TFA in Newark: “Act as if the facts matter”
I’m one of these Teach for America alumni whose disaffection grows every year the organization continues to grow. But even while scribbling anti-TFA polemics, I tend to concede that the organization, or at least its membership, has its heart in the right place.
It’s getting harder to believe this. That might be a result of attending too closely to what TFA’s leadership says. This week it was statements from the regional director of TFA-New Jersey, who while facing criticisms that boil down to TFA=scabs, downplayed the corps’s size and impact. The post was so pat and unconvincing I was compelled to check her numbers in a TFA database—numbers that belie the spin TFA trots out whenever challenged on its placements: “Hey, all we do is send teachers where they’re needed.”
Beltway Liberals and their Schools of Choice
There’s a certain breed of liberal beltway pundit whose admiration for charter schools exceeds rational explanation. What exactly compels credentialed liberals like Jonathan Chait and Matt Yglesias to stand cheek by jowl with Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan on school choice without batting an eye? I won’t bother to speculate (until later).
Jonathan Chait just wrote a piece called “Public Education’s Weird Ideological Divide” in which he ponders why education politics are so darn tricky. The impetus was a Bloomberg story describing the shameful attempts of a wealthy Baton Rouge enclave to secede from its district: “an educational divorce from a neighboring community where four out of 10 families live in poverty.”
Chait uses this as a tangential excuse to wave the charter school banner. First he conjures a hypothetical school arrangement that he apparently believes describes reality:
The main ideological split lies over what kind of public schools we should have…. Neighborhood schools are open to children who live close by and restricted to everybody else. Charter schools are open to all children in the city, and their slots are allocated by lottery.
He then presents his enlightened progressive readership a quandary in terms generally employed by ALEC members: you can either condemn students to their “geographically segregated” community schools, or let them into citywide “open admissions” lotteries, which presumably foster integration.
Unremarkably Chait’s been blinkered by introductory reform rhetoric. When he writes that charters are “open to all children in the city,” he must be excluding, as charters often do, children with moderate to severe disabilities, the homeless, kids learning English, and those on the bottom end of the income spectrum.
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.” It’s a misguided sentiment.
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.
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 cherishes the surveys that provide a window into the lives of some 20,000 alumni. This year I wrestled with contributing to the project, since 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 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.)
I decided to take the survey only to register my principled opposition in the most cogent way I know how: a nationwide multiple-choice questionnaire.
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.
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?
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.”
Story on the Indypendent Blog