April 15, 2022

Gary Rubinstein: TFA Podcast Showcasing ‘Failing’ Schools

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Gary Rubinstein has been keeping Teach for America honest for years. Here he previews their new podcast and points out that the school they profile is not actually all that successful. Reposted with permission.

For the past fifteen years a talking point of the education ‘reformers’ is the prevalence of the so-called ‘failing school.’ Popularized by the movie ‘Waiting For Superman’ and echoed over the years by people like Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and Campbell Brown, the failing schools narrative has motivated many politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, to seriously consider the charter school expansion and teacher scapegoating that characterizes the education wars in recent times. In 2010 a high school in Central Falls Rhode Island was one of the highest profile ‘turnaround’ efforts supported by Obama and Duncan. The teachers were all fired and this was celebrated by Duncan as necessary.

Teach For America has benefited a lot from the failing school concept. TFA alumni who have risen to power in different school systems have exploited it to help shut down public schools and replace them with charter schools.

A ‘failing’ school, quite simply, is one that has low standardized test scores. And over the years many of those schools have been shut down while cheered on by TFA and their allies. Ironically, the charter schools that replace these ‘failing’ schools often have very low test scores themselves. When I would read claims by TFA that some school that had a lot of TFA teachers and that was started by a TFA alum had great test scores, I would easily be able to show that the school’s test scores were a mirage inflated by student attrition usually. Or I would show that a school supposedly ‘turned around’ by a TFA alum still had very low test scores.

Teach For America recently launched a new podcast series called ‘Changing Course.’ In each episode a school, usually a high school so far, is showcased for having an innovative model. In the second episode “The Gift Of Unlearning” the school is The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, or for short ‘The MET’ school of Rhode Island. According to the host, “We’ll look at how unlearning academic traditions centered around statewide testing (or test scores) and learning to lead with curiosity has helped students not only quickly discover their passions but also, graduate with real world experience.”

For so many years, TFA showcased charter schools that focused exclusively on test prep for standardized test and then used those test scores as proof of the school’s success so hearing them de-emphasize standardized test scores is something I do support, but I’m not sure that TFA has the right to switch sides on the importance of test scores just like that after all the damage they did in advancing the failing school narrative.

This MET school has an interesting model where students do internships and they learn their coursework in the context of their hands-on internships. The school has been around since 1996 (it is a network of six schools now) so there has been plenty of time for them to show some results.

There is no mention of the school’s test scores in the podcast so I looked them up in the U.S. News rankings:

Out of 64 high schools in Rhode Island, this school is ranked 42, one above the ‘failing’ Central Falls High School that was subject to such severe reforms ten years ago.

And, no, I don’t think this is a bad school. But based on its test scores, it is just the kind of school that reformers still describe the students at as ‘trapped in a failing school.’ And I’m not suggesting that TFA go back to focusing on test scores, but I feel like TFA cannot just suddenly celebrate schools with terrible test scores without also coming out with a full explanation of the sudden switch and some acknowledgement of the role they played in adding fuel to the failing school panic that shaped so much of education policy for the past ten years.

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