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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Is NYC KIPP’s Graduation Rate 96% or 56%?

One of the dirtiest tricks played by charter schools is when they claim to have a 100% graduation rate and a 100% college acceptance rate.  The first use of this, to my knowledge, was when YES Prep used it to help secure $1 million from Oprah.  Over the years, it is very common to see some charter school tout a similar statistic.

When I hear about one of these 100% schools, the first thing I ask is “Is this 100% of the starting cohort, or just the senior class?”  It is always just the senior class.  Then I ask “How many students are in the senior class?”  When the number of graduating seniors is in the 30s, 20s, or even most recently in the case of Success Academy, 16, I ask “How big was the initial cohort?”

In The New York Post the other day, there was an article titled “Bronx charter school sending 96 percent of grads to college.”  The school was the one KIPP high school in New York City.  According to the article, there were 225 graduating seniors, which, at least, is much bigger than the graduating class of many of these 100% (or 96% in this case) stories.

But 96% of the graduating seniors is not 96% of the original cohort and The Post addresses this by saying  “The network said 86 percent of the original freshman class stayed on through their senior year.”

The problem with this statistic is that KIPP is a 5th to 12th grade program, not a 9th to 12th grade program.  So I went to the New York State Education Data Portal and here’s what I learned:

In the 2010 to 2011 school year there were 404 5th graders.

In the 2011 to 2012 school year there were 394 6th graders.

In the 2012 to 2013 school year there were 381 7th graders.

In the 2013 to 2014 school year there were 354 8th graders.

In the 2014 to 2015 school year there were 289 9th graders.

In the 2015 to 2016 school year there were 268 10th graders.

In the 2016 to 2017 school year there were 224 11th graders.

In the 2017 to 2018 school year there were 228 12th graders.

So while the percent of 9th graders that eventually graduated was 78% (Not the 86% claimed in the article), the percent of 5th graders that eventually graduated was just 56%.

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The Case of the Missing Scholar

Success Academy began 11 years ago with a group of 83 kindergarteners and 73 first graders.

This past December, Success Academy published a blog post about their first graduating seniors in this post, principal Andrew Malone wrote “I’m proud to report that 14 of the 17 seniors have already earned an admissions offer, with 23 acceptances overall! ”

I had been following the attrition of the 73 first grades as they had shrunk to 59 fourth graders then, a few years later, 26 9th graders.  By December they were down to 17 12th graders — a 77% attrition rate.

Just 10 weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal did a piece called “How Success Academy Got Its First Seniors to College” with the subtitle: All 17 seniors at the New York City network’s first charter school have been accepted to four-year colleges.

Well, the graduation ceremony happened today and I noticed something unusual:

16, not 17.  Somehow in the past 10 weeks, Success Academy lost another student.

I know that this is just one student, but I find it pretty strange that a student should go through 11 3/4 years of the pressures of Success Academy and not get to the opportunity to graduate.  There must be an interesting story behind this missing scholar.

Either way, with one fewer, the official tally is 16 which is 22% of the original 73.


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Success Academy Finally Takes — And Bombs — The Algebra II Regents

Success Academy is the most well known and controversial charter chain in the country.  They are also the most secretive.

In New York state, high school students are required to pass end of the year finals, called The Regents, in order to graduate.  In 2006 Success Academy started with their first two cohorts so two years ago I checked to see how their first 9th graders fared on The Regents.  I found that they did not post any scores, which was pretty surprising since Success is so well known for their standardized test scores.  I then learned that when that first cohort made it to 11th grade, they did have those students take some Regents exams after all.  Those results are now on the New York State public data system.

I see various results from the English, Algebra II, Global History, and Chemistry.  They did fine on English and Global History, but very poorly on Algebra II.

Unlike the state tests where students are graded on a scale of 1 to 4, the Regents are graded out of 100.  Since the common core Regents have been made, the number from 0 to 100 is not a percentage, but a scaled score where a passing score of 65 can be achieved on Algebra II, at least, by getting about 30% of the possible points on the test.

On this public data site, though they have the scores broken down as level 1 to 5.   According to New York State, level 4 qualifies as ‘meets standards’ while level 5 is ‘exceeds standards.’  On the June 2017 exam with the generous curve, students needed to get at least 52% of the possible points (45 out of 86 points which scaled, last year, to between a 78 and an 84 on the test) to meet the standards to qualify as a level 4.

Screen Shot 2018-05-26 at 8.25.24 PM

Of the 16 students at Success Academy who took the Algebra II Regents, none of them were able to achieve the level 5 which though it was called an 85 it is actually just 72% of the possible points (62 out of 86).  Only two students scored a level 4 (which you get by getting 52% of the points for  scaled score of at least a 78), officially meeting the standards.  Eleven partially met the standards with a level 3.  The other three of the 16 students (about 20% of them) failed outright.  This is a pretty poor showing for a school that prides themselves on their math standardized test scores for the state 3-8 tests.  As a math teacher who has spent a lot of time examining the different math Regents over the years, believe me on this.

Screen Shot 2018-05-26 at 7.42.05 PM

As I wrote about in a post called ‘Who Survives Success’ the original two cohorts of Success Academy when they were Kindergarteners and 1st graders were 72% free lunch.  These 16 students who took the Algebra II Regents, I think it is a fair assumption that these are from the 17 students who are about to become the first graduating seniors.  7 out of 16 qualify as economically disadvantaged, which is just 44%.

Also notice that the two students who got the level 4s were from the 9 students who did not qualify as economically disadvantaged.  Back in 2006 this was a group of 72 first graders of which around 56 were economically disadvantaged.  After 11 years, Success Academy was down to just 7 out of those 56 students and of those 7, they were not not able to claim any economically disadvantaged students to meet the standards (which were already pretty low, just needing 52%) on the Algebra II Regents.

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