Accountability. It’s the No. 1 buzzword of corporate education reform. Teachers must be held accountable based on their students’ performance on standardized tests, even though the method is deeply flawed.
Students must also be held accountable. Poverty is no excuse. Who cares if you’ve experienced early childhood trauma, if your parents aren’t native English speakers, or if you have a learning disability. No excuses, no compassion. Toe the line, Bucko.
As Achievement First Hartford Academy stated in its 2007 charter application: “Excuses will not be tolerated. Mediocrity will not be good enough.”
Yet when it comes to the education reformers themselves there is little or no accountability and there are plenty of excuses — even to measures they have set for themselves. Take the aforementioned Achievement First Academy Hartford, which just had its charter renewed for three years in a shameful act of cronyism by the state Board of Education.
Here are some of the goals Achievement First Hartford set in its 2007 charter application:
-p.12 – “The AF Hartford approach to student behavior will be overwhelmingly positive. While there will be clear, strict consequences for poor behavior at AF Hartford, research finds that positive recognition of good behavior is more likely to fundamentally improve student behavior.”
-p.41 – Special Needs Populations: “All students with disabilities attending AF Hartford will be accorded a free, appropriate and public education. Disability will not be used as a criterion for non-eligibility for admissions or enrollment . . . AF will comply with all regulatory special education requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR). Likewise, AF Hartford will fully comply with additional regulations and policies of the State of Connecticut.”
Under “Charter Self-Evaluation and Accountability,” Achievement First Hartford listed the following:
-p.65 – Suspensions: “We will have an average of 5 or fewer suspensions for the months of January to June (or a total of 30 or fewer suspensions during this six month period).
-p.66 – Student Retention: “Student attrition will be less than 5 percent (other than students moving out of the district) during our first year and less than 3 percent in each successive year.
-p.68 – Staff Turnover: “There will be low rates of administrative and teacher turnover. Our targets for annual teacher turnover will be less than 25% in the first two years and less than 15 percent after that.”
Yet how did Achievement First Hartford measure up? We know their “positive recognition of good behavior” methods resulted in the highest number of suspensions of any school in the state, with 32.5 percent of elementary school students and 49.4 percent of middle school students having at least one in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, or expulsion.
Clearly their model — and their leadership across the board — is flawed, because in the elementary school category, the top four slots in the suspension leaderboard were held by Achievement First schools: Hartford Academy, 32.5 percent; Elm City College Prep, 26 percent; Bridgeport Achievement First, 20 percent; and Amistad Academy, 13.8 percent.
In the middle school category, Achievement First dominates again, with three of the top four slots: AF Hartford Academy, 49.4 percent; Bridgeport Achievement First, 43.7 percent; and Amistad Academy, 41.9 percent.
High school? Achievement First had two schools in the top six, with Elm City Prep ranked second at 40 percent and Bridgeport Achievement First sixth at 35.9 percent.
The recent voluntary resolution agreement of a civil rights complaint filed on the behalf of six AF Hartford students by Greater Hartford Legal Aid is proof-positive that AF failed their special needs students.
Dacia Toll and Doug McCurry had the chutzpah to write a Hartford Courant op-ed claiming this was a “wake up call.” If this were just the case in Hartford, it would be one thing. But it’s not. Similar failures have been occurring across Achievement First’s network of schools. May Talifaferrow, an active and involved former Achievement First parent in New York, offered testimony about her experiences:
“You felt like the child is a widget, you felt like it was a factory,” Talifaferrow said. “As I went to more and more board meetings, as I sat behind the scenes, you saw . . . it’s factory learning. It’s not learning where I want to teach you, I want to encourage you, I want to see you grow . . . It’s learning to say we have 300 children, we’re going to get 300 more, we’re going to open 21 schools, we’re going to be the biggest the best. The school where I was at became the McDonald’s of Charter Schools. So don’t fall for it when they say it’s best for your children, it’s only best for the business.”
You cannot watch May’s moving testimony and continue to believe that Toll and Achievement First are truly in this for the best interest of our kids.
As for teacher turnover, we know that a high rate of teacher turnover affects student performance and morale, and Achievement First admitted in a 2010 Forbes article that “roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of its teachers quit each year; another 5 percent or so are fired for poor performance.”
Given the information that came to light recently about the high rate of student attrition at AF Amistad High School, I asked the state Department of Education for up-to-date data on student attrition and teacher turnover at Achievement First Hartford. Just before the close of business Friday, the state was able to provide data for the 2010-11 school year: 58.5 percent of the teachers and instructors were assigned to same school the previous year. They referred us to Achievement First for more recent data.
Given that the board just voted unanimously this week to renew Achievement First’s charter for three years, surely it is reasonable for us to expect them to have had such data at their fingertips. Wouldn’t the board have considered this with other data before renewing the charter, especially when it was one of the measures by which Achievement First said it would hold itself accountable? I suppose that would require that they actually do their job and provide oversight rather than being a rubber stamp for the Governor and State Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor, who co-founded of Amistad Academy and is a former member of the Achievement First Board of Directors.
Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.