Who are we, he asks, to prevent families from self-selecting themselves by using their resources, in this case the organizational resources to do all the application steps, to attend a school with similarly advantaged families?

He says that an argument against charters is that people think that taking the most functional families from the public schools harms the kids left in that school.  But he argues that we would never expect a wealthy white family to put up with sacrificing their child’s education for the greater good of society so why should we not give families who are financially poor but who have what he calls ‘social capital’ the same option?  I would argue back that wealthy white families would also not put up with a school that pulls a bait-and-switch and in the end, only 20% of families who start there manage to complete the school.  Success Academy is like a pyramid scheme and while I suppose we all have the right to enter a pyramid scheme if we want to, it’s better to avoid them so families deserve to know the truth about the high likelihood that they will eventually be leaving the school ‘voluntarily.’

Though some very stupid ‘reformers’ like Joel Klein, who wrote a blurb for the back cover, claim to love the book, Chris Stewart admits “If I were on the other side of this I would like your book better than if I’m a reformer. … If I was on the anti-reform side I would like it better.  I actually would think that it validates more of what people have been trying to say.”

Even though Stewart does not agree with a lot of the arguments in the book, he says it is very well-written and worth reading and watching the conversation, he seems to like Pondiscio and respects him even though they may not agree on some big issues.  Watching this interview makes it seem so strange to me the way that Stewart interacts with people who he must consider to be much bigger threats than Pondiscio for making almost the same arguments in their own blogs and Tweets.

A few weeks later, Stewart hosts Eva Moskowitz in a 30 minute interview that I encourage everyone to watch.

It is pretty amazing to watch Eva Moskowitz discuss education.  I can see why Trump considered her for Secretary of Education.

After about 7 minutes, Stewart apologetically says that people are going to be upset if he doesn’t ask her the tough questions.  The first question is whether the disciplinary measures at the school serve to weed kids out and produce an easier population to teach.  Her response is that in fifteen years only one student was ever expelled.  Though they may not officially ‘expel’ many students, they have different ways of dealing with students who have “got to go.”  One trick they use often is telling a family that their child has to repeat a grade.  But — if they act now and transfer out, they can be promoted to the next grade for their new school.  This was well documented in the podcast series startup last year.  A few years ago I was at a meeting in my daughter’s school’s auditorium and I overheard a parent tell another parent that his daughter went to Success Academy.  When asked how it was the guy said “It’s great.  They say here’s how we do it, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door.”

About their suspension rate she uses an extreme example which is likely very rare, “You’re not allowed to throw a metal chair at a teacher’s head.”  I’d like to know what percent of Success Academy’s large number of yearly suspensions comes from a child throwing a metal chair at a teacher’s head.  Personally, I would want to know more about what led to the student throwing a chair and if the student was deliberately trying to assault the teacher or if the student was having a tantrum and as a result a chair ended up coming close to a teacher’s head.  I doubt that it is very often in Success Academy that something like this happens and, just like all schools, they should not be surprised that things like that happen, especially when you don’t know anything about chid development and how to de-escalate volatile situations.

Stewart then mentions “a particular New York critic who like to follow you guys all the time … and his number one thing is retention.”  I hope I’m not too vain, but I do think that this comment is about me.  So he asks how Eva would respond to charges of lack of retention of students and also about lack of backfilling.

I think that lack of backfilling is one of the main advantages that Success Academy has over other schools.  When a public school loses 10 to 20 percent of their students each year — often some of the lowest performing students who have less stability in their lives — those students are replaced with other students who often also have less stability so in that way, the student population does not get any easier to teach.  But Success only backfills up until elementary school, and even that is a bit shady since when a fourth grader, for example, gets a coveted spot off the Success Academy wait list, they are often brought in and tested and told that their reading level is too low so they can only come to Success Academy if they re-do third grade.  Many of those families decline their wait list offer so even the backfilling has ways for Success to stack the deck.  Another reason that backfilling is so important is that it would encourage Success Academy to be more accountable for retaining their students.  As it is, Success Academy is rewarded when a student leaves and is not backfilled.  But if they had to backfill, they might think twice about coercing a student to leave the school if they know that they can’t control who replaces that student.

She says that they don’t backfill after elementary school because it would be unfair to the students if she were to backfill and get a tenth grade who reads at a second grade level.  Stewart just nods in agreement at this and I wonder where is the chops-busting Citizen Stewart from Twitter to challenge this explanation.  Eva then says that their retention is very good and that they lose between 5 and 10 percent of their students each year while the neighborhood schools lose between 20 and 30 percent, to which Stewart responds “I’ve never heard that fact, actually.”  I have see some analyses that have Success Academy losing about 10% a year and district school losing about 15% a year.  Certainly I would expect Success Academy families who already are more stable than the average family in their district and who went through great lengths to get admitted to the school to try to stay at the school while for the district school, leaving one to go to another similar school a mile a way isn’t such a hard decision to make.  So I would say that if Success attrition is below district attrition, it should be even more so.

And it’s not just about the attrition rate, but who leaves the school.  I think I could win any argument about Success Academy with just a few publicly available data points.

This is one of the most telling.  Here are the demographics for the graduating class 2018-2019

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What this shows is that the graduating class was only 20% boys and 80% girls.  Considering that these 28 students were once 80 kindergarteners, the school retained, on average, about 15% of their boys and 40% of their girls.

Eva says that families leave Success Academy for different reasons and she supports parents right to choose a school that meets their needs.  She uses a ridiculous example of a male student who chose to leave the school between 8th grade and 9th grade because he didn’t think that he would have anyone to date at the Success Academy high school.

Moskowitz then wants to make the point that when you look at the low number of graduates she has (There were 16 out of 72 the first year, 26 out of 80 the second year, and 99 out of 350 this year), she says that that does not include students who have been left back but who are still in the school and will graduate the next year.

Moskowitz:  “Some of our kids, often because of trauma, you know, take a fifth year of high school.  And I support that.  If you’ve had your father murdered (nervous laughter), your studies are not the most important thing at that moment.  I have people criticizing that we started senior year with, you know, x number, I believe we started with 111 [author’s note:  It was 114] if I’m remembering correctly, and we ended up with 99.  Most of those kids are still going to our school.  They’re just not graduating.  It’s not a one size fits all.  And we have a lot of kids who experience a lot of trauma and they may need to take a little bit longer.”

OK a lot to unpack here.  A parent being murdered is quite an unusual situation and I seriously doubt that many of the students in the fifteen years of her school get left back for something as horrific as that.  But she is right that Success Academy does leave back a lot of students.  Taking a fifth year of high school, however, doesn’t usually work the way she is describing.  Using her current senior class she says that there were 114 seniors in the beginning of the year and 99 of them graduated at the end of the year.  So there were 15 students, over 10 percent of the class, she is to have us believe, that had to repeat 12th grade because they needed a 5th year of high school.  It is more likely that someone gets left back in an earlier grade.  I would think it very unusual that after making it though 12 years of Success Academy and getting to 12th grade that so many students would have to repeat 12th grade.  It just doesn’t make sense.

I took a look at the numbers and found that the recent 99 graduates were actually 146 11th graders the year before with 44% boys and 56% girls.

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The 99 students who graduated a year and a half later represent just 67% of the 11th graders from the beginning of 11th grade.  And those 99 students were about 2/3 girls, so half of the boys who had made it to 11th grade either left the school or were left back either in 11th grade or in 12th grade and did not make it to graduate with the rest of their class.

Throughout this interview, Moskowitz operates in absurd extremes to defend her positions:  Of course we suspend children when they throw metal chairs at teachers’ heads.  We don’t backfill because there could be a 10th grader who reads at a second grade level, we don’t make things difficult for families which causes them to transfer out — kids choose to leave so they can have more dating options.  We didn’t want to make 15 out of 114 12th graders who started at the beginning of this school year have to repeat a grade — they couldn’t focus on their studies because they were dealing with issues as serious as the murder of one of their parents.  And, just to add one more comment about this one, even if it were true that one or more of those 15 12th graders lost focus because their fathers were murdered, wouldn’t it be the right thing to do to tell them that they’ve done K to 11 at Success Academy and some of their senior year so let’s give them a break and not add extra trauma to a horrific situation by making them re-do 12th grade?  But Moskowitz operates in these extremes because if she were to admit that these extreme — and likely made up — scenarios are very rare.

Well, I definitely found these podcasts interesting to listen to.  I was flattered to be mentioned, if not by name, even though I was being mocked for being a nay-sayer.  It is important to scrutinize Success Academy since it is the only charter network in the country that is, at least in terms of test scores, doing with education reformers claimed would be done all over the place if they ever got into power.  Revealing some of the data that puts some of their statistics into perspective should be something that all education reformers should be interested in learning about and should not be mocking.  Genuine Success should invite and be able to withstand being prodded and examined and if it can’t withstand the scrutiny, that’s important to know that too.  I play my part in raising concerns and even though it sometimes gets me into a Twitter fight, I think that it is important to do anyway.

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TFA Will Train New Recruits Virtually

For the past thirty summers, Teach For America has trained their new recruits in a five-week crash course known as ‘the institute.’  The first institute trained 500 corps members in Los Angeles.  As TFA grew, more institutes were added and last summer they trained around 3,000 corps members spread out among four different sites.

At the institute, corps members are split into groups of about 12 where they have a TFA alum as their Corps Member Advisor.  This group is further split into teams of 4 who will work together to teach a class of students in summer school.  The first week is an orientation period where corps members get to learn the basic principles of teaching and also to have discussions about race and society.  The next four weeks are centered on student teaching.  Since summer school is about 4 hours a day, each teacher gets to teach, on average, one hour a day for the remaining 20 days.  The Corps Member Advisor will observe the student teaching and in the afternoon each day there will be a group meeting with that advisor and also some kind of lesson taught by another alum called the content specialist.

Twenty hours is not a lot of student teaching.  I’ve been complaining for years that they could increase this to eighty hours if they would just get more students for the summer schools so that each teacher could teach four hours a day instead of just one.  Though they only get twenty hours of teaching actual children, all corps members — like all student teachers — would agree that these were the most valuable hours in their entire training.  You can talk about students in the abstract all you want and what sorts of things they will respond to and what will help them learn, but student teaching is where you get to learn the all important chasm between theory and practice in teaching.  Twenty hours of student teaching is certainly not as good as the months of student teaching that a teacher in a traditional certification route receives, and it isn’t as good as the eighty hours that I consider possible with TFA and which I used to nag TFA about when I used to try to make suggestions directly to them.  But twenty hours, though short, is twice as good as ten hours.  And twenty hours is twenty times as good as one hour.  And twenty hours is 1,200 times as good as one minute.  And twenty hours is, of course, infinitely better than zero hours.

COVID-19 has shaken every aspect of American life.  Throughout the country, school buildings are closed and teachers are doing their best to teach remotely.  Colleges are also closed.  It is not even certain that schools will re-open normally this September without some miracle cure or vaccine for COVID-19.

Because of COVID-19, people have had to cancel a lot of things that were very important to them.  Weddings that had been scheduled for over a year had to be postponed.  Trips had to be cancelled.  In times like these, unfortunately, some things are temporarily impossible.  Some things can be done virtually.  A wedding, I suppose, can be done remotely.  It’s not as fun, but there are no real ‘victims’ of a remote wedding.  I had the unpleasant opportunity to attend a remote funeral a few weeks ago.  So there are things that can be done virtually, but there are other things where the remote version is so different from the live version, like trying to play baseball remotely, where it doesn’t make any sense to do it at all.

I learned yesterday that TFA has chosen not to cancel the 2020 Institute, but instead to hold it remotely.  So this means that TFA has weighed out the pros and cons of cancelling training vs. remote training and decided that the reward of remote training outweighs the risks of remote training.  I see this as a huge mistakes that harms children.  But for this decision to harm children, there are three other parties that share responsibility.  I will outline who these other parties are in a minute.

Teach For America surely knows that a remote training with no actual student teaching will produce extremely unprepared teachers.  And those teachers will each teach 30 (or up to 150) students next year and each of those students will suffer for having such an untrained teacher.  I don’t know what alternatives TFA explored, but there was another option besides just cancelling the institute altogether.  If I were in charge I would take some of the $300 million that TFA has in the bank and make this summer a remote training for teacher assistants.  Next year will be a challenge for teachers and having 3,000 teacher assistants who are knowledgeable about the different remote learning options can be very useful.  And TFA could pay the salaries of these 3,000 teacher assistants too.  This way, the 2020 corps members can actually be helping improve education and there would not be student victims who have completely untrained teachers as their lead teachers.  But this is not the decision TFA went with.  They are comfortable sending teachers with zero hours of student teaching into real schools next year with students who have just suffered the emotional, physical, and educational trauma of the previous six months.

But as I mentioned, TFA is not the sole culprit here.  TFA can only get away with this if the states that TFA partners with allow it.  In each state that TFA sends teachers to, there is some kind of contract where TFA promises to provide teachers who have been trained to some kind of minimum standard.  That standard likely includes some minimum amount of student teaching hours.  TFA was already likely claiming that their trainees got 80 hours of student teaching since they were technically team-teaching for 20 days for 4 hours a day even though, in reality, they generally only taught for one hour each day.  But there is no way that any amount of remote teaching for students that these trainees do this summer can count as actual ‘student teaching’ by the original intent of the agreement.  I think it would be fair for any of these states to say that TFA violated the terms of the contract and that the state is under no obligation to issue teaching certificates to those trainees.  So if the states decide not to do this, I see them as equally culpable in this scheme.

But even if both TFA and the states are OK with allowing TFA trainees with zero hours of student teaching to become full time lead teachers for students who are in most need of teachers who have had more than zero hours of actual teaching experience, there are still two more parties that have to be complicit for TFA and the states to actually get away with it.

The next responsible party would be any principals who actually hire these TFA teachers who have only participated in a virtual training experience.  If those principals don’t hire the TFA teachers, then those teachers can’t go on, as well meaning as they may be, and make students be victims of these irresponsible decisions by TFA and by the states.

I know it might seem hopeless now.  If TFA won’t do the right thing by cancelling institute or ‘reimagining’ the role of TFA at this moment.  If the states won’t have the courage to refuse to certify teachers who have not met minimum requirements laid out in a contract that never anticipated the possibility of a pandemic that would make actual student teaching impossible for the trainees.  If principals decide to hire these trainees — I don’t know why they would — who else could possibly stop this impending disaster from happening?

Well, there is one more actor.  It’s not an actor with any money or influence but it is an actor with ultimate power.  The one group of people who could stop this madness is, quite simply, the members of the TFA 2020 corps.  I know that it is sad that this decision must come down to them, but this is the reality.  The incoming 2020 corps members have suffered their own trauma.  A few weeks before graduating college, their schools were closed.  All the fun senior year events, including graduation, were cancelled.  Several months ago they applied to TFA because they wanted to help kids.  When they got into TFA and accepted the offer, they stopped planning for any other future.  They were set for the next two years.  Training was going to start in July and they would be teachers, ready to make a difference, in September.

But this pandemic changed things.  Now that the training has been made into remote training, I’m sure that some of them are having second thoughts.  As much as TFA might tell them that TFA has it all under control — that face to face student teaching was only a small component of the full training — some 2020 corps members must be worried that this type of training will not prepare them to be effective teachers.  And if they will not be effective teachers, by no fault of their own, they will then go on to harm the very students who they signed up to TFA to help.  I am very glad that I am not in this dilemma.  And I think it is a shame that TFA and the states that are willing to certify the under trained teachers have put the 2020 corps members into this dilemma.  Had TFA and the states just said that this is one of those things that there was no choice — student teaching is essential to teacher training — then the 2020 corps would be disappointed, but also relieved.  They know that this situation is unfair to them while they have to be unwitting partners in harming children.  But this is the dilemma that the 2020 corps members are now facing.  COVID-19 may have destroyed their immediate plans, but it does not have to destroy their lives.    The correct thing for a 2020 corps member to do is to resign from TFA.  Deep down they know this.  Will they be brave enough to make the correct decision?

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98 Success Academy Students Accepted To College

But is that a lot?

The New York Post seems to think so.  Three times in a recent article they suggest that this is 100% of the seniors.  The title “Entire Success Academy senior class accepted to college” certainly implies it.  The first sentence “Every senior in one of the city’s largest charter school networks has been accepted to a college this year, officials said.” reinforces it.  And the second sentence “All 98 of the 12th graders at Success Academy’s HS of the Liberal Arts in Manhattan earned admission to universities — including Yale, Penn, Duke and Georgetown.” further drives the point home.

But a responsible reporter would ask the logical follow up question.  Is 98 really all the students in the class of 2020?

The answer, of course is, ‘no.’  What the actual number is depends on how you define the class of 2020.

If you go back to a New York Post editorial from just six months ago, it begins with the sentence “Seniors at the Success Academy HS of the Liberal Arts just got their SAT scores — and all 114 did great, with an average score of 1268, 200 points above the national average.”  So six months ago there were 114 seniors, which is 16 more than the 98 that are now called the ‘entire’ senior class.  For Success Academy to lose roughly one-seventh of the students who were in the senior class just six months ago is stunning.  These 16 students had been at the school since at least 3rd grade.  Where did those 16 students go?

But if you look further back to the state data, you will find that the class of 2020 had 146 eleventh graders for the 2018-2019 school year.  This means that they lost about 1/3 of the class of 2020 between then and now.

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If you go back two more years to see where the class of 2020 was when they were in 9th grade you find that there were 191 students in the cohort back then.  Also notice that when they were in 9th grade the boy/girl split of the 191 was about 50%/50% while when they were in 11th grade the boy/girl split of the 146 was 44%/56% in favor of the girls.  We will have to wait until the official data comes out next year to see what the split was for the ‘entire’ 98 who graduated.

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But Success Academy starts in Kindergarten.  For that you have to go way back to 2010 when they had 353 students in the class of 2020.  If you use that as your baseline then only 28% of the cohort persisted.

Regardless of how you want to define the ‘class of 2020,’ it is disingenuous of The New York Post to call this ‘all’ or ‘the entire class.’

All the data I found is publicly available here.

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KIPP Sinks To New Low. Uses COVID-19 As An Opportunity To Abandon Two Memphis Schools.

The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter network is renowned as the ‘gold star’ of charter schools in the country.  With over 200 schools throughout the country and over 100,000 students, KIPP is the kind of network that reformers are referring to when they talk about ‘high quality charters.’

In researching KIPP over the years, I have found a huge inconsistency in the performance of their schools.  In some states with A to F grading schemes, there are KIPPs with As and KIPPs with Fs.  And even if you’re not a big believer in the A to F school rating system, reformers love them so it must be considered at least ‘ironic’ when schools that operate with the same philosophy and training and materials get such different results in the same state.

The Tennessee Achievement School District, or ASD, is the Edsel of school reform.  Created with a Race To The Top Grant and developed by TFA alum Kevin Huffman, who was state education commissioner at the time, and TFA alum Chris Barbic, the first ASD superintendent, the ASD completely failed in it’s mission to ‘catapult’ schools from the bottom 5% into the top 25% in five years.  It is now eight years into the experiment and hardly any of the 30 ASD schools even made it out of the bottom 5%.  Not to worry, both Huffman and Barbic resigned and are doing very well with their new project called The City Fund.

Three of the 30 ASD schools are run by KIPP.  Five days ago I read in Chalkbeat TN that two of those KIPP schools are shutting down at the end of this school year.  On the KIPP Memphis website they explain to the families “While the community welcomed our network with open arms, we’ve been unable to fulfill our academic promise to our students, teachers and families at KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary and KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle. We understand that these closures will have significant implications on our families. However, we strongly believe this decision is in the best interest of our entire KIPP Memphis community and is a step in the right direction to improve our organization’s ability to build a stronger network of schools.”

Tennessee is where the value-added and growth metrics were developed and these two schools ranked at the bottom of the state.  Out of a 4 point scale, one of the schools got a 1 and the other got a 0.1 in growth.

Incidentally, KIPP currently has 13 schools in Tennessee.  Of those 13 schools, only 11 have growth scores for 2018-2019, five of those (including the two that are now closing) had growth scores between 0 and 1 and two had growth scores between 1 and 2.  So of the 11 schools with this rating, 7 had below to very below average ‘growth.’  Reformers are going to have to make up their minds:  Is KIPP a fraud or are growth scores a fraud — they can’t have it both ways.

But the other reason KIPP cited was COVID-19.  On the Frequently Asked Questions on their website, they wrote:  “The COVID-19 pandemic played a role in the decision to close the schools, as its financial impact prevented opportunities for the schools to receive long-term funding from historic philanthropic resources. KIPP Memphis strongly believes the decision to close KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary and KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle this year is what’s best for our community.”

So as a result of this, over 700 students who are already suffering the trauma that students everywhere are suffering as a result of this crisis — these 700 students now have an additional thing to suffer through, that their school which made so many promises to them is dissolving.

I do not believe that COVID-19 caused the KIPP empire to have to shutter these two schools.  If KIPP wants to admit that these schools should be shut down because KIPP does not have, after 25 years, any real knowledge about improving schools then at least they are being honest.  But I see this as just KIPP using a pandemic as an opportunity to dump two of low performing schools from their ‘portfolio.’  For these families, this is the last thing they needed to go through right now.  I know that the students will likely be better off in the long run by not attending a KIPP school, but in the short run I do not like to see students abandoned by their school no matter how overhyped that school might be.



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Some Friends Of TFA Join In On The Teacher Bashing During a Pandemic

A big topic among teacher bashing reformers, nowadays, is how easy teachers have it as they attempt to work remotely.  In my last post I wrote about how some prominent reformers found no shame in kicking teachers while they were down.

Most reformer are either TFA alumni or are big supporters of TFA.  In this post I want to look at how some of the lesser known ed reformers have joined in on the teacher bashing.

Dan Weisberg is the current head of the Michelle Rhee founded TNTP (formerly known as ‘The New Teachers Project’).  Though this editorial has a small product placement for his own teacher recruitment services, the piece itself does not bash teachers.  But anyone who follows Dan Weisberg knows that he is not a friend to teachers.  Just three days later, Weisberg’s true colors show with this tweet.

So I looked up this ‘shameful’ contract for Boston teachers and found the list of teacher responsibilities during the pandemic.  I encourage any reader to read the entire contract here and decide for yourself if this is something that is unnecessarily easy for the teachers.  Here is the relevant section:

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50CAN is a big ed reform lobbyist group that has a lot of TFA alumni on staff and that took over Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.

In this tweet, The TFA alum 50CAN guy is reacting to a New York Times article about the struggles that many teachers who are caretakers for their own children have in trying to juggle both responsibilities.  Though that article is pretty balanced, it has the unfortunate title ‘Online School Demands More of Teachers. Unions Are Pushing Back.’  I think the expression ‘pushing back’ has an unnecessarily negative connotation in this context.  But for the TFA-Friendly TNTP and 50CAN, they must unfairly continue their teachers unions vs. students narrative.

Both the UTLA contract (which you can read here) and the Boston contract referenced earlier in this one, require teachers to do quite a lot of work.  Teachers who are able to will surely go beyond the minimum while teachers who are struggling with many of their own issues will struggle to meet those minimums.  But surely it should be the union’s job to negotiate what that minimum should be, and if the Boston and L.A. contracts are the ones that are ‘shameful’ and ‘indefensible’ I would like to see either of these tweeters teach remotely for a week while also taking care of their own young children, with a minimum that they would not consider too light.

This is why I was very surprised, and impressed, to see a counter view from RiShawn Biddle, another staunch reformer and friend of TFA.  Impressively, he came to the defense of teachers in a series of tweets.

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Teacher Bashers Gonna Bash — Even In a Pandemic

Teaching during a pandemic is challenging.

And some teachers are facing more hardships than others.  There are teachers who have been infected with Covid-19.  There are teachers who have family members who have been infected and are currently fighting for their lives.  There are teachers who have family members who have already died of Covid-19.  There are teachers who are physically healthy but are suffering mental trauma from all that is going on.  And, yes, there are teachers who have died — infected, some of them, in schools that should have been closed a week or two sooner.

One challenge that some teachers have is that they have their own children at home.  Not to diminish the very real issues that teachers who do not have children at home are facing, but since this is the struggle that I am dealing with most, it is the one that I can address with the most detail.  I have two children, 12 years old and 9 years old.  My older child has adjusted pretty well to remote learning so far.  My younger child has not.  For me, this is my hardship and I’m lucky that, at least for now, this is the thing that occupies a lot of my energy.  I could have much bigger problems.

This crisis has put a lot of people out of work.  Certain jobs have temporarily ceased to exist — waiters, house cleaners, tour guides, contractors, for example.  Some people are able to work from home and they are able to be nearly as productive.  As a teacher, I find myself somewhere between these two positions.  Yes, I can work, meaning that I can invest energy doing things.  But me doing work and putting time into my job does not necessarily translate into the true goal of my work which is that my students learn the math I’m teaching them.  Still, the better the job I do, the more learning will happen and given the different other issues I am dealing with, I believe I am doing a good job.  I feel guilt sometimes knowing that, at least in theory, I could be doing more.  I’ve thought that if I did not have a family maybe I’d be spending my day doing math lessons on YouTube live all day and invite the entire country to participate.  So, no, I’m not a national hero, but I am creating videos, doing some live classes.  I’m answering a lot of emails from students and also keeping track of who is turning in assignments.  I know that I am lucky that I will continue getting paid and I want to be productive and feel that I have earned it.

The biggest dilemma I’m dealing with in remote instruction is whether or not homework should be mandatory.  I know that some students are likely going through a lot right now.  So for the first two weeks of remote learning, I assigned work but told students that there was no official due date, but that they should do the assignments if they are able.  Only about half the students were turning in the assignments compared to nearly 100% before schools were closed.  Having due dates is something that motivates students and also helps them keep organized, though, and I was concerned that this lenient due date policy, while humane, could have been leading to a lesser amount of learning.  I noticed that my own children who are in 6th and 3rd grade had due dates for their assignments.  But I also knew that these due dates were causing stress for them, especially for my 3rd grade son.  I also knew that other teachers at my school were having due dates and that most students were meeting those due dates.  I struggled with this decision, but I changed my policy and set up due dates for future assignments.  I told my students that I would be flexible if they needed extensions, but that they should complete by the due dates if they are able to.  In a sense, this wasn’t that different than the previous policy, but by making an actual due date, I now have about 85% of students submitting the work on time compared to 50% before.  Does that mean I made the right choice?  I don’t know.  Maybe those 35% of students who are now completing the assignments on time now also have a lot more stress which they did not need right now.  I hope not.

Every teacher in the country is struggling to find a way to make this work as best as they possibly can while also juggling their own issues in their own lives.  I doubt there are many teachers dancing around in their underwear blasting Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out For The Summer.’

Teacher bashing has been a national past-time, especially with the rise of the ‘reformers’ in the last 15 to 20 years.  With Michelle Rhee on Time Magazine and Oprah, Waiting For Superman, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Teach For America, and, more recently, the different think tanks and websites like The74 and Education Post, Betsy DeVos, teacher bashing and it’s sister, teacher’s union bashing, which is pretty much the same thing — it’s like saying “I love Jewish people.  I just hate when they get together and go to temple.” — though the teacher bashers have softened their tone over the last two or three years, they have only done this, I think, as a political calculation.

A pandemic can bring out the best in people, so the way that teacher bashers act in a pandemic is pretty much the high bar we can ever expect from them.  Based on some of what I have seen some of the most prominent teacher bashers on social media, I’m not impressed.

Andrew Rotherham is a cofounder of Bellwether Education Partners.  So you figure he has some understanding about education.  Here is what he tweeted about remote learning.

So, because his daughters are doing the remote learning quickly, his conclusion is that a lot of time is ‘wasted’ each day in school.  I don’t think I need to say much more about this, like I normally would.  The word ‘disgraceful’ captures it enough.

Michael Petrilli is the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  I have a good relationship with him.  He’s been respectful and answered me when I’ve tweeted with him.  He was one of only three people to have answered one of the letters of my open-letters series.  Petrilli’s instincts about education are consistently off base.  He constantly falls for the promise of the latest fads in education and when that one is revealed to be a fraud he seems to pretend it never happened only to fall for the next one.  He is someone who would truly benefit from being a classroom teacher for about three years.

He wrote a Washington Post op-ed entitled ‘Schools should consider keeping kids in the same grade this fall.’

Depending on what part of the country a school is in, the school year was around 2/3 to 3/4 completed.  With standardized testing, many schools were in, or about to be in, test prep mode anyway this makes the actual amount of true learning in the year even more.  But he suggests having two kindergarten classes so there can be two kindergarten cohorts to make room for all the 5 year olds who will need to be left back by his plan.  Now of course schools are going to need to adjust to what has happened.  A fourth grade teacher will no longer be able to operate under the assumption that all her students mastered some of the material that is generally taught at the end of the year.  But leaving back a large percent of kids causes so many more problems than it supposedly fixes.  It’s like when someone says about an economic crisis “Why not just print up more money?”  It is just something that sounds good to the uninformed.

About the experience of remote learning, he says “I could get used to this.” which really isn’t the thing to be saying right now, but remote learning is something that has been promoted as the next big thing and Petrilli is often eager.  I think he really believes in the things he promotes, it’s a little like Trump with his Hydroxychloroquine.

Then, there’s the Education Post contingency.  Chris Stewart, the CEO of Education Post, responds “Good work if you can get it” to a tweet about how in Milwaukee while they figure out how to handle remote learning, teachers will still get paid.  Since the initial tweet is only an excerpt from a larger document, it is not clear what the time frame for this is.  But the original tweeter is very upset that teachers continue to get paid until the district figures out a way that they can actually do work that helps their students.

As I said in the beginning of this post, some teachers are not in a position to give much to their students.  Teachers that are in a position to do more surely will even if it is optional.  But to have some kind of requirement in a contract that a teacher can get punished for during this pandemic would be unnecessarily cruel.  Milwaukee public schools is providing printed packets for families to pick up since a large percent of students don’t have internet access.  And according the the MPS website it seems that on April 27th, teachers will be required to work so this seems to have been a temporary relief.

This last one is from Corey DeAngelis.  He is part of some ‘school choice’ foundation who does have a lot of Twitter followers.  Here’s what he said about the Los Angeles remote learning guidelines.

So he is really upset that teachers are only required to do four hours of work a day.  How many hours a day of work does he think should be mandated?  As someone who is trying to do the best job I can each day, I can assure this guy that I wish more than anything else that my life right now would afford me eight hours each school day to work on remote learning.

During this national crisis a question that everyone is asking is “When can we get back to doing all the things we used to do?”  I guess for the teacher bashers they haven’t had to be deprived of at least one thing that makes them so happy.

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TFA Celebrates Five Baltimore ‘Turnaround’ Schools. One Is Still Ranked In The Bottom 1%.

As an ashamed TFA alum, I receive their quarterly alumni magazine, ‘One Day.’  In the most recent issue, which I also saw on their Twitter feed, was an article called ‘Undefeated: Inside Five Baltimore Turnaround Schools that Refuse to Fail.’

The article is about five Baltimore schools that are run by TFA alumni and were recipients of some of the Obama/Duncan $3 billion school turnaround grant.  The most aggressive turnaround strategy is to replace the majority of the staff, which is what these five schools did.  The school turnaround grants have generally been considered a failure across the country, even by staunch reformers.

But, at least at a first glance, these turnaround schools were exceptions that prove that firing all the teachers at a school and replacing them, presumably with a lot of TFA teachers, is something that can work as long as TFA leaders are involved.

The five schools are Commodore John Rogers Elementary/Middle, Academy for College and Career Exploration (ACCE), Harford Heights Elementary, James McHenry Elementary/Middle, and Mary E. Rodman Elementary.  They are three years into their turnaround efforts under a plan called ‘The 100% project.’  According to the article, these schools are showing promising improvement though they still have a long way to go.

They provide very little data in the article.  One example is:

 Dave Guzman is the principal of Rodman Elementary, where 23% of students passed the state math assessment in 2018, up from 2% prior to turnaround, and 22% passed the ELA assessment, up from 5%.

Another is:

Based in part on its dismal test scores, Commodore ranked 872 out of 875 schools in Maryland when Martin was hired to lead it in 2010. At that point, the school enrolled 250 students, barely viable in a building built for more than 600.

Today, in a district grappling with steep enrollment declines overall, Commodore squeezes in more than 900 students (including Martin’s three kids), almost all of them from the neighborhood. They crowd into classrooms and spill into meeting rooms. They collaborate on clusters of chairs pulled into alcoves under the stairways. Not a minute too soon, renovations and expansions are planned for completion in 2021.

In October, Commodore was recognized for excellence by the Baltimore City school board. Over four years, 37% of its students who initially tested at the lowest level of proficiency moved up to one of the high levels, compared to 14% of similar students districtwide. In 2019, the school earned Maryland’s three-star rating (out of five), up from two stars in 2018. The improvement reflects factors like Commodore’s high attendance rate and parent satisfaction, as well as student test scores, which consistently meet or exceed Baltimore City averages. (The state no longer ranks schools numerically from best to worst.)

It’s been a while since I’ve done a ‘debunking.’  I remember back in the day, about 8 years ago, stories of miracle turnaround schools were popping up every few days.  After my posts about the miracle schools and usually showing other aspect of their data that were not so miraculous, I would get a lot of trolling from the guys at Education Post or the other lesser known reform propaganda sites about how I don’t believe in the potential of kids.  So let me say, again, for the record:  I do believe in kids and I also believe that almost every school has room for improvement.  I also can imagine a scenario, though it would be rare, where there is a huge percent of low quality teachers and that if that staff were replaced by high quality teachers, the school would improve — that’s just common sense.  But what I consider to be a false miracle is when a school with average teachers replaces their staff with other average teachers and suddenly gets a huge increase in how much their students learn.  I think that schools need more resources for smaller class sizes in order to get an authentic increase in quality.  That’s why I’m accused of not believing in children.

OK, so I took a look at the Maryland school report card site, and here’s what I learned about these five schools that have been ‘turned around.’

Maryland has the star system where schools can get from one to five stars, kind of like the A to F letter grades.  The stars are based on test scores and also on ‘growth’ and other factors.  There are 1,300 schools in Maryland and about 10% of them get either one or two stars.  So 3 stars is like a ‘C’ and over 60% of the schools in the state are either 4 stars or 5 stars.  Of the five schools that have been ‘turned around,’ three are still 2 stars, which is like a ‘D.’  But looking more closely at the data from these five schools, I found some pretty awful numbers.

The Commodore John Rogers Elementary/Middle School  that has the test score increases got two different percentile ranks, one for the elementary and one for the middle school.  While the middle school is the one bright spot of all the schools , or subschools, in the 100% project, having risen to the bottom 28% of schools the elementary school is ranked in the bottom 8%.

One school, The Academy For College And Career Exploration (ACCE) has a middle and a high school.  The middle school is ranked in the bottom 2% while the high school is in the bottom 9%.  In the high school they had 9.3% score proficient in math and 3.6% score proficient in ELA.  In the middle school they had 2.7% score proficient in ELA and, no this isn’t a typo, 0% score proficient in math.

The lowest rated school of the five is James McHenry Elementary/Middle.  While the middle school was ranked in the bottom 15%, the elementary school was only ranked in the bottom 1%.  If not for the middle school, the elementary school would be one of the 35 schools out of 1,300 that would have gotten just one star and be slated for possible closure.

I’m not sure why TFA is clinging to a narrative that went out of style about five years ago, when Arne Duncan stepped down as Secretary of Education.  These five schools, on average, do not prove that firing most of the teachers in a school is likely to cause an incredible turnaround at a school.

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The Life And Death Of The Terrible Education Reform Movement

I’ve often thought, over these past eight years of following the politics of education, that one day this saga will make a great book.  What I didn’t expect was that that one day would be today.


In ‘Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools’ (Knopf 2020, $27.95), education historian Diane Ravitch does the thing that she is best in the country at — taking a complex period of history in education and finding a way to turn it into a story with twists and turns worthy of great literature.

This book is like a sequel not to ‘Reign Of Error’ (2013) or even ‘The Death And Life Of The Great American School System’ (2010), but instead to the first book I had ever read by her, ‘Left Back: A Century Of Failed School Reforms’ (2000).  In that book, as she does in this one, Ravitch methodically weaves her way through the people and events that shaped the conflicts of education policy.  She is a master of brevity and I, as a pretty verbose blogger, marvel at how she can tell the story of such complex issues like the opt-out movement or the Massachusetts charter school ballot issue in just a few pages each.  It’s like watching one of those artists who with a few simple seeming strokes of a pencil captures the essence of her subject.  It looks so easy though of course it isn’t.

Watch as she summarizes twenty years of education reform in three paragraphs (!) on the third page of the book.

For nearly two decades, the “reformers” had promised a dramatic transformation in American education, based on their strategy of high-stakes testing, teacher evaluation by test scores, charter schools, and closing low-scoring public schools.  They confidently claimed that they knew the answers to all the vexing problems in education.  They asserted that they were leading the civil rights movement of our time, funded by billionaires, Wall Street titans, and the federal government, as if the elites would be leading a civil rights movement against the powerful (themselves!).  They insisted that when their remedies were imposed, America’s test scores would soar to the top of international rankings.  No longer would poor children be “trapped in failing schools.”  No more would children’s success be determined by their ZIP code or social status.  They all sang from a common hymnal about the failures of public education and proclaimed their certainty that they knew how to turn failure into high test scores for all.

But despite the investment of billions of federal, state, local, and philanthropic dollars, these malign efforts came up empty.  The leaders of this charade had confidently predicted that success was just beyond the horizon.  But as so often happens with mirages, the horizon kept receding farther away.  None of their promises and claims came true.  Judged by their own chosen metrics — standardized test scores — the fake ‘reformers’ failed

In this book, I will not call these activities and their leaders by the honorable word reform, which they have brazenly appropriated.  The individuals and groups who promote test-best accountability, school closings, and school choice as remedies for low test scores are not reformers.  What to call them?  Others call them “deformers” or the “financial privatization cabal” or the “Destroy Public Education Movement” or “privateers.”  Such groups and individuals often say their goal is to “disrupt” public education, and I think in this instance they have accurately named themselves.  They are Disrupters.  They are masters of chaos, which they inflict on other people’s children, without a twinge of remorse.

And that is just one out of 283 pages!

As someone who has been embroiled in this subject for the past eight years, I figured that I would be able to skim through this book.  I figured that I wasn’t really the audience for this book, it was for readers who can’t name the last three superintendents of the Tennessee Achievement School District off the top of their heads.  Yet I found myself learning something new on every page.  One particularly compelling, and frightening, section was the part about how billionaires funnel money into local school board races.  I had heard about this from time to time, but I never appreciated how much this is happening.   There were fascinating events that I somehow missed altogether when they occurred, like the Douglas County school board saga.  This is why Ravitch is such a master.  She absorbs all these events when they happen and then when it is time for her to don her ‘historian’ cap and to elevate 30,000 feet in a metaphorical hot air balloon and look down and see how the different pieces of this puzzle fit together in a way that us land dwelling mortals could never have the perspective to notice.

If I learned something new on almost every page, the average reader is going to have his mind completely blown by the narrative in this book.  It is a story of underdogs — regular people and most certainly NOT the big bad union who, lets face it, have not played much of a role in this — who stood up against the most powerful and the most wealthy people in the world and who said “No.  You are not going to destroy our schools.”  Against all odds, we see that the tide has turned

Throughout the book, Ravitch introduces the readers to a cast of characters that are only known to those of us who have been embroiled in this fight over the years.  We get to read short histories of people like Karen Lewis, Leonie Haimson, Anthony Cody, and others.  She paints them as heroes and shows how they fit into the big picture where every one of the heroes plays a small but important role.  The only hero that she does not give her due credit is herself — Diane Ravitch.  If someone else were to have written this history — and I don’t think there was anyone else alive who could have done this — Ravitch would have been recognized as THE key figure in taking down the ‘disruptors.’  Her blog with the tens of millions of hits, her Twitter following, and her books — including this new one — are not just recording history, they are making it.  The only mention she makes about her own role in leading the resistance was on page 68 where she wrote “I started my own blog in 2012 and use it as a platform to nationalize the struggle against privatization and high-stakes testing and to showcase the work of other bloggers in order to enable them to reach a larger audience.”

The fact that Ravitch had the energy to write this book after all else that she has done and continues to do is astonishing.  It is as if George Washington not only led the American efforts in the Revolutionary War, but if when it was nearly over he were to also write the definitive history about it.

In summary, this is a must read.  Whether you are just learning about these issues or if you are someone who has studied them for years, you will get so much out of this.  And you really want to get this and read it right away before everyone else starts talking about it and you’re going to feel very left out.

In the early 1500s Michelangelo completed his sculpture ‘David’.  Though it took 500 years for another genius to rival his, Diane Ravitch’s ‘Slaying Goliath’ is a masterpiece that will be studied and celebrated for generations.

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The Tennessee ASD: Booted or Re-Booted?

Since 2011 I have been following the biggest, and most predictable, disaster of the education reform movement — the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD).  It was formed in a perfect storm of reform theory.  First, Tennessee won Race To The Top money.  Then they hired a TFA-alum and the ex-husband of Michelle Rhee, Kevin Huffman to be their state commissioner.  Then he hired TFA-alum and charter school founder Chris Barbic to design and run the ASD.  The initial promise of the ASD was that they would take schools in the bottom 5% and convert them into charter schools in order to ‘catapult’ them into the top 25% in five years.  They started with 6 schools in 2012 and grew to over 30 schools within a few years.

They completely failed at this mission.  Chris Barbic resigned, Kevin Huffman resigned, Barbic’s replacement resigned, Barbic’s replacement’s replacement resigned.  Of the 30 schools they nearly all stayed in the bottom 5% except a few that catapulted into the bottom 10%.

The new education commissioner of Tennessee is also a TFA alum with ideas similar to Huffman.  She promised, however, to get a handle on the ASD and what to do about its failure.  After a listening tour around the state she made, it seemed at first, a decision that was long overdue.

Chalkbeat TN recently had a post with the enticing title ‘All 30 schools in Tennessee’s turnaround district would exit by 2022 in a massive restructuring proposal.’  It would seem like this is good news.  The ASD was such a costly failure, costing about $100 million over the years I think, the only thing to do was to put it out of its misery and dissolve it completely.

But I’ve been studying reformers enough over the years not to get too excited about this.  The headline would make the most optimistic readers think that the 30 schools going back to the district would again become public schools.  The charter schools supposedly traded flexibility for accountability so their failure to deliver on their promises should result in them being sent packing.

But according to the article, it is not clear yet if being returned to the district means that they will become public schools again.  Also they say that there still will be an ASD after this.  Now there can’t be a school district with zero schools, so what’s going on?

I think, and I hope I’m wrong about this, that with the failure of the ASD there was no way that they could justify adding more schools to it.  But by ‘returning’ the 30 schools back to their districts, and probably keeping them as charters, there will now be room to add more schools in the bottom 5% to the re-booted ASD.  If this is what happens, the ASD won’t be disappearing or even shrinking, it will be expanding.  There will be the 30 schools that are still charters, but just operating as part of the district they have been returned to.  And then there will be another 20 schools, maybe, that are in the new ASD.  (They actually call it the ASD 2.0 in the state slide show)

Basically, this is like when a businessman declares bankruptcy yet finds a way to get out of debt that way and actually profits off of it.  Without those original 30 schools that are making their stats look so bad over the years, they will start fresh with other schools.  Then they can spend another 8 years with those schools and say “You can’t expect us to fix these schools overnight, we need more time.”  But this is just a shell game.

That’s what I think is going on.  Maybe I’m wrong, but don’t be surprised if I’m right.

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More Reform Funded Research: KIPP Graduates Persist In College At The Same Rate As Their Mothers

Education Reform propaganda at The74 would try to make you believe that while low income students generally graduate from college at a rate of about 9%, charter school graduates complete college at a rate of 3 to 5 times that.

The main flaw in any comparison between the college graduation rates of charter school graduates to low-income students, in general, is that the charter school students do not represent a random sampling of the general population of low-income students.

In The Alumni, Richard Whitmire says that charter schools that have 5 times the expected college completion rate are ones that only counted their students who persisted until 12th grade in their charter schools.  Since for some charter schools, this only represents about 25% of the students who started in that charter school, this even more of a biased sample.  But, Whitmire explains, the one network that has the most valid way of doing a fair comparison is the famed KIPP network.  Since KIPP counts, in their data, any students who enrolled in KIPP, even if they left soon after starting.  And he says that KIPP students, including ones who didn’t persist at KIPP, graduate college 3 times the expected rate.

Reform supporting billionaire John Arnold commissioned Mathematica, a data analysis company, to study the college enrollment and college persistence of KIPP students.  Instead of comparing KIPP students to the general population, they compared KIPP students to students who had applied to the KIPP lottery but did not get into KIPP through the lottery.  This is a much more valid way of measuring the impact of KIPP.  The big takeaway, as I wrote about in my previous post, was that students who applied to KIPP, whether or not they got into KIPP, had a college persistence rate of about 3 times the general low-income population and that students who applied but didn’t get into KIPP had about the same college persistence as students who applied and did get into KIPP.  So students to apply to the KIPP lottery are the ones who, on average, were much more likely to persist in college — something that Whitmire never mentions in The Alumni.

But this Mathematica report includes some other relevant data that I didn’t pick up on when I wrote the last post.  Fortunately there was a discussion among some readers who commented on the last post which pointed this out.

In 2018 the National Center For Education Statistics published a report called ‘First-Generation Students College Access, Persistence, and Postbachelor’s Outcomes.’  In it they say that about 70% of students who have a parent who completed college also complete college compared to about 35% of students who do not have a parent who completed college.  This confirms what most people would expect for so many reasons and this is why we celebrate when students are the first in their family to graduate college.  It means that the descendants of those students will also be more likely to go to college.

In the Mathematica study, they collected statistics about the pool of students who applied to the KIPP lottery.  Among those statistics was the level of education attained by the mother of the KIPP lottery applicant.  Here’s what it says (page 6 of the report):

Screen Shot 2020-01-12 at 11.11.20 PM

Notice that last line.  It says that of the students entering the lottery about 27% of them had mothers who finished college.  This makes the fact that about 30% of the students in the study (which includes students who got into KIPP and also students who did not get into KIPP) have persisted in college through four semesters even less surprising.

Someone like Richard Whitmire suggests in his analysis that has been quoted in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, that had these students not gone to KIPP they would have only persisted in college at around 9%.  But it can be clearly seen now that even without going to KIPP, these students should be expected to have about a 30% college persistence rate.

Data, like what percent of charter school applicants have parents who are college graduates, are so important but nearly impossible to actually learn.  Thanks to the John Arnold Foundation for commissioning this study and shedding light on a truth that we already knew but didn’t yet have hard data to support.

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