TFA: let’s better serve special needs students–but with zero tolerance and no excuses!

In what appears to be a veiled acknowledgment of its own shortcomings AND a predictable jab at traditionally-trained teachers and traditional schools, Teach for America has announced its new “Special Education and Ability Initiative,” a project led by veteran educator 28-year-old Rachel Brody, who has a whopping “six years of teaching and instructional coaching” experience.

The initiative will focus, in part, on expanding Teach For America’s regional special education advisory partnerships – to help both special and general educators have a greater impact on studentsThese* collaborations are critical for the communities in which Teach For America serves – according to the U.S Department of Education’s 2013 “Teacher Shortage” report, low-income communities across the nation suffer from a lack of special educators. (*Typo is as it appears on the TFA site.)

A week after Brody’s post appeared on TFA’s website, the organization’s CEO, Matt Kramer, published a Huff Post piece pushing the initiative–and citing a personal anecdote to suggest he understands the struggles of special needs students:

My memories of my own education primarily revolve around the ways I wasn’t learning — disrupting classes, skipping lectures, doing no homework and reading no books. I couldn’t maintain focus on what a teacher was saying for more than a few minutes, and I couldn’t read more than a few paragraphs at a time. Even the slightest distraction — noise from a television a few rooms away — would render me completely unable to concentrate.

It’s great that Kramer, despite “disrupting classes, skipping lectures, doing no homework, and reading no books,” was able to go on to make hundreds of thousands of dollars per year as President–and now CEO–of Teach for America. And in his Huff Post piece, he says that “the 5.7 million students in special education settings nationwide deserve every chance to reach their potential.”  Yes; I know few who would disagree with that statement.

But while it may seem at first glance as if TFA is attempting to address its gross failures to prepare college grads for the challenges of teaching in urban settings (you know, the failures corps members have decried again and again and again), one glaring problem remains: Teach for America adamantly supports the very charter schools that are notorious for harsh “no excuses” and “zero tolerance” policies which disproportionately affect minority and special-needs students.

In September of 2013, EduShyster discovered and published a leaked document which detailed TFA’s role in charter expansion in Chicago.  In response, TFA’s Josh Anderson posted a damage-control piece insisting that TFA is simply “pro-great schools”–and he cited the Noble Network of charters as examples of success:

In 2012, just over half of elementary students in Chicago’s public schools met the state’s bar for proficiency. And yet, across the city, individual classrooms and even entire schools are making real progress. As believers in the power of public education, when we see these kinds of settings, we hope they’ll grow – that, through them, more kids will get the kinds of opportunities every single kid deserves. In Chicago, that group of great schools includes a number of charter schools – places like the Noble Network. In 2012, Noble had nine campuses on Chicago’s top ten list of highest-performing, non-selective public high schools (emphasis mine).

So follow this one: TFA loves the Noble Network of charter schools. Matt Kramer is a big-shot at Teach for America (former President, now CEO). Matt Kramer says that as a student, he himself “wasn’t learning,” and uses his own experiences to promote a new TFA special education initiative to help “students who learn differently from the way most schools teach today.”

About which schools is Kramer speaking, I wonder?

Hold that thought for a minute and consider this.

How would a Noble charter deal with a student like Kramer–one who’s disruptive, does no homework, reads no books, skips lectures, and is derailed by the a slight noise a few rooms away?

According to Chicago Tribune education reporter Noreen Ahmed-Ullah, who published a very telling piece on Noble last week, the chain’s “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies are harsh, capricious, and responsible for disproportionally-high expulsion rates–and the charter chain’s advertised “high-performing” label depends upon its ability to drive out “problem students”–perhaps those like Matt Kramer:

AHMED-ULLAH: So basically there’s demerits points. And for every infraction, you get a demerit. And you can get demerits for everything, from being like less than a minute late for school to not having your shirt tucked in, not tying your shoelaces, not having a belt means like four demerits, which means instant detention. It’s a lot of penalty for small, minor things. And the network of charter school says the reason that they’re going after these minor issues is basically, you know, they’re trying to sweat the small stuff. And as they sweat the small stuff, they’re not getting serious discipline issues like violence and fighting and more serious infractions.

YOUNG: And by the way, these statistics that show that there was an increase in discipline was across the board at charter schools in Chicago. But Noble, the chain, had the highest rate. And the Noble superintendent told you not only do they sweat the small stuff, it’s the broken window theory.

AHMED-ULLAH: Right. So Noble is one of the charter networks that had a larger number of expulsions. And the superintendent did say – for the Noble Network of Charter schools – he did say that they have this idea of, you know, the broken window theory. You sort of fix the small things, and you don’t get to the bigger issue of the house breaking down.

YOUNG: But, you know, there’s always the whiff of suspicion around high rates of expulsion and suspension, that a school is pushing out academically behaviorally troubled students to keep stats like attendance and college acceptance high and to kick them out before they can drop out, you know, so to keep dropout low. Is that accusation being levied here?

AHMED-ULLAH: Right. So before I even get to that point, I think what I should point out is that those demerits, you know, they all start adding up. So, for example, four demerits equals an instant detention after school. If you get six detentions, you’d get an out-of-school suspension. If you get 13 detentions, that leads to like $140 that your parents have to pay for a behavior class. And then 36 detentions and repeated violations of their student code of conduct means that you’re facing an expulsion hearing.

So eventually, you could be expelled from the school. Or, you know, your parents are paying so much in fines that they just frankly can’t afford to keep that school, and so they may end up taking you out of the school. And so critics use this example to say that, for example, with Noble, you know, they have really high graduation rates. They have high test scores. And the reason is because they’re using this system of discipline and fines to weed out the most troubled kids, the kids that have the worst discipline issues and that are academically failing.

Last year, Marsha Godard went public with similar issues when she revealed that her son’s Noble charter school had charged the family nearly $3,000 in disciplinary fines for things like having his shoes untied or being half a minute late to class.  Any guesses regarding who profits from this kind of policy?  Here’s a hint:

The Noble Network, a charter school program championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has drawn the ire of students and parents alike for collecting nearly $390,000 in disciplinary fines from low-income, largely African-American and Latino students and their families over just a three-year period. In 2011, the network collected nearly $190,000 in disciplinary “fees.” Noble currently operates a dozen schools in Chicago. 

Yes, folks: Rachel Brody cites, as justification for the “Special Education and Ability Initiative,” a New York Times editorial that criticizes harsh disciplinary policies that disproportionately affect minorities and “disabled” children.  Yet the TFA organization unequivocally supports–and, further, drives the expansion of–charter chains like Noble.  (Let’s not forget about the Success Academy parent who secretly taped the school’s attempt to push her special needs child back to traditional public school. Success Academy’s principal is–you guessed it–a TFA alum. And oh–what about Newark’s Cami Anderson, a former TFA exec, whose “Two Newarks” “One Newark” plan funnels all self-contained classes to district schools so charters don’t have to serve those students?)

Does anyone else see the hypocrisy here?

Until Teach for America stops promoting charter expansion that further segregates urban areas and starves traditional public schools of resources, and until Teach for America stops supporting charters whose harsh disciplinary policies punish low-income and special-needs students, nobody should take the “Special Education and Ability Initiative” (or any other initiative–or the program as a whole, for that matter) seriously.




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One response to “TFA: let’s better serve special needs students–but with zero tolerance and no excuses!

  1. Pingback: The SHADY charterization of Camden | teacherbiz

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