After Seven Years, The Failure Of Tennessee’s ASD Is Finally Made Official

Seven years ago, as part of Tennessee’s Race To The Top plan, they launched The Achievement School District (ASD).  With a price tag of over $100 million, their mission was to take schools that were in the bottom 5% of schools and, within five years, raise them into the top 25%.

They started with six schools and three years into the experiment, Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the ASD had a ‘mission accomplished’ moment where he declared in an interview that three of those six schools were on track to meet that goal.

But a year later, the gains that led to that prediction had disappeared and it wasn’t looking good for any of those six schools.  By the time the five year mark had been reached, in the Fall of 2016, Chris Barbic had already resigned and taken a job with the John Arnold Foundation.

The thing about 2016, though, the exact progress of the ASD schools could not be determined, officially.  Tennessee releases their official ‘priority’ list of the bottom 5% schools every three years.  And, conveniently enough, the last one was in 2015.  So even though it was clear in 2016 that the original 6 ASD schools would not be in the top 25%, an even more important question — how many of those schools remained in the bottom 5%?  — would not be known officially for two more years, in the Fall of 2018.

A few days ago, Tennessee finally released the long-awaited 2018 priority schools list, and for the ASD, the results were decisive and devastating.

The original six ASD schools were:  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.  Humes Prep was already shut down for poor performance two years ago.  Of the remaining five, all five remain on the priority list after seven years.  So the promise to get these six schools out of the bottom 5% and into the top 25%, to say the least, was not met.  They didn’t even get them into the top 95%.

Also on the list is a school called Neely’s Bend.  This school is of interest because it is one of the last schools to be taken over by the ASD.  Back in December 2014, the ASD said it was going to either take over Neely’s Bend or Madison Middle School.  This was a very controversial decision especially when they held the community meetings for those two schools simultaneously.  Well, they decided to take Neely’s Bend so this provides an excellent ‘separated at birth’ opportunity.  Two schools that were very similar, both facing takeover at the same time.  Four years later, the school that was taken over, Neely’s Bend is in the bottom 5% while the other school does not appear on this list.

Tennessee received $700 million for winning a Race To The Top grand.  This money was controlled by former commissioner Kevin Huffman, who was a TFA alum, a former TFA Vice President, and a former husband of reform folk-hero Michelle Rhee.  $100 million was spent on the Achievement School District.  For seven years to go by and these original six school making zero progress must be the most ironic — in a sad way — story of education reform gone awry.


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Open Letters to Reformers I DON’T Know. Part V: Seven Figure Success Academy Donors

A few years back, I wrote a series of letters to ‘Reformers I know,’ trying to engage publicly with education reformers I was, at least at one time, on a friendly basis with. I then expanded to ‘Reformers I DON’T know.’ Over the course of nearly twenty letters, only three reformers ever wrote back.

For many reasons, there are not many high profile reformers remaining. Even the word ‘reform’ has become toxic, so nobody wants to be an outspoken ‘reformer’ anymore. Now reform work is done behind the scenes out of public view.   In an example of how much the pendulum has shifted, the current TIME Magazine cover story is about how teachers are underpaid. This is the same TIME Magazine that put Michelle Rhee on its cover in 2008.

So I don’t really have specific reformers to try to engage with anymore. But there is a category of people who have a lot of influence over education and these are the rich philanthropists who still like to donate to reform-friendly organizations. Bill Gates has admitted that his teacher evaluation plan was a $575 million bust, yet he still donates a lot of money to various reform groups. Mark Zuckerberg just donated a bunch of money to reform groups, including $10 million to Teach For America — as if they need it. And in addition to these household-name rich people, there are others who drop millions if not tens of millions on different reform organizations.

One place they donate is to the famous Success Academy Charter School Network in New York. Success Academy is known for its high test scores, its strict discipline, and its obsessive secrecy about much else. Its leader, Eva Moskowitz, it is said, was in contention for Betsy DeVos’s job as Trump’s Secretary of Education.

Success Academy has raised a lot of money.  Financier John Paulson gave $8.5 million in 2015, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb gave $15 million in 2018, and another hedge fund manager Julian Robertson gave a whopping $25 million in 2016.

Would these people give as much if they knew some of the dirty secrets of Success Academy? There’s only one way to find out.  This is my letter to them.

Dear Seven Digit Success Academy Donor,

Obviously if you have seven (or eight!) figures to donate to Success Academy, you are a person who does not easily fall for scams. But this time, I’m afraid you did.

There are really only two possibilities: Either Success Academy is the greatest miracle in the history of education — or the greatest Hoax.

If Success Academy’s methods are effective, we should see other charter schools with similar demographics that use all or most of these strategies getting a range of success stories. Maybe there would be a charter school in the top 10%, or one in the top 20%  But we don’t. Despite using some variation on the ‘no excuses’ philosophy’ — some maybe accept a few excuses, some are even more tolerant of excuses. But they surely have the same sorts of high expectations and the same culture of fear for their staff. Yet we see no charter school showing the test scores anywhere near Success Academy. Even the famed KIPP charter chain gets results that are only marginally better than average. And this is not just in New York City, but around the country.  The only charter schools with such high test scores are the Arizona BASIS schools, which serves a low number of Black and Hispanic students.

If Success Academy is hiding some secret methods that could be scaled around the country so that other schools could achieve results even in the same ballpark, these methods would be worth billions of dollars to Eva Moskowitz. If she is for real, she has found the equivalent of Ponce De Leon’s famed fountain of youth.

I believe that Success Academy, in various ways, obtains their high test scores through unethical behavior. By this, I don’t mean that I think they change their students’ answers on the state test. Instead they find other ways to dishonestly inflate their test scores.

I believe that their methods are not educationally sound. A few years ago I came upon about 500 videos they had published publicly on the web. Among those videos was one of a teacher reading the book ‘Caps For Sale’ to a group of Kindergarteners. Seeing the hostile way in which this story was read — the way the teacher forbade students from sitting comfortably as they read, making them sit as straight as they could at all times and admonishing them anytime one of them slouched — it was, in my estimation, a form of torture. After I wrote about what I had seen in this video and posted the link to it, Success Academy took down not just that video but all 500 videos. And it was not because they were afraid of anyone stealing their valuable secret methods, but because these methods are best kept secret since they were embarrassed by what they thought makes for appropriate childhood education. For your generous donation, perhaps you can get a copy of that video and you could show it to any childhood education expert from any university in the country. I’m quite confident that the expert will concur that the video reveals a teacher that has no understanding of the needs of small children as they first learn about literacy.

I assume you were inspired by the mind-blowing statistics from Success Academy’s PR department. I assume you were impressed by the way that their 3rd grade through 8th grade test scores would make them the top district in New York State. You assume that their methods can be replicated, but no other charter school in the state has done so.

To anyone who is knowledgeable about schools and education, these results seem too good to be true. Even the most staunch education ‘reformers’ are wary about talking much about Success Academy. If they truly believed that Success Academy is accomplishing the things that encouraged you to donate so much money to them, they would be calling for the banishment of all the other famous charter schools — the KIPPs, the Achievement Firsts, the Green Dots. But they stand by these other schools since they know there is something fishy about Success Academy.

The impressiveness of Success Academy’s test scores is based on the assumption that their students, admitted by random lottery, are a true random sampling of students throughout New York City. If that assumption is not true, any conclusions based on their test results are no longer valid.

This is an easy assumption to test.  Just choose a Success Academy school and compare the demographic data of its students to that of the nearest other elementary school.  I looked up the data for Success Academy Washington Heights and compared to nearby PS 152 Dyckman Valley.

Screen Shot 2018-09-15 at 10.12.40 PM

SA Washington Heights PS 152 Dyckman Valley
Girls% 55% 49%
Hispanic% 75% 95%
Black 16% 3%
White 6% 1%
ELL 10% 31%
Disabled 17% 25%
Economically Disadvantaged 50% 91%

I do not think their students are a random sampling. First, the families who apply are a self-selecting group. Also, students who are siblings of students already attending there get to bypass the lottery. This could be a substantial number of students now and these would be the siblings of students who have, of course, not already left the school for various reasons. So these siblings are a select group who are much more likely to be able to handle the pressures of Success Academy than a random student in New York City public schools. Of the students who ‘win’ the lottery, only about half choose to go to Success Academy anyway. Why the other half elects to go elsewhere is interesting to me. I think that many are discouraged from sending their students to the network. Some because the school refuses to provide special education services for whatever disability that student has. Some might get discouraged by some of the rules that families are forced to promise to abide by. One of these rules, for example, says that on the ‘parent report card’, the parent will receive a ‘red grade’ if the student is late more than twice in the year. Finally, considering that Success Academy is supposed to be so amazing, there is a significant amount of student attrition.

Even though Success Academy boasts that their student attrition rate is equal if not lower than that of neighboring schools, this is not correct.  Take a look at the Success Academy graduating class of 2018. Back in 2006-2007, they were a cohort of 73 first graders. They eventually graduated just 16 seniors last spring. To compare to other schools is very simple. By 2016-2017, the 73 students had dwindled to 20 juniors. This is a loss of 73% of their students over ten years or about 12% compounded per year. Now compare this to New York State as a whole. In 2006-2007, New York State had 200,272 first graders. Ten years later, the number of juniors in New York State was 194,119, a loss of about 3%, or, just 0.31% compounded per year. By my calculations, the annual attrition rate of Success Academy is nearly 40 times the annual attrition rate of students in New York State. The issue, of course, is that when Success Academy students leave after 4th grade, they are not replaced or ‘backfilled’ while the other schools in New York State generally do backfill.  If a student walks in the door mid-year, the public schools must find a place for them.  Success Academy defends its decision not to replace the students who leave after 4th grade with students from their famed waiting list by saying that it would be too disruptive to their school to bring students in who are academically behind. How can it be fair to compare a school that does not backfill to all the others that do?

But the biggest dirty secret of all (though everyone knows about this) is the way Success Academy wields the power of making a student repeat a grade. This is their secret weapon, and I do mean weapon. By one of my estimates, about 15% of Success Academy students are left back for one reason or another. Leaving a student back is something that should only be done in the most extreme circumstances — it has so many negative ramifications for students later in life. Yet Success Academy uses it recklessly. Here’s how it works: They call in the family of a student who has ‘got to go.’ They say that even though the student passed the state test, they failed to meet some other requirement. This leaves the family with two options: The first is for the student to repeat the grade they just completed. This means that they will be the ‘old kid’ in their class while all their friends (or around 85% of their friends — other kids get threatened with this too) move on to the next grade. This is a devastating consequence. But fortunately, there is one other option. The student can get promoted as long as that student ‘voluntarily’ transfers to a different school. If you want to have lunch some time with me and the father of a student who went through this to hear first hand about how the school did this for his special needs daughter after she finished fourth grade, I can arrange this.

The students aren’t the only group of people that Success Academy treats, in my opinion, abusively. Success Academy makes demands on families that they are not able to meet. The school knows how to make things especially rough on families whose students struggle with behavioral issues. They make parents repeatedly come and get their kids, even if it means the parent is jeopardizing his or her own job by having to leave the job frequently in the middle of the day. An education news site, Chalkbeat NY reported that at one of the schools Success Academy held a mandatory family meeting. For families that miss that meeting, they are told that the assumption is that the child will not be returning to the school the next year. In a pending lawsuit, some parents report that Success Academy has even resorted to reporting families to Administration For Children’s Services (ACS) for being unable to pick up their children in the middle of the day after the child apparently violated one of the many strict rules of the school.

The chaotic situation in the Success Academy high school is a huge red flag. If the Success Academy students peak in 8th grade and then have such poor results in high school, it means that their achievement through 8th grade (as measured by those state test scores) were illusory. The unusually high teacher turnover at their high schools is a symptom of this. When you are working in the most incredible educational experiment in the history of education, you don’t just quit after a year or two.  Yet over half of the high school teachers did not return this past year. This would be like the researchers at the medical lab that cured Cancer leaving at such a rate. The teachers who leave have been generally quiet about why they left. But I think it is the same reason that people have left the Trump White House. They just can’t bear being an accomplice to such an abuse of power.

Despite the fanfare surrounding these schools, from my perspective Success Academy excels most at abuse. They abuse their students through overuse of making them repeat grades, they abuse the families when they punish them — even call ACS on them — for not being able to meet their impossible demands, and they abuse the staff causing many of them to quit each year.

Success Academy is built on a foundation of lies and it is only a matter of time before it comes crumbling down. We already see so many scandals. There was the ‘rip-and-redo’ tape, the ‘go-to-go’ list, the failure to get students into the specialized high schools for the first two years in which students were eligible to apply, the summer homework revolt, and the mass exodus of almost the entire high school staff.

It is only a matter of time before enough insiders spill the beans. When that happens, you don’t want to be known as the chump who helped fund this.

Gary Rubinstein

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‘Adequate Yearly Progress’ A Teacher Novel For The Modern Era

There was a time that the ‘teacher story’ was a popular archetype along with the buddy movie, the romantic comedy, and the spaghetti western.  Starting with the novel ‘Blackboard Jungle’ in 1953, there have been a string of popular books which often became even more popular movies including ‘To Sir With Love,’ ‘Up The Down Staircase,’ ‘Escalante: The Best Teacher In America’ (became the movie ‘Stand And Deliver’), ‘My Posse Don’t Do Homework’ (became the movie ‘Dangerous Minds’), and ‘Freedom Writers.’  These novels had similar themes, one enthusiastic new teacher brings out the potential in his or her class by never giving up on them.

I’ve read all these books and seen all these movies over the years and always used to enjoy them.  Sure, they were oversimplified, but still they were harmless.  Back then when you watched a movie like ‘Stand And Deliver’ you thought “Wow, that guy worked hard” you didn’t think “We really need to fire all the other teachers at that school” for some reason.

Maybe this is why in recent years, the hero-teacher story has mainly disappeared.  The most recent attempt at a movie like this was the Walton funded box office bomb ‘Won’t Back Down’ in 2012 which had a clear anti-union message.  There was also a movie called ‘Bad Teacher’ and a TV series called ‘Teachers’ which portrayed teachers in a very negative light.  These did not really resonate with anyone either.

It seemed like the ‘teacher-genre’ was dead.  Dead, that is, until the just released novel by Roxanna Elden called ‘Adequate Yearly Progress.’


‘Adequate Yearly Progress’ follows the lives of the staff of a Texas High School through a school year marked by the hiring of a flashy new reform minded (though educational outsider) superintendent.  Their school gets singled out as a school in need of turnaround when their principal inadvertently has a very public interaction with the new superintendent.

The story, though, is a backdrop for getting to know the main characters of the books, the teachers at the school.  In this book we are reminded that, unlike most teacher fiction, these teachers have actual lives.  There is the math teacher who is a single mother.  There is the sarcastic slam poet who is searching for her identity.  There is the TFAer (called Teach Corps in this world) who writes viral blog posts about her success in class while we get to see how much she is struggling in class to get the real world to match with her ideal.  There is the football coach who is like a father to his players yet has two daughters by two women and he doesn’t have much of a relationship with either.  There is the science teacher who bends the rules to have a plant nursery in his room and has a crush on the slam poet.

Most teachers, like most non-teacher, have plenty of stresses in their lives.  These stresses are also part of the things that have sometimes led them to teaching in the first place.  What makes this book unique is that the reader gets to experience what it feels like to be a teacher, in the middle of the grind, when you’re having a bad day for reasons that have nothing to do with school and you try to do your best though it is tough to not let it affect your teaching.  The principal characters in this book are multi-dimensional.  If someone has issues, we learn why they have them, and we see their struggle to try to overcome these issues.

The stories of the individual teachers were great and the plot moved rapidly in a way that readers are really looking forward to finding out what happens next.  Elden makes you care about these teachers and their intertwined lives.

Elden was an English teacher for 11 years and, like me, got her start though Teach For America.  Her portrayal of the Teach Corps meeting group was one of the most amusing scenes in the book.

Throughout the book, and this is something that will particularly appeal to teachers, is a sharp insight into the absurdity of initiatives by top-down reformers.  Non-teachers would be surprised that the humorous fictions that Elden invents — like that teachers are rated on something called a ‘Believer Score’ which is how much you believe all your students can succeed — are not much more outrageous than things that real-world teacher have to deal with nowadays.  Also, any educator will love that the Texas State test in this world is called the ‘TCUP.’

From my point of view of course I love the satire about the absurdity of education reform driven by someone who knows little about education.  But what drives this book more than anything, is the story — the twists and turns, the conflicts, and the drama.  It’s a great read for anyone, teacher or non-teacher alike.

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What Does TFA Tell The New Recruits About The Janus Decision?

First year teachers have a lot of decisions to make.  They need to decide how to set up their classrooms, what rules to make, how strict to be.  This year about 4,000 of these first year teachers are being trained at institutes across the country by Teach For America.  And in those trainings they will, in theory at least, provide information to help the first year teachers make an informed decision about many of these choices.

This year, there is a new decision that many of those TFA recruits will have to face:  Whether or not to opt-in to the union.  Since the Supreme Court Janus decision was handed down a few weeks ago, not only are teachers not required to pay union dues but they must actively opt-in or they will, by default, not be contributing to the union.

Teach For America has been in conflict with teachers unions on a lot of fronts.  Since many TFA teachers are at non-unionized charter schools, TFA, the organization, is seen by some as ‘union busters’ so TFA is not, in general, liked by the union.  But when you separate TFA, the organization, from TFA, the actual teachers, many TFA teachers are union members and even some union leaders who value what the union does for the teaching profession and, indirectly, for the students of the teachers it represents.  So the union is somewhat anti-TFA.  In the other direction, TFA is, on average, anti-union.  Over the years TFA has propped up various anti-union alumni like Michelle Rhee, Marc Sternberg (of the Walton Foundation), Cami Anderson (former superintendent of Newark schools), and Peter Cook (describes himself as “A former teacher union member who is deeply disappointed in the teachers unions behavior”) as well as anti-union friends of Teach For America like Joel Klein (former chancellor of New York City), Chris Stewart (describes himself as “Black parent, activist, and system critic”), and even former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

Wendy Kopp, founder of TFA, in her book ‘A Chance To Make History’ (2011), has a chapter entitled ‘Silver Bullets and Silver Scapegoats’ with a subsection with the very slippery title ‘Teachers’ Unions Aren’t the Primary Problem, Either’ Wendy lays out all the anti-union arguments, but does try to balance them with pro-union arguments.  The section still emphasizes the problems with the union and oversimplifies the arguments.

Here is an excerpt from page 138:

Some unions resist collecting and tracking student achievement results in a way that could reveal which teachers are consistently leading students to academic progress and which teachers are not.  In some cases unions have resisted the idea that teacher performance should play a role in layoff decisions, forcing children and families to lose some of their most effective teachers (who happen to have the least seniority).  Of course, the union’s perspective is that these policies have their roots in historical experience that showed school district administrations weren’t capable of operating in humane and thoughtful ways — a perspective that is grounded in some truth– though it is difficult to see how these positions have the best interest of kids and educational quality in mind.

Wendy celebrates that the union in DC agreed to Michelle Rhee’s IMPACT evaluation and that one of the Colorado unions supported Michael Johnston’s SB-191 bill that made standardized test ‘growth’ numbers 50% of teacher evaluation.  This was back in 2010 when these seemed, to reformers, like something that might work.  Eight years later IMPACT has reduced that percent to 35% and a key creator of it, TFA alum Jason Kamras has left D.C. to become superintendent of Richmond where he said he will not try to implement IMPACT there.  In Colorado, student achievement has not moved at all due to SB-191 and that policy is considered a huge failure which was one of the things that sunk Michael Johnston’s gubernatorial bid.

Still, Wendy’s book does at least try to give the pros and cons of the union.  So it would not be unreasonable to expect that while TFA trains 4,000 new teachers this summer, they would spend at least a bit of time discussing the issue and maybe offering advice to the new teachers on what they might think about as they decide whether or not to opt-in to the union.

So I contacted TFA to ask them how they are handling this issue and they told me that they have decided to not bring it up at all.  They explained that TFA does not have just one opinion they are a group with diverse views so they are going to stay out of this one.  Basically, the ‘fine people on both sides’ excuse.

I suggested that maybe they would be willing to publish a ‘point/counterpoint’ on their blog where I could argue one side and get one of the anti-union people to argue the other, but they said that wasn’t something they were interested in doing.  So I reached out to an anti-union TFA alum and asked if he was willing to write an argument for why new TFA teachers should not opt-in and he declined.

When the Janus decision came out, there were several types of responses to it.  On the reform critic side, there was universal outrage.  But on the reform side, I saw three different responses:

First, there were reformers who openly celebrated the decision.  This even includes a teacher who is overjoyed about this.  There aren’t weren’t very many of these.

Then there were reformers who actually acted conflicted by the decision.  This included one of the most anti-union reformers of them all, Peter Cunningham.  This post actually started with “I embraced education reform to strengthen schools, not to weaken unions, so I am not especially happy about the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus vs. AFSCME.”  In the hugely anti-union The74 website, Chris Cerf wrote another such conflicted piece.  And the anti-union Educators For Excellence also did this.

Finally, the largest group of all, the anti-union reformers who chose to be silent on the issue.  This includes Michelle Rhee, who didn’t even tweet a peep about this.  We also didn’t hear much from the TFA alumni and friends from 50CAN who constantly troll me on Twitter.

It would be odd for TFA to publish something jubilant about Janus, so I’m not surprised about that.  But I would think they would offer something like the conflicted reformers.  Instead, though, they chose to go the cowardly Michelle Rhee route — they could not even bring themselves to show a little remorse about the decision they helped create by propping up their anti-union allies at every opportunity and silencing their pro-union alums.

So, if there are any TFA trainees out there reading this, or if you know any of them, here’s what I would tell them about whether or not to opt-in to the union:

In the long run, the weaker the union is, the less attractive teaching will be for potential new teachers.  This will ultimately hurt students since there will not be as many qualified teachers.

Even though you are not thinking beyond two years right now, maybe you will, like me, decide to become a career teacher.  The union is vital for things like pension benefits and retirement.

It’s the right thing to do since you ‘owe’ them already.  Yes, you can save $1000 a year by not joining the union, but before you do that remember that if it were not for union activity in the past, your salary would likely be much more than $1000 less.  In that sense, you ‘owe’ that money to the union for services they did way before.

The Janus case was brought up by rich conservative backers and decided by a conservative majority Supreme Court.  The union member whose name is on the case, Mark Janus, quit his union job soon after this decision to work for the think-tank that funded the case.  This case was about weakening the working class while benefitting the rich.  By falling for the ‘it’s for the kids’ lie, you are getting tricked into supporting something that does not accomplish this at all.

The majority of the other teachers at your school will be opting-in to the union.  If you don’t do it, you are not acting as part of the team.  This could alienate you and other teachers may not go out of their way to help you when you have questions.  In that way, not joining the union will indirectly hurt your students since you will not have as much access to help from experienced teachers.

A popular argument against unions is that they offer legal protection to teachers accused of various things.  As a new teacher without tenure you are actually very vulnerable to not just false accusations but also to accusations that you crossed the line, for example, when you yelled at a student or something like that.  You might face a dilemma like a student who has no way to get home after school.  A lot of new teachers would think that it is a good idea to drive that student home (I’d advise against it, but I could see this as a dilemma that a new teacher might face).  What if on the way home you get into a small accident?  I’m not sure how every union is going to deal with those who don’t opt-in, but having the opportunity for legal representation is good insurance in case you do get accused of something.

Donald Trump is happy about the Janus case, and anything that makes Trump happy must be something that is bad for the country.

If commenters want to add to this list, please feel free to do so.


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TFA CEO Has Three Big Ideas For New Corps Members — And Two Of Them Bash Teachers

Teach For America and the Teacher Bashing Movement are inextricably linked.  Of course the most influential teacher basher of all, Michelle Rhee, is a TFA alum and former staff member.  At the alumni anniversary summits, panels are packed with notable teacher basher friends of TFA like former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan and former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein.

I was a 1991 TFA corps member and back then I was pretty naive about the skill of experienced teachers.  I was pretty sure that I’d be better than veteran teachers because I was a math major so I knew much more math than the average teacher.  Also as a graduate of Tufts University I felt that I had something a little extra to bring to the table when I became a teacher.  Back then, Teach For America was only in its second year and it was a naive organization too.  They didn’t do much to make me think I was wrong about veteran teachers.

Of course nobody goes into teaching their first year thinking “I hope I can be just like that burned out veteran who has been teaching for 30 years and has used the same lesson plans for the past 10 years.”  The fuel for young teachers is enthusiasm and the desire to be a superstar who drastically alters the course of his student’s lives.

One of the tricky balancing acts in training impressionable new teachers is to try to ground them in reality while not draining them of their enthusiasm.  An enthusiastic teacher who doesn’t have a clue about how schools work or how kids learn is going to make a lot of mistakes in the beginning of the first year.  As you only get once chance to make a first impression, by the time the new teacher figures out what he or she did wrong, it is often too late.  The year is sometimes unsalvageable.

If a new teacher believes that veteran teachers are lazy, he will ignore some of the valuable suggestions the veteran offers.  Teacher bashing actually sets rookie teachers (and the students of those rookie teachers) up for failure.

Elisa Villanueva-Beard has been the sole CEO of TFA since 2015.  Throughout the years I have written about her various speeches and op-eds.  A theme that appears in all of her speeches and writings is that there is a dangerous ‘status quo’ in education where experienced educators deprive students of equitable education because they have low expectations for their students.  This is also the fundamental idea that fuels most of the reform movement.  Basically, experienced teachers are lazy (most reformers make the leap to blame this on the job protections of unionized teachers, though EVB does not generally mention teacher’s unions).  When politicians believe that experienced teachers are lazy, it makes them want to make policies that expand budgets for things like Teach For America.  Teacher bashing has been a very marketable thing for TFA.

A few days ago, Teach For America tweeted this five minute video message from Elisa Villanueva-Beard to the new TFA corps members.  I’m going to analyze this now, so if you want to watch it for yourself before seeing what I think of it, here’s a chance to do that.

She says there are three ‘big things’ that got her through her first year:

Big Thing #1:  She was not alone in this.

The first thing she mentions, at the one minute mark, is the “incredible teachers at her school” who had wisdom and who she learned from.  This sentiment will soon be contradicted in her Big Thing #2 and Big Thing #3.  Then she talks about the TFA community including the various alumni that have had leadership roles in school districts.

Big Thing #2:  All students have great potential.

This is an important sentiment and something that encourages new teachers to work hard so their kids can achieve their potential.  And this is a message that can be delivered without teacher basing.  But at the 2:23 mark, EVB says:

“I believe what distinguishes the Teach For America community and all of those who are on the same mission as we are is that we have a radical belief in the potential of our children.  Be unshakable about that belief and especially when others tell you that its not possible to do the kind of work that you are trying to do that our children are worthy of.”

When she says ‘distinguishes’ she is implying that most people who are not in the TFA community do not believe in the potential of children.  To make this even more clear, she warns the TFA trainees to ignore the ‘others’ — namely the lazy non-TFA experienced teachers — who say that is is not possible to teach those students.

This advice, if taken too faithfully, can lead to problems for the new teacher.  For example, a common mistake of new teachers is to try to teach a week’s worth of lessons in one period.  I know they do this because they have ‘high expectations’ and don’t want to underestimate how much their students can learn in one period.  But teaching too much material in one day can backfire — students can get lost and lose confidence in themselves and in the teacher.  The teacher inevitably has to ‘reteach’ the next day.  This reveals to the students that the teacher doesn’t know what he is doing and it makes the rest of the year a struggle.  If a veteran teacher looks over the new teacher’s lesson plans and says “You might want to break this up into a few lessons,” — well, it depends what that new teacher has been trained to think about veteran teachers.  If the new teacher has been told that veteran teachers have low expectations then the new teacher will likely ignore the veteran teacher’s advice and have to deal with the aftermath of the failed lesson.

Big Thing #3:  Anchor yourself in the truth of what our children are up against.

She starts with an erroneous statistic that only 50% of low-income students will graduate high school even though the most recent data puts it at over 75% compared to an 80% national average.

Here is what she says, at 3:13, about the cause and remedy for this

“The truth that our children do not need people around them, and especially their teachers, who feel sorry for them.  Instead they need teachers who build authentic relationships that turn into a deep care and a love that will show up for them and do what ever its going to take to make sure they get what they deserve.”

And here it is implied that many non-TFA teachers feel sorry for their students rather than work hard for them.  This is mainly a continuation of Big Idea #2 — experienced teachers are lazy because they don’t believe their students can learn.  Experienced teachers use their energy on pity for their students rather than working hard to teach them.

There is nothing wrong with the three Big Ideas, themselves.  It is the clarification of these Big Ideas and the subtext that the very impressionable new recruits are sure to absorb, that is the problem.

One of the most ironic things about Elisa Villanueva-Beard is that she makes these oversimplified claims about how the problem in education is the status quo with low expectations while her own husband runs the YES prep schools in Houston which have a large number of TFA teachers.  One of those schools, according to the latest 2018 rankings, is an F rated school and out of 328 rated schools in Houston, it is rated 312th.

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 9.53.22 AM

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 9.53.45 AMHow can this be if the main thing needed to improve educational outcomes is to have high expectations?

Teach For America should not be directly or indirectly teacher bashing as seen in this video.  Back in 1991 when I trained with TFA, they, like their recruits, were very naive.  Back then, they were not wise enough to know not to do this.  But now, almost 30 years later, they need to give the new trainees a more sophisticated picture of the issues.

Teach For America, and Elisa Villanueva-Beard in particular, need to stop pushing the Michelle Rhee narrative that low-expectations by experienced teachers is the main problem plaguing American schools.

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The Unsinkable ASD

The Tennessee Achievement School District started in August 2012 with six schools.  With an initial budget of $20 million a year, they started their mission to take schools from the bottom 5% and, in their words, ‘catapult’ them into the top 25% in five years.  After four years they had grown to about 30 schools, and have leveled off there.  The majority of these schools have been converted to charter schools.

Two years after they launched, an optimistic Chris Barbic, the first superintendent of the ASD, had a ‘mission accomplished’ moment when he declared that three of the original six schools were on track to meet the goal on or before the five year deadline.  But the projected gains did not pan out and now, six years later, five out of six of the original schools are still in the bottom 5% with one of them not faring much better.  Chris Barbic resigned in 2015 and his successor Malika Anderson resigned in 2017.

The ASD was, at one time, an experiment that Reformers were very excited about.  In 2015, just before Barbic resigned, Mike Petrilli hosted a panel discussion at the Fordham Institute celebrating the lofty goals of the ASD, the RSD, and Michigan’s turnaround district.

Year after year, all the research on the Tennessee ASD has been negative (except for research that they, themselves, produced).  In 2015, a Vanderbilt study found the district to be ineffective.  In 2016, a George Washington study agreed.  And now, as if we need any more proof, a new 2018 Vanderbilt study found that schools in the ASD have done no better than schools in the bottom 5% that had not been taken over by the ASD.

Like a cat, the Tennessee ASD seems to have nine lives.  Reformers could learn something from the $100 million blunder.  Instead, the first two superintendents were inducted into the Reformer Hall of Fame, known as Jeb Bush’s Chiefs For Change.


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Success Academy left back (at least) 1/6 of their first cohort

Out of 73 students who began Success Academy in 2006, the first group of graduates crossed the stage a few weeks ago.  The fact that there were only 16 graduates was something that even the pro-Success New York Daily News felt inclined to write an editorial entitled ‘Student success*: In praise of a charter school’s graduates, with one caveat’ which at least draws attention to this issue, though they do try to minimize it.

Success Academy recently responded to these concerns on their own blog in a post called ‘Doing the Math on Success Academy’s First Graduating Class’  While defending themselves they, ironically, revealed some information that is even more controversial.

The Success Academy blog post is supposed to make two main points:

1) That over a period of 12 years it is not that bad to lose 80% of the students since it is only, on average, about 10% a year (they use some very sketchy math to say 9% a year, but it isn’t far off from the actual yearly attrition rate.)  They even get it down to 6% by excluding certain years where students might more easily transfer like between 8th and 9th grade.  They say that this is better than district averages which, they say, are as high as 18% per year for schools in central Harlem.  Of course the issue here, and other charter schools as well as some charter cheerleaders have mentioned this, is the fact that Success Academy does not backfill.  So if a local school loses 18% of their students but then replaces them with other students (which includes, of course, students who were booted from Success Academy and other charters) then it doesn’t inflate their test scores.  But if you don’t backfill and the students you lose are your weaker students then of course your test scores will benefit from this.

2) That the 16 students who just graduated did not include the 7 other students from that cohort who are still in the school but who were left back at least one time.  So, according to them, these extra 7 students would mean that instead of losing 57 out of 73 or 78% of their students they only lost 50 out of 73 or 68% of their students.  This also means that 7 out of the 23 students who remain from the initial cohort had to repeat at least one grade.  So 30% of the original cohort who were still there at the end of this school year (or who had just graduated) were left back at least once.

The chart they provided enabled me to make some more precise conclusions.  Up until now using publicly available data I could only see the dwindling size of the cohorts.  But this new information from Success Academy sheds new light on something I’d heard about for years but never had data to analyze.  One of the ways that Success Academy gets students to leave their school is to tell them that they are going to be left back if they stay at Success Academy.  Then the students are given the option of transferring to a different school and not being left back.  I’ve known for a while that this happens since I’ve heard first hand accounts of this, but I didn’t know how common it is.

But if you take this new Success Academy data where they give the true numbers for their first cohort and put it side by side with the enrollment numbers from the state data, it looks like this:

year grade starting cohort Number who were on target to graduate in 2018 difference
2006-07 1 72 73 -1
2007-08 2 69 73 -4
2008-09 3 65 62 3
2009-10 4 55 59 4
2010-11 5 54 47 7
2011-12 6 47 40 7
2012-13 7 44 36 8
2013-14 8 39 32 7
2014-15 9 38 26 12
2015-16 10 29 20 9
2016-17 11 29 20 9
2017-18 12 25 17 8
Now Now 23 16 7

So what does this all mean?  Well look at the 2014-15 line.  The initial cohort had 38 students still in the school, but only 26 in 9th grade.  This means that 12 of the initial 73 students still in the school had been left back at least one grade.  This is a stunning one sixth of all the original students.  But even worse is that these are only the 12 that we know about.  Surely there were some students, maybe more than some, who chose to leave the school rather than get left back.  Really the only way to know would be to track down the 35 students that had left prior to 9th grade and see if any of them had chosen to leave the school in order to avoid getting left back.

Threatening to leave kids back can boost test scores as it gets some of the lowest performing students to leave the school.  Even for students who don’t leave the school, getting left back will boost test scores since the students will get higher test scores after getting an extra year to prepare for the tests.

I always knew that Success Academy left a lot of kids back.  I just never thought that it was, at minimum, one out of six.


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