EdWeek gets a failing grade for shady article on takeover districts

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On Wednesday, Education Week published a commentary criticizing plans to create state takeover districts in Georgia and Pennsylvania. The piece – “A Failing Grade for K-12 State Takeovers” – was written by Kent McGuire and Katherine Dunn of the Southern Education Foundation and Kate Shaw and Adam Schott from Research For Action in Philadelphia.

The Southern Education Foundation has long ties to the teachers’ unions, so their imprimatur on this wasn’t necessarily surprising. Research For Action, on the other hand, holds itself up as “an independent, trusted source for accessible, timely education research.” However, the fact that Shaw and Schott would put their names on this piece, which paints a very skewed picture of Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) and Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) to bolster their argument against state takeovers, casts serious doubt on their credibility.

For example, when it comes to the RSD, the authors rehash a litany of well-worn (and largely baseless) assertions made by education reform critics:

“A decade later, New Orleans still reports some of the nation’s lowest achievement scores and graduation rates. Beyond poor academic outcomes, recent research from Stanford University found a host of negative consequences, with a majority of families reporting long commutes to school, overcrowding, a bewildering gantlet [sic] of enrollment procedures, high rates of pushout, and difficulty finding schools able to serve students with special needs (including that the most vulnerable are the least likely to receive needed supports).”

It’s interesting to note that the “research from Stanford University” they cite isn’t from CREDO, which published a study in 2013 that found that New Orleans’ charter schools were outperforming traditional schools across Louisiana. Instead, they’re referring to an October report from Frank Adamson, Channa Cook-Harvey, and (of course) Linda Darling-Hammond entitled, “Whose Choice? Student Experiences and Outcomes in the New Orleans School Marketplace.”

While the study claims that New Orleans’ post-Katrina reforms have produced “poor academic outcomes,” there’s an important detail that is curiously left out of the report. One of its co-authors,Channa Cook-Harvey, was the founder of a New Orleans charter school – Sojourner Truth Academy – that was actually shutdown by the RSD in 2012.

As the Times-Picayune reported back in November 2011, the RSD decided to pull Sojourner Truth’s charter after years of dismal academic performance:

“Its 2010 school performance score was 53.5 on a scale of about 200, while the state considers anything below a 65 to be ‘failing.’ This past year its score dropped to 48.7, meaning fewer than 30 percent of its students scored at grade level or better on state exams.”

In fact, things were so bad at the school that Cook-Harvey was fired by Sojourner Truth’s board of directors in the summer of 2011. Moreover, the RSD subsequently launched an investigation into whether school leaders had improperly suspended students with special needs.

RSD shut down her charter school, but I’m sure she doesn’t have an axe to grind.

Seems like a reputable source, no? I mean, more so than say, CREDO or the Education Research Alliance at Tulane, whose in-depth study on the effect of the New Orleans takeover stated:

“For New Orleans, the news on average student outcomes is quite positive by just about any measure. The reforms seem to have moved the average student up by 0.2 to 0.4 standard deviations and boosted rates of high school graduation and college entry. We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”

McGuire, Dunn, Shaw, and Schott selectively omit evidence and facts like this when it comes to the ASD as well, but their assessment also reveals they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the reform efforts in Tennessee and the role of the Achievement School District.

The authors claim that opposition to the ASD is growing “in the wake of evidence that iZones — locally controlled improvement models — are posting ‘positive, statistically significant, and substantively meaningful effects on student achievement across all subjects.’”

It’s true that a recent Vanderbilt study showed that iZone schools in Memphis have shown growth – and that should be celebrated and continued – but the impetus behind the iZone effort came not from the ground up, but the top down. The iZones were presented as an opportunity for districts to avoid the takeover of their lowest performing schools by the ASD. Plus, those “locally controlled models” were thoroughly vetted and approved by the Tennessee Department of Education before they were launched.1

Moreover, the author of the Vanderbilt study made clear he didn’t believe the Achievement School District should be closed since it was “premature to pass definitive judgment on the ASD schools or priority schools more generally.” McGuire, Dunn, Shaw, and Schott never acknowledge this fact and present the Vanderbilt report as simply evidence of the ASD’s failure.

The author of a recent Vanderbilt study on the ASD has said the district shouldn’t be closed.

But our friends from the Southern Education Foundation and Research For Action most clearly reveal their biases when they turn to the topic of charter schools, saying:

“[A] growing body of independent investigations shows that the preferred strategies of closing and chartering schools in takeover districts open the public treasury to fraud, waste, and abuse. Much of this fraud goes undetected, since even when stronger rules are instituted, most states have little capacity to monitor how private operators profit from public funds.”

The study they link to as evidence comes from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, whose website features blog posts from the likes of Diane Ravitch, P.L. Thomas, and Jeff Bryant, and which received $300,000 in funding from AFT and NEA last year. You know, credible.

The one thing the authors are right about is that folks in Georgia and Pennsylvania need to carefully consider whether to move forward with plans to create state takeover districts, but those conversations should be rooted in actual facts, not biased opinions passed off as such. From this perspective, McGuire, Dunn, Shaw, and Schott added nothing to the debate.

Pete Cook is former NOLA educator and current bird-dogger of anti-reformers. This post is republished from petercook.com.

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 school...in 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.