Former Education Reformer Schools Herself

Look, I know Diane Ravitch is no fan of school choice (anymore)—the educational cause that is my hill to die on. I suspect she disagrees with virtually every tweet I’ve put out, except maybe this one about excessive screen time in schools? 

But I was honestly concerned last week when she decided to respond to me about a report on elementary reading instruction:

First off, she rarely engages with me, so apparently she found this important enough to respond to. But, more worrisome, is she signaling that, when it comes to reading, she is not on the side of science?

While Ravitch may not be a fan of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) or “right wingers” as she laughably refers to them and their supporters, they are hardly the only ones raising well substantiated red flags about how teachers are being trained to teach reading in America’s teacher preparation programs. 

Emily Hanford of APM Reports is hardly motivated by politics when she asserts that “for decades, schools have taught children the strategies of struggling readers, using a theory about reading that cognitive scientists have repeatedly debunked.” She goes on to say that “as long as this disproven theory remains part of American education, many kids will likely struggle to learn how to read.” 

Even Diane’s BFFs at the American Federation of Teachers are calling for research aligned reading instruction based in science. Despite Ravitch’s metamorphic disdain for testing, she can’t possibly deny the fact that most students in America do not read on grade level and that there is a direct link between illiteracy and incarceration. And the latest “nation’s report card” shows those reading scores aren’t improving

Her outright dismissal of NCTQ’s report that evaluates reading instruction in teacher prep programs is a bit chilling—Ravitch wields great influence in the education space. The last thing students and parents need is for her to use her megaphone against scientifically supported methods of teaching reading.


And She Was Loved. So Loved.

Last week, while 24-hour news channels and social media were roiling over revelations that President Trump had called Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations “shithole countries,” a talented young college student in Massachusetts, who had immigrated to the United States from Nigeria, died after suffering a severe asthma attack.

Her name was Tiffany. She was only 20 years old.

Paul Friedmann was among the scores of people who attended her funeral on Saturday. Friedmann is an award-winning math teacher at Brooke Charter School in the Roslindale section of Boston, where he had the privilege of teaching Tiffany, as well as her siblings.

Paul Friedmann is a teacher at Brooke Charter School in Boston.

Friedmann took to Twitter Saturday evening to remember Tiffany and call out the racist, xenophobic sentiments of our President, who is currently in the midst of a showdown with Democrats over immigration. He gave me permission to share his comments, which I’ve posted in full below.


New York Teachers Are Making A Killing… Literally

Tobacco use is the single greatest cause of preventable death in the world. According to the World Health Organization, more than six million people die from smoking every year and another 890,000 die from exposure to second-hand smoke.

In the United States alone, over 480,000 people die annually from smoking-related illnesses. As Vox recently pointed out, “Cigarettes still kill nearly half a million people in the US each year — 15 times the death toll from the opioid crisis. That’s also more than alcohol, car accidents, AIDS, illegal drugs, murders, and suicides combined.”

Given the enormous human and societal costs, I was surprised to learn that the New York State Teachers Retirement System (NYSTRS), the pension system for nearly 265,000 of the state’s public school teachers outside New York City, has been profiting off the misery caused by cigarettes. According to investment documents posted on its website, NYSTRS had almost $665 million invested in tobacco companies as of September 30, 2017.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the retirement system’s tobacco holdings in the third quarter of 2017…

Philip Morris International

Philip Morris International is the largest cigarette company in the world as measured by market share. PMI was a subsidiary of the Altria Group until 2008, when the company was spun-off to focus on cigarette sales outside the United States.

Some of the brands of cigarettes produced by Philip Morris International.

As of September 30th, NYSTRS owned 2,724,698 domestic shares of Philip Morris International stock with a combined market value of $302,468,725, as well as 11,310 international shares of PMI with a value of $1,255,523. In addition, the retirement system’s investment portfolio included PMI corporate bonds worth an additional $22,488,334.

Altria Group

Previously known as Philip Morris Companies, Inc. until a corporate rebranding in 2003, the Altria Group is the largest tobacco company in the United States. Altria’s three subsidiaries – Philip Morris USA, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., and John Middleton – dominate the U.S. tobacco market and are behind such brands as Marlboro cigarettes, Skoal, and Black & Milds.

Altria is the company behind Marlboro, the most popular cigarette brand in the U.S.

As of September 30th, NYSTRS owned 3,524,516 shares of Altria stock with a market value of $223,524,805, as well as Altria corporate bonds worth $12,430,592.

British American Tobacco

British American Tobacco is the largest publicly-traded tobacco company in the world. In July, it spent $49.4 billion to purchase Reynolds American, the maker of Newport, Camel, and Natural American Spirit cigarettes.

Some of the tobacco products made by Reynolds American.

As of September 30th, NYSTRS owned 1,341,758 shares of BAT stock with a market value of $81,419,262.

Imperial Brands

UK-based Imperial Brands is the world’s fourth-largest cigarette company and is behind such brands as Davidoff and Gauloises cigarettes and Cohiba cigars.

Imperial Brands products include Davidoff and Gauloises cigarettes and Cohiba cigars.

As of September 30th, NYSTRS owned 441,552 shares of Imperial Brands stock with a market value of $18,862,275, as well as Imperial Brands bonds worth $2,439,999.

It’s safe to say that most NYSTRS members are only vaguely aware of how the system invests their money. I’m also sure most would be shocked (if not horrified) to learn that the pension system has significant positions in companies whose products bring addiction, disease, and death to people around the globe.

With the start of a new year, teachers in the Empire State should resolve to get the New York State Teachers Retirement System to divest from Big Tobacco in 2018.


Are Educators Skeptical Of Charters Because They’re Blind To Inequality?

On Monday, Education Week released the results of a new survey gauging the political perceptions and behaviors of educators across the country.

The finding that drew headlines was that respondents overwhelmingly opposed charter schools, with 45% “Completely Opposed” to charters and another 26% “Somewhat Opposed.”

Screenshot from Education Week.

Although I think the wording of the charter school question may have skewed the results a bit (after all, “Somewhat Opposed” and “Somewhat Support” are two ways of saying the same thing, like a glass half-empty or half-full), it’s not surprising that a majority are skeptical of charters, since most of the survey participants work in traditional public schools.

Why would anyone expect them to endorse their competition?

On the other hand, the response to another question (one that didn’t get attention) is actually surprising and should be cause for concern. The survey asked participants: “To what extent do you agree or disagree that students of color have the same educational opportunities as whites in our country?” Astonishingly, more than half of respondents said that students of color have the same opportunities as their white peers.

Screenshot from Education Week.

How could so many teachers, principals, and superintendents believe that minority students have equal educational opportunities, when study after study has shown that minority students are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school? How could they be unaware of the statistics that show clear racial disparities in graduation rates and college attendance? Although the achievement gap has been at the center of our national conversation on education for decades, many educators seem blissfully (or intentionally?) unaware of it. It’s dumbfounding.

At the same time, this may help explain why so many educators across the country take a dim view of charter schools, most of which enroll low-income students of color who have been underserved by the traditional public school system. If you have deluded yourself into believing that things in traditional district schools are fine for kids of color, then of course there isn’t any need for charter schools.


New Teacher Prep Study Asks The Wrong Question

The Journal of Child and Family Studies has published a new meta-analysis of research on teacher training that seeks to determine how alternative certification programs stack up to the traditional route when it comes to preparing new educators for the classroom.

What did they find? Denise Whitford, an assistant professor of education at Purdue University who co-authored the study, told Education Week: “We found there really wasn’t much difference between the two [types of preparation programs], but the small difference we did find was in favor of alternative programs.”

And what about Teach For America, the program that education reform opponents love to hate? Whitford and her colleagues found that TFA teachers were often more effective than those who came out of schools of education, particularly when it comes to teaching science and math.

Why do so many academics in ed schools hate Teach For America? Because TFA has beaten them at their own game.

Some folks will look at this study as a vindication for alternative certification. Others will point to it to emphasize that alternative certification programs don’t produce superior teachers. However, the question we should be asking is why traditional four-year education programs aren’t producing teachers who are vastly more effective than their alt-cert counterparts.

After all, 80% of new teachers who entered classrooms across the country last year graduated from traditional teacher training programs. They endured four years worth of coursework and spent tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of dollars in the process. But if they emerge, on average, no better prepared to teach than someone who took the shorter and less costly alternative route, what was the point?