Editorial & Opinion

My Tour of Achievement First

“The teachers spewed a stream of punishments, and I often couldn’t even see what the students were doing wrong,” writes Senator Sam Bell. “The students kept losing points or getting yelled at for things like not looking attentive enough. I can’t imagine what it would be like as a child to be berated constantly, to be forced to never even
Photo for My Tour of Achievement First

Published on October 27, 2019
By Sam Bell

The teachers spewed a stream of punishments, and I often couldn’t even see what the students were doing wrong,” writes Senator Sam Bell. “The students kept losing points or getting yelled at for things like not looking attentive enough. I can’t imagine what it would be like as a child to be berated constantly, to be forced to never even think of challenging authority. It was, of course, overwhelmingly white teachers berating students of color. (The walls, of course, were plastered with slogans of racial justice.)

On Friday, October 18, I toured Achievement First. It was a chilling experience, an experience I’m still processing.

They wouldn’t let me take any pictures or video.

The start time was 7:30am. I got there at 7:29. I expected a mob of kids rushing to class, but they must have all already gotten there early. I only saw one or two kids, each of them sprinting. Kids, apparently, fear being late so much that they really aren’t late, despite being forced to wake up at what is an ungodly hour for a middle schooler. My guide, though, was late.

As we started the tour, I noticed black and yellow lines taped on the floor of the hallway. The children, my guide informed me, are all required to walk only on these lines. Several times, I saw adults chastising students for not walking on the lines. Quite literally, students were not allowed to set a toe out of line.

The bathroom doors, I noticed, were all propped open. I asked if it was for cleaning. No, I was told, it was so that the kids in the bathrooms could be watched. They didn’t prop open the toilet stalls, but it still struck me as intensely creepy, a twisted invasion of privacy.

In the classrooms, it was constant discipline. The teachers spewed a stream of punishments, and I often couldn’t even see what the students were doing wrong. The students kept losing points or getting yelled at for things like not looking attentive enough. I can’t imagine what it would be like as a child to be berated constantly, to be forced to never even think of challenging authority. It was, of course, overwhelmingly white teachers berating students of color. (The walls, of course, were plastered with slogans of racial justice.)

The education, if you can call it that, was the most shameless teaching to the test. I was shown what I think was a social studies class, where the children were being drilled to respond to a passage about Rosa Parks like it was a passage on a RICAS ELA test. They were being asked to interpret the passage, not to think critically about what Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott meant for American history and what we can still learn from that act of heroism today.

I was shown another class, where the students were just straight-up practicing to respond to what looked to me exactly like a RICAS short answer question. The teacher went around looking over the kids’ shoulders, basically praising them for checking the boxes of a RICAS grading rubric. (The RICAS grading rubric primarily emphasizes a rigid organizational structure with a single central idea and lots of specific pieces of evidence to support it.) This was far and away the best of the classrooms I saw. It was teaching to the test, yes, but with a teacher who at least showed compassion to the students and focused on building them up instead of tearing them down.

I also saw something they call “IR.” I think it stands for “individual reading,” but I’m not sure. Basically, it was kids sitting quietly and working through exercises in a book. It was the kind of rigid, formulaic make-work that drills kids for taking tests well but does not teach creativity, critical thinking, or passion for learning. It also looked miserable.

Not once did I see a lecture, a group discussion, or a seminar.

My tour guide tried to emphasize the non-academic courses. One of the ones she showed me was cooking. Cooking I remember as a relaxing class, a time to de-stress. What I saw at Achievement First was kids watching a video, and the teacher explained to me that she was letting the kids watch the video to let them relax because of how hard she had been pushing them. Yet the cooking curriculum seemed oddly behind where I would expect a middle school cooking class. They were very proud that the students could julienne vegetables. I also do not think that their set-up met ideal safety or cleanliness standards. They didn’t have a kitchen. It was tables with table-top stove elements.

And this was what they chose to show me, this was what they showed a critic, this was a hand-picked tour to promote what they do. Although I asked to see one of the computerized teaching classrooms, my guide was unwilling to show me one. I did see posters telling kids to put on their noise-cancelling headphones, open their computer, be quiet, and work through their exercises. To her credit, my guide did basically admit to me that the computerized teaching system was kind of a mess. She said that kids are allowed to opt out of it to do book exercises instead and are no longer forced to wear noise-cancelling headphones if they don’t want to.

I did see several classrooms where the students were taking quizzes on laptops. This of course would be great preparation for taking a computerized standardized test. It struck me how often I saw this, and I wondered how much of the time must have been taken up by practicing taking tests.

Despite the policing of facial expressions, I saw some of the most jarringly sad faces I have seen in a very long time. I remember the look on one young woman’s face. She had been sent out of the classroom. I’m not sure why. I think she was a rebel. She was one of the very few I ever saw not walk on the lines taped into the floor. Her face was contorted into a shockingly intense frown. It almost looked like a caricature of a frown, the sort of frown one might see on an overly dramatic actor on TV but not in real life. My guide saw something different, raving about “faces of joy.”

At one point, rounding a corner, I heard a child scream. I don’t know what was happening, and my guide quickly rushed me away.

What was most missing was social interaction. When were the students supposed to talk to each other? To form meaningful friendships? To flirt and begin exploring romance? And it wasn’t just the lack of small group discussion in the classes or the strict discipline that stopped the students from talking in class. Even in the pep rally I witnessed, the kids weren’t talking to each other. If they tried to, a teacher would appear immediately to discipline them. I saw one kid quickly whisper to another and get away with it once. That was it. Even in the hallway, they weren’t talking. They just marched through the halls on the lines taped into the floor, enduring a stream of rebukes for minor offenses like leaving too large a gap between students.

On a human level, it was hard for me to take. When people tell stories about Providence school tours so bad they are moved to tears, I usually think they’re exaggerating. But I couldn’t stop tearing up at Achievement First, and I had to keep dabbing my eyes with a tissue. Now, I did have the ducts that drain my tears plugged to treat dry eye, so I do cry quite easily. But still.

When I was 11, I once attended a truly terrible school, Dunedin North Intermediate in New Zealand, a school still reeling from the aftermath of a national school voucher scheme that eviscerated the public schools. I remember eating on the floor because they didn’t have the staff to put the tables in the cafeteria out. I remember my classmates not knowing their times tables. I remember realizing that one of my friends was asking me for help explaining the instructions for an assignment because he struggled with basic reading. I remember one of my classmates stabbing another with a drawing compass. I remember one of them throwing chairs across the room. I remember grime, mold, and peeling paint far worse even than I’ve ever seen even in a Providence public school. I thought that would be the worst school I’d ever see. Achievement First was worse.

Before I toured Achievement First, I was opposed to it, certainly. I had read these Google reviews:

“i went to this school its terrible the teacher grabed from the hoddie and i choking and terrble interaction with kids and give to much homework”

“Everyone on the waiting list for this school, DO NOT FORCE YOUR KIDS TO COME HERE, they drag kids by their collars when they need extra help because either they are having a bad day,or need some help, they only care about their statistics of RICAS and PARCC scores, over 9 hours of school everyday, not to mention waking up at 6 in the morning to then leave at 4 in the afternoon, School does not care about kids emotional and mental safety, The people in the main office of the middle school are the only caring and loving people in this building besides a handful of teachers, Overall,the school is more focused on test scores then the kids themselves??????I would give this school a 0 if I could/”

I had read about the scandal at a Connecticut Achievement First school where a principal had assaulted a student on camera, and the national Achievement First CEOs had refused to formally discipline him for it until the video leaked to the press, and he resigned. I had read about generally harsh discipline and cruel policies like not allowing excused absences for illnesses. I was worried about labor abuses against the teachers, about money skimmed off as pseudo-profit by the ostensibly non-profit corporation. I had heard that Achievement First leadership themselves felt bad about what they were doing to kids and were considering reforms like homework reduction and less aggressive discipline.

I knew about the shockingly awful student climate surveys and the suspiciously high RICAS scores.

But fundamentally, I saw Achievement First as a normal bad corporate charter school. After touring it, I realized that it’s way worse than that. It’s not like other corporate charter schools. The no excuses discipline isn’t an accident. It is fundamental to what Achievement First is.

I know that Achievement First is popular. I have heard so many members of Rhode Island’s political, corporate, and media establishment laud Achievement First’s high RICAS scores. I have even seen reporters who should know better describe Achievement First as “high-performing” as if it’s an objective fact, as if high scores on RICAS equates to high performance by definition. The propaganda is intense. And the rest of the Providence Public Schools are such a godawful mess that anything different can look attractive. I understand why many parents want their kids to go to Achievement First.

After what I saw, I can easily see how this approach is great at producing amazing test scores. If you focus solely on test-prep and brutal discipline, yes you will boost test scores. Learning how to do well on a RICAS ELA test is learning how to think the way the test wants you to think. It’s learning not to think different. It’s learning to take the least challenging answer. It’s learning to sit still and robotically churn through boring and pointless questions.

But the human cost is so high. At what point is it worth subjecting kids to such misery? Even if the “achievement” were real learning, would it be worth the misery it takes to achieve it? Putting kids under that kind of stress dramatically increases the risk of lasting mental health damage.

Achievement should not come first. Children should come first.

Achievement First is planning on expanding. They’re asking to open a high school, and now they’re asking for a new elementary school, too. Some politicians, parents, student advocates, teachers, and unions have timidly objected to the funding Achievement First rips away from the already suffering public schools. But for me, the money pales in comparison to the raw human pain. Cruelty towards children is just plain wrong. It’s about people, not numbers in a spreadsheet.

Sometimes, overly mild rhetoric is irresponsible. We have to think carefully about the language we use. Words matter. If we water down Achievement First to a budgetary issue, then the Mayor of Providence will feel justified in letting them expand as long as better charter schools are prevented from opening or expanding in Providence. Instead, we must condemn Achievement First as a fundamentally immoral institution.

Half measures are not enough. No expansion is acceptable. Instead, we must talk about a turnaround plan to revamp and fundamentally reform these schools, returning actual learning to the classrooms, ending cruel discipline, and respecting the human rights of the students. And no turnaround plan will be real, no reforms will be lasting, without replacing the toxic administrators currently in charge with turnaround leaders who have true compassion for the students.

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