Another Aggrieved Blog Post About Arne Duncan
Recent Common Core contretemps have demonstrated that the most surefire way to stoke public conversation about race in education is to appeal to whiteness.
“White suburban moms,” Arne Duncan blurted earlier this month, are “all of a sudden [discovering that] their child isn’t as bright as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” This realization, Duncan supposes, has parents planting their feet against the Common Core State Standards, a set of K-12 curriculum guidelines developed in partnership with the federal Department of Education and a byzantine complex of nonprofit foundations.
The comments ignited immediate backlash from all corners. On the left, blogger Paul Thomas questioned the politics of “white outrage.” On the right, Tea Party-aligned writer Michelle Malkin cried “the red blood underneath my brown skin is boiling.” The most commonly expressed sentiment seemed to be: “The opposition to Common Core is not white or black or Asian or Latino.”
Within the broad coalition of test resistance, Duncan’s comments seemed to have Malkin’s ilk in mind: a burgeoning corps of right-wing activists seething with Glenn-Beck-induced pique. They can be spotted peppering protest events with “Common Core = Communism” signs while carping about Marxist indoctrination and states’ rights. In the education activism community, they make for strange bedfellows.
This is little more than a sideshow to the larger anti-testing movement, though. Parents nationwide opt their kids out of standardized tests in protest of the testing apparatus in its entirety, not just because of its newest fangles. They’re protesting the effects of a system in which federal law pressures teachers to post high scores at the cost of their jobs, and schools to increase passing rates at the cost of their existence.
Nationally lauded reforms have caused curriculums to narrow, music and art classes to dwindle, and time spent on test prep to increase. Parents who want rich curriculums, creative classroom instruction and an array of arts and music options are acting rationally in resisting the expansion of testing measures.
Duncan, however, thinks parents are reacting to a different phenomenon: that their kids aren’t bubbling enough correct answers on annual multiple-choice exams. And test scores have indeed cratered following CCSS implementation. In Kentucky, the first CCSS implementer, scores dropped thirty points on new CCSS-aligned tests. This past academic year New York saw its Common Core trial run yield similarly dire results.
This is the “train wreck” that fearless ed reform champion Jeb Bush predicted in 2012. “My guess is there’s going to be a lot of people running for cover,” he warned, “and they’re going to be running fast.” Conservative education writer Rick Hess suggested the CCSS would “finally shine a harsh light on the quality of suburban schools, shocking those families and voters into action.” The conservative American Enterprise Institute writes that Common Core advocates “expect the results to mobilize suburban and middle-class parents to the cause of education reform.”
In other words, the Common Core standards will facilitate the spread of market-based reforms out of low-income urban centers and into the vanilla suburbs.
This fact isn’t lost on test resisters. Common Core implementation has given aggrieved parents and embattled teachers an outlet for all the anxieties incurred by reforms of the last decade. CCSS opponents who reside in the suburbs see resisting the standards as a way to mitigate the metastasis of reform into their communities.
But this entire conversation subordinates those who have always been on the sharp end of reforms: people of color in large cities. Handwringing over “white suburban moms” successfully obscures black and brown urban parents. As often happens in these debates, their voices are effectively silenced.
This is the far more interesting aspect of Duncan’s comments. His gaffe was anything but a “random reference to race, class, and gender,” as CNN had it. The reforms that white suburban moms now fear have been roiling communities of color for over a decade now. From the growing din surrounding reforms, Duncan managed to pick out the voices who enjoy appreciable cultural and political capital.
Writer and educator Jose Vilson highlights this fact in his blog post, “First They Came For Urban Black and Latino Moms,” in which he wonders why the outrage over Duncan’s comments exceeds the indignation over his atrocious “Hurricane Katrina is the best thing that ever happened to New Orleans.” Vilson explains:
Education reform’s whole playbook was written on the backs of its most disenfranchised, starting from the Black and Latino mothers. The current uproar is fine, but let’s not forget that these things happen in places that are predominantly of color.
When low test scores doom a school to closure, it’s overwhelmingly black and Latino kids who are sent packing. Less than a third of black and Hispanic children now receive an arts education, and that number is slipping.
And it’s not white suburban moms resisting in these communities. I wrote a few weeks ago about Castle Bridge Elementary, the K-2 school in Upper Mannhattan whose parents boycotted new standardized tests on a near-unanimous basis. The parents I met there were black, Asian, Hispanic, white, and anything but suburban. Castle Bridge is choice school that runs on a progressive model, so it attracts more white families than a typical public school north of 125th street. At the same time, the school sets aside at least 10% of its seats to students with incarcerated parents. The diversity of the school matches the diversity of ed-reform resistance.
So it goes for other schools and communities tossing stones at the Goliath of reform. In Chicago and Philadelphia, families of color protested standardized testing, school closures and budget cuts. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, the majority-black and -Hispanic residents this month voted a slate of Working Families Party candidates onto the school board to slow reforms being implemented under traveling reform huckster Paul Vallas.
These communities look different from the narrow CCSS resistance campaigns because their focus is more immediate. They’re concerned with the existence of their schools, not an abstract collection of knowledge and skills.
So when it comes to race, the progressive anti-reform community has its own rumples to smooth. Blogger Paul Thomas expressed the same disappointment Vilson did in his post “Secretary Duncan and the Politics of White Outrage.” In light of the outpouring of condemnations after Duncan’s comments, he notes, “rejecting education reform discourse and policy based on race and class concerns doesn’t resonate in the U.S.”
Diane Ravitch accepted at Thomas’s argument, but retorted that this issue could be “the beginning of coalition politics” in which white suburbanites and people of color in cities find common cause over Common Core.
As a case in point, the sudden explosion of the anti-reform Badass Teachers Association, fueled largely by Common Core resistance, caught the attention of Tea Partiers convinced of the insidious Marxist agenda lurking within the standards. Fordham professor Mark Naison, one of the group’s co-founders, admits, “Never have I found myself finding so much common ground with people who call themselves conservative and libertarians.”
The success of this coalition isn’t a foregone conclusion, though. There have been reports of inner-party conflicts when Tea Party-types took the organization’s wheel, like ideologically justified expulsions from the Facebook group (among other atrocities).
When coalitions come together, they don’t magically heal inequities. In fact, they often make difference manifest. Last week on Twitter, Jose Vilson and writer Melinda D. Anderson, both people of color, had it out with Badass Teachers convinced that their group didn’t need to waste their breath discussing race when it’s really “about the kids.” A characteristic tweet:
— ATeachersPerspective (@TeachrPerspctve)
What kind of coalition can be built when the culturally dominant group refuses to acknowledge the central concerns of their partners?
An opt-out organizer recently told me the anti-testing coalition contains multitudes. Even within the diverse progressive schools in New York City that are boycotting testing, she told me, parents understand that a disproportionate number of resisters are highly educated white parents with greater political capital to spend.
Unless a coalition devotes itself explicitly to anti-racist practice, it cannot address issues grounded in racial inequalities. If it doesn’t acknowledge past struggles waged by people of color, reaction to Arne Duncan’s glib disparagements runs the risk of reproducing the racial stratification that has so far defined education reform.
Raving activists, union hacks, corporate worms, fanciful do-gooders, venal politicos, imperious billionaires, droves of bureaucrats, poor children – amidst this farrago strides the undaunted Grey Lady to deliver, at long last, what the blind masses have been groping after: “sensible” thinking on charter schools.
The New York Times editorial board gave its pronouncements today in a sober seven hundred words they hope will be the last on the issue.
It’s a tense moment in New York City education. Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio’s proposals to end charter co-locations with public schools and to begin charging rent have been stirred charter advocates into a frenzy. But just last night the city’s Panel for Education Policy approved several dozen new schools, mostly charters, in what’s being seen as Bloomberg’s parting shot.
“In all the bombast,” says the Times, “it is worth making two points.”
First, “there’s little question that New York has one of the nation’s most successful charter school systems.” To gird the claim, the Times references the Stanford CREDO study released earlier this year that found “the typical student in a New York City charter school gains more learning in a year than his or her district school peer, amounting to about one more month of learning in reading and five more months of learning in math.”
So says a single study. But opponents as well as advocates of charter schools have challenged its methodology and conclusions. The sticking point is that CREDO matches real charter students to “virtual twins,” demographically identical virtual students that attend virtual public schools.
“The way that CREDO has manipulated data and made conclusions about policy based on that data is absolutely un-credible,” remarked Jeanne Allen, an avowed charter proponent who heads the Center for Education Reform.
Education researcher Bruce Baker has long criticized CREDO’s approach, arguing that its approach doesn’t separate school-effects — what the school itself does—from peer effects—how a particular grouping of students, such as high percentage of English language learners, affects their overall achievement. New York charter schools, on average, have smaller classes, fewer students with disabilities, fewer students learning English, fewer students at the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder, and any number of unobservable differences (such as in motivation and family background).
While the CREDO study matches for some of these variables, it doesn’t consider whether the substantively dissimilar makeup of charter schools influences student achievement more than the their practice and pedagogy. If mere selectivity accounts for these outcomes, charters bring stratification rather than equity. From this perspective, the success of New York’s charter system is indeed questionable, particularly if the claim rests on the shaky grounds of the CREDO study.
For its second point, the Times recommends the next mayor continues Bloomberg’s policies of closing “poorly performing schools” and opening charters, but to ensure co-locations “take place online in buildings big enough to house” two schools. Of course, that latter point is precisely why PEP meetings regularly incite protest and indignation. But the PEP, an appointed board, doesn’t answer to the constituents who complain that their schools are not, in fact, big enough.
The editorial’s most baffling bit of wisdom is this:
The teachers’ union is never going to fall in love with charter schools because a vast majority of them are not unionized, and they have real financial advantages because their work force is younger and more transient and their payrolls, pensions and medical costs are lower. Many charters plow these savings back into education — hiring social workers, lengthening the school day, or staffing classrooms with more than one teacher as a way of helping disadvantaged children. Whoever is mayor should encourage this practice.
Motoko Rich of the Times brought to light the trend of charter teachers, many of them Teach for America recruits, choosing shorter careers. But the editorial doesn’t deign to consider what happens to a profession when qualifications for entry are diminished and expectations for a career are stifled.
Nor does it consider the very real effects on students, particularly those in high-needs schools, of a continually rotating cast of peripatetic teachers with little intention to stay in the community. In fact, this type of turnover exacerbates teacher shortages and makes it more likely that high-poverty schools are staffed with novice teachers.
Charters, after all, rely on the notion that they can serve as laboratories for education and inform public school innovation. But “plowing” cost-savings from a novice teaching corps into wraparound services is neither scalable nor instructive. If more social workers and counselors help students succeed (and they do), public policy should reflect these needs. Necessary resources should be availed to more than a privileged few.
The editorial is essentially a bland echo of Department of Education talking points. That’s curious, as they’ve previously lambasted the mayor’s reform agenda. But the Times wholeheartedly believes that sensibility means treading the line where the screaming is equally loud from each side. In an arena where philanthropists and speculators spend billions to promote just one of those viewpoints, though, that tactic lands the Times in a decidedly partisan place.
I wrote a piece for the wonderful AlterNet on the migration of free-market education reforms from K-12 into higher education.
The not-very-hidden agenda of TFA’s alumni survey
We are the children of an epoch,
the epoch is political.
Everything of yours, ours, theirs,
daytime affairs, night-time affairs,
are political affairs.–Wislawa Szymborska
Every year, with the unswerving insistence of seasonal allergies, comes the TFA alumni survey. If you somehow miss the first email, the organization obligingly sends several dozen reminders. On the second day, they start calling.
Proudly data-driven, TFA treasures these surveys that provide a window into the lives of some 20,000 alumni. This year I wrestled with contributing to the project, as I now hold a less-than-favorable view of the organization, but their doggedness and corpo-charm usually win out in the end. Here’s one such entreaty:
First, thanks for opening this. Second, thanks for filling out the survey last year. Finally, won’t you take 5 minutes to fill it out this year? It’s simple (just verify existing info, change what’s new). It helps us connect you to great opportunities. And if what you want isn’t available, we’ll make it happen. (I really thought I could get out of an email without an overused phrase. Sigh.)
Conflicted, I took the survey only to register my principled opposition in the most cogent way I know how: a nationwide multiple-choice questionnaire.
But I was stymied almost immediately by this page:
I took a few tottering steps and started answering haphazardly (the final draft was a party-line vote for “Neither”).
Troubling me was TFA’s mantra, reiterated in every prompt: …”all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” These words aren’t innocuous, particularly “opportunity” and “excellent.” They carry the weight of political connotation and social history. While TFA claims to be apolitical (due in part to its nonprofit status), its core statement betrays its ideological bent.
Opportunity has long been a byword for school choice, the idea that schools should compete like soda brands for students and funding. When he first theorized school choice in 1955, Milton Friedman said this competition would lead to “a great widening in the educational opportunities open to our children.”
In 1998, the Hoover Foundation convened a panel of education thinkers—including William J. Bennett, Chester Finn, and the eminent Diane Ravitch—to renew the call of 1984’s “A Nation at Risk,” with the dramatically titled “A Nation Still at Risk.” It declared, “Every family must have the opportunity to choose where its children go to school,” and that “equal educational opportunity is the next great civil rights issue.” Its top recommendations included national standards, school choice, and more charters.
Bobby Jindal recently ushered in the most sweeping school choice policies in the country with the justification that “every child deserves the opportunity to get a great education.” When the Justice Department challenged the law on grounds of impeding desegregation, Jindal wailed, “Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder would rip children out of their schools and handcuff them to the failing schools they previously attended.”
Opportunity in this sense implies that education is a consumer choice rather than a social mandate. If parents have opportunities to enroll their children in “excellent schools,” then the demand for equitable public school resources fades.
The word excellence assumes a rising above. It’s one thing to motivate students to be extraordinary. It’s another to expect that certain schools will stand above the rest. This guarantees certain schools will fall back, fail to excel. It negates equity.
The aforementioned “A Nation Still at Risk,” after advocating choice and charters, calls for America to “enlarge its supply of excellent schools.” But as “excellence” becomes systemwide, its meaning atrophies, as in Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above-average.”
“Excellence” has graced the mantle of numerous reform groups, including the original “Nation at Risk” group, the National Commission for Excellence in Education. The most notable current example is lobbying group Foundation for Excellence in Education, or FEE, whose chairman Jeb Bush often casts educational excellence as synonymous with cutting government spending, as he did before the conservative lobbying giant ALEC. So much for excellence.
The emphasis on “opportunity” and “excellence” belie the egalitarian slant of “all children.” They suggest that it’s not our charge to ensure equitable resource allocation, mitigate the effects of socioeconomic inequality, interrupt the cycle of incarceration, or create a larger movement for children that extends outside the school walls. They cast “excellence” as a consumer good that we should all have the “opportunity” to consume, tangential to socioeconomic realities.
A progressive or egalitarian approach to the “one day, all children” prompt might read: All children deserve well-resourced community schools that meet the particular needs of its students. A public good like education shouldn’t be an opportunity but a mandate. Public institutions scaled for a full society need not excel, but approach as nearly as possible our highest notions of quality and equity.
Of course, TFA isn’t ideological in its rhetoric alone. The practical fundamentals of the organization are politically contestable. For instance, students in low-income schools are far more likely to have inexperienced teachers, yet TFA sends them droves of uncredentialed recruits their way, with only five weeks of training under their belt. This is a political act.
TFA directs a third of TFA recruits into charter schools, which face perennial criticism over discipline practices, attrition, special education services, and more. This is a political act.
As a result of its high placement rates at charters, most of which are non-unionized, TFA teachers sidestep and challenge labor unions. This is a political act.
But attempts to bring TFA into the ring usually meet bafflement and a heightened display of personal injury. When the volume of TFA resistance was swelling this summer, Elisa Villanueva-Beard, one of the new TFA co-CEOs, gave a talk titled “Fighting the Wrong Enemy.” She said,
When they make us the enemy—they’re talking about people like you and me—people who have put their heart and soul into the work of helping our nation’s most disadvantaged kids fulfill their true potential.
Rather than addressing the criticisms, she personalized the supposed attacks and hid behind anecdote. It was a pitch-perfect impression of the campaigning politician who manages to turn sticky ideological issues into patronizing fluff, invariably involving a charming retired woman from Chattanooga who’s on her third mortgage and needs a hip replacement.
“They’re even talking about people like my sister Elaine,” Villanueva-Beard insisted. Difficult as taking criticism is, I’m certain that no principled political objections to TFA involve the co-CEO’s sister Elaine.
Meanwhile, the Vice President of Internal Communications at TFA, Justin “Juice” Fong, responded to this summer’s resistance-to-TFA summit with the challenge, “Teach For America isn’t going away anytime soon, so work with us to make the organization better.” This is a common refrain. It can’t be admitted that as a political proposition, TFA is subject to opposition.
They suppose that TFA’s critics are like generals keeping the army from battle because they can’t agree on the color of the uniforms. They don’t realize that opposing the battle outright remains an option.
It’s notable that TFA’s most blatantly political arm, Leadership for Educational Equity, which aims to place well-connected alumni in positions of power, objects the most strenuously to having a politics. Meanwhile, it positions folks like John White, current superintendent of New Orleans Recovery School District, to participate in reforms that are hardly apolitical.
Teach for America promises to “fuel an educational revolution,” yet cowers from staking out political positions. This aligns with their mission. It’s far easier to radically transform institutions when the agent of change comports itself in the neutral grays of non-ideology. How could anyone politicize an effort to teach poor children?
We live in an age in which buying an organic apple constitutes a more political act than sending thousands of uncredentialed workers into an embattled profession, into unfamiliar communities, or into positions of power and influence.
- - -
 It should be noted that public education advocates also use the word opportunity in the context of the “opportunity gap,” which denotes not the disparate outcomes of the achievement gap, but how disparate inputs of class, culture and community shape a child’s opportunity to learn.
Harlem Success Academy Charter and Attrition
Update: Response to Michael Regnier and a couple caveats.
The new Common-Core-aligned New York state tests have, as expected, caused test scores to crater. Among the few who emerged from the wreckage seemingly intact are the numerous Success Academy charter schools, of which there are seven just in Harlem. Eva Moskowitz, former city councilwoman, and union-wary founder of the network, has engineered its rapid expansion, inviting no shortage of controversy.
But kids in these schools tend to do well bubbling answers on standardized tests. As the New York Post reported, “Of the 1,500 kids in her Harlem and South Bronx schools who took the Common Core exams, 82 percent got a passing score in math, and 58 percent passed English…. Across the city, the pass rates were 26 percent in English and 30 percent in math.”
Teacher-blogger Gary Rubinstein takes miraculous charter achievement claims with a grain of salt. As accolades fall upon Success, Rubinstein points to their significant student (and teacher) attrition numbers. He writes,
If they ‘lost’ many students, these scores are tainted. Now there is only one Success school that has been around since 2007. That school started with 83 kindergarteners and 73 first graders. Those cohorts just tested in 6th and 7th grade, respectively. The school has ‘lost’ a big chunk of those original 156 kids. Of those 73 first graders in 2007, only 35 took the seventh grade test. Of the 83 kindergarteners, only 47 took the sixth grade test last spring. Overall, they have ‘lost’ 47% of the original two cohorts. If this is one of the costs of having such high test scores, I’m not sure if it is worth it.
For the four cohorts that just took the fourth grade tests, those 316 students were, back in 2009, 443 kindergarteners, so they have ‘lost’ 29% of those cohorts. Now their high test scores aren’t completely explained by this nearly 30% attrition rate, but it is still something worth noting as we consider if this program is ‘scalable’ or not.
It’s true that Success owes its success to more than just general student attrition. But Rubinstein only examined the overall numbers. When you look at specific student demographics, even more troubling patterns emerge. I’ve been dissecting the student data of prominent NYC charters since Democracy Prep and I sparred over its unmistakable pattern of steadily losing students with disabilities and students learning English. (They promised a “debunking” of my post. I’ll assume it’s still forthcoming.)
At Success, the pattern is similar, if not more stark. Not only do its classes contain disproportionately few students with disabilities and English language learners (ELLs), but their numbers almost invariably decrease with each passing year. This should have no uncertain effect on test scores.
Here’s what their attrition* among students with disabilities looks like. (Like Rubinstein, I was only able to pull data from its flagship Harlem school, as the others are too young to afford meaningful information.)
Clearly, the ranks of students with disabilities consistently dwindle. The pattern for students learning English is less consistent but equally egregious. In the first two years of available data, there were hardly any ELLs. In 2010 Success suddenly came up with a nearly representative portion of these students, but their numbers more than halved by the next year. (2012-13 data isn’t yet disaggregated by student demographic.)
The above charts show the change in ELLs and students with disabilities as a percentage of their cohort. As Rubinstein has demonstrated (and as I’ve also found), those class sizes themselves decrease, so it’s instructive to see how the absolute numbers of these challenging students change.
What’s sad about this is how unsurprising it’s become. High-achieving charters, with no exceptions that I’ve found, enroll fewer needy students, witness substantial attrition of these students, or both. These patterns could reflect some implicit policy, or they could result from the extraordinary behavioral demands charters impose on students. The proximate cause doesn’t matter so much when it comes to test scores, though. Scores resting on high-needs student attrition shouldn’t withstand even the mildest scrutiny, yet they garner unreserved praise from the likes of Mayor Bloomberg and the Post.
It’s just an added irony that one of Moskowitz’s Success expansions literally pushed at-risk students out of an existing school.
I need not dwell on how disturbing all this is. Any notion of success should be predicated on serving the neediest students right alongside those who make “no excuses.” Anything less is reprehensible.
Michael Regnier of the New York Charter School Center linked to this post as an example of “ignoring the limitations" of available data.
Admittedly, I didn’t mention the possibility that re-assignment of ELL and IEP classifications explains declining numbers. Nor did I bring up retention as a factor. Mea culpa.
I dealt with both of these possibilities in my Democracy Prep post, however, and the problems I brought up there also apply here.
As regarding ELL reassignment, I imagine you’d see students passing the NYSESLAT test for English language learners in the years before ELL numbers dipped. Those don’t show up in the state report cards.
As for retention, logic holds you would see a bounce in the number of students with special needs the year after a bunch were putatively retained from a class. Though that appears to occur in the third graph (above) in the 2010 cohort, that actually just reflects a much larger overall incoming class. The proportion of students with special needs is still below average (see graph 1).
Is it possible that retention and re-classification contribute to sagging numbers of ELLs and students with special needs at these charters? Yes, these could play a supporting role. In fact, I’ve been told by special education advocates that students with special needs often leave because they’re being held back too often.
But playing a part and driving the pattern constitute two very different things. Regnier writes, “What we don’t know, in other words, is a lot. We need better data. But ignoring the limitations of what we have, as Davis does, is no help.” It’s also no help to categorically dismiss evidence of a trend like selective attrition simply because other factors may play a part. I’m challenging charters to evince clear evidence of retention and reclassification because they actually have the power to do so. I’m left waiting for them to respond, or the city to change its data practices.
So far it’s been nearly a month since Democracy Prep promised a “full debunking" of my post, and Success has emailed me promising explanation. I wait with bated breath.
Mend It or End It? An Addendum to TFA Apostates
Truthout just published my essay on Teach for America apostates. There wasn’t space in that story to provide solutions to match the critiques. So I’ll address that here.
Critics of TFA are often asked whether they have a set of recommendations for the organization. To me, this is analogous to asking environmentalists to supply oil companies with an action plan for reducing carbon emissions. In both cases it would be a brief document. It would read, “Stop.”
But given the organization’s massive resources, sacred-cow status in establishment media, and wide approbation from the country’s most powerful and influential people – and John Legend – it’s safe enough to assume TFA will be around for a while. What then?
Each of the dissidents I talked to have their recommendations. Gary Rubinstein offered seven in a post about attending a #TFAListen publicity event.
1. Make TFA a 3-year commitment
2. More transparency
3. Slow down the growth of the corps
4. Stop placing special education teachers
5. Shut down a few regions [ie, Chicago, Philadelphia]
6. Stop fixating on test scores
7. Find some new heroes
The critics I spoke to would agree with these on a general level. Recommendations typically involve some combination of increasing the commitment time, bolstering training and moving towards a greater number of career teachers. In those places where there ar teacher shortages exist, critics tend to approve of limited TFA presence.
Most would probably want to increase the commitment level beyond three years, perhaps to five. Wendy Kopp has cautioned that even raising the commitment to three years would reduce by half the number of applications. With an acceptance rate that rivals Ivy schools, perhaps that would be a welcome change.
Some regions don’t seem to need an influx of TFA teachers at the moment. Everyone turns up their noses at TFA placing recruits in districts undergoing massive layoffs, as in Chicago and Philadelphia. The practice seems a betrayal to the teachers it replaces and lends validity to the conception of corps members as “scabs.” That TFA increased its presence by a third in a district undergoing unprecedented school closures and layoffs is largely indefensible.
Of course there’s the training, which Rubinstein told me was his “big issue.” Everyone I spoke to emphasized the need for more than five weeks of training, during which recruits see about 16 hours of classroom teaching. Some have suggested that TFA partner with schools to place recruits in classrooms to observe master teachers and perhaps do some student teaching. Others recommended TFA use its behemoth war chest to fund full education degrees.
The critique of TFA as “cultural tourists” also invites solutions. (Obviously, a longer commitment would help.) Marie Levey-Pabst, a 2004 alumna who now teaches in Boston, sent me an intriguing idea. She’d noted the success of the Boston Teacher Residency program, a master’s program that commits recruits to five years in Boston schools. Her idea that would bridge TFA’s stated commitments to disadvantaged kids and its teacher-recruitment mission.
TFA could recruit the same students we are teaching, set them up with subsidized college loans that would be paid back in part if the student worked in the non-profit sector and/or in full if the student graduated and did TFA and taught in a high-need school for 5 years. This model of paying back loans after teaching for 5 years doesn’t need to replace the two-year track, but it could be a second choice, and perhaps a more competitive choice, for anyone entering TFA. However, a key component would be recruiting in the schools we WORK in, not the colleges we all went to.
As Matt Barnum, another critical TFA alum, has pointed out, TFA spends gobs of money on recruitment and training: about $38,000 per corps member. That’s enough to provide scholarships to low-income people who’d like to become teachers, and who’d be more likely to teach in their own neighborhoods. And that doesn’t include recruitment costs.
The folks at Grow Your Own Teachers are already doing this. They recruit parents, paraprofessionals, volunteers – all of those already devoted to school communities – to become credentialed educators. Applicants must be eligible for federal financial aid and be involved with their local schools. So far, they’ve successfully placed 70 graduates in low-income classrooms. While TFA’s corps members are predominantly white, GYO teachers are 84% people of color, closely matching the demographics of those they teach. More importantly, though, they belong to the same communities. TFA could emulate these practices.
All of these recommendations cast TFA as primarily a teacher placement agency, though, not a political apparatus. But it’s project has become unapologetically political. Its role as leadership incubator has come to eclipse its practical mission. It spends $37 million annually on recruitment, but a full $20 million on alumni affairs, funneling alumni into advocacy, policymaking and leadership. Viewed in this regard, attempts to “mend” TFA by retaining teachers longer and recruiting from the community directly threaten the “second half” of TFA, which consists in creating an “educational revolution” in the likes of Michelle Rhee and John White. Career educators don’t make for good “disruptors.”
So what would a politically realigned TFA look like? Ideally, Jesse Hagopian (Seattle anti-testing teacher-activist) envisions a diverse corps of civil rights-minded social justice educators subscribed to the (excellent) journal Rethinking Schools (where he’s an editor), staging testing boycotts and enacting the emancipatory pedagogical doctrines of Paulo Freire. He recalls the kind of mass literacy campaigns that researchers see “usually associated with revolutionary upheavals.” Whether this kind of TFA would still attract millions of dollars from the Walton family remains an open question.
Of course, that’s the pith of the matter. TFA doesn’t enjoy corporate largesse because it’s successful in its mission (find one study that says TFA presence in a district has made education more equitable there). It pulls in riches because it validates the ideologies of the rich. Even if TFA increases its commitment period, it’ll still work to remain ideologically appealing to bank executives, the Walton Foundation and the wealthiest man in the country. If TFA decried charters, refused to place corps members in mayoral-control districts or refuted the central importance of standardized tests, its funds would shrivel. It would have to fire hundreds of its own employees and shrink the size of the corps. It would become irrelevant.
Who pays the piper names the tune.
Democracy Prep Revisited
UPDATE: Democracy Prep responded. See below.
I like data. Data are great for astrophysics and epidemiology. In education, data give me the willies. There they turn children into numbers. And the growing fixation on numbers reduces complex social and cultural phenomena to points on graphs.
But there are useful data in education, and we should heed them. These include socioeconomic levels, the percentage of youngsters learning English, and rates of disability, to name a few. Schools and districts should scrutinize these.
Other people, like the kind folks at New York charter network Democracy Prep, heed other data. Primarily, they fixate on “achievement,” as measured through standardized tests. They choose to gloss over student population characteristics like the percentage of English language learners (ELLs). Critics say the blindness of charters to student characteristics undermines their claims of “achievement.”
Cue this Twitter exchange, prompted by this New York Daily News article by Ben Chapman revealing that yet again, charter schools in New York City serve fewer students with special needs and English language learners (ELLs). The Twitter tussle involved charter network Democracy Prep, NYC parent-activist Leonie Haimson and Beth Fertig, education reporter for WNYC who has connected high attrition at Democracy Prep with its “no excuses” discipline model. We enter in media res.
Harlem D5 is the district in which DP schools reside.
This volley went unreturned. Seven hours passed. So I served again:
Let me reiterate that I don’t love data. Combing through student demographic databases, such as NYSED’s, isn’t how I’d spend a Saturday night. But Democracy Prep, about whom I’ve previously fulminated, basically begged me to do so. And it was a Sunday.
So what do the data tell us about Democracy Prep Charter School (grades 6-11, henceforth DP) and its district, Harlem’s D5? I tracked cohorts entering 6th grade in the years 2006-2007 through 2009-2010 – from DP’s inaugural year to the year with the most recent data. For each, I examined what percentage of the students had disabilities or were English language learners.
Here’s what the average cohort looks like. The blue is the district percentage, red is that of Democracy Prep.
In both cases, the percentage of students in the subgroups decreased markedly within Democracy Prep, while remaining steady district-wide. DP’s disability and ELL rates plunge between 6th and 7th grade, a trend consistent throughout all four cohorts. (Graphs for each cohort are at the end of this post.)
Also note that in no case did DP welcome a 6th grade whose demographics matched the district’s. They begin slightly unequal, and the disparity widens. They are never “higher than the district’s,” as DP claimed.
Here’s how each cohort within DP changed over its full three years. This chart shows a percent change for students with disabilities (blue), and English language learners (red).
(Note: an earlier version of the above was misleading.)
In each cohort, in almost every year for which data was available, Democracy Prep lost significant numbers of students with special needs and ELLs. In the 2009-2010 cohort, 9.5% of the students with disabilities and 6.6% of ELLs disappeared over the course of 3 years.
In short, Democracy Prep Charter School serves a population unlike that of the district, and that gulf grows year by year.
There’s no cherry-picking of data happening on my end; I used all data available for a 3-year range at this school. Whether there’s cherry-picking happening at the school remains unknown. The data suggest there is, though who knows the actual processes by which Democracy Prep systematically loses the students who score lowest on standardized exams.
DP’s Twitter pilot suggested that the percentage of ELLs drops year by year because these students pass the NYSESLAT, the horrifically acronymed state exam for ELLs. Passing the test relieves a student of her ELL label.
DP’s explanation is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, the cohorts entering DP in 6th grade already consist of fewer ELLs. Second, at no point was the percentage of ELLs at DP 18%, as they claimed. Not even remotely.
Finally, I checked how many students reportedly took the NYSESLAT on DP’s yearly assessment data,. Bafflingly, no students were recorded even taking the NYSESLAT at DP between 2006 and 2012. This is so puzzling I won’t even try to impute any nefarious motives, but it certainly gives the lie to claim that DP’s ELL totals dropped because of stellar NYSESLAT performance.
Is it creaming? Is it skimming? Is it some other as-yet-unnamed dairy analogy for jettisoning the students with the highest needs while holding fast to the best test-takers? In my experience, it matters little what you call it. There exist subtle and pervasive pressures in these types of schools to maintain stellar, “miraculous” numbers, and certain students fall victim to this drive. I’d be thrilled if Democracy Prep explained the data I’ve presented, but I’m sure they can wriggle out of it by claiming, quite honestly, “We have no policy of kicking out students because of their needs or test scores.”
I begrudge DP for its disingenuousness, but not for the underlying trends it epitomizes. These trends emanate from the “accountability” movement that holds public schools liable for test scores while turning a blind eye to baldly inequitable demographics. “High-performing” charters like Democracy Prep march as the standard-bearers of the accountability movement simply because they produce high test scores. If our definition of “high-performing” involved maintaining a stable student base while educating high numbers of kids with special needs, we’d have a different set of model schools.
Individual cohort data (excuse the lazy formatting)
Update (July 29, 4:00p)
Whatever its faults, Democracy Prep remains a plucky Twitter presence. After I posted this, the charter network took up its trademark peppy defense. It went down thusly.
Let’s take these piece by piece.
1) “Retain in-grade at high level.”
This could be a valid explanation for some dip in the numbers of ELLs or students with disabilities, particularly if they’re held back upon first coming to the school. If this were the case, however, you’d see a jump in the following year’s numbers. So if the 2008 cohort’s ELL population was partly retained, 2009 would show that retention in an above-average percentage of ELLs. But every year, from its initiation onward, Democracy Prep has lower-than-district-average numbers of ELLs and kids with disabilities, and that remains consistent year to year. If the effects of retention were so starkly visible in the dropoff from 6th to 7th grade, they would be equally visible in the following 6th grade class.
When I pushed back on this, DP responded “Always have higher ELL/IEP in G6 than G8.” This is precisely my point; the trend suggests selective attrition, not retention. It’s remotely possible they meant “All schools always have higher ELL/IEP in G6 than G8.” But this is not the case throughout the district (see charts above).
2) “IEP/ELL removed with strong academic performance”
Before DP responded to my queries, I talked to a friend who taught at a charter. She recalled seeing disability-free kids coming into kindergarten with IEPs. This is unfortunately common, particularly for black boys. The school would carefully assess the students, meet with parents, and phase out the IEP. I figured DP would claim they do something similar.
Alas, they didn’t. When I asked them whether the school really lifts about 40% of students with IEP and ELL designations out of these labels, they responded “ELL-yes, IEP-no.” So, there’s still no explanation for IEPs other than retention, which see above. As for ELLs, this would require students to score proficiently on the NYSESLAT test for English language learners. As I wrote above, the records indicated NO students taking this test at DP between 2006 and 2012. Who knows why.
As for losing an ELL designation, I’m not experienced enough to know how long it takes for a youngster to master English well enough to shed the label. Something tells me that a year or two doesn’t suffice, though. I’d love some guidance in this regard.
3) “Mobility very high with poverty”
This argument doesn’t even believe itself. All of the comparisons in this post were between DP and its district, which is roughly as high-poverty as the school. If DP’s diminishing number of challenging students could be explained through mobility, then you’d see the same trends district-wide. You don’t.
DP uses “mobility” as a kind of all-purposes explanation for the trends in their enrollment. But there’s a reason why we compare schools to their home districts. When mobility occurs within a district, it’s students moving around between public schools. When it occurs at a charter, it’s almost always from the charter to the public schools. When that so-called “mobility” sees disproportionate numbers of needy kids leaving charters, it corresponds with disproportionately high numbers of needy kids entering already-stressed traditional public schools.
That’s precisely why I’m making such a fuss.
Gary Rubinstein informed me that the indefatigable Juice Fong, internal communications head for TFA, sits on the board of Democracy Prep. Juice had this advice, indebted I think to Lewis Carroll.
I’d be fiffled pink if he could do so.
Story on the Indypendent Blog
Essay on Waging Nonviolence
The excellent Waging Nonviolence just published my essay, “The revolution will not be standardized,” in which I argue that any framework for resisting corporate education reform must view students as subjects of change. Go read it!
And if you’re itching for more radical ed-reform critiques, my piece draws from two great essays in Jacobin: Shawn Gude’s “The Industrial Classroom,” and Megan Erickson’s “The Strike that Didn’t Change New York.” Read those, too!
The DOE accountability process: giving the appearance of solidity to pure wind
Today, coming on the heels of Leonie Haimson’s FOIL requests into upper-level evaluations at the DOE, the Wall Street Journal reports “Top administrators at the city’s Department of Education haven’t been subject to formal evaluations during the Bloomberg administration.”
Under a system of mayoral rule effectively stripped of any democratic accountability, this doesn’t really come as a surprise. Why should the king have to justify his court? But that doesn’t make the responses from city hall any less staggeringly hypocritical. See Bloomberg spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua’s defense:
"This is the entire point of mayoral control. Public accountability is one of the key drivers of the transformation of our schools, with graduation rates up 40%, dropout rates cut in half and more students meeting the toughest standards in city history."
She adds that this form of “public accountability” contrasts with the previous system, in which Board members were elected by constituents, "when no one was held accountable for results."
This kind of obfuscation will make any sane citizen tear through their Orwell collection in search of a nugget that fully expresses the amount of duplicity and cynicism political language allows, but leaves them coming up short.
To take it piece by piece, “public accountability” implies that decisions are transparent and accessible. So when the DOE decides which schools to close, that process should be a public procedure, not some inscrutable mystery which even the DOE’s chief academic officer calls “an art, not a science.”
“Accountability” means officials must account for, or justify, their decisions. If they fail to do so, consequences must ensue. So, for instance, when 63% of the voting public wants the mayor to relinquish his iron grip on the public schools, perhaps some accountability is in order. When it’s found that “in the five years prior to the announcement of the decision to close, the DOE significantly increased the percentages of high-needs students in [closing] schools,” perhaps someone should be called to account.
Anyone who’s ever been to a PEP meeting knows that accountability isn’t forthcoming.
To be fair, past democratically elected boards have been rife with favoritism and venality. That’s a byproduct of any large municipal government, one that requires vigilance and transparency to prevent. But that shouldn’t make us forget that our society is based on a pretty reliable form of public accountability: the democratic process.