The Misanthropy of Gary Rubinstein

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If you’re a Teach For America alum like I am, you’ve probably heard of the name Gary Rubinstein. If you haven’t, stop reading now, because he’s the sort of person who will only erode your faith in the essential goodness of humanity.

I say this because Rubinstein takes perverse delight in trying to tear down the accomplishments of others. He’s someone who roots against the underdog. He’s the guy who ditched his idealism and gave up long ago and now simply scorns those who are still fighting the good fight.

He also happens to be a Teach For America alum (Houston, ’91) from back in the organization’s earliest days. Unlike many of his fellow corps members, however, he hasn’t gone on to “grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.” Actually, he’s done the exact opposite: he’s turned his back on TFA’s mission and become one of the organization’s biggest critics. He also likes to attack efforts by fellow TFA alums to close the achievement gap.

Case-in-point: Rubinstein’s recent attack on Louisiana State Superintendent John White’s effort to increase access and participation in Advanced Placement courses. Under White’s leadership, the Louisiana Department of Education has provided schools and districts with incentives to expand their Advanced Placement offerings, as well as funding to cover the cost of AP exams for low income students.

Earlier this summer, White announced that a record number of Louisiana students earned college credit-eligible scores of 3 or higher on AP tests in 2015. This represents an increase of 20% from last year and an astounding 89% increase since 2012. What’s more, the number of African-American students (the most underrepresented group in AP classrooms nationally) earning college credit-eligible scores on AP exams jumped 30% in the past year and 146% since 2012.

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Sounds like great news, right? Well, don’t tell that to Gary Rubenstein. He devoted an entire blog post – Louisiana Makes Big Gains* On AP Tests – to trying to tear down these accomplishments. First, he gleefully points out that Louisiana’s AP participation and passing rates still remain near the bottom when compared to other states:

“Even though their percent passing continues to be near the bottom of the nation, they celebrate the fact that their ‘participation’ has increased.  And with that increased participation, this is not surprising, their percent passing has dropped from 43% down to about 30%.”

Rubinstein goes on and on beating this point to death. He even adds some charts to the mix that indeed show that Louisiana’s AP participation and performance are still low when compared to states like Maryland, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

Tell us something we don’t know. It’s no secret that Louisiana has traditionally ranked 49th in the nation in terms of educational performance, so the state’s low AP ranking should come as no surprise. On the other hand, that’s what makes the AP gains we’ve witnessed in Louisiana all the more impressive and important. It’s hard to put a dysfunctional education system on a new and improved trajectory, but the progress we’ve made so far shows Louisiana is moving in the right direction.

Furthermore, as Jay Mathews recently pointed out in the Washington Post, increasing participation in AP courses matters, even if passing rates initially dip. He cites a study of 90,000 high school students that found that those who took AP English or AP Calculus but failed the exam still did better on the ACT than students who did not take AP at all.

None of this matters to Rubinstein. All he can focus on is the fact that, “these numbers are shockingly low and certainly seem to be something that ‘outcome driven reformers’ want to ignore.” To Rubinstein, who gave up teaching low-income kids to work at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan – one of the most elite, selective-admissions public schools in the United States – Louisiana’s AP passing rates probably do seem shockingly low. However, they’re certainly not any indication of failure. We have a long way to go, but we’re getting more low-income and minority students on the path to college and that’s something to celebrate.

So Gary, you can keep rooting against the underdog and hating on those of us who are still fighting for low-income kids. But just to be clear, we’re not losing any sleep over it.


Evaluating Hillary on Teacher Evaluations

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I‘ll admit, I had a bit of an emotional rollercoaster ride on Twitter on Monday.

It all started when I saw this tweet, which made me angry:

However, when I saw this tweet, I was hopeful that maybe Hillary’s “huge break” with Obama’s education policies wasn’t all it was cracked up to be:

But my mood plummeted once again when I saw this tweet from Hillary’s long-time friend and supporter, Randi Weingarten:

That last tweet, of course, refers to Hillary Clinton’s comments during a recent roundtable discussion hosted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in New Hampshire. Clinton briefly touched on the topic of teacher evaluations when asked for her thoughts on the increased emphasis around testing under the Obama Administration:

“I have for a very long time also been against the idea that you tie teacher evaluation and even teacher pay to test outcomes. There’s no evidence. There’s no evidence. Now, there is some evidence that it can help with school performance. If everybody is on the same team and they’re all working together, that’s a different issue, but that’s not the way it’s been presented…”

Over the past few years, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has prodded states to adopt teacher evaluations that incorporate value-added measures (VAM) of student performance by tying them to both Race to the Top and waivers from No Child Left Behind. Teachers unions and their supporters have pushed back against the policy, claiming that VAM is unreliable and is strongly influenced by factors outside of the classroom, such as poverty.

So is Hillary right to be skeptical about incorporating using students’ test results in teacher evaluations? Here’s a few things to keep in mind about recent efforts to judge teacher performance:

I. Nobody evaluates teachers on the basis of test scores alone

Reform critics often make the claim that teachers are losing their jobs based on the outcome of a single test. That’s simply not the case. To my knowledge (and please correct me if I’m wrong), there isn’t a single state that evaluates its teachers on the basis of test scores alone. In most places, test results only account for a fraction of a teacher’s overall evaluation score, which otherwise rely heavily on the results of classroom observations by school administrators.

Moreover, teacher evaluation laws in most states stipulate that teachers can only be terminated after they’ve been rated “ineffective” on two or more annual evaluations. So, to be clear: No, teachers are not being fired on the basis of a single test score.

Actually, this should say, "We don't grade teachers solely on tests."

Actually, this should say, “We don’t grade teachers solely on tests.”

II. Clinton is correct that pay-for-performance schemes haven’t worked

It seems logical to imagine that school districts could be able to increase achievement by offering performance bonuses to teachers whose students beat expectations on annual standardized tests. However, Clinton is correct that numerous studies  have shown that pay-for-performance schemes don’t lead to gains in achievement.

That being said, it’s important not to conflate performance bonuses with efforts to differentiate teacher compensation based on performance or other factors. Collective bargaining agreements often involve a fixed salary scale in which teacher pay is based on credentials and years of service. Unions have resisted efforts by some districts to adopt a more flexible compensation approach which can take into account other factors like prior performance, subject matter expertise, etc.

III. Studies show high value-added teachers make a difference

In contrast to Clinton’s assertion, there is evidence that teachers with high VAM scores have a long-term impact on student success. One of the most commonly cited studies on VAM comes from the economists Raj Chetty, Jonah Rockoff, and John Friedman, who tracked one million students from an urban school district from the 4th grade to adulthood to evaluate the accuracy of those measures, as well as determine whether high value-added teachers improve students’ long-term outcomes.

In terms of VAM’s accuracy, Chetty, Rockoff, and Friedman’s research determined the following:

“We find that when a high VA teacher joins a school, test scores rise immediately in the grade taught by that teacher; when a high VA teacher leaves, test scores fall. Test scores change only in the subject taught by that teacher, and the size of the change in scores matches what we predict based on the teacher’s VA.”

The three economists also revealed that high-value added teachers had a significant, long-term impact on their students – an impact that persisted well into adulthood:

“We find that students assigned to higher VA teachers are more successful in many dimensions. They are more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries, live in better neighborhoods, and save more for retirement. They are also less likely to have children as teenagers. Teachers have large impacts in all the grades we analyze (4 to 8). Teachers’ impacts on earnings are also similar in percentage terms for students from low and high income families.”

Chetty, Rockoff, and Friedman showed high-value added teachers have a demonstrable impact on students.

Chetty, Rockoff, and Friedman showed high-value added teachers have a demonstrable impact on students.

IV. States haven’t always used VAM in productive ways

I support rigorous teacher evaluations that incorporate student performance measures, but some states have used VAM in ways that are ultimately counterproductive to the effort to ensure that every classroom has an effective teacher. Since a majority of teachers are assigned to grades or content areas that are not assessed by state standardized tests, that means they don’t receive VAM scores every year. This poses a dilemma for policymakers who want to include an objective component like VAM into every teacher’s evaluation, but how do you do that for a music teacher?

Some states (Florida and New Mexico being two such examples) have opted to include a school-wide student growth measure in the evaluations of teachers in non-tested grades and subjects. Essentially, this means those teachers are being evaluated, in part, on their students’ performance in other classes. Not only is this approach illogical and fundamentally unfair, it also gives ammunition to those opposed to evaluation reform who argue that the system is rigged against teachers.

We All Should Feel Bad For Julian Vasquez Heilig

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Julian Vasquez Heilig has an interesting post over on his blog today which asks, “Are KIPP schools pathological?” I mean “interesting” in the sense that it’s an ironic question coming from someone pathologically obsessed with attacking education reform groups, particularly Teach For America – that is, when he’s not engaged in shameless self-promotion.

The study shows the only thing outpacing gains is his inflated self-regard:


However, in his recent post, JVH throws a bone to another obsessed anti-education reform academic (after all, they need to stick together), by bringing attention to the forthcoming book, Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys Through “No Excuses” Teaching, written by Jim Horn. Horn is a professor of education leadership at Cambridge College in Massachusetts and moonlights as an anti-reform activist on his blog, Schools Matter. [Full disclosure: Horn once called me a “smug little prick” when I called him out for being an out-of-touch, faux-radical academic.]  

Speaking truth to...well, not power, but ego.

Speaking truth to…well, not power, but ego.

Anyway, Work Hard, Be Hard is supposedly based on interviews with 30 current and former KIPP teachers, although we’re never told the breakdown between the two categories. As a former KIPP teacher and founding board member of KIPP New Orleans myself, I was interested to see what ridiculous accusations the piece would make about the organization and JVH’s review of Horn’s book didn’t disappoint. JVH starts out by describing KIPP as a “corporate charter school chain of schools” which has benefitted from “hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate, local, foundation, state and federal dollars since its inception in 1994.” As you can probably imagine, things go downhill from there. At various points in the post, JVH blames KIPP for the mental breakdown of one of his former students, claims KIPP uses “racialized and psychological solitary confinement” as a form of punishment, and manages students “largely through bullying, screaming and personal insults.” In short, you may know KIPP by its other name: Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Just your average KIPP the mind of Julian Vasquez Heilig.

Just your average KIPP school…in the mind of Julian Vasquez Heilig.

For those of us who have worked with KIPP, these assertions are so ridiculous that they’re almost comic, especially given the tone of self-righteous gravity JVH employs in describing them. Of course, he offers little in the way of evidence to support his claims, but when you’re screaming from the margins, you can’t let something like evidence stop you from grabbing people’s attention. At the end of the day, the vitriol directed at KIPP and TFA has more to do with the pathology of those spewing it – like Julian Vasquez Heilig and Jim Horn – than it does with the organizations themselves. For education academics like JVH and Horn, these organizations only serve as reminders of the failures of the academic education field, as well as of themselves. KIPP and TFA elbowed-in on their turf and quickly beat them at their own game. The success of KIPP and TFA only exposed how atrophied and disconnected the Ivory Tower has become from the realities teachers and administrators face everyday in schools.


When KIPP schools send low-income students to college, it shows that you can do something beyond wringing your hands about poverty in a lecture hall. When studies repeatedly show that TFA teachers are as effective (if not more effective) as traditionally-trained teachers, people begin asking why many education school professors spend so much time writing opaque, jargon-laden “research” papers to pad their vitas. Plus, when your contribution to society amounts to a few articles in the Berkeley Review of Education or some other obscure journal no one reads, it’s easy to resent some upstart twenty-somethings who are actually making a difference in the lives of kids.

It almost makes you feel bad for them…OK, not really. Julian Vasquez Heilig and Jim Horn should do us all a favor and suffer with their existential angst silently, instead of lashing out at good people and their organizations who are changing the world for the better.

Where In The World Is Karran Harper Royal? Last Week: Chicago

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Editor’s Note: This is the latest in an occasional series documenting where the American Federation of Teachers sends Karran Harper Royal.

New Orleans activist Karran Harper Royal is racking up the frequent flyer miles thanks to her friends at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Over the past few months, Royal has criss-crossed the country to spread her myths and misinformation about the dangers of charter schools.

This past week, Royal was in Chicago to speak at Fighting the Flood: Disaster Capitalism and Black Reconstruction, a panel discussion on one of Royal’s favorite topics: disaster capitalism. At the event, Royal portrayed the takeover of schools after Hurricane Katrina as a grave injustice that has harmed the city’s black community and ominously warned audience members about the grave threat posed by charter schools in Chicago.

The event was hosted by the Grassroots Collaborative, an organizing network sponsored by none other than the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), one of AFT’s most militant locals. In fact, two days after Royal’s event, the Grassroots Collaborative honored CTU’s president, Karen Lewis, at an event marking the organization’s 15th anniversary.

Grassroots Collaborative honored CTU president Karen Lewis last week. Why? Because she's helping underwrite them!

Grassroots Collaborative honored CTU president Karen Lewis last week. Why? Because she’s helping underwrite them!

Where will AFT send Karran next? Only time will tell, but we’ll be keeping track of it here at Citizen Education!

Where In The World Is Karran Harper Royal? This Week: Boston

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Editor’s Note: This is the latest in an occasional series documenting where the American Federation of Teachers sends Karran Harper Royal.

A few weeks ago, New Orleans activist Karran Harper Royal was out in sunny Los Angeles – courtesy of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – to share her two cents about the evils of New Orleans charter schools at a UTLA protest against Eli Broad.

This week, AFT is sending Royal to colder climes – Boston – once again with the same aim of spreading misinformation about the progress seen in New Orleans’ charter schools. This morning, Royal will be the guest of honor at an event being hosted by the Massachusetts Education Justice Network (MEJN).

Royal has been invited to speak to MEJN members about how “NOLA schools were transformed almost overnight into an all-charter district” (of course, as I’ve shown elsewhere, schools weren’t turned into charters overnight). Not surprisingly, one of the main member organizations of MEJN is AFT Massachusetts, which is currently fighting against Governor Charlie Baker’s proposal to raise the charter school cap in Massachusetts.

It seems like every time AFT is engaged in a fight over charter schools, they bring Royal out to help make the case why kids should be denied the education they deserve. I guess that means Karran Harper Royal will be doing a lot of traveling on their behalf. But not to worry, we’ll be keeping tabs on her union-funded exploits here at Citizen Education!