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OP-ED | Is Accountability Only For Teachers?

by | Jun 28, 2013 10:21am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Education, Opinion

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.

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(21) Archived Comments

posted by: Castles Burning | June 28, 2013  7:15pm

It is perfectly reasonable—in fact, one would say responsible—to have such data at their fingertips.

Sarah, Thanks for advocating for oversight.  We certainly need it—by those who have the expertise to do so for the good of all.

posted by: Linda12 | June 29, 2013  5:10am

Outstanding research and documentation!

The bloom if off the rose.

When your priority is $$$$ and numbers.( data and test scores) operating like a business is the priority, the kids are second, if that.

Students are the new cash crop for corporations.

Applying the free market principles to the American education is destined for failure and the creation of new American caste system.

Go “reform”!

posted by: Fisherman | June 30, 2013  12:03pm

Sarah, while the teacher’s unions seem to be enamored with your ramblings (they seem to be the only positive comments to this and your many previous Op-Ed’s regarding this subject) the FORTUNATE reality is that THE VAST MAJORITY OF PARENTS DEMAND that those who teach our children are accountable AND can be replaced or re-trained if they are not up to the job.

You see, in the end the students MUST pass the test… because if they can’t, we don’t know if they know the material or not… and employers don’t pay for idiots, regardless of the child’s fortunate or unfortunate up-bringing, tough or easy breaks, or whether they had a fun teacher or a hard one.

posted by: Speak up | June 30, 2013  1:07pm


And this is related to AF’s high attrition and suspension rates? I am missing your point, if you have one.

Also, passing a standardized bubble test and future success are not related?

Schools where the wealthy send their children, Sidwell friends, lakeside school, Chicago lab school….they don’t engage in constant test prep and high stakes tests ad nauseum.

How her well researched articles are related to the unions is a weak argument, but it is also the typical lame crutch used by the defenders of charter chains, privatizers, edudilettantes and all of the corrupt cronies: CCER, ConnCon, etc…

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | July 1, 2013  6:22am

Fisherman - if your response to this op-ed were being graded according to the Common Core standards http://www.literacyta.com/common-core-standards/writing I regret to inform you that you yourself would fail miserably. You have failed on relevance to the passage read, lack of valid reasoning, and use of relevant and sufficient evidence to support your argument. Apparently, by your reasoning, you didn’t take enough tests when you were in school.

You see, Fisherman, this op ed wasn’t about tests or teachers unions. It was about holding education reformers accountable to the very standards they have set themselves.

posted by: ASTANVET | July 1, 2013  8:48am

Do you think charter schools are better or worse than public schools in Hartford?  which is worse, the unions or the corporations… I wouldn’t get sucked into the symantics of which is worse, only that the education of the citizens of hartford seems to be horrible no matter what method is used.  Some of the problems are just with the community, no one likes to hear that but it’s the truth.  Some of the problems are with the system (testing CMT’s, etc) which say little about actual education.  Some of the problems are greed (whether it is union greed, or corporate greed)... the bottom line is that it will not get fixed until the people who send their kids to hartford schools invest TIME and EFFORT and stop looking for the State to raise their kids for them.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | July 1, 2013  2:04pm

ABC - I do so love your assumptions about me sitting by the pool. Ha! I wish. Shows how little you know. In fact, I just got back from teaching creative writing workshops which offer sliding scale fees for those who can’t afford it. So give me a break.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | July 1, 2013  2:13pm

Astanvet - did you actually take the time to watch May Taliaferrow’s video? I suggest you do. She is not in any way asking the state to “raise her kids for her”.She is an informed, engaged parent. You are simply showing your prejudice.

posted by: CONconn | July 1, 2013  10:22pm

I love how ABC’s comment speaks of “parent-centered charter schools” when all of the facts show they’re anything but! The rest of the post just shows that ABC hates teachers. But the most outrageous claim of ABC is that the shift to privitization will continue in CT. The rats are leaving the ship. Pat Riccards went home, Paul Vallas got booted, and Stefan Pryor will return to NJ the first chance gets. Nationally, more attention has been placed on these conmen and it’s getting harder and harder for them to corrupt and exploit each new state. Achievement First is a farce and it needs to stop leeching off public tax dollars.

posted by: ASTANVET | July 2, 2013  12:52pm

Sarah, I’m not prejudice… “shows how little you know”.  My feet are guided by the lamp of experience, to quote a pretty smart guy.  While you may be able to showcase a few engaged parents facts would point out that the vast majority are not.  If they were, we would not have the drug, the violence, the gang, the disruptive behavior in school or out of it because parents would not allow it.  Sorry Sarah, but I’m not prejudice, i’ve just experienced the inner city, been dirt poor, a stones throw from homeless, and somehow found a value in education which lifted me out of poverty, out of what would have surely been a life of crime - so I would take a long walk through those streets of Hartford, Bridgeport, Waterbury, New Haven, Willimantic, Etc and see how many people you find as ‘engaged’ parents.  Then you can come and try to convince me that my experience was somehow jaded by prejudice… that is false arguement of someone who does not have facts on their side, you’re better than that.

posted by: Joe Eversole | July 2, 2013  4:26pm

I think you are correct, reformers need to be held accountable as well.  That being said, when have Teachers been held accountable in the public school system?

posted by: Joe Eversole | July 2, 2013  4:30pm

Making no assumptions Sarah, but the fact that you can teach a course, while on “break” from your full time job speaks volumes about how “overworked” teachers in public education are in actuality.  People are no longer buying into the myth of the overworked underpaid teacher.  Beyond that, until these communities begin helping themselves, no amount of money or effort on the part of outside groups will change a single thing.  Suburbanites aren’t automatically smarter than inner city children, nor are they necessarily better able to excel in school simply by virtue of location.  What separates the two is societal acceptance of behavior.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | July 2, 2013  6:26pm

Yes ConnCan, good point. I am getting some very interesting information from Achievement First parents in NYC, which proves that AF is anything BUT parent centered.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | July 3, 2013  7:20am

So Joe, tell me, since you seem to know more about my life than I do,  what is my “full time job”, exactly, the one I’m allegedly on break from? Does it pay health insurance? Do I get a pension? I’m dying to know about what benefits I get from this full-time job.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | July 3, 2013  11:11am


When Milwaukee went to vouchers in the early 90s there were two types of critics. Union Tools looking to revoke
charters on one hand and concerned mediators looking to address problems and introduce continuous improvement into the entire system.

posted by: Joe Eversole | July 3, 2013  11:27am


I don’t presume to know more about your life than you do.  Perhaps I misunderstood your profession.  I mistook a response that you had made to indicate that you were a full time educator.  Clearly that is not the case based on your response to my posting.  If you full time job is as a writer for CT News Junkie, and you don’t receive benefits or a pension, take it up with your employer.  As that has nothing to do with this article or my post.

posted by: Joe Eversole | July 3, 2013  11:29am

In addition, since you are taking the time to “answer” my posts, feel free to answer my question regarding when teachers are held accountable.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | July 5, 2013  7:08am

Ah GoatBoy - no post of mine would be complete without you chiming in with “verbiage completely unrelated to subject of post” +“Vouchers!!!” I can truly kick back and enjoy my weekend now.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | July 5, 2013  7:16am

Joe E - if the benefits of my alleged full time work have nothing to do with the post, then why do your assumptions of my having the time to teach a course while on break from it have to do with it? You are a hypocrite who wants to chose what is relevant and what isn’t. Presently, there is a mechanism for teachers to be held accountable - unfortunately administrators fail to use it properly. And it is most of those administrators who are being cowardly in the current push for edreform. The kind who come into classrooms and lie to students about the importance of state standardized tests to their future, like my daughter’s principal did when he told them the CAPT went on their permanent record and “colleges look at them.” TOTAL BS, because as I wrote in a previous column, I called several college admission offices, including an Ivy and NONE of them look at any state standardized tests. It’s CYA for admins. And the few brave admins who are trying to create a MEANINGFUL accountability system? They are getting bullied by Pryor and Malloy to toe the line. So is that “accountability” or top down federally imposed policy?

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | July 5, 2013  3:55pm

Ah Vouchers….look how well they’ve worked in Louisiana. Egregious waste of taxpayer dollars. But of course Goatboy will try to blame the “union tools” for this, too?

posted by: Fisherman | July 6, 2013  8:53am

Fisherman says: “You see, in the end the students MUST pass the test…”

S D-L responds: “Fisherman, this op ed wasn’t about tests…”

However, S D-L then states:
“The kind who come into classrooms and lie to students about the importance of state standardized tests…”


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