What Happened To The Math Regents? Part I

When people try to defend the common core, they usually admit that there have been problems, but that the problem was “in the implementation.”  For once, they are right.

The Regents exams have been given since the 1930s and have changed over the years to reflect different priorities in what was considered important for students to know in math.  Most years there were three different math Regents, one for 9th graders — generally Algebra I, one for 10th graders — generally Geometry, and one for 11th graders — generally Algebra II / Trigonometry.  Though over the years the names of the courses have changed and there was even a failed experiment where they tried to make the three tests into two courses each spanning a year and a half, things were pretty steady from the 1930s until very recently.

I know there is a lot to criticize about the common core, especially in the elementary grades.  But the high school recommendations for the common core, at least the official ones from the people who designed them, are fairly vague and not really very different from what the expectations in math were before the common core.

Every state had to ‘interpret’ the common core recommendations and New York did make some odd decisions about what they felt would qualify as a ‘common core’ state curriculum, which topics to eliminate from the curriculum and which ones to add.  Even with these changes, a math course pre-common core would be about 85% to 90% the same as it was post-common core.

Another aspect of the common core besides just a tinkering with cutting some topics and adding some topics was to make ‘common core aligned’ exams, and this includes the new Regents.

As a teacher, I make unit tests all the time, and I take great pride in the quality of my tests.  I have a testing ‘philosophy’ when it comes to a math unit test.  I like to have a mix of questions, some questions, about 50% I’d say, are intentionally ‘easy’ (at least for a student who has learned the material), another 35% are ‘medium’, requiring a longer calculation, more steps, a bit more decision making, and the remaining 15% are ‘hard’ requiring students to sometimes answer a question that they haven’t exactly seen before but if they really understand the material deeply, they can still figure those out.  My tests are out of 100 points, and if I make my test properly, there should be no need to ‘curve’ the results.

I’ve also made lots of ‘final’ exams.  For those, my distribution of easy, medium, and hard questions is different.  I don’t have exact numbers on this, but I’m thinking that it is about 60% easy and 40% medium with no deliberately ‘hard’ questions.  I do this because the students are studying a full year’s worth of material on the final and they have to constantly ‘switch gears’ from one unit to another which is already tough to do so I don’t see the need to have the deliberately hard type questions, like when the have to apply something they’ve learned to a new situation.  On a regular unit test, I like those in moderation, but not on the final.

Back when I took the math Regents exams as a student in 1983, 1984, and 1985, they were very ‘fair’ tests.  If you knew your math and studied, you were sure to pass and if you were really proficient, you were likely to get between 90% and 100%.  There was no ‘curve’ on the test though you were supposed to choose something like 30 out of 35 short answer questions and 4 out of 7 long answer questions so in that way there was a small curve, but mainly the percent you got correct was your grade on the test.

Starting in the early 2000s with the Math A / Math B experiment, there seemed to be new philosophy of Regents tests.  For one thing the tests would be a lot harder.  There are different ways to make a math question ‘hard.’  It can be more steps meaning more opportunity for errors or the numbers can be harder to work with since they involve fractions or decimals or the questions can have extraneous irrelevant information to throw students off, or a basic question can be made more confusing by expressing it in an unfamiliar way.  So the new questions were harder, but to make up for this the test was ‘curved.’  As time went on this curve got more and more extreme until a score of about 30% was curved up to a 65.  Another relevant fact is that the curve is announced before the tests are scored.  So it is not that they thought they made a fair test and then realized something must be wrong because the pass rate would be so low if the passing score were 65% but that they knew that this test would be so difficult it would require such a generous curve.

This is not a sound educational idea, to make a test much harder and then to curve it.  What that does is make the scores less accurate since you can have two students get no credit on a question even though one of the students may not know the material at all and the other can know the material pretty well but have fallen for too many of the traps.

I suppose that they would say that the harder tests mean that they’ve ‘increased expectations’ or ‘increased rigor’ but if you’re going to curve a 30% up to a 65, it really isn’t increasing expectations it is just making the results inaccurate.  An unfair test is discouraging to the students who prepared for a test that would accurately assess their skills.  An unfair test is also frustrating for teachers who have been giving fair tests throughout the year only to have their students do poorly on the state made final exam.

Now I have my issues with some of the changes to the different math curricula in the transition to the common core, but as far as the Regents exams go, I am certain that it is possible to make a very fair and accurate test with those topics which would not need to be curved.

I don’t know how the Regents exams are made.  I expect that there’s a committee of question writers, maybe they are teachers and assistant principals or retired teachers. . There also must be some kind of person who is ‘in charge’ who takes all the proposed questions and assembles the test and makes sure that the test ‘flows’ and that there is an appropriate mix of easy, medium, and hard questions.  This year, for the three math tests, this team and leader have failed to create appropriate tests.  In this post I’ll look at Algebra II and maybe look at the other tests another time.  My hope is that whoever is in charge of assembling these teams, especially the leaders of the teams, will choose different, more qualified, people for next years exams.

When a teacher looks at a curriculum for a math course, he or she decides how much time should be devoted to each unit.  Some units might take 5 days to complete, like rational equations, while others will take 15 days to complete, like exponential equations.  A good Regents exam will reflect this by making the number of questions on each unit proportional to the amount of time a teacher spent teaching that topic.  Otherwise it is pretty frustrating for students and teachers alike when they spent a month learning and mastering something and it only came up in one 2 point multiple choice question.

On the June 2017 Algebra II Regents I think all math teachers would agree that having just 10 points combined (out of 86 points total on the test, or about 12%) on rational equations, radical equations, systems of equations, sequences, and complex numbers was not the proper representations for these topics would I’d estimate to be about 25% of the course.  On the other hand, the overrepresentation of exponential equations which accounted for about 25% of the test though about 12% of the course.  So I’d say they need to do a better job of deciding how many points to give to the different topics based on how long those topics take to teach.  This was not the main problem with this test, but it is something in need of improvement.

The issue with this test is that the majority of the questions are ‘bad’ questions for one reason or another.  I’m going to analyze some of these questions in this post and then look at the other questions in future posts if readers want me to continue with it.

The first part of the Algebra II Regents is the multiple choice section with 24 questions worth 2 points each for 48 points (out of 86 total for the test).  Of these 24 questions, only six of them were ‘good’ (numbers 1, 6, 7, 8, 11, and 17 for those of you following along with the test at home).  The other 18 had issues with them that made them not ‘Regents worthy’ in my opinion.

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Exponential equations are an important topic in Algebra II.  It actually takes a few weeks to teach all the different things that lead up to a question like this.  The first thing wrong with this question is that it takes too many steps for a multiple choice question.  One way to fix this would be to remove the +3 from the exponent.  The next issue is the way the choices are phrased.  Besides knowing how to solve this question, students also are expected to use the change of base formula in their solution in order to get something that looks like the answer choices.  They could have made choice (1) say log_2 6 -3, which would have been a little better.  In my opinion the answer choices should just be decimals rounded to the nearest hundredth.

Maybe they did it this way because they did not want students to be able to ‘cheat’ by just plugging the four answer choices into the equation to see which one made the expression evaluate to 48.  But the students could do that anyway by just converting the four answers into decimals and then testing them each out.

So question 2 was flawed since there were too many skills being taught in one two point multiple choice question.  If I were giving a twenty question test about just this topic, perhaps a question like this would be one of the ‘hard’ ones.  But to pick one question about a topic that takes many days to teach and make it this one instead of a more straight forward question is counterproductive.  You want a question that enables you to distinguish the students who don’t know the topic from those who do.  That’s why you want a less involved question than this.

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Though the math involved in this question is fine, each of the steps, distributive property followed by simplifying the powers of i, as a math teacher this question is just ‘weird’ looking.  I’ve rarely seen x variables and the imaginary number i put together in quite this way.  My feeling is that, by convention, the i would be between the coefficient and the variable, but I’m not sure.  Maybe the x should be a z since it is dealing with complex numbers.  There’s just something ‘off’ about this question.  Not that it’s something that if a teacher knows might be on the test isn’t something that students can easily practice and get correct, but since I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an expression like this in any math that I’ve done, it would be an ‘application’ of complex numbers that would be pretty forced.  If the goal is to show that students know powers of i, I think a better question would be one that does not have the x in it, maybe something like (2+3i)(5-2i) or something like that.

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This is a question that requires a graphing calculator.  They want to see if students know how to solve equations like this by graphing both functions and using the ‘intersect’ feature of their graphing calculators to find the solution.

When they graph the two functions, though, the only answer that seems reasonable is choice (3) since these curves do intersect at (-0.99, 1.96).  But choice (3) is actually not the correct answer here.  The answer to an equation like f(x)=g(x) is not an ordered pair, but just the x-value.  So if -0.99 was a choice it would be correct, but since the choice has the y-coordinate too, it is not considered correct.


So what is correct?  Well, students would have to realize that on the 10 by 10 grid that the calculator defaults to there were only two intersections.  But if they zoomed out to a 20 by 20 grid there would be a third intersection point at (11.29, 32.87) which makes choice (4) look good, but once again, that wouldn’t be right so fortunately there is choice (2) which is just the 11.29.


It was not a good decision to make a question like this and not have the correct answer in the basic 10 by 10 grid.  That’s the first fix I’d make to this question if I were involved.

This question could also have been improved by making all the choices have just a single number and not have any ordered pairs since I don’t think teachers spend a lot of time having a the philosophical discussion about whether a solution to an equation can be an ordered pair or is it just a number.  A discussion like that would be a bit too esoteric and boring for the vast majority of students.

Another option is to make the question ask which is not a solution and have the x-coordinate of the three intersection points plus one number that is not a solution.

OK, that’s all I’ve got in me for now.  I could do this kind of analysis (let me know if you think I should) and show how about two thirds of the questions on this test reveal a lack of understanding by the team that created this test about what the purpose of a final exam is, what sorts of questions are appropriate for a test like this, what sorts of answer choices are appropriate, and just generally getting a clue about what makes a high quality test.

The issues with this test have nothing to do with the ‘common core’ actually.  Very good tests could be created based on the common core curriculum for Algebra II.  Teachers who taught this course created good tests throughout the year on it.  The Regents should be a test that students who know their stuff should be able to pass without a huge curve to compensate for the low quality of the test questions.  Those who are paid to create these tests need to take this responsibility more seriously or they should get more competent people to make the tests.

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Does KIPP Deserve To Expand In Philly?

Charter schools are a large component of the modern education reform movement.  In theory, the charters will get better results because with the added autonomy they get, there is also added accountability.  A charter school can lose its charter for poor performance.  ‘High performing’ charters with a proven track record will also have the opportunity to expand while ‘low performing’ charters will not have their charters renewed.  This survival of the fittest as charter schools compete with each other and with the public schools will, supposedly, cause the school system to evolve more quickly than the incremental improvements of the traditional school system.

KIPP is one of the largest and best known charter networks in the country.  There are currently five KIPP schools in Philadelphia, two elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school.

An article recently ran on the Philadelphia Website called ‘The Notebook’ about KIPP’s applications to expand and how some in the community are skeptical because of the poor performance of the KIPP schools.

I looked at the recent school report card for their one and only high school, KIPP DuBois High School.  Though they don’t have letter grades, they do have six levels with different symbols that are essentially an A to F scale.  That school got the lowest possible rating, essentially an F.  Not only were their test scores low, but they also got the lowest possible rating in ‘growth’ in math and reading, in other words the value-added for the school which reformers claim to take very seriously.

But of course KIPP has a response to this, from the article:

KIPP’s CEO, Marc Mannella, has acknowledged publicly that some of its academic indicators have been disappointing. But KIPP officials cite evidence that its schools have had success in steering students to college.

Specifically, they say, the first 8th-grade class from KIPP’s original middle school, which graduated in 2007, boasted 35 percent of students obtaining four-year college degrees 10 years later, compared to a 9 percent rate for low-income students nationally. The result is for a cohort of 35 graduates.

I hear this a lot from KIPP with their ‘to-and-through’ college initiative.  Years ago I saw this ad on the New York City Subway.


This is quite a promise since many students who begin KIPP don’t even make it through 8th grade there.  But here they are making a promise ‘to see each child to and through college’ which seems like some kind of false advertising, I don’t know exactly what the laws are about this.

KIPP often boasts that for low income students, only 9% graduate college while in some of their networks they have even 40%.  Generally this 40% does not account for students who did not complete 8th grade there so it is not an equivalent comparison.

A few years ago I had an interesting interchange with Richard Barth, who is a co-CEO of KIPP, about this:


So clearly they aren’t interested in having a true debate using data.

So when it comes to Philadelphia with all the poor results from KIPP, the officials there have come up with one statistic that proves that they succeed at getting their students to and through college:  “the first 8th-grade class from KIPP’s original middle school, which graduated in 2007, boasted 35 percent of students obtaining four-year college degrees 10 years later, compared to a 9 percent rate for low-income students nationally. The result is for a cohort of 35 graduates.”

The first thing that is unusual is that the cohort, it says, was just 35 students.  That is not the normal size of a cohort.  So 35% of those 35 students, or about 12 students, have graduated from college and since 35% is four times 9%, that is an amazing thing.

But Pennsylvania has very good public data so it did not take me long to find out that the KIPP school that they say had 35 8th graders in 2007 actually had just 33.  And the year before they had 55 7th graders.  And the year before that they had 77 6th graders.  And the year before that, that cohort had 86 5th graders.  So 86 5th graders became 33 8th graders for an attrition rate of 62%.  And those 12 students who graduated college, well they were not 35% of 35 but just 13% of the actual 86 students who entered that school.  Suddenly their miracle statistic, the only one they could come up with to counter their poor academic results, isn’t so miraculous.

It sound like KIPP wants to double the number of schools from 5 to 10 and almost triple the number of students they serve.  My hope is that the charter authorizers can learn that even the one seemingly bright spot in their data is nothing more than a lie generated by KIPP’s PR department.

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KIPP School Booted From US News Best Schools List

U.S. News and World Report publishes an annual list of the best high schools based on a metric involving mostly AP tests.  Two months ago I noticed something strange when examining the data for a KIPP high school in New York that was ranked 29th in the country and 4th in the state on this list.  Though there is just one KIPP high school in New York, there were four KIPP high schools in the rankings.  These schools were actually middle schools.  One of those schools had 100% of their students passing an AP while the other three had 0%.  The only logical explanation for this is that KIPP manipulated their rosters, assigning kids who passed APs to one ‘school’ and kids who didn’t to the other three ‘schools’ even though they were all just part of one high school.

I wrote a post about this and some people suggested I somehow report this to US News and World Report.  I didn’t want to get into a wild goose chase about this.  I didn’t think that US News and World Report really cared if their metric had been gamed or not.

So I was pleased to learn, the other day, that US News and World Report has this update on the main page now.

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And on the page for the formerly 4th rated school in New York, KIPP Academy it has this update.

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When the original US News ranking came out, the now disqualified KIPP Academy ranking was celebrated in The New York Post :

Here in the city, KIPP Academy in The Bronx came in 10th among charters and 29th among all US high schools. Keep it up, KIPP!

And The 74 cited this as well :

Check out Number 29 on the list, New York City’s KIPP Academy Charter School (KIPP NYC College Prep High School), located in the Bronx. Its student body is 44 percent black and 54 percent Latino. Eighty-seven percent of them qualify for free lunches, and an additional 13 percent qualify for reduced-priced lunches. Yet, they are excelling, and U.S. News rates the school as the fourth-best public high school in New York state.

And in The National Review :

These new rankings buttress school reformers’ case that genuine improvement comes when families have options. Every magnet or charter does not rise to the level of BASIS schools in Arizona or KIPP Academy in New York City, but their outsized representation among the nation’s best suggests that their models work.

Surely these other publications are not going to print corrections now that the KIPP Academy school has been removed from the top schools list.

In my years of blogging and uncovering things like this, this is a nice tangible ‘victory.’  I’m pretty sure that if I had never discovered this discrepancy, this correction would have not happened.  KIPP had done the same thing with this school for a few years and have surely been using it in fund raising materials and maybe even grants.  In the scheme of things it is a pretty small victory but still worth feeling good about.

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What TFA Tells The New Recruits About ‘The System’

The Teach For America mission statement does not mention the word teacher.  It reads “Our mission is to enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation’s most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.”  I don’t remember exactly what year this happened, but at some point in the past 10 years they made a big deal about how they are a ‘leadership’ organization.  Certainly this wasn’t what they were saying back in 1991 when I started as a TFA corps member.

Each year TFA recruits a new cohort of these leaders, around four to five thousand a year in recent years.  When I think of what some of the qualities that a 22 year old leader would possess, I think that many, if not most, would be somewhat outspoken.  Yes, I know that you don’t have to be outspoken to be a leader, but I’d expect there to be some very vocal ones.  There would be at least a few who are writing blogs, who are mixing it up on Twitter, things like that.  One of the mysteries of TFA is how it is possible that none of the 4,000 leaders has any sort of public presence on social media.

I believe that TFA strongly discourages the new recruits from engaging on social media.  It would be just too much of a coincidence for 4,000 people enthusiastic about becoming teachers, even if they don’t possess great leadership qualities, to be so quiet.

For sure, TFA likes to control the exposure of the new corps members.  Sometimes they will on Twitter link to something they wrote about a new corps member.  Or they retweet a new corps member who just got his or her acceptance letter.  But we almost never get to hear from an actual corps member first hand.

In Houston for the past three years, TFA has chosen some new corps members and made a series of videos documenting their summer experience.  In 2015 I critiqued the videos and was eventually contacted by one of the subjects of the videos and we actually had some conversations by phone over the years.  Another one emailed me and said he wanted to keep in touch with me, but when I tried to contact him later on, he never got back to me.

With the beginning of the 2017 Houston Institute, there is a new set corps members.  Based on something I heard two of them say in this video, I get the sense that TFA is feeding the new corps members a strange message.  Watch the video for yourself if you want and see if you pick up on anything strange.


So the thing I found strange was said by both Savanah and Madisenne .  Savanah said that one of the things she has learned in her three days is “Just because outside sources are putting a value on them doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to learn.”  Madisenne said “What I really learned about KC (Kansas City) is that it’s not a lack of funding.  It has been conscious decisions that has made this educational inequity.”

It’s pretty clear that these are messages that TFA is transmitting, though I’m not sure what it accomplishes.  The first comment about ‘outside sources putting a value on them’ seems like something that TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard says a lot, basically that too many teachers have low expectations and these low expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies.  The reality is much more complicated than that and this oversimplified reading of it, I think, is a form of teacher bashing.  And for TFA to teach the new recruits that there is not a funding problem, particularly in Kansas City, really serves no good purpose.  Instead, they teach them, there is some conspiracy hatched by who, it’s not really clear.  But someone, is it politicians?, teacher’s unions?, teachers?, has made this conscious decision to make ‘educational inequity’ and that as a teacher she will reverse it by consciously battling those other decisions.

To me these messages are not the sorts of things that are productive for new TFA corps members to be told to believe in their first days of institute.  I don’t think they should start with the premise that the system is broken and a-la-Betsy Devos, it can’t get much worse, and then that the TFA teacher’s role is to somehow single handedly undo the deliberate decisions that have led to this.  Instead I’d rather they were told that teaching is very hard and that teachers all over the country are working very hard despite limited resources and that TFA teachers are going to fight alongside these other teachers and try to learn from them and hope that they can quickly become like those experienced teachers so they won’t increase educational inequity for their own students.

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TFA Trains Teachers At ‘Failing’ School Led By TFA Alum

‘Failing’ schools are the oxygen of the modern education reform movement.  Up until about 10 years ago with the rise of Democratic education reformers like Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, and TFA alum Michelle Rhee, I hadn’t heard the term much.  There were schools with low test scores, of course, but everyone understood that low test scores did not mean you had a school staffed by self-serving ‘adults’ who were the sole cause of these low test scores.  Accountability became defined as identifying and punishing ‘failing’ schools and identifying and punishing ‘ineffective’ teachers.

This ‘failing schools / ineffective teacher’ narrative peaked, I think, around 2010 with Obama’s Race To The Top program which required states to invent metrics to better identify the ‘failing’ schools that need to be turned into ‘high performing’ charters and the ‘ineffective’ teachers that need to be fired.  The movie ‘Waiting For Superman’ helped make this narrative ingrained in the public consciousness.

I’ve worked at four schools in my career and three of those schools would be deemed ‘failing’ by most education reformers.  Yet I was impressed by the majority of the teachers at these so-called ‘failing’ schools so I know that most schools that states are labelling ‘failing’ are actually not to anyone who really gets to know the school.

Teach For America actually has many corps members and alumni working and even leading schools that have low state report card grades.  They have also had many corps members and alumni in public and also charter schools that have been closed down because they were considered beyond help.  Surely Teach For America knows that most methods of rating schools in this way are not accurate.

But Teach For America has not come to defense of these schools, it would be too risky to do so.  You see, TFA has benefitted much from the ‘failing schools’ narrative.  Politicians who love to talk about ‘failing’ schools also are big fans of TFA.  What could prove how awful the schools and teachers are in this country more than to show how beginning teachers and upstart charter schools constantly outperform them?  Without the belief that our country is infested with ‘failing’ schools and ‘ineffective’ teachers, TFA would not be an organization with a $300 million a year budget, some of that coming from governmental grants.

There are a bunch of TFA institutes going on right now around the country.  In Houston, where I taught for four years, the corps members train at several schools that they partner with for their summer school.  I found it interesting when I looked into the data for one of those schools, J.W. Robinson, Jr. Elementary School.

TFA must think the school is pretty good.  It is run by a TFA alum, Paige Fernandez-Hohos.  The teachers at the host school often serve as mentors to the new TFA corps members so TFA must think that the teachers there are at least somewhat effective.  And based on the enthusiasm that the corps members are expressing on Twitter after their first day there, the corps members probably would agree that Robinson Elementary is a pretty good place.

There’s just one problem.  By the school rating system in Texas, Robinson Elementary is a ‘failing’ school.  It doesn’t have an ‘F’ but with a ‘D’ and a Houston rank of 720th school out of about 1000 total, this is a school that, by this rating system, is very below average.


I’m not writing about this to trash this school.  I want the corps members who are working there and who are admiring this school to understand, though, that the bogus rating system that makes Robinson ‘failing’ is the same kind of rating system that is being used by all the supporters of TFA who want to declare a large percent of schools, like Robinson, failing.  It’s lies like this that have fueled the growth of TFA.  Without this growth, most TFA CMs wouldn’t even be in the program right now as it would be a much smaller program than it is.

I think this would make for a good discussion topic for the TFA corps member groups who work at this failing school.  If you are one of those corps members, bring this up at one of the daily meetings and report back how the TFA staffers respond.

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The TFA Top-10 Listers, Where Are They Now?

A frequent criticism of TFA is that their teachers usually don’t stay beyond the two-year commitment.

Over the years, TFA has had different responses to this.  For a long time the statistic they touted was that 60% of corps members who complete the two years also teach a third year.  Though this statistic doesn’t include those who don’t make it though the two years (which is around 12%) it still is more than most people would figure.  Though they don’t publish these statistics so much anymore, it used to be generally accepted that only about 25% stay for a fourth year.

Nowadays, TFA has found a sneaky way to inflate their retention numbers by using their annual survey.  According to TFA, 80% of people who answered the survey say that they are either still ‘in education’ or somehow ‘serves low-income communities.’  This number is inflated for two reasons:  1) The self-selection of the survey takers, and 2) The way they collect this information by having alumni answer these ambiguous questions:

Without having access to the data of all 50,000 alumni, it is hard to know, anymore, what percent of TFAers become career teachers.

Four years ago, TFA got some national attention as ten of their new 2013 CMs got the opportunity to read a David Letterman Top 10 List ‘The Top 10 Reasons I Decided To Become A Teacher.’  This offended many people who really decided to become teachers since most of the TFAers were likely not going to become teachers for more than two years.

Now I know that ten people is a very small sample, but I thought it would be interesting to follow up on these ten people, four years later.  Even though it is just ten people, we can presume that these ten people were not just randomly chosen by TFA to be on David Letterman.  Surely these were some of the more dynamic corps members.  Also I would think that after going on national TV and saying that you decided to become a teacher, maybe deep in their subconscious, that would make them think twice before quitting after two years.

So using my search engine skills, I did my best to learn the whereabouts of the TFA Letterman 10.  Here’s what I found out.

Of the 10, I was only able to get information about 9 of them.

Two of the 9 people, to the best of my knowledge, did not complete their initial two year commitment.  one, it seems, never made it to the classroom at all while another seems to have taught for part of a year in a KIPP and then part of a year in another school.  Now she has a company that helps students with college essays so I guess she would count in the 80% who is still ‘in education.’

Three of the 9 people,  taught for 2 years.  One now seems to be in graduate school, one is a filmmaker, and one now works for TFA.

Two of the 9 people taught for 3 years, and are now in graduate school.

Two of the 9 people are still teaching after four years.

These numbers are actually pretty representative of the retention numbers for corps members over the years, about 15% quitting, about 15% teaching beyond 3 years, and 70% teaching either 2 or 3 years.  If you were thinking back, four years ago when this was on TV, “I wonder how many of them will actually become teachers?” now you have at least an approximate idea.


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My review of ‘letters to a young education reformer’

I was eager to receive Rick Hess’s latest book ‘letters to a young education reformer.’  Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank.  Hess is one of the few defenders of the reform movement whom I respect.  His writings, like his column in Education Week, always have the nuance that most reform writers at places like The 74 and Education Post lack.


With states opting out of the Common Core, parents opting out of state tests, and prominent reformers even opting out of ed reform, the reform movement is currently experiencing a slump.  This book explains what is behind some of the failures of the reform movement.

Though the book is written in an informal tone with plenty of very interesting anecdotes, it is a very scathing critique of the reform movement, the style of reform that really became big with people like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and, of course, President Obama.

Hess knows what missteps reformers committed along the way to lead to this.  By writing about these mistakes in a series of letters to an unnamed ‘young education reformer,’ Hess hopes that the next generation of ed reformers will avoid those mistakes.

Many of these mistakes are things that Hess warned reformers about as they were making them.  They didn’t heed many of his warnings back then, but maybe now that they seem to be losing momentum, this book could be used not just by young education reformers, but by old education reformers who could maybe use his advice to get the movement back on track.

Hess still believes in the basic pillars of the reform movement, which he summarizes nicely in one of his letters:

“I think that those making decisions should be responsible for making them work; that schools and educators should be accountable for whether kids are learning; that people who are good at their jobs should get more money and recognition than those who aren’t; and that bureaucratic routine is a lousy way to cultivate great schools.”

But he laments that reformers have been too sloppy in their implementation:  they have misused data and research, they have misused the court system, they have ignored concerns from teachers and from parents, and they have chased one education fad after another.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

From the first letter:

“Washington-centric, dogmatic big R Reform has too often neglected this reality, with reformers exhausting themselves to win policy fights and then winding up too bloodied and battered to make those wins matter.  It’s left me to wonder whether all the fuss and furor of recent years has done more harm than good.”

In the fourth letter he writes:

“Calling something an implementation problem is how we reformers let ourselves off the hook.  It’s a fancy way to avoid saying that we didn’t realize how a new policy would affect real people … and that it turned out worse than promised.”

In the eighth letter:

“They’ve given students more reading and math instruction, and less science and history.  All of this means that test results can improve even if students aren’t actually learning more.”

“If ignoring data and metrics was ‘the old stupid,’ the slapdash embrace of half-baked data is ‘the new stupid.’”

“While helpful, these data [Value Added Metrics] are primitive, limited, and often misleading.”

“Using these scores as a proxy for overall quality is especially awkward because there’s remarkably little evidence that they tell us much about other things we care about, like college-going, employment, citizenship, or creativity.”

“Used carelessly, research can impair good judgement, lead reformers to imagine that ‘research based’ reforms guarantee much more than they do, and cause reformers to focus on whether reforms are adopted while shortchanging how they are adopted.  And that’s not good for anyone.”

One letter that resonated with me was called “The Value in Talking with Those Who Disagree.”  Even though it is uncomfortable getting challenged on your ideas, these challenges are vital.  Otherwise if you stay in an echo chamber, there is no chance that the problems with your plans will get uncovered until a lot of time and resources have been expended.  I can speak from experience that I’ve been ignored, criticized, mocked, been called names, and even been the target of a blog-post called ‘The Misanthropy of Gary Rubinstein’ just because I’ve fact-checked reform claims with data that was publicly available.  I was also barred from participating in panel discussions at the TFA 25th anniversary alumni summit despite being way more qualified than the majority of the participants.  So the idea of reformers being more open to discussion, even public debate, is something that I would like to see more of.

Hess makes a distinction in his first letter between what he calls ‘Big R’ Reformers and, what he considers himself to be, a ‘little r’ reformer.  Though he doesn’t name names, a ‘Big R’ Reformer would be someone like a Campbell Brown who knows all the talking points — tenure gives teachers jobs for life, the union protects sexual predators, the system values ‘adult interests’ rather than putting ‘students first’, students are trapped in failing schools by virtue of their zip code, and things like that.  Hess is a ‘little r’ reformer, he believes in the premises of ed reform, but he has a more nuanced view of it and isn’t going to follow blindly every new idea.  Maybe one of his hopes is to get some of these ‘Big R’ Reformers to reduce the size of their ‘R’ a bit, be a little more humble about what they think will work, and be more inclusive of differing opinions from players including ‘adults’ like teachers and parents.

In this 1 minute video, Hess summarizes the idea of ‘Big R’ Reform and what the problem with it is.



For sure, the percent of ‘Big R’ Reformers in 2009 was quite high.  With the rise of Michelle Rhee, ‘Big R’ reformers were unapologetic about their zeal.  But now, eight years later, I wonder how many of the prominent players would read this book and think that they are now ‘little r’ reformers?  Most of those them, I see, have taken on a kinder and gentler persona already, but are they actually ‘little r’ reformers, or are they just pretending to be?  I’d say that about 90% of reformers present themselves as the ‘little r’ variety.  And the other ones, the ones that seem like throwbacks to 2009, someone like a Campbell Brown or a Steve Perry or even some of those bit players who work for 50CAN and harass me from time to time on Twitter, those people are not going to tone down their personas.  Every movement has to have their share of fanatics.  The fanatics make the more moderate ones seem that much more reasonable.  It’s like ‘Good Reformer / Bad Reformer.’  If I were advising the reform movement, I’d say that they would want to maintain some percent of ‘Big R’ Reformers, maybe 10 to 15 percent, which seems to be what they are at right now anyway.

If you take a random moment from these panel discussions, the first from 2011 and the second from a few days ago, and compare the tones of these Reformers you will see what I mean.

2011 Teach For America 20th Anniversary Panel

2017 AEI Panel about Rick’s Book


In one of the letters ‘The False Promise of Court-Driven Reform,’ Hess writes that he does not support the recent trend that started with the Vergara case in California with copycat cases in New York, Minnesota, and New Jersey.  Reformers are trying to argue that things like LIFO violate students’ constitutional rights to an education.  He says that he does not trust judges to make such decisions.  I wasn’t so thrilled when I heard that reform groups were going to fund lawsuits like this, but now that in case after case these lawsuits are getting thrown out, I’m beginning to think that a better reason for reformers to not try to get their way through court cases is that the more that they have to reveal their evidence under testimony, the more it goes into the public record that they have almost no evidence.  There have been some lawsuits recently in New York and in Texas challenging the value-added calculations.  In both cases, judges ruled that the value-added measures, basically the keystone of the reform strategy, was garbage.  Whether or not legislating through the court is the right thing to do, it turns out to be an awful strategy for reformers.

There are two main theses of Hess’s letters that I disagree with:

One is that I think that Hess has overestimated the potential of the Reformers.  I see his central argument as:  it’s time for us to start playing more fair, to stop misusing data and to stop ignoring, and otherwise showing contempt, for Reform critics.  He seems to think that the Reform movement has made some progress, but to get to the next level, to win, they will need to be more open to discussion with critics and be more open about potential problems when things like the Common Core are implemented.

I think the opposite is true.  I think the Reformers have actually overachieved to get the victories they have.  Getting more humble and honest and letting critics participate in the discussion will not get them to the next level at all.  In a fair matchup, Reformers will get clobbered.  I think they are going to lose the education reform war either way, but really the only chance they have is to ramp up the slick messaging and the lying.  With the dishonest route, I think they have about a ten percent chance of ultimately winning.  With the honest route, I think they have a zero percent chance of winning.

I also think Hess is overly optimistic if he thinks the Reformers will take his advice to heart.  Some of them will surely read this book and think, “I get it.  We need to start pretending that we really care what teachers think.”  Though Hess warned against just trying to improve messaging in one of his letters “Beware the Media Glare,” what he should realize is that the same thing that prevented Reformers from listening to criticism, even from him, the first time around, will prevent them from listening to him now too.  The best that most Reformers can do is pretend to care because most Reformers are — how should I put this tactfully?  Most ‘Big R’ Reformers I’ve encountered are also ‘Big J’ Jerks.  And they can try all they want to act like they aren’t, but they won’t be able to do it convincingly.  I really think that this is the Achilles’ Heel of the Reformers.  Maybe the young education reformers Hess is recruiting will be better than the old reformers in that way.  It would help their cause a lot.

Peter Cunningham, the head of Education Post, wrote a reflection about this book and about the panel discussion I posted above.  As evidence that he was not moved to drop some of the hostile rhetoric that so characterizes ‘Big R’ Reformers, his final line was “when the politics gets confusing, and it always does, remember that our job is not to please adults but to fight for kids.”

Michael Petrilli from the Fordham Institute wrote that he agreed with 98% of this book, but had problems with the other 2%.  He made this odd suggestion at the end of his reflection “If you work in an education advocacy organization and have a legislative agenda to push, set this book aside until the session is over. Pick it up again this summer, give it a “close read,” and think hard about what a smarter, more teacher-friendly, more humble legislative agenda would look like next year. In the meantime, go team win!”

Maybe you can’t teach an old reformer new tricks.

Even with these kind of strange defensive reflections, the reception of the book, despite its clear message of “You guys messed up and I tried to warn you about it, but you wouldn’t listen.” has, ironically, been generally well received by the reform community.  My sense is that they want to act like they are in on it, have been aware of these issues all along, even though Hess’s same arguments when made by critics over the years have been ignored, dismissed, and even ridiculed by these same people.  I also think that Reformers like to have a Hess on their side since he is a thoughtful guy who thinks things through and Reformers like to imply that they all do that but just that Hess is better at communicating it.

Hess’ book is well worth the read, regardless of which side of the education wars you consider yourself, whether you are a Big R Reformer, a little r reformer, an anti-Big R Reformer, an anti-little r reformer, or somewhere else on the spectrum.  Whatever side you are on, it probably won’t convert you either way, but it will make you think, which I think is the goal.

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