“It’s, ‘Here, we’ll make our candidates go out and take, what is this, a three-credit course that everybody will roll their eyes and say, “This isn’t very helpful,” but higher ed will get the dollars, so you get higher ed off your back,’” Ms. Walsh said. At the same time, she said, “I don’t understand how you justify reducing the practice time to 40 hours, which is not even two weeks of school.”
Teacher certificates earned at a SUNY authorized charter school will still only be good for teaching at another SUNY authorized charter school, so it is an open question about whether or not this will be a large pipeline for charter schools who are still held to state requirements that a large percentage of their teachers hold valid teaching credentials and are seeking to bypass that by doing it in house. What is clear is that charter chains like Success Academy, which boast very high scores on state tests and very little tolerance for even mildly divergent behavior, are pleased since they will no longer have to bother with new teachers who have actually learned to teach and have existing teaching experience and knowledge of pedagogy. The immediate upshot of the SUNY vote is that such schools no longer have to bother pretending that teaching is more than performance of a script informed by an enthusiastic reading of Teach Like a Champion.
I wrote about these proposed regulations, as did many education bloggers, when they were released for public comment. Unsurprisingly, I found them appalling. In order to circumvent their difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, the charter school sector proposed that their schools, which disproportionately operate in urban environments with largely minority student populations, be allowed to provide the barest minimal training, justifying it because they get high test scores, and call it “teacher certification.” Compared to the actual programs of teacher preparation – including extensive coursework and work in classrooms as well as a rigorous external performance evaluation – the now passed regulations amount to the slimmest preparation, 16 credit hours of instruction and less than a week worth of time in an actual classroom. Presumably, it is okay for black and brown children to be taught by teachers far less prepared than their peers in richer and less diverse schools. Add in the incredibly incestuous relationship between charter schools, their donors, the Governor of New York, and the appointees on the SUNY Board, and the ethical quagmire here is obvious…even by Albany standards.
Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University reminded his social media followers that some charters actually have a financial interest in this arrangement:
The “Company Store” metaphor harkens back to pre-labor union days when workers could be paid in company scrip that was only good for use in the store run by the company itself. In the charter school case, many of the schools that will operate SUNY approve “certification” programs will gain back teachers’ salaries in models already proven by Relay “Graduate School” of Education:
Former teachers from the affiliated charter schools report being obligated as a condition of employment to obtain credentials (MA degrees and related certifications) from Relay GSE. That is: employees at the charter schools are having a portion of their salary taxed to pay tuition to a “graduate school” run by founders of their own charter schools, operated within their own charter school facility (lease agreement unknown), where courses are often taught by their own teaching peers having only slightly more advanced education and experience.[xi] We elaborate on this example in Appendix A.
Another way for affiliated charter schools to channel money to Relay is to set aside a portion of their budget to subsidize graduate education—but only at Relay GSE. That is, some EMOs (including Uncommon) have a practice of paying for graduate degrees obtained from Relay, but not from any other institution (unless the teacher can prove that Relay does not offer a degree in the same field). Teachers agreeing to pursue their degrees from Relay with school support must complete those degrees or, as noted earlier, are required to reimburse their EMO for any/all tuition reimbursement they received.
While this model is not as well tested in New York State, the SUNY Charter School Committee just opened the entire system of SUNY authorized charter schools to give it a try.
Education blogger and Rutgers graduate student Jersey Jazzman, however, pointed out a very important potential consequence of the scheme that may not turn out so well for charters who decide to bypass traditionally prepared teachers. New Yorkl charter schools with high turnovers of teachers get to “free ride” on the salary scales at district schools because their teachers, mostly in possession of traditional teaching credentials know they can move on to positions where their salary scales and benefits are guaranteed by union contracts:
But teachers who start their careers in charters will only stay a few years because they know they can move on to better paying and less stressful careers in public district schools. In this way, the charters “free ride”, as Martin Carnoy puts it, on the public school districts, who by paying experienced teachers more create incentives for charter teachers to enter the profession. The charters never have to pony up for these incentives, making them free riders.
But the SUNY credentials are only good at other SUNY authorized charter schools, meaning a new teacher who get “certified” this way has no option to teach anywhere else. So either the SUNY schools will have to find a continuous stream of new teachers who do not mind that their experience is not applicable teaching anywhere else and who will begin and end their careers in charter schools, OR they will have to cough up benefits and salary and working conditions that will keep their teachers. There is not an inexhaustible supply of young college grads looking to teach with no prospects of a career in the work — otherwise Teach For America would not find itself struggling to fill its corps in recent years.
Politico reports that the charter sector has potentially won a much desired prize: permission to “certify” their own teachers. The SUNY Charter Institute, which grants charters and oversees some of the state’s most influential charter networks, released proposed regulations that would make it far easier for charter schools to meet requirements that they have certified teachers on their faculty by allowing them to bypass traditionally prepared teachers and create their own programs leading to certification. Under the proposed regulations, individuals with a bachelor’s degree will be able to be certified with only 30 hours of coursework:
And 100 hours of classroom practice under the supervision of an “experienced teacher”:
It is important to lay this out clearly. The New York charter sector has long worried that requirements that they have a minimum number of certified teachers on staff were becoming difficult to meet. So now, in a flurry of deal making to get mayoral control extended, they are potentially going to be able to bypass the requirement altogether. SUNY will allow charter schools to hire teachers without certification and then to “certify” them with coursework amounting to only 30 hours of instruction. For comparison’s sake, a SINGLE 3 credit college course traditionally includes 30 hours of instruction. On top of that, candidates for “certification” will need 100 hours of field experience under the supervision of an “experienced” teacher. The proposed regulation defines “experienced” as a certified teacher. It also defines “experienced” as a teacher who has completed a charter school program approved by the SUNY Institute, an UNCERTIFIED teacher with three year of “satisfactory” experience, or a teacher who completes Teach For America or a similar program. This is what will pass for teacher certification in New York’s “high performing” charter schools: 1 college course and 100 classroom hours under the supervision of an “experienced” teacher who might be no more than a just finished Teach For America corps member. Better still, “instructors” in the program might hold a master’s degree in education or a “related field,” might be certified teacher with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited program and at least 3 years experience, but might just be an uncertified teacher with 3 years experience and a “track record of success based on student outcomes (read: annual test scores),” or might be a school administrator – who in many charter schools are under 30. Candidates in the charter programs will also take required workshops on mandatory reporting of child abuse, on violence prevention, and on harassment, bullying, and discrimination.
And what does that preparation in an NYSED registered program look like? City University New York – Hunter College has a program for childhood education in urban settings, and candidates in it must complete 34 credits in theory and methods across either 6 or 4 semesters. Before reaching student teaching, candidates are placed in the field in three different semesters for a total of 225 hours in experiences that are closely aligned with their coursework and meant to guide them into greater and greater responsibility. Student teaching is a five day a week experience for a full school day across the entire final semester in conjunction with a seminar course dedicated to the experience.
This is an example of what it takes to earn an initial certification in the state of New York. And under current rules, charter schools can have no more than 15 uncertified teachers on faculty or have more than 30% of their faculty uncertified, whichever number is lower. Consider that — Success Academy and other “high performing” networks authorized by SUNY would be able to bypass all of that preparation and experience represented by traditionally prepared teachers in favor of using their own teachers with extremely limited experience to “certify” new hires who have no experience whatsoever. This is not a pathway for teachers who are professionals empowered with knowledge and experience to make the best decisions for their students, but it is a highly efficient pathway to train people with no experience and relevant knowledge into a system based upon tight behavioral controls and scripted lessons that leads to predictable results:
Further, this system almost certainly appeals to charter school chains who rely upon a rapidly turning over cohort of new teachers, some of whom stay if they adapt quickly to the in-house system, but most of whom eventually leave teaching altogether. Shortening teacher preparation into 30 instructional hours and 100 classroom hours certainly makes it easier for these schools to recycle teachers at a rapid clip while not having to worry about regulations requiring them to retain teachers whose preparation experiences make them far more likely to want to stay in the profession – and whose accumulated coursework and classroom experiences may give them ideas of their own about how teaching and learning happen that might contradict the in-house model. If teaching students to become “little test taking machines” does not require deep knowledge, meaningful experiences, and professional discernment, then it really does not matter if preparation to teach requires less time than obtaining a cosmetology license.
Condemnations of the proposed regulatory changes were quick. The State Board of Regents issued a quick statement of concern, noting that “The Board of Regents and State Education Department are focused on ensuring that strong and effective teachers with the proper training, experience and credentials are educating New York’s children in every public school – including charter schools. SUNY’s teacher certification proposal is cause for concern in maintaining this expectation.” United University Professions, the union representing, ironically, faculty at all SUNY campuses was more forceful stating:
SUNY claims its proposed charter school teacher certification regulations “link certification to programs that have demonstrated student success and do not require teachers to complete a set of steps, tests and tasks not designed for teachers embedded in a high-quality school.” SUNY would also establish “certain parameters and requirements for charter schools that wish to operate alternative teacher preparation programs.”
“SUNY appears to be saying that schools that hire teachers who complete college teacher preparation programs and meet the state’s teacher certification standards are not high quality schools. That’s ridiculous and it undermines all the work that’s been done in our state to strengthen teacher preparation and improve the teacher certification exams and process,” said Jamie Dangler, UUP’s vice president for academics and a member of the state’s edTPA Task Force.
The New York Post gushed about the proposed regulations, claiming that it will allow experienced professionals such as engineers and lawyers to become teachers, but once you look at the pathway and the “need” it is filling, one has to seriously wonder how many experienced engineers are itching to switch careers this way? What SUNY is really doing here is setting up charter schools, which primarily operate within urban school systems, to a lot of African American and Hispanic parents not to worry if their children’s teachers are highly educated, tested, professionals – training them to focus on test preparation above everything else just isn’t that difficult anyway.
Ironically, the regulations may very well help charter schools in the short term while creating massive problems for themselves later on. Jersey Jazzman explains this situation very well. The draft regulations strongly imply that the certification is not transferable beyond other charter schools authorized by SUNY. That means that teachers certified this way will not have a way to take their early career experience to public schools in New York – or anywhere else for that matter – and be considered a certified teacher. As Jazzman points out, this is a way for charter schools to rig the labor market because they are having greater difficulty convincing certified teachers to join them, so that helps them have enough “certified” teachers without attracting ones from traditional programs. But this will eventually put them into a bind by closing off their ability to “free ride” the public system by taking up the least expensive years of a teaching career while district schools pay experienced teachers more – even if they come over from charters. That’s not possible with this regulation since charter school “certified” teachers will have no pathway into public school classrooms, so either charters will have to cough up better benefits and working conditions…or they will end up right back where they started with staffing shortages.
At the end of the day, the people who will suffer the most will be the families and children in New York’s SUNY authorized charter schools. They currently know that a substantial portion of their schools’ faculty have earned certification through programs, that while not perfect by any means, emphasize knowledge, experience, and practice. Now these schools, who largely serve urban students, will be increasingly staffed by faculty with even less experience and knowledge and who are chosen more for their capacity to be molded into the kind of people who have no qualms about turning 8 year olds into “little test taking machines.”
If the SUNY Board of Trustees is really saying that this is acceptable for anyone’s children, they should take a good long look in a mirror before voting this Fall…and then maybe send their own kids to a classroom like that.
New York legislators in Albany wrapped up yet another game of “Will we give Bill De Blasio an extension of mayoral control of New York City’s schools or won’t we?” recently. In the end, law makers held off until the very last minute, passing a two year extension for the mayor that did not include the provisions favoring charter schools Senate Republicans were insisting on but against which Assembly Democrats drew a line. The two year extension is a victory for De Blasio who has found out that Albany has trouble entrusting control to mayors not named “Mike,” and the lack of pro-charter school provisions shows that the daylight between De Blasio and Albany does not have to grind cooperation between the City and State to a complete halt.
The drama was also largely staged. Although interested parties issued dire warnings of what would befall city schools without mayoral control, the bluff played by Senate Republicans was just that, a bluff. Reverting back to pre-mayoral control school governance with only the months of July and August to figure it out was meant to scare Democrats into giving in on charter schools, but the threat rang hollow. Governor Cuomo, who has never been shy about humiliating Mayor De Blasio, wanted mayoral control extended. Even though they kept their mouths shut and did not win hoped for concessions, I would not bet against charter school proponents wishing for mayoral control as well. After all, Mayor De Blasio will not be mayor forever, and if the next mayor is more like Michael Bloomberg, the charter school sector will once again deal with only one person in control of city schools who is indulgent of their wishes. Certainly simpler than the complex politics of a city school board representing multiple constituencies and independent governance in 32 different community districts. And even though the charter school cap remains where it is, backroom deals are allowing 22 charter licenses for schools that had their charters revoked or went unused to be recycled and reissued.
And it is not as if the so-called anti-charter stance of the De Blasio administration is so unwavering that the sector gets nothing from Tweed these days:
So if that is the theater involved in the issue, there remains a central, not often asked, question: What about mayoral control makes it essential for running the nation’s largest school system? Prior to the 2002 legislation that placed Michael Bloomberg in near complete control of the city schools, New York City schools were run by the central Board of Education whose members were appointed by the mayor and by the five borough presidents and by elected school boards in each of the city’s 32 community districts – which had much greater power before a 1996 law demoted their role. Mayoral control legislation placed enormous authority into the mayor’s office who appoints the School Chancellor and the majority of members on the Panel for Educational Policy. The 32 local school boards were replaced by “Community Education Councils” consisting of parents elected by Parent Associations of elementary and middle schools in the community districts and given even less authority on school matters within those districts than the 1996 law.
Point of information: I am a member of the Community Education Council in District 3, having just completed my first two year term and having been elected to a second term. What I am writing here, however, represents only my views as both a New York City school parent and as a scholar of education – I do not presume to speak for the Council.
I am certainly not prepared to say that the former governance structure for city schools was a marked improvement on what we have today – however, it is also a massive oversimplification to say that the previous governance system could not produce results as studies of Community District 2 by Harvard’s Richard Elmore demonstrate. Further, while advocates of mayoral control have loved to tout various accomplishments, they are less inclined to entertain nuanced discussion and examination of those accomplishments. Bloomberg Chancellor Joel Klein loved to boast about how the leadership team assembled in New York made great progress on raising achievement and closing the test-measured gap between white and minority students. The problem with that claim is that it never stood up to careful analysis, as demonstrated by Teachers College Professor Aaron Pallas in analyses here and here. While Bloomberg and Klein could boast about modest gains in NYC scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, those gains were not substantially better than in other cities that did not follow the Bloomberg/Klein reform program and their claim about narrowing the achievement gap was simply false:
Looking across ELA and math scores on state exams for New York City students in grades three through eight in 2003, the achievement gap separating black and Latino students from white and Asian students was .74 of a standard deviation. In 2011, the achievement gap was .73 of a standard deviation. This represents a 1 percent reduction in the magnitude of the achievement gap. The careful reader will note that the mayor has thus overstated the cut in the achievement gap by a factor of 50.
What about for NAEP? In 2003, the achievement gap, averaged across reading and math scores in the fourth and eighth grades, was .76 of a standard deviation. In 2011, the gap was .78 of a standard deviation. Far from being cut in half, the achievement gap on the NAEP assessment actually increased by 3 percent between 2003 and 2011.
Mayor Bloomberg said, “We have closed the gap between black and Latino kids and white and Asian kids. We have cut it in half.” But the gap has scarcely budged; it’s shrunk by 1 percent on the New York State tests, and increased by 3 percent on NAEP.
These issues are frustrating, but frankly to be expected as it is the rare politician who is willing to admit that he has spent a decade with unchallenged control of a school system, sought test measured validation of his approach, and came up with belly button lint instead. However, it also draws attention to another aspect of mayoral control that hasn’t been discussed in the latest Albany spectacle. Namely, who holds the mayor responsible and over what does the mayor take responsibility in this governance structure? The Community District School boards were stripped of most of their authority prior to mayoral control, but they retained input on issues like hiring superintendents which, at least nominally, kept that closer to school district parents. Today, that all flows through the Mayor’s office who appoints the extremely powerful Chancellor and has a majority of seats on the PEP. The mayor may be subject to election, but it goes without saying that the path to that election does not necessitate a mayor who is attentive to what is going on in every school in every district across the city. In fact, in his last election in 2009, Michael Bloomberg lost the Bronx to challenger William Thompson by 24.2 percentage points. I dare say that he lost in most if not all of the 6 Community School Districts in the Bronx, yet he continued to control school governance there. The people closest to the schools in those districts only have limited say in holding the mayor responsible for what goes on there, and their post-election voices are greatly limited.
This matters even more because the mayor’s office does not always hold itself responsible for the very schools it controls. Consider charter school policy. While it is true that the city does not control charter schools (except for the very small number authorized by NYCDOE), it is also true that the amount of daylight between Mayor Bloomberg and charter friendly politicians in Albany was nonexistent. The Bloomberg years openly welcomed charter school expansion, aided in finding them spaces within city school buildings, and actively encouraged parents to seek educational options outside the control of DOE, setting up an environment where DOE run schools would have to compete not only among themselves but in competition with privately run organizations that were able to fund slick, professional marketing campaigns. Success Academy alone in 2010 paid over $400,000 to a single marketing firm, Mission Control, Inc., to promote itself in a direct mail campaign to parents, and it continued this campaign in subsequent years, spending on pre-paid postage for application forms mailed directly to homes. Using such professional services, the charter network is able to portray itself as highly desirable and prestigious to prospective families. And what, exactly, did Mayor Bloomberg, who welcomed the Success Network at every opportunity, do to position the schools directly under his control to compete in THAT environment?
The irony here is both evident and cruel: mayoral control as exercised by Michael Bloomberg helped put schools serving the most vulnerable children in the city into a situation where they were simultaneously responsible for improving academic outcomes while following accommodation rules that charters are exempted from AND for marketing themselves in an environment where private organizations spend lavishly on direct marketing campaigns and the DOE schools are left to rely on $500 and whatever creativity they have on staff. With parents bombarded from all directions by everyone except their zoned schools, it is no surprise that DOE schools in certain parts on New York have seen sharp declines in enrollment – which appears to be a feature rather than a bug of the system as set up by Albany law makers and abetted by Tweed under Bloomberg. In Community District 3 in Manhattan, schools north of 110th Street have seen a decline from 2206 K-5 students in 2006 to 1469 K-5 students in 2015, an enrollment loss of 33% in less than a decade.
However, if Michael Bloomberg accepted no responsibility to help the schools he enthusiastically put into competition actually compete, then his successor, Bill De Blasio has shown no real comprehension of the problem either. Schools in areas with high charter saturation still rely upon shoestring budgets and ad hoc efforts by community members and school personnel instead of a enjoying a coordinated and funded strategy from the office that has direct control over them. It is fundamentally unfair to expect that school principals, who have to possess a vast array of skills related to instructional leadership, management leadership, staff development, evaluation, school law, budgeting, and parent relationships, add on marketing and graphic design skill sets that are subject to their own degree programs. Meanwhile, Tweed approaches maintaining enrollment at schools as if it was still the early 1990s.
Mayor De Blasio fought hard to keep mayoral control. It is past time for the Mayor’s office to look at the impact of that control on the schools it runs and take mayoral responsibility for the sustainability of fully public schools in New York City.
It is nearing the end of March, which means that my social media feeds and the blogs that I read are full of materials pertaining to the Opt Out movement. Contrary to years of efforts by testing advocates to portray Opt Out as wholly of phenomenon of privileged parents, I know that the efforts I witness represent the work of parents facing bullying and misinformation from administrators trying to keep their test participation levels above 95%. It is also represents the work of brave teachers risking sanction and professional consequences for speaking out against damaging policies that distort curricula and classroom choices. Further, it represents the work of urban education activists who have seen over and over again how annual test data is abused by politicians and policymakers and is used to rank teachers on flawed measures of their performance and to close schools instead of to help and nurture them.
The reasons to support opting out are legion. Peter Greene provides an excellent breakdown of eight compelling reasons in this post. Katie Lapham clearly articulates how test refusal is a form of people power that says “no” to a variety of practices that actively harm schools and children. Last year, Bronx Principal Jamaal Bowman made an impassioned case for why he supports parents’ rights to refuse the state exams, asking why if the city’s most elite private schools refuse to give exams like these why do we just accept them as necessary for schools full of children in poverty? New York State Allies for Public Education published this informative response to general misinformation and obfuscation on testing policy put into the state “information toolkit” for administrators. I urge you to read these pieces carefully and thoughtfully and to seek out others on the subject if you are not already deeply informed on the issues regarding testing.
From where I sit, there are two fundamental reasons why parents should consider opting their children out of the annual examinations. First, they are a failed policy. Annual, high stakes, standardized examinations were ushered in as part of the No Child Left Behind legislation under President Bush with a promise that with an ongoing set of achievement data that could be compared against annual improvement targets and consequences for not meeting those targets that schools would improve, especially schools that serve student populations who consistently struggled. The promise was enticing enough that a bi-partisan coalition signed up, including civil rights organizations convinced that states and cities would be forced to help schools where most students were of color.
That reality never materialized. While states were flush with data that showed exactly what could have been predicted using other data sources, the “help” that was supposed to flow to struggling schools never measured up to the task while the threat of consequences narrowed more and more student experiences into ongoing test preparation. Writing during the 2015 debate over the Every Student Succeeds Act, Kevin Welner and William Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder concluded that test-based accountability as practiced in the NCLB era had demonstrably failed to demonstrate real improvement in the nation’s schools:
We as a nation have devoted enormous amounts of time and money to the focused goal of increasing test scores, and we have almost nothing to show for it. Just as importantly, there is no evidence that any test score increases represent the broader learning increases that were the true goals of the policy – goals such as critical thinking; the creation of lifelong learners; and more students graduating high school ready for college, career, and civic participation. While testing advocates proclaim that testing drives student learning, they resist evidence-based explanations for why, after two decades of test-driven accountability, these reforms have yielded such unimpressive results.
Second, test-based accountability is monstrously unjust and racist, subjecting communities to punitive results and “solutions” that aid only a few and which disproportionately take away input into education from parents of color. While No Child Left Behind had already done significant damage to schools and learning, the Obama administration’s policies went much further. Under the Race to the Top competition, states were incentivized to adopt common standards, to join mass testing consortia, and to use the results of test data to promote school choice and to evaluate teachers. These are not benign policies. Value added measures of teacher performance have been and remain highly unreliable ways to evaluate teachers, and while school choice advocates like current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her predecessors in the Obama administration like to portray school choice as empowerment for students and parents, they persistently fail to consider the nature and consequences of those choices. Urban charter schools rarely enroll identical populations of students as their host districts, and high performing charter schools frequently use shockingly high attrition rates to enhance their overall test scores. The idea that urban charter schools offer parents “choices” the way that suburban parents enjoy choices, as so often claimed by their proponents, is laughable – it is hardly a choice to be offered a district schools that is chronically underfunded and neglected by policy makers or a charter school that is well resourced thanks to wealthy donors but which routinely drives away its students. And yet those are the “choices” offered to urban parents of color thanks to testing policies, choices that would cause their white, wealthy peers to oust elected leaders.
And yet, despite these reasons which I believe whole-heartedly, my family will not opt out of the tests this year.
That admission comes as a bit of a shock and leaves me with deeply conflicted feelings, perhaps even trepidation that I will lose respect among people whose advocacy and bravery I greatly respect. However, I cannot demand that we be an opt out family this year and honor a promise we made to our children.
Last year, as testing time approached, we spoke to our oldest child about the upcoming exams and why we did not like them as a school policy. They were poorly written (they still are). They took up far too much time just taking them and consumed way too much teaching time preparing for them (they still do). The state and city would use the test scores to unfairly judge schools and teachers (and they still will). Based on those reasons, we explained to our child that it was possible to refuse to take the exams and that we would be pleased to make certain the school knew not to administer the exam. It did not take much to get a “yes” in response to this argument, and for those who think we may have pressured our child, this is a young person who, at the age of six, deduced atheism without any outside influence. It was important to us that this be a family decision that our child participated in rather than one we insisted upon without listening. Compared to many families who opt out, we were exceedingly lucky. The school knows what I do for a living, and we were subjected to no active campaign to get us to change our mind, even though New York state policy encourages principals to do just that.
On the other hand, our school really has no active opt out presence, and to my knowledge, our child was the ONLY student in the school to opt out and spent the better part of two different weeks helping out in a Kindergarten class. Again, better than what happens to many students, but it also made our child stand out.
So when testing time approached again this year, we sat down for another conversation, but the result was very different. Without being particularly upset or visibly shaken by the previous year’s experience, our child decided to NOT opt out. Part of keeping my word on our child having the right to have a say in this means that we are not an opt out family this year. Over the weeks, I have managed to tease out my child’s reasons. Some of it is sheer curiosity about what the other kids will be spending so much time doing. Some of it is recalling feeling awkward in a classroom full of Kindergarten kids. Some of it is feeling uneasy being the only student in the grade not taking the test. Some of it is knowing that the test is part of the teachers’ evaluations and concern not taking it will be harmful – I said that the last fear was not what would happen, but the other reasons? I don’t really have an argument there, and I strongly suspect there is no small part of this decision that is based upon not wanting to be the only kid opting out again. I cannot find fault with that. No matter how much I say that this is a “family decision,” at the end of the day, it is my child who has to enact it, for hours and hours at a time, and that would be a very lonely and potentially ostracizing act.
Of course, honoring my child’s participation in this decision also means recognizing that we are participating, unnecessarily in my opinion, in a policy that is both a failure and which is used to justify a racist status quo. Just this past week, the New York City Panel on Educational Policy voted to shutter more schools that were supposed to be getting extra assistance and resources as part of a renewal program, assistance and resources that community members in the Bronx say never materialized for JHS 145 Arturo Toscanini. Those same community members present strong arguments that their school was already slated to be taken over by a charter school before the decision on closing was finalized. All of this is made far more possible by the abuse of testing data in decision making, testing data our family will contribute to this year.
It is hard to swallow, but perhaps it is also an opportunity for deeper and more incisive self critique. The state tests may help to fuel failed and racist policies, but they are by no means the only examples of injustice in our school system. I prepare college students to become teachers, but am I doing enough to teach them to confront the school to prison pipeline? Am I doing enough to help them drop the pitfalls of “white savior complex” and really learn about their students of color? Am I working to shine a light on how gentrification brings wealth into neighborhoods and opens trendy night spots but rarely does anything for the public schools? What level of my own comfort within the education system that I work for and in which my children are enrolled am I willing to put at risk?
How much am I complacent in a much larger system of injustices even if I am able to identify the state tests as especially troubling? Taking time to answer these questions is more important than ever, and my child’s decision about this year’s tests plays no small role in it.
Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s designated nominee for Secretary of Education, appeared before the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions late Tuesday afternoon. Before I comment further, here is an obligatory picture of a grizzly bear:
This is inspired by one of the oddest interactions of her hearing when Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut asked DeVos if she believed that guns belonged in public schools, leading to this exchange:
This was her response to Chris Murphy. Of Connecticut. Whose constituents endured one of the most heart breaking and devastating attacks of violence visited upon a single school in American history. Guns in school, as a matter of principle, should be left to locales because – grizzly bears.
Just as a matter of record: in testimony that was riddled with evasions and factual errors, DeVos’ supposition about guns and grizzly bears was also wrong. According to Politifact, Wyoming bars guns from public schools, and wildlife experts note that anti-bear spray is most likely better than a gun for most people who might confront a bear.
While the Grizzly Bear Gun Hypothesis was a humorous head scratching moment Tuesday evening, it was nowhere near the only one. As could be expected, Republican Senators opted for extreme softball questions, and, disappointingly, Committee Chair Senator Lamar Alexander, himself a former Secretary of Education, denied repeated requests for extending time or holding a follow up hearing. Democrats used their limited time to grill the nominee on a variety of questions about education policy, her own background as a wealthy donor to conservative candidates, and whether or not she would commit to not gutting public schools and enforcing federal education law. In all of these exchanges, DeVos had only two modes of response. One was slippery as an eel trying to escape from a net. The other was woefully unprepared to demonstrate the most basic knowledge of federal education policy and how it impacts schools. On issue after issue, DeVos was unable to articulate cogent responses that she would have known if she had spent even three days on the job as a classroom teacher, as a building or district administrator, or as an elected official with jurisdiction over school policy.
There is no other conclusion to reach: Betsy DeVos is woefully unqualified to be Secretary of Education in the United States of America, and her confirmation puts all schools and students who rely upon the competent administration of the Department of Education at risk.
The evasions began fairly early when Senator Murray of Washington tried to pin down DeVos on potential conflicts of interest. This is a matter of obvious concern as the nominee had still not completed her ethics review paperwork as of Monday, and her family has vast holdings and investments. However, when the Senator tried to pin her down, this was the response:
SEN. MURRAY: WE KNOW FROM PRESS REPORTS THAT YOU AND YOUR FAMILY HAVE INVESTED IN THE EDUCATION INDUSTRY, INCLUDING INVESTMENTS IN A STUDENT LOAN REFINANCING COMPANY AND K12 INC., A CHAIN OF FOR PROFIT ONLINE CHARTER SCHOOLS. YOU TOLD THE COMMITTEE YOU WOULD SEVER TIES WITH THOSE FIRMS, AND YOU ALSO SAID HE WOULD INTEND TO RETURN TO THE BUSINESSES WHEN YOU LEAVE PUBLIC SERVICE. HOW IS THAT DIFFERENT FROM PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP’S ARRANGEMENT?
DEVOS: SENATOR, FIRST OF ALL, LET ME BE VERY CLEAR ABOUT ANY CONFLICTS. WHERE CONFLICTS ARE IDENTIFIED, THEY WILL BE RESOLVED. I WILL NOT BE CONFLICTED, PERIOD. I COMMIT THAT TO YOU WELL. — YOU ALL. WITH RESPECT TO THE ONES YOU CITED, ONE OF THE ONES WE WERE AWARE OF AS WE ENTERED THE PROCESS, THAT IS IN THE PROCESS OF BEING DIVESTED. IF THERE ARE ANY OTHERS THAT ARE IDENTIFIED, THEY WILL BE APPROPRIATELY DIVESTED AS WELL.
SEN. MURRAY: FROM YOUR ANSWER, I ASSUME THAT YOUR AND YOUR FAMILY INTEND TO FOREGO ALL INVESTMENTS IN EDUCATION COMPANIES FROM NOW ON?
DEVOS: ANYTHING DEEMED TO BE A CONFLICT WILL NOT BE PART OF OUR INVESTING.
SEN. MURRAY: HOW DO YOU INTEND TO CONVINCE THIS COMMITTEE THAT NO ENTITY WILL FEEL PRESSURED TO PURCHASE, PARTNER, OR CONTRACT WITH CORPORATE OR NONPROFIT ENTITIES YOU AND YOUR FAMILY INVESTED IN, SHOULD YOU BE CONFIRMED AS SECRETARY?
DEVOS: I CAN COMMIT TO YOU THAT NOBODY WILL FEEL ANY PRESSURE LIKE THAT.
That roughly translates to “I will not have conflicts of interest because I will not have conflicts of interest.” I know that I feel better. That kind of evasion continued during questions by Senator Sanders of Vermont who asked her how much money her family had donated to Republican candidates over time, an amount she claimed not to know…but Senator Sanders did:
I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but I doubt that I would forget the exact number if I ever gave $200 million to anyone or anything. DeVos also went on to counter Senator Sanders’ questions about making tuition free at public universities and colleges by saying that “nothing is free.” This is true – it takes approximately $200 million to buy state legislatures and Senators, for example.
Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey tried to pin down the nominee on whether or not she would uphold current guidance on Title IX that relates to sexual assault on college campuses. He got nowhere on that as did Senator Murray who later tried to pin DeVos down a second time on the issue, which is germane given that the nominee has donated $10,000 to an advocacy group that is specifically trying to overturn the Obama administration guidelines and make it more difficult for victims of sexual assault on college campuses to get justice. DeVos basically gaslighted Senator Casey by saying her “mom’s heart was really piqued on this issue” right before the Senator reminded her of her donations. She also danced around the record of the charter school environment in Michigan that she and her donations helped create when questioned by Senator Bennet of Colorado, going so far as to call reports of the lack of accountability “fake news.” It’s not, by the way. It isextremelywell documented. Senator Whitehouse of Rhode Island followed this by schooling the nominee on legacy costs that accrue to school districts when charter school students take funding with them but leave behind the same costs in place. He also asked DeVos if, given her history of donations and participation in organizations that deny climate change, she would make certain that the department will resist efforts to include “junk science” into school curricula. Her answer?
IT IS PRETTY CLEAR IS THAT THE EXPECTATION IS SCIENCE IS TAUGHT IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS. I SUPPORT THE TEACHING OF GREAT SCIENCE AND ESPECIALLY SCIENCE THAT ALLOWS STUDENTS TO EXERCISE CRITICAL THINKING AND TO REALLY DISCOVER AND EXAMINE IN NEW WAYS. SCIENCE SHOULD BE SUPPORTED AT ALL LEVELS.
In case you didn’t know that is perilously similar to the kind of “teach the controversy” nonsense propagated by Creationists when trying to shoehorn their way into legitimate science classrooms on subjects that are not controversial to scientists.
Senator Warren tried to pin down DeVos on how she will use the tools of the office to make certain that students in higher education are not being subjected to waste, fraud, and abuse. Once again, DeVos refused to commit to anything more than reviewing the issue:
DEVOS: I WANT TO MAKE SURE WE DON’T HAVE PROBLEMS WITH THAT AS WELL. IF CONFIRMED, I WILL WORK DILIGENTLY TO CONFIRM WE ARE ADDRESSING ANY OF THOSE ISSUES.
SEN. WARREN: WHAT SUGGESTION DO YOU MAKE? IT TURNS OUT MANY ROLES THAT ARE ALREADY WRITTEN, ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS ENFORCE THEM. WHAT I WANT TO KNOW IS, WHAT YOU COMMIT TO ENFORCING THESE RULES TO ENSURE THAT NO CAREER COLLEGE RECEIVES FEDERAL FUNDS UNLESS THEY CAN PROVE THEY ARE ACTUALLY PREPARING STUDENTS FOR GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT AND NOT CHEATING THEM.
DEVOS: I WILL COMMIT TO ENSURING THAT INSTITUTIONS WHICH RECEIVED FEDERAL FUNDS ARE ACTUALLY SERVING THEIR STUDENTS WELL.
SEN. WARREN: SO YOU WILL ENFORCE THE GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT RULE TO MAKE SURE THAT THESE CAREER COLLEGES ARE NOT CHEATING STUDENTS?
DEVOS: WE WILL CERTAINLY REVIEW THAT RULE.
SEN. WARREN: YOU WILL NOT COMMIT TO ENFORCE IT?
DEVOS: AND SEE THAT IT IS ACTUALLY ACHIEVING WHAT THE INTENTIONS ARE.
SEN. WARREN: I DON’T UNDERSTAND ABOUT REVIEWING IT. WE TALKED ABOUT THIS IN MY OFFICE. THERE ARE ALREADY RULES IN PLACE TO STOP WASTE, FRAUD, AND ABUSE, AND I AM NOT SURE HOW YOU CANNOT BE — SWINDLERS AND CROOKS ARE OUT THERE DOING BACK FLIPS WHEN THEY HEAR AN ANSWER LIKE THIS. IF CONFIRMED, YOU WILL BE THE COP ON THE BEAT. YOU CANNOT COMMIT TO USE THE TOOLS THAT ARE ALREADY AVAILABLE TO YOU IN THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, BUT I DON’T SEE HOW YOU COULD BE THE SECRETARY OF EDUCATION.
DeVos’ testimony turned away from evasive to and plowed directly into breathtakingly ignorant in two astonishing exchanges. In the first, Senator Franken of Minnesota asked the nominee about her opinion on measuring performance based on proficiency or on growth, and it was quickly evident that she did not have the faintest clue what he was talking about:
SEN FRANKEN: WHEN I FIRST GOT IN THE SENATE IN 2009, I HAD A ROUNDTABLE OF PRINCIPALS IN MINNESOTA. HE SAID, WE THINK OF THE NCLB TEST AS AUTOPSIES. I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT HE MEANT. THE STUDENTS TAKE THE TEST IN APRIL, THEY GET THE RESULTS IN LATE JUNE. THE TEACHERS CANNOT USE THE TEST RESULTS TO INFORM THEIR INSTRUCTION. I SAW THAT IN MINNESOTA, THE MAJORITY OF THE SCHOOLS WERE TAKING A COMPUTER ADAPTIVE TEST, A COMPUTER TEST WHERE YOU GET THE RESULTS RIGHT AWAY, AND ADAPTIVE SO YOU CAN MEASURE OUTSIDE THE GRADE LEVEL. THIS BRINGS ME TO THE ISSUE OF PROFICIENCY, WHICH THE SENATOR CITED, VERSUS GROWTH. I WOULD LIKE YOUR VIEWS ON THE RELATIVE ADVANTAGE OF ASSESSMENTS AND USING THEM TO MEASURE PROFICIENCY OR GROWTH.
DEVOS: I THINK IF I AM UNDERSTANDING YOUR QUESTION CORRECTLY AROUND PROFICIENCY, I WOULD CORRELATE IT TO COMPETENCY AND MASTERY, SO EACH STUDENT IS MEASURED ACCORDING TO THE ADVANCEMENTS THEY ARE MAKING IN EACH SUBJECT AREA.
SEN. FRANKEN: THAT’S GROWTH. THAT’S NOT PROFICIENCY. IN OTHER WORDS, THE GROWTH THEY ARE MAKING IS NOT GROWTH. THE PROFICIENCY IS AN ARBITRARY STANDARD.
DEVOS: PROFICIENCY IS IF THEY HAVE REACHED A THIRD GRADE LEVEL FOR READING, ETC.
SEN. FRANKEN: I’M TALKING ABOUT THE DEBATE BETWEEN PROFICIENCY AND GROWTH, WHAT YOUR THOUGHTS ARE ON THAT.
DEVOS: I WAS JUST ASKING THE CLARIFY, THEN –
SEN. FRANKEN: THIS IS A SUBJECT THAT HAS BEEN DEBATED IN THE EDUCATION COMMUNITY FOR YEARS.
Later, Senator Kaine of Virginia tried to pin down DeVos on whether or not all schools which take public money – fully public or charter – should be accountable to the same laws. She danced around this as well:
SENATOR KAINE: DO YOU THINK — DO YOU THINK SCHOOLS THAT RECEIVE GOVERNMENT FUNDING SAID MEET THE SAME OUTCOME STANDARDS?
MRS. DEVOS: ALL SCHOOLS THAT RECEIVE FUNDING SHOULD BE ACCOUNTABLE.
SENATOR KAINE: THE SAME STANDARDS?
MRS. DEVOS: YES. ALTHOUGH YOU HAVE DIFFERENT ACCOUNTABILITY STANDARDS BETWEEN TRADITIONAL PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND CHARTER SCHOOLS.
SENATOR KAINE: I’M VERY INTERESTED IN THIS. PUBLIC CHARTER OR PRIVATE SCHOOLS, K-12, THEY SHOULD MEET THE SAME ACCOUNTABILITY STANDARDS.
MRS. DEVOS: YES. PARENTS SHOULD HAVE THE INFORMATION, FIRST AND FOREMOST.
SENATOR KAINE: WOULD YOU AGREE ON WILL YOU INSIST ON EQUAL ACCOUNTABILITY ON ANY EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM THAT RECEIVES FEDERAL FUNDING?
MRS. DEVOS: I SUPPORT ACCOUNTABILITY.
SENATOR KAINE: IS THAT A YES OR NO?
MRS. DEVOS: THAT IS A “I SUPPORT ACCOUNTABILITY.”
The difference between supporting “accountability” and supporting “equal accountability” is the difference between having schools that are allowed to deny students services that they do not wish to provide and schools that can do no such thing — or, if you were, the difference between a lot of charter schools and public schools. The exchange went completely off the rails, however, when DeVos apparently did not know that there is a FEDERAL law for students with disabilities (actually, there are several) and that her role as Secretary of Education would include overseeing how it is implemented across the country:
SENATOR KAINE: SHOULD ALL SCHOOLS BE REQUIRED TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES ACT.
MRS. DEVOS: I THINK THEY ALREADY ARE.
KAINE: I’M ASKING YOU A SHOULD QUESTION. SHOULD ALL SCHOOLS THAT RECEIVE TAXPAYER FUNDING BE REQUIRED TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES AND EDUCATION.
MRS. DEVOS: I THINK THAT IS A MATTER BETTER LEFT TO THE STATES.
SENATOR KAINE: SOME STATES MIGHT BE GOOD, OTHER STATE MIGHT NOT BE SO GOOD, AND THEN PEOPLE CAN MOVE AROUND THE COUNTRY?
MRS. DEVOS: I THINK THAT IS AN ISSUE BEST LEFT TO THE STATES.
SENATOR KAINE: WHAT ABOUT THE FEDERAL REQUIREMENT? INDIVIDUALS WITH EDUCATION — INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES EDUCATION ACT. LET’S LIMIT IT TO FEDERAL FUNDING. SHOULD THEY BE REQUIRED TO FOLLOW FEDERAL LAW?
Senator Hassan of New Hampshire looped back to this question a bit later:
SENATOR HASSAN: I WANT TO GO BACK TO THE INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES IN EDUCATION LAW. THAT IS A FEDERAL LAW.
MRS. DEVOS: FEDERAL LAW MUST BE FOLLOWED WHERE FEDERAL DOLLARS ARE IN PLAY.
SENATOR HASSAN: WERE YOU UNAWARE THAT IT IS A FEDERAL LAW?
MRS. DEVOS: I MAY HAVE CONFUSED IT.
That deserves to be viewed:
“I may have confused it.” I hope to heaven that does not become the epitaph of American public education.
I have no other word for this: breathtaking. Betsy DeVos’ lack of knowledge on fundamental issues of great importance to the nation’s public schools is breathtaking. The issue of proficiency versus growth as a measure of educational outcomes is fundamental to education policy across the country. It has been debated for decades, and since the passage of No Child Left Behind, it has been front and center in our policy debates and oversight of education. No school administrator who has had to report on Adequate Yearly Progress and no school teacher who has worked in a state where growth scores have been folded into teacher evaluations is unaware of this issue, but the nominee for Secretary of Education is. The least prepared and most incompetent school superintendent in the entire country knows what the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act is within three days of settling into the job. There is literally no other choice given how important and complex compliance with the law can be. But the nominee for Secretary of Education “may have confused it”? With what, exactly?
The grizzly bear comment has been worth a lot of memes, some of them downright funny. Heck, here are two:
But beyond that laugh, we have a likely-t0-be-confirmed nominee who tells us to “trust” that her vast fortune and holdings will not present a conflict of interest, who will not commit to preserving public education as fully public, who will not commit to upholding protections from sexual harassment and assault on college campuses (and who has donated to a group that wants to tear down those protections), who will not commit to full enforcing existing protections against fraud and abuse in higher education lending and practices, and who appears entirely unaware of one of the central debates in education policy and one of the most important pieces of federal education law passed in the past half century.
Eva Moskowitz, the founder and head of the Success Academy charter school network has control issues. In many aspects of life, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Steve Jobs was famously involved in the many details of design and development of Apple’s products, arguably responsible for the level of innovation that drove an entire industry. The private sector, in fact, is often lead by people who are extraordinarily demanding of themselves and of everyone in their organizations — which may well drive people close to them nuts but which gets results for consumers and investors.
That’s not remotely the best way for public education to operate.
To be sure, schools and school systems need involved, high energy, and dynamic leaders. But they also need leaders who understand and can navigate the complex system of loosely coupled and interlocking stakeholders who have legitimate say in how schools operate. They need to respond respectfully and thoughtfully to potentially contradictory demands and navigate an optimal course forward. School leaders need to understand and accept accountability to the tax payers whose money from local, state, and federal revenues fund the system. “My way or the highway”ism might be functional for some aspects of entrepreneurship in certain visionary companies — it is absolutely awful in public education.
Ms. Moskowitz exerts extremely tight and thorough control over the operation of Success Academy, and she is extremely zealous in her insistence that nobody other than the State University of New York charter authorizer has any say whatsoever. In fact, Ms. Moskowitz has been to court multiple times to prevent that New York State Comptroller’s office from auditing her books — which are full of taxpayers’ money that the Comptroller is supposed to monitor. Charter school laws do free up the sector from a great many of the labor and education rules that govern our fully public schools, but Ms. Moskowitz has been singular in her insistence that no governmental authority can so much as examine her books.
So it was hardly surprising that when the New York City received money from the state of New York to open free public pre-Kindergarten programs, Ms. Moskowitz wanted a share of that money to support the program at her schools. It was also not surprising that she immediately refused to sign the contract that the city required of all pre-K providers – including other charter school networks – that got money. The city insisted that the contract to provide some oversight of pre-K programs was required to fulfill its obligations under the state grant that provided the funds in the first place. Ms. Moskowitz insisted that didn’t matter. In this March Op-Ed announcing that Success Academy was suing the city for the pre-K money without the contract, Ms. Moskowitz makes it crystal clear that she believes charter schools cannot be made to answer to any state or city authority other than SUNY.
Ms. Moskowitz’s argument here involves some sleight of hand. Yes, charter schools were granted legal permission to operate pre-K programs. However, as Jersey Jazzman notes very cogently, this particular money was coming from the New York City DOE which made a proposal to the state for pre-K funds that required the city to engage in oversight of the program including making certain that all applicable federal and state laws and regulations were followed. Ms. Moskowitz filed suit against the city because the city refused to violate its own agreement with the state when it applied for the universal pre-K funding in the first place. Further, again as noted by Jersey Jazzman, the law that Ms. Moskowitz insists grants her the ability to run a pre-K requires a school district to seek participants including charter schools, but it also allows the district to deny organizations inclusion in its application and allows those organizations to apply individually for funds.
Simply put: Success Academy did not want to apply for pre-K funding on its own, AND they did want to be held to the same rules as every other pre-K provider included in New York City’s application to the state.
Neither the state nor the city decided to budge on the matter, and with a lawsuit still in process, Success Academy announced last week that they were cancelling all of their pre-K programs. In typical Success Academy fashion, Ms. Moskowitz declared that the state and city were putting “politics” ahead of education, said the mayor had a “war” against her schools, and lamented that the courts would not “rescue” the pre-K classes.
Cancelling their pre-K has absolutely nothing to do with Success Academy’s financial need. The money at stake was around $720,000, and while that is not chicken scratch, Success Academy could put together that sum easily. This is an organization that can put together a $9 million fundraiser for a single night’s event. This is an organization that spent more than $700,000 in a single day for a rally in Albany (including almost $72,000 for beanies) and which expected $39 million in philanthropic money for fiscal year 2016 – BEFORE the announcement of a $25 million dollar gift from billionaire Julian Robertson. This is also an organization that is entirely capable of applying for pre-K funds from the state directly, and while it is not guaranteed that their application would be approved, given Success Academy’s extremely powerful and politically influential circle of close friends, I have little doubt they’d get money.
Success Academy could have very well “rescued” its own pre-K program by calling up any of its billionaire patrons, by submitting their own application to the state, or by signing the city’s agreement with the state for the money under city control. But Eva Moskowitz wanted none of that because this isn’t about Success Academy’s pre-K classes or the very young children she is using as props. This is about Eva Moskowitz being able to plant her flag on any available pot of public funding and demand that she be given it with no oversight or accountability whatsoever. This is about control, plain and simple. Control of public funds. Control of the process that distributes them. Control of the politicians and agencies that are entrusted to oversee them. Ms. Moskowitz saw available funding to expand Success Academy’s footprint, and she was given every fair opportunity to access it either with or without city oversight.
She wanted to dictate the terms of how that money got to her schools. The only one who cancelled Success Academy’s pre-K program is Eva Moskowitz and her demand for control.
At the end of 2014, the rapidly expanding Success Academy charter school network in New York City announced they would hire an in house ethnographer. At the time, the network had 9,400 students in grades K-9 across 32 schools and had plans for further expansion. The job description for the opening read:
“We want to expand the scope and quality of our data collection to focus on the lived experience within our schools,” the description reads, adding that the position would help the network focus on “questions we’ve never thought to ask.”
At the time, seeking a genuine social scientist to truly study the network gained high praise from representatives of the charter sector in public education such as Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, who said the move was unique among charter schools across the nation.
The post was filled by Dr. Roy Germano who got to work in early 2015, examining the culture of Success Academy and seeking potential research questions to help the network focus, as they said, on things they’d “never thought to ask.” Dr. Germano’s early work appeared to center on the high pressure and test-score centered professional culture of the charter school network, and the potential consequences that might have for teacher and administrator behavior. According to documents that were obtained by PoliticoNewYork, Dr. Germano used his early investigations to write a proposal for a study of possible cheating by teachers within the network in response to the organization’s incentive structure. Dr. Germano had no conclusive proof of cheating, but his interest stemmed from various examples teachers explained to him in interviews of colleagues correcting student work or suggesting that they “rethink” their answers, and to parallels he drew between Success’ high stakes environment and the Atlanta Public Schools where widespread cheating on standardized examinations eventually surfaced. Dr. Germano further noted that “there are no rewards at Success for ethical teachers who try their best and fail.”
The research proposal and reasons for the concern rocked the higher administration at Success Academy to its core, and immediately resulted in a top to bottom self examination of incentives and practices that might negatively impact teaching and learning within the network. Principals were directed to give Dr. Germano full access to faculty and students and to begin a careful process of reviewing how they support teachers in fostering genuine student learning where high test scores are the outcome of an ethical and deeply enriched school environment. The reward and career advancement structure at the network was immediately scrutinized to determine what changes could be made to be absolutely sure that rewards and bonuses do not incentivize questionable practices, and the policy of publicly stack ranking teachers based on student test scores came under question as well. Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz recently announced that she is “eagerly awaiting” the results of Dr. Germano’s research and learning what the network can do to continuously improve.
Dr. Germano, who now works as a research professor at New York University, was apparently required to write a follow up report in which he noted: “I am told Eva Moskowitz made disparaging comments about me in reaction to the report…I was told to write a follow-up report that would essentially downplay my findings and told by [recently departed Success vice president] Keri Hoyt not to use the word ‘cheating’ in any future reports. Finally, I was told that I was banned from visiting schools for the remaining 4 weeks of the school year, and that I could only visit schools next year if accompanied by ‘a chaperone.’” He also noted in that follow up, “Comments about a culture of fear at Success have been a recurring theme in my interviews.” Spokesperson Stefan Friedman told Politico: “As to the allegations raised in the title of Mr. Germano’s memo, though he interviewed just 13 teachers out of 1,400 to justify that title, we conducted a thorough investigation and found no evidence to substantiate his speculation…Any suggestion that we utilized these methods — or anything untoward — on state standardized exams is categorically false and not supported by a scintilla of fact.”
Dr. Germano’s proposed research was submitted to Success in May of 2015. By August, he was dismissed after having been forbidden to visit schools. With such a severe reaction and so quick a dismissal, Mr. Friedman’s assertion that Success Academy “conducted a thorough investigation” is plainly laughable. So much for asking questions.
Dr. Germano’s questions actually come as no surprise to those who have watched Success Academy closely, nor does his prompt dismissal after actually doing the job for which he was supposedly hired. The pressure cooker atmosphere and singular focus on standardized test results has been evident at the rapidly growing network since at least 2010, when Success Academy’s Paul Fucaloro openly told New York Magazine that his program turned their students “into little test taking machines,” and he actually said, “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” blaming bad parenting for most special needs students. In the same article, other sources says that students who do not bend to the Success Academy method were counseled out and that founder Eva Moskowitz told the staff that “Success Academy is not a social service agency.”
A year later, The New York Times ran a story on the subtle and direct ways that the network tries to rid itself of students who do not quickly and completely comply. The story described the experiences of Kevin Sprowal who, mere weeks into his Kindergarten year, was throwing up most mornings before school because of the constant and increasing punishments. Recently, a series of news stories have placed further emphasis on the high pressure environment in the network. In April of 2015, Kate Taylor ran a story in The New York Timeshighlighting both the very high test score results and the extreme pressure environment within Success Academy – including an incentive system for students that include publicly shaming students with low test scores. On October 12th, veteran education reporter John Merrow did an extended segment on the PBS Newshour on the use of out of school suspensions at Success Academy – for children as young as Kindergarten:
Eva Moskowitz retaliated by lobbing a lengthy complaint against Mr. Merrow at PBS and by publishing a response that included federally protected information identifying the disciplinary record of a former Success Academy student who appeared on camera. This earned her a cease and desist order and a formal complaint filed with the Federal Department of Education.
Before October was over, The New York Times ran another story on Success Academy – this time, a “got to go list” was leaked from Success Academy in Fort Green, Brooklyn. In addition to the shocking targeting of specific students, other sources confirmed practices across the network such as not sending automatic re-enrollment paperwork to certain families, and a network attorney calling one student leaving “a big win for us”. Ms. Moskowitz responded with a press conference calling the “got to go list” an aberration – and with an email to staff declaring the bad press the result of media “conspiracy theories.” Ms. Moskowitz then took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal in an editorial piece claiming that the only real “secret” to Success Academy is imitating the teaching of Paul Fucaloro:
…I wasn’t completely sold on Paul’s approach at first, but when one of our schools was having trouble, I’d dispatch him to help. He’d tell the teachers to give him a class full of all the kids who had the worst behavioral and academic problems. The teachers thought this was nuts but they’d do so, and then a few days later they’d drop by Paul’s classroom and find these students acting so differently that they were nearly unrecognizable. Within weeks, the students would make months’ worth of academic progress.
Ms. Moskowitz wanted her readers to infer that all Success Academy has done is simply scale up the teaching methods of one man into a system of nearly 3 dozen schools and roughly 10,000 students.
But if that is the case, the public had to wonder just what kind of person Ms. Moskowitz chose to clone across her entire staff when a video of one of the network’s “exemplar teachers” surfaced. In the video, a calm and passive Success Academy student has trouble following her teacher’s instructions and is treated to having her work paper ripped in half in front of her classmates, being sent to the “calm down chair,” and berate in angry tones. The video was not an accident: the assistant teacher was specifically keeping her cell phone ready in order to catch an example of just that kind of behavior because she had seen it so often. In what is now her typical fashion, Eva Moskowitz lashed out at the press for the story, calling her critics haters and bullies.
This is a long record of employing not merely high standards, but also of employing extreme high pressure and of tolerating plainly unethical practices from teachers and administrators so long as the bottom line – very high standardized test scores – remains intact. Dr. Germano’s questions were entirely appropriate as the beginning of a research program within Success Academy precisely because the bottom line at the network is entirely tangled up with test scores first and the means to get those scores second. If it means suspending Kindergarten children repeatedly until the submit to total control of their behavior, so be it. If it means conspiring to pressure certain families to leave the school, so be it. If it means humiliating a little girl in front of her peers so she learns that mistakes are never tolerated, so be it. Dr. Germano’s original proposal stated the central problem at Success Academy perfectly: “There are no rewards at Success for ethical teachers who try their best and fail.”
Incentives matter. And organizational values are completely intertwined with what is measured and rewarded. The is well known in the business world, even though companies from Enron to General Motors do not always learn from it. The lesson from Success Academy is that when a school is entirely obsessed with high standardized test scores and when it is removed from nearly every system of public accountability available, it can get those test scores – but at an extremely high cost to anyone who does not serve that end. Perhaps overt, organized, cheating is not a problem at Success Academy (yet), but the organizational incentives for it exist from the very top all the way down to their youngest students.
Dr. Germano tried to warn them, but nobody at Success Academy seems capable of listening.