College Or Die

Chalkbeat Tennessee recently reported that the new director of charter schools in Memphis is the former principal of the Charles A. Tindley Accelerated charter school in Indiana.  I went to the school’s website and found that the school’s motto, which they have painted in large letters on the walls of one of their hallways is, “College Or Die.”

Students are reminded of this motto each time they go to the ‘Student Life’ section of the website, as it is the first item on it.

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They have actually produced a video explaining this.  In the description for the video they say:

Located in one of Indianapolis’s roughest neighborhoods, the Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School is promising students not only that they’ll graduate from high school, but that they’ll be accepted into prestigious colleges and universities. The amazing thing is, they’re succeeding with a combination of tough love and academic inspiration.


Over the years I’ve heard so many variations, mostly with charter schools implying that 100% of their cohort were admitted to college when, in fact, it was just 100% of the senior class, ignoring the large percent of students who had started as ninth graders three years earlier.  Arne Duncan used Urban Prep’s 100% college rate in a speech at TFA’s 20 year alumni summit.  Michael Johnston used it in claiming that the school he was principal of had a 100% college rate.  YES prep got a million dollars from Oprah based on the 100% college rate.  Now Rahm Emanuel is saying that in Chicago, students should not be permitted to graduate without an acceptance to college or some other kind of post high school education.

Indiana has a pretty good public data site, so I went to check the numbers for this school.  I was not so surprised to see that this school had 93 9th graders in 2013-2014.  Three years later, their graduating class was 40 12th graders.

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This is an attrition rate of 57%.  What happened to these other 53 students?  Well, they likely did not die, but they certainly suffered what I consider to be emotional abuse having been told in giant letters that their lives are worthless.

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Who Needs Reformers When You Have David Kirp?

Miracle school debunking has been my most important contribution to the ed reform debate.  The first miracle school I ever debunked was Urban Prep in Chicago after Arne Duncan touted it at the 2011 Teach For America 20 year alumni summit.  I’ve probably debunked over 100 such schools and districts over the past 6 years.

A miracle school is one that has managed, with no additional resources but just harder working teachers with higher expectations, to beat the odds and get students in a high poverty school to get exceptional standardized test scores, thus proving that lazy teachers who have jobs for life and the unions who represent them, are the cause of the achievement gap.  Debunking a miracle school claim is important since the existence of a miracle school will be used as Exhibit A by reformers as evidence that the other 99.99% of schools must be failing.

Most alleged miracle schools are charter schools.  Since charter schools must have PR to attract students and wealthy donors, it would make sense that they would find ways to make it look like they have some secret to raising test scores.  Usually it turns out that the test scores are not very good, after all, and when the test scores are good it is because of massive attrition of the weaker students.

About four years ago I wrote my most widely criticized blog post ever called ‘The Status Quo Miracle District.’  The post was an analysis I did of a miracle district touted in the New York Times by David Kirp.  He had written about a traditional miracle district in New Jersey called, most ironically, Union City.  Even though many of my public school supporting friends had been enthusiastic about this article because it showed that a traditional district can be a miracle district too without resorting to reforms like charters and TFA, I did my fact-checking to find that the test scores at that district were not impressive.  My post was not well received.  People called me a traitor and an ally of the reformers.

I had to write another post defending my first post, explaining that a district can have low test scores and even low ‘growth’ scores by some cryptic measure and still be a great district making differences in children’s lives.  Likewise there can be a district with good test scores that is a test-prep factory and making, I think, a negative difference in children’s lives.

In the New York Times, the other day, April Fools Day, actually, there was another article by David Kirp called “Who Needs Charters When You Have Public Schools Like These?” touting another traditional miracle district, this one in Oklahoma, and again, ironically, called Union.  Here are some excerpts:

Betsy DeVos, book your plane ticket now.

Ms. DeVos, the new secretary of education, dismisses public schools as too slow-moving and difficult to reform. She’s calling for the expansion of supposedly nimbler charters and vouchers that enable parents to send their children to private or parochial schools. But Union shows what can be achieved when a public school system takes the time to invest in a culture of high expectations, recruit top-flight professionals and develop ties between schools and the community.

Two fifth graders guided me around one of these community schools, Christa McAuliffe Elementary, a sprawling brick building surrounded by acres of athletic fields. It was more than an hour after the school day ended, but the building buzzed, with choir practice, art classes, a soccer club, a student newspaper (the editors interviewed me) and a garden where students were growing corn and radishes. Tony, one of my young guides, performed in a folk dance troupe. The walls were festooned with family photos under a banner that said, “We Are All Family.”

A fourth grader at Rosa Parks Elementary who had trouble reading and writing, for example, felt like a failure and sometimes vented his frustration with his fists. But he’s thriving in the STEM class. When the class designed vehicles to safely transport an egg, he went further than anybody else by giving his car doors that opened upward, turning it into a little Lamborghini. Such small victories have changed the way he behaves in class, his teacher said — he works harder and acts out much less.

Now these two schools sound like they are great schools doing innovative things and I applaud that.  But it didn’t take me more than five minutes to type ‘Oklahoma school report cards’ and get to this public data site.  Another few clicks and I got the A to F report cards for these two schools.  McAuliffe got a D- with an F in student achievement, a D in growth, and an F in growth for growth for students in the bottom quartile.  Parks got an F with Fs in all three categories.


Let me say again, I do not think that these grades reflect the quality of these schools.  For me these low ratings merely show how inaccurate these A to F rating scales are that reformers are so enamored with.  And no need to have Betsy DeVos come and see these schools.  She thinks that schools in this country can’t get any worse so she would be very eager to declare these schools failures based on their A to F ratings.

When I do this kind of a debunking for a charter school, I don’t feel bad at all since the charter school was usually the source of the miracle claims.  In this case I seriously doubt that the leadership at these two schools somehow brought this scrutiny on themselves with boasting about their test scores.  But for two public schools like these that did not ask to be touted in the New York Times, I do feel a little bad for calling attention to their flawed ratings.

What I would have liked to have in this article is Kirp writing about all the great things going on at these schools and how anyone visiting these schools would be impressed by them, and then express outrage that the schools have a D- and an F rating thus demonstrating how inaccurate the A to F rating calculations are and how they are likely to be just as inaccurate in all the states throughout the country.  Now that would be a powerful article.

Get mad at me all you want, but I think that when public education advocates start taking plays from the reformer playbook we cheapen ourselves.

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Charter Leaders Take A Weak Stand Against DeVos

An editorial ran in USA Today recently penned by three CEOs of ‘high performing’ Charter Chains, Achievement First, KIPP, and Uncommon Schools.  It ran under the title ‘Mr. Trump, Don’t boost our budget while cutting education: Charter school CEOs.’

In the new budget despite massive cuts to education, the charter school industry will see a $168 million increase.  About this, the charter CEOs wrote:

As public charter school operators, we appreciate the proposed investment in new schools like ours.

But we cannot support the president’s budget as proposed, and we are determined to do everything in our power to work with Congress and the administration to protect the programs that are essential to the broader needs of our students, families and communities.

Budgets are statements of priorities, and this one sends a clear message that public education is not a top priority.

Of course the usual gang of ed reform cheerleaders received it enthusiastically:

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And even some praise from charter school opponents:

Screen Shot 2017-04-01 at 8.39.53 PMI can see why an organization like the UFT might celebrate this piece.  For years there has been bipartisan support for the modern style of education reform which features charter schools as proof that traditional public school education is broken in this country.  Having some splintering among the reformers is, at least, a step in the right direction.

In the 74, Richard Whitmire wrote an analysis of this gesture which included this:

Their charter schools, which enroll nearly a quarter million students around the country, stand to benefit from the Trump budget, which increases charter school investments by $168 million. These charter leaders should be elated — but they’re not.

The leaders write that they “appreciate” the boost. However, the cuts that paved the way for that increase — such as funding for AmeriCorps volunteers, who work in schools, and Pell Grants for low-income students attending college — would inflict too much damage on all students, both charter and traditional, they argue.

I agree with Whitmire here.  Charter schools are looking to distance themselves from Trump / DeVos.  But in that same Whitmire piece, there is this morsel about why it is so noteworthy that this group of charter CEOs wrote this:

Each of those networks operates schools that, on average and over time, add roughly a year and a half of learning for every year a student spends in their classrooms.

Though the CEOs did not make this outrageous claim in their USA today piece, this helped me understand my own skepticism of the supposedly courageous ‘rejection’ of the Trump budget.

Charter leaders, and reformers in general, need to understand their role in promoting a narrative in which funding for public education could be gutted.  It was mainly Democrat reformers who pushed the idea that traditional public schools were not doing their jobs.  There were ‘drop out factories’ and children ‘trapped’ in ‘failing schools’ on the basis of their ‘zip codes.’  Unions, with their LIFO and ‘lock step salary increases with no consideration of effectiveness’ and teacher evaluations that did not take into account ‘student achievement.’  All this rhetoric has built up momentum and has gotten these Charter CEOs very rich.  It didn’t matter that, like the Whitmire year and a half of learning each year quote, it was not true.  But now that it has spiraled out of control, the Democrat reformers don’t want the Republicans to take this to the next logical step.  Instead, the charter schools want things to stabilize right where they are.

Because increasing ‘choice’ is not a good thing for charter schools.  Families who are choosing to leave traditional public schools have only had one feasible choice thus far, charters.  With DeVos those families may have way more choices: private schools, virtual schools, homeschooling, other types of schooling that hasn’t even been invented yet.  This could really make it tough for charters who are already slowing in growth as they already scramble to get the students most likely to get the test scores to make their schools look good.

I’m not impressed with the USA today manifesto because in it the charter school CEOs purposely refrain from saying the one thing that would really make a difference.  Bravery would be the charter school CEOs saying, once and for all, “We lied.  We said that our schools proved that poverty did not matter.  That all that was needed was ‘great teachers.’  The truth is that our schools are not as transformational as our PR materials claim.  We didn’t realize that our lies would lead to this and now that it has, we feel we need to set the record straight.”  I don’t expect them to say anything like this anytime soon.  They will continue to straddle the fence, ready to adapt and survive in whatever new political environment emerges.

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The most powerful way, in my opinion, for these charter CEOs to reject the Trump budget would be to do so literally by refusing to accept the money.

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Charter School With 38% High School Completion Rate Brags About 88% College Completion Rate In USA Today

In yesterday’s USA Today there was an article with the enticing title “Charter schools’ ‘thorny’ problem:  Few students go on to earn college degrees”  This article was shared widely by the pro-teacher, pro-public school crowd.  And though the title does seem to support what many of us have been saying over the years, based on what they say in the article, I see it as something that can easily be quoted by the pro-charter crowd as evidence that charters are, in general, working.

Statistics for charter schools as a whole are hard to come by, but the best estimate puts charters’ college persistence rates at around 23%. To be fair, the rate overall for low-income students – the kind of students typically served by charters – is even worse: just 9%.

So if the rate of college completion for low-income students who attend charter schools is really 23%, that does sound like a big improvement over the non-charter rate of 9%.

The article goes on to highlight two charter chains who claim to have, respectively, a 45% and an 87.5% college completion rate.  The 45% chain was KIPP.  I remember a few years back when they first started saying this and I argued with Richard Barth, a co-CEO of KIPP, that you really can’t compare the rate KIPP publishes with the 9% statistic since the KIPP rate only applies to students who graduated KIPP and ignores the KIPP students who leave the school before reaching 12th grade.  Statistically speaking, the KIPP students are a ‘biased’ sample.

He wasn’t really interested in debating this, here is the exchange:

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The real heroes of the article are the Democracy Prep charter chain.  They claim an amazing 87.5% college completion rate.  (There is not mention in the article about the recent incident where a Democracy Prep student threatened another student at gunpoint over a dispute about a Chicken McNugget.)

Having the KIPP numbers and the Democracy Prep numbers really make this into a pro-charter piece.  It basically says that some charters are struggling to get kids ‘to and through’ college, but the really good charter chains are doing well with this.  So the conclusion isn’t to slow down charter proliferation, but to only expand the really good charters like KIPP and Democracy Prep.

New York State has a pretty good public data system, so I investigated the numbers for Democracy Prep’s first cohort, the ones that 87.5% of their graduates are on track to graduate from college.  What I found was that in 2006-2007, they had 131 6th graders.  According to their testing data from that year where 127 students were tested, there were 63 girls and 64 boys tested.  Also, of the 131 students, 80% were Black while 20% were Latino.

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Six years later they had 50 12th graders.  This represents just 38% of the original 131 students.  Of those 50, 13 were boys and 37 were girls.  So they went from 50% boys to 33% boys.  Also of their 50 students, they went from 80% Black in 2006 to 66% Black in 2013.

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The public New York State data page for Democracy Prep’s 2006-2007 data is here and the 2012-2013 data can be found here.

So Democracy Prep does not deserve to held up as a model for how to get low-income students through college when they can’t even get them through high school.  And USA Today, if they want to write an article about how Charter Schools are not a silver bullet for education, they should not publish misleading statistics that support the argument that they are.

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Is Louisiana’s NAEP Miracle ‘Significant’?

In a recent Washington Post editorial, Mitchell Chester and John White, wrote about their successes in turning around low performing schools.  Chester and White are both members of the organization Jeb Bush founded called Chiefs For Change.  Most of the members are actually former chiefs who have left for one reason or another, but Chester and White are currently in leadership roles, Chester in Massachusetts and White in Louisiana.

This Washington Post piece, was, of course, hailed by ‘reform’ zealots like Joel Klein and TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard

When I think of states that give evidence in any way about the possible positive impact of modern education ‘reform’ (closing down schools, replacing them with charters, evaluating and firing teachers based on a poor measure of ‘student achievement’, etc.), Massachusetts and Louisiana are not two of the states that come to mind.  Massachusetts has always been at or near the top of the rankings.  Based on the PISA scores, Massachusetts, if it were a country, would be one of the top performing countries in the world.  And for Louisiana, except for the statistics that they invent, their test scores on NAEP, the AP, the ACT, and any other sort of standardized test have been very low and continue to be.

So why are we listening to John White, who came to Louisiana from New York where he was mentored by Joel Klein, about how to improve low performing schools?  Well of course he backs up his case with some statistics:

In Louisiana, radical change means that 128,000 fewer students attend schools rated D or F than did in 2011. That’s had a powerful impact on the historically disadvantaged children too often consigned to failing schools, vaulting the performance of African-American fourth graders into the middle of the pack on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2015. In 2009, for example, black fourth graders ranked 43rd and 41st in the nation for proficiency in reading and math, respectively. Those rankings jumped to 20th and 23rd in 2015.

As far as the 128,000 fewer students attending schools rated D or F, since they are the ones who assign those ratings and since the criteria for getting a D or F has changed over the years, I don’t take that one too seriously.

But I was interested in ‘fact checking’ that NAEP statistic since that was one I hadn’t heard of before.  I knew that Louisiana as a whole had very low NAEP scores and they were not improving very much over the years the way, for example Tennessee and Washington D.C. have, otherwise we’d be hearing about Louisiana NAEP much more.

White says that black fourth graders ranked 43rd in reading and 41st in math in 2009 and now rank 20th and 23rd.  So I went to the National Center for Education Statistics website and dug into the data.

Since NAEP isn’t just for 4th graders, the first thing I checked was what their current ranking was for black 8th graders and saw that for 8th grade math they actually dropped from 39th to 44th between 2009 and 2015.  For 8th grade reading they dropped from to 43rd to 45th between 2009 and 2015.  So it is obvious why they don’t mention their 8th grade change in rankings.

I also checked how they have done in math for all 4th graders regardless of race.  I found that in 2009 they were 48th while in 2015 they were not much better, at 44th.  In reading they went from second to last in 2009 to 8th to last in 2015.  A jump, but not the sort of thing that John White would ever use to prove his point about his knowledge of improving schools.

But still I could see someone being compelled by the improving position for the scores of black 4th graders since those are students who have had their entire schooling after the ‘greatest thing that ever happened to New Orleans’ (according to Arne Duncan) event, Hurricane Katrina.  I did see that it was accurate that Louisiana had leapfrogged over a bunch of states in the most recent 4th grade tests for black students.  And I could see how it sounds good to go from the bottom to the middle.  But what I wanted to find out is if this was a ‘significant’ change.

In statistics, ‘significant’ has a very specific meaning.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the change is large.  There can actually be times where a large difference is not considered ‘significant’ and times where a small difference can be considered ‘significant.’  Also, saying that the difference in a comparison is significant (or not significant) has nothing to do with whether or not the difference is ‘important.’  It’s actually a tricky thing to explain what it means for a change to be, or not to be, ‘significant’ but I’ll try to explain.

Suppose you have 100 tomato plants and you give half of them plant food ‘A’ and the other half plant food ‘B’.  A month later you check on the tomatoes and you find that the tomatoes that got plant food ‘B’ grew, on average, 3 inches taller than those that got plant food ‘A.’  Before you can declare that plant food ‘B’ causes plants to grow taller, you enter the data for all 100 plants into a computer.  Then you have the computer randomly select fifty plants from the hundred and you compare the average of this new, random, grouping with the average of the other 50 that were not selected by the computer.  Then you have the computer do that ten thousand times with ten thousand different ways of splitting the 100 plants into two groups.  Then you check to see if it is common for one group to grow, on average, 3 inches taller than the other group.  If it turns out that this actually happens for enough of the groups (maybe 10% or so), the the difference is considered to not be ‘significant’ meaning that the difference was just as likely to be because of random chance than because plant food ‘B’ actually caused the plants to grow more.  In layman’s terms, if the difference is not statistically significant, it’s kind of like a tie.

Well, the NAEP data explorer allows you to create these nifty maps that show how states compare to each other and which are ‘significantly’ better or worse.

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This map shows that in math black 4th graders in Louisiana are not ‘significantly’ different from about 40 states and are better than about 5 and worse than about 5.  So with this pretty weak measurement, it could be argued that Louisiana 4th graders are tied for 45th or that they are tied for 6th.  Basically, there isn’t much that can be concluded when the scores are run through this ‘significance’ filter.

A similar thing happens for 4th grade reading, which can be seen below.

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I also produced these maps for the 2009 NAEP to see how different they were and, as can be seen from these two maps, back in 2009 in reading there were even more ‘ties’ with respect to statistically ‘significant’ differences.

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I always felt that using NAEP scores as a way to prove that reforms are (or are not working) wasn’t a great idea.  I think the worst ever use of NAEP scores was in ‘Waiting For Superman’ as it was used to show that the public school in every state were pretty much ‘failing.’

Since reformers love to use them when it seems to support their ideas, I feel no guilt when I use them against the reformers when I find things in the NAEP that seem to support the idea that the reform agenda is failing.  If they know that cherry picking isolated NAEP statistics will cause people to dig deeper into the full picture and find many statistics that will be used against them, maybe they will think twice before using them to support their position in the first place.  Not using NAEP against the reformers would be like an attorney not cross examining an unreliable witness who was deliberately chosen by the other side to help their case.

I never thought that NAEP scores were very significant, but I didn’t realize until now how, mathematically speaking, ‘insignificant’ NAEP differences really are.

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Odd questions on the latest TFA alumni survey

As a TFA alum, each year I get invited to fill out the annual alumni survey.  Sometimes I boycott the survey, knowing that TFA is likely to misrepresent the results of this survey.  Whether it is the claim that two-thirds of alumni are still teachers or that 80 percent of alumni are still working in education or are otherwise impacting low income communities, TFA is never very transparent with the raw data they use to generate these numbers.

This year I decided to take the survey anyway.  Maybe it would give some insights into what TFA is thinking nowadays DeVos and everything.  They’ve actually been pretty quiet lately.

I’ve always wondered about that statistic about how 80 percent of alumni are either working in schools or otherwise in low-income communities.  It seemed like there would have to be some staffer at TFA who would make a judgement call if, for example, someone working as an admissions officer at a college would count as being ‘in education’ or if someone who is a lawyer and from time to time has clients who are low-income if they would count as ‘impacting low-income communities.’  It turns out that it is much simpler than that:


So the person doing the survey gets to make the judgement.  I’m not sure if this is a statistically valid way of doing this.

Also notice the wording of these questions.  The first one doesn’t say “I currently work in education.”  It is so vague about ‘impacting the field of education’ or just impacting ‘issues affecting education.’  Yet when the survey results are reported, they claim “we’ve got … over 80 percent [of alumni] in schools or with low-income communities.”  See, they clearly say “in schools” not “impacting issues affecting education.”  This is very deceptive.

Near the end of of the survey I encountered a series of questions that I would best describe as ‘creepy.’  Everyone in TFA can recite Wendy’s famous mission statement “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”  That was the motto back in 1991 when I was a corps member and that is still it today.  It is an optimistic mission statement and I wonder, since TFA is all about data, if they know what percent of students had this opportunity to attain an excellent education back in 1990 when TFA started and what percent of students have an opportunity to attain an excellent education today, so see how we are doing on that goal.

So here are the series of questions I’m referring to:


I find the questions to be very odd.  The fact that someone on staff, maybe a team of people, wrote these questions and edited them and then looked them over again before sending out the survey and though “Oh Yeahhhhh” shows that they are really living in a different reality.

I say this since I’m not sure what information they are trying to elicit here.  If I say I disagree with the first statement, does that mean to them that I don’t believe that poor kids are capable of learning?  For me, I am not confident that “One Day” will become a reality since I think the reforms that TFA supports like charter schools, school closings, and teacher-bashing are taking us further away from “One Day” and since Democrats and Republicans generally agree with these ideas, I’m not so optimistic about things getting much better for “all children.”  The other questions are also kind of weird.  I guess that people who work in charter schools answer “Strongly Agree” to all of these.

TFA, like other reformers, has been pretty quiet the past few months.  Waiting, I guess, to see which way the wind is blowing and how they will maintain their ‘seat at the table’ not to mention their federal grants and all that.

Recruitment has nosedived over the past three years.  I see the retweets by TFA of the new recruits who are finishing their applications or have heard that they have been accepted and I see things like “So excited to be starting the next adventure in my life teaching in Chicago!.”  I have to wonder, as Seinfeld used to say, “Who are these people?

Still, I’m an alum and some of my best friends are too and some of them are still involved in education and they are great, so I’ll keep doing my part, filling out the survey, going to the reunions every five years, and being a basic annoyance to them from time to time, trying to keep them honest.

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The Detroit Lyin’s

When asked about the low test scores of Detroit’s charter schools during her confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos said that she “looks forward to correcting some of the record regarding Detroit.”

While it is common knowledge that Michigan’s NAEP rankings have gone from the middle of the pack down to the bottom 10 in the time that DeVos has supported her style of education reform there, there are still people out there writing about a Detroit miracle.

On January 12th, James Goenner wrote an Op-Ed in the Detroit News about the miraculous Muskegon Heights School District.  Goenner was a consultant to the Muskegon Heights ‘transformation’ so anything he says should be, at least, fact checked.

According to Goenner, Muskegon Heights was broken beyond repair until the district became an all charter district where parents have choice about which school their children go to.  As a result:

Fast-forward to today and you’ll find that the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy has strong leadership, balanced books, and improving academics. It is on a glide path to pay off its old debt. All of its nearly 1,000 students attend by choice. No one is assigned. Like all Michigan charter schools, it’s prohibited by law from levying taxes. Because charters receive less money than districts, it provides taxpayers with a bigger bang for their buck.

And this solution is replicable. It’s a strategy that could be deployed with struggling districts throughout the nation to create a fresh start for kids in a taxpayer-friendly way.

All of this was accomplished by people who cared enough to persist and had the stamina to overcome the numerous obstacles that were thrown in their way. Betsy DeVos was one of them, and so was I. Without her quiet support, leadership, and encouragement, I doubt we would have ever been able to turn this innovative idea into a real solution.

So I went to the Michigan Dashboard & Accountability Scorecard website, and here’s what I learned about Muskegon Heights School District.

While there were once five schools in this district, now there are just two, Dr. Martin Luther King Academy and Muskegon Heights Academy.  The other three schools are now listed as ‘closed.’


So it seems like there isn’t much of a choice there anymore with so few schools.  But Goenner says that the schools there have ‘improving academics’ so I though I’d check those two schools out.


So one school is in the bottom 2% of all schools and the other is in the bottom 0%.  Unless the second school once had a ranking with negative numbers, there is no way that being in the 0% can be an improvement over anything.

So this is yet another example of a lie to support the narrative that charter schools are superior to public schools.  If this turnaround was supported by Betsy DeVos and it is any indication of her ability to devise real solutions to complex issues, I’m feeling pretty pessimistic about the direction education will take if and when she is confirmed as Secretary of Education.

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