Achievement First, Children Second?

CMO Report: Achievement First

Stephanie Addenbrooke, Miriam Cohen, Thomas Chu, José López.

 

Introduction

Achievement First (AF) is a No Excuses Charter Management Organization (CMO) with 34 schools across New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Although the CMO has distanced itself from the No Excuses label, it continues to educate mainly low-income urban students of color, with the goal of using rigorous academics and strict discipline to help them close the achievement gap, in the style of No Excuses. AF has been remarkably successful in pursuing this goal, achieving test results as good as or better than those of predominantly wealthy, white districts. This being said, issues surrounding the CMO’s disciplinary culture, narrow curriculum, funding, and low racial and socioeconomic diversity of students and teachers complicate its successes. Thus, while AF schools undoubtedly boost students’ social mobility, the issues cited above suggest that AF’s narrow vision of education may neglect the role of education in creating democratic equality.

Methods

We conducted a random drawing of six of the AF schools using an online random number generator. We then compared federal and state data for these six schools with data for the school districts geographically surrounding them. For New York City, we were only able to find data on the level of the NYC Public School District, which is an extremely broad area, instead of the immediate surroundings of each school.

 

History, Pedagogy, and Mission

In 1998, the future AF founders started Amistad Academy, a public charter school in New Haven, CT with the goal of proving “that urban students can achieve at the same high levels as their affluent suburban counterparts” (Achievement First, 2017a). After Amistad established itself as a successful school, AF was founded in June 2003 to expand on Amistad’s model. Today, AF runs 34 schools in five cities (New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford, Connecticut; Brooklyn, New York; and Providence, Rhode Island), which collectively served roughly 10,000 K-12 students in the 2015-2016 academic year.

Although AF does not use the phrase “No Excuses” explicitly, its pedagogy, student demographics and philosophy are typical of those of a No Excuses school. Since its inception, AF has had a social justice mission, emphasizing that “all children regardless of race or economic status, can succeed if they have access to a great education” (Achievement First, 2017b). This is one facet of the No Excuses model: race and poverty are not “excuses” for schools to fail their students. In efforts to fulfill this mission, the schools rely heavily on standardized assessments and foster a college-oriented culture.

However, the No Excuses philosophy has another major facet: strict discipline and a focus on student behavior. As will be discussed in the School Discipline section, this aspect of AF’s philosophy has drawn significant criticism and may harm student development.

 

School Demographics

The demographics of AF schools are fairly consistent, regardless of the demographics of surrounding districts. The AF schools studied all have of 98-100% students of color and 74-83% students who qualify for free and reduced lunch (FRL). As displayed in Figures 1 and 2, AF schools essentially serve a specific population no matter the demographics of the districts where they are located. These demographics are likely the result of the No Excuses-style discourse contained in AF’s website and publications, which appeals to and targets low income people of color (Wilson & Carlsen, 2016). This demographic makeup goes along with AF’s focus on closing the achievement gap, but runs contrary to research suggesting the educational benefits of diversity (Wells et al, 2016).

Full demographics chart

Figure 1: Students Qualifying for FRL

Data from: ELSI, 2017

Figure 2: Students of Color

Data from: ELSI, 2017

Student Achievement

Figure 2: AF Achievement Compared to Districts

Data from EdSight, 2017

AF prioritizes student achievement and produces stellar test results, perhaps at the expense of secondary subjects such as science. A “Results” tab featured prominently on AF’s website emphasizes closing the achievement gap, asserting that AF Bridgeport third graders outperform Fairfield and Greenwich (affluent Connecticut districts) in math, and that eighth-graders in New York AF schools outperform Rye and Scarsdale (affluent New York districts) in math (Achievement First, 2017c). Governmental data from both Connecticut and New York confirm these claims. All AF schools studied here scored 15-50 points higher than their surrounding districts in ELA and math, for all grades studied (New York State Department of Education, 2017 & Connecticut State Department of Education, 2017).

In science, the New York AF schools have a similar increase compared with their surrounding districts (New York State Department of Education, 2017). However, both Amistad Academy and AF Bridgeport perform no better than their surrounding districts in science (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2017, see Figure 3). This substantiates concerns that relying heavily on test scores for accountability prompts schools to focus on ELA and math to the exclusion of other subjects such as science (Au, 2009).

 

School Discipline

AF has been heavily criticized for its system of discipline. While the suspension rates for black students (who make up the vast majority of the student body) at New York schools are generally less than or equal to those of their surrounding districts, Amistad Academy and AF Bridgeport have far greater rates of suspensions for black students than the surrounding districts (see Figure 4) (Office of Civil Rights, 2017).

As these statistics have come to light, the media has particularly criticized Amistad for its “draconian discipline system,” which hyper-focuses on student compliance and harsh punishment for minor infractions (Fisher, 2016b). The racial power dynamic within the school, where white teachers enforce unreasonably harsh rules on students of color has also come under fire (Fisher, 2016b). These scathing reports culminated in March 2017 when the state of Connecticut mandated that Amistad reduce its suspension rate as a condition of extending the school’s charter (Liu, 2017). Sociological research has shown that such stringent disciplinary systems teach students to stifle their own opinions and defer to authority, while decreasing their desire to learn (Golann, 2015). Overall, AF’s discipline policies cast a major shadow over its testing successes.

Full discipline chart

Figure 3: AF School Discipline Compared to Districts

Data from: Office of Civil Rights, 2017

 

Marketing & Media

AF’s best method of marketing itself is undoubtedly its website, which provides a comprehensive overview of the network’s history, performance, and mission, in addition to providing methods to get involved and learn more (Achievement First, 2017). This information is also available in Spanish, making it accessible to non-English speakers (Achievement First, 2017d, 2017e).

AF’s website heavily utilizes videos, focusing particularly on success stories (Achievement First, 2017f). The videos make emotional connections with viewers, provide the ability for parents to gather information about the schools without having to visit them, and showcase the high minority racial makeup of AF’s student body.

Another major aspect of the website’s focus is on social justice initiatives. Features on events like the Fight for Fairness March in Bridgeport (see below), where AF staff and students held a rally and engaged in discourses about public school funding, highlight the school’s interests beyond the academic curriculum (Achievement First, 2017g). AF uses these features to portray itself as an exciting and innovative alternative to traditional public schools.

Accountability and Oversight

AF’s Network Support team handles teacher recruitment, professional development, fundraising, finances, and some operations concerns (Achievement First, 2017h). It also holds the power to intervene in underperforming schools.

For these services, each school pays 10% of its revenue to the CMO (Toll et al., 2016). AF emphasizes that that figure is “significantly less” than what most district schools allocate to their central offices. However, it is higher than the average charter management fee of 7% (Curious2, 2010).

 

Funding

Table 1: AF Revenue by Source, 2016

Total ($) Management Fees (%) Public Grants (%) Philanthropy (%)
$20,300,584 88.7% 1.2% 9.9%

Data from: Toll et al., 2016, p. 36.

Table 2: AF Average School Funding by State, 2016

Total ($ per pupil) State/District (%) Federal (%) Philanthropy (%)
New York $16,851 94.2% 3.4% 2.4%
Connecticut $14,889 78.9% 3.2% 18.0%

Data from: Toll et al., 2016, p. 37.

As to the schools themselves, AF published the results based on state, not individual school or district. AF’s Annual Report did not include financial information on its Rhode Island schools because they are not fully populated yet.

Examining the philanthropic aspect of AF’s funding scheme reveals that private donations play a greater role in the success of the organization, and charter schools more generally, than might be imagined. First, the 9.9% figure for philanthropic contribution in Table 1 refers only to the direct contributions to the CMO. In reality, a greater percentage of the CMO’s funding comes from private donors, as part of the funding from management fees is traceable to philanthropy at the school level, as shown in Table 2.

Second, private donors not only fund charter schools directly but also spend millions on political advocacy for charters. AF’s most prominent and financially significant donors include the Broad Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Great Schools for America, 2010; Toll et al., 2016). As a representative of the Gates Foundation said, “Before you can fund the charter school, you have to fund an advocacy organization that can create a climate for the charter school to exist” (Rapoport, 2012). The Gates Foundation alone has donated over $440m to the cause of charters, at least 25% of which has gone to political advocacy (Taylor, 2015).

Specifically in Connecticut, AF has become extremely friendly with political insiders, mainly because of well-funded advocacy groups and ties to philanthropists. For example, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp used to sit on Amistad Academy’s board of directors (Pelto, 2015). The mayor has the power to appoint the Board of Education. Che Dawson, the Director of Operations at AF’s Amistad Elementary School, is one of her appointees (New Haven Public Schools, 2017). Before him, Alex Johnston, the former CEO of ConnCAN, a pro-charter advocacy group that has worked closely with AF, served on the Board under Harp (Pelto, 2015). Today, ConnCAN founder Jonathan Sackler, also a founding board member of AF, joins many other pro-charter philanthropists in donating heavily to Governor Dannel Malloy, an ardent charter supporter (Lecker, 2015).

Thus, much of AF’s government funding can be seen as the product of philanthropy-driven advocacy. This points to the outsized role of private dollars on public education, the corporate origins of the charter school movement, and the disproportionate political power charter schools gain from these connections.

 

Staffing

In keeping with their social justice oriented mission, one would expect AF to be striving toward a diverse group of educators, to match the diverse group of students. Staffing data suggests that AF is failing to achieve this.

Data from EdSight, 2017

Amistad Academy and Bridgeport Achievement First are the only two schools with accessible staff demographics data. At Amistad Academy, 12.2% of the staff is Black or African American (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2017) compared to 59.7% of the student body (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016), and 4.9% of the staff is Hispanic compared to 36.2% of the students. It is striking that a school clearly striving to serve minority students has a staff that is 81.3% white. Similar statistics can be found at Bridgeport Achievement First. Certainly, it is important to note that compared to the rest of the state of Connecticut, AF schools fare relatively well in terms of staff diversity. Yet regardless of state trends, the lack of staff diversity does not go unnoticed by students: in 2016, students boycotted class to protest the school’s lack of minority teachers. (Fisher, 2016a).

Data from NYSED, 2016

AF schools typically employ teachers with fewer qualifications or less training than surrounding districts. In New York, where most of the studied schools are located, only 2% of teachers have no valid teaching certificate, while 39% have master’s degrees or doctorates (New York State Education Department, 2016). Around 40% of AF staff in New York have no valid teaching certificate, and almost none have master’s degrees (see chart). While this is not an uncommon trend for charter schools, it does reveal a difference between the traditional public schools in the state and AF schools. AF’s Teacher-in-Residence Program, which is designed for individuals with no qualifications, may contribute to this (Achievement First, 2017i). The one-year program puts teachers in the classroom as they work toward certification, instead of requiring certification before employment.

The most astonishing statistic, however, is the yearly turnover rate. Achievement First Endeavor, for example, had a 70% turnover between 2014-15 and 2015-16. This points to low teacher satisfaction and high rates of burnout.

 

Relationship to the District

The extent of the relationship between AF schools and their local districts is unclear. The website for AF states that they “actively partner with traditional public schools since we know that educating our nation’s future leaders and workforce is far more important than turf battles” (Achievement First, 2017j). Yet, on the same website, they pride themselves on the fact that 10 kids compete for each spot at the school and how their schools fare, on average, better than the local district.

AF’s Residency Program for School Leadership appears to be the main initiative through which the schools engage with the local district. The program, only active in Connecticut, trains and mentors individuals with a Connecticut teaching certificate and at least four years teaching experience who “are interested in serving as the next generation of principals for the New Haven Public Schools” (Achievement First, 2012). There is no information about the success of the program, and to what extent it has benefited the local schools.

AF also supports a training program for CMO leaders. Their goal is to “dramatically [increase] the number of top-quality seats for students across the country” (Achievement First, 2017k). This appears to advocate for the expansion of charter schools, which may be cause for a strained relationship with the local district. Furthermore, their focus on charter expansion indicates that improving the traditional public school system in the local area is not the top priority and that AF views charters as alternatives to district schools, not labs for innovation.

 

Conclusion

AF is succeeding in its mission to help more low-income and minority students achieve academically and is invested in the social mobility of its students. However, there is evidence that this is being achieved at the expense of democratic equality. As mentioned in the funding section, AF’s rise has not been democratic, and its competition with public school districts has not necessarily improved public education as a whole. Furthermore, AF’s No Excuses policies inhibit genuine student learning and students’ ownership of their education, placing college acceptance as the sole marker of success. Thus, our analysis indicates that while AF certainly succeeds in developing children as standardized test-takers and college applicants, the fixation on this narrow aspect of a child’s success may mean that the schools fail to help children develop as people, just as they fail to improve the state of education more broadly.

 

Word Count: 2500

 

References

 

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