Thursday, July 30, 2015

When your business model depends on finding miracle workers, you learn not to check behind the curtain

[This is not a post about the suicide of Jeanene Worrell-Breeden. As Slate pointed out, Ms. Worrell-Breeden was facing a number of personal tragedies and there is no value in speculating what role the cheating scandal played.]

Andrew Gelman is perplexed (perhaps rhetorically) by the decision of Columbia University Teachers College to hire a scandal-ridden administrator to run their elementary school.

Ummm, how bout this:
    The principal of a popular elementary school in Harlem acknowledged that she forged answers on students’ state English exams in April because the students had not finished the tests . . . As a result of the cheating, the city invalidated several dozen English test results for the school’s third grade.

The school is a new public school—it opened in 2011—that is run jointly by the New York City Department of Education and Columbia University Teachers College.

So far, it just seems like an unfortunate error. According to the news article, “Nancy Streim, associate vice president for school and community partnerships at Teachers College, said Ms. Worrell-Breeden had created a ‘culture of academic excellence'” at the previous school where she was principal. Maybe Worrell-Breeden just cared too much and was under too much pressure to succeed, she cracked and helped the students cheat.

But then I kept reading:

    In 2009 and 2010, while Ms. Worrell-Breeden was at P.S. 18, she was the subject of two investigations by the special commissioner of investigation. The first found that she had participated in exercise classes while she was collecting what is known as “per session” pay, or overtime, to supervise an after-school program. The inquiry also found that she had failed to offer the overtime opportunity to others in the school, as required, before claiming it for herself.

    The second investigation found that she had inappropriately requested and obtained notarized statements from two employees at the school in which she asked them to lie and say that she had offered them the overtime opportunity.

After those findings, we learn, “She moved to P.S. 30, another school in the Bronx, where she was principal briefly before being chosen by Teachers College to run its new school.”

So, let’s get this straight: She was found to be a liar, a cheat, and a thief, and then, with that all known, she was hired to two jobs as school principal??

The news article quotes Nancy Streim of Teachers College as saying, “We felt that on balance, her recommendations were so glowing from everyone we talked to in the D.O.E. that it was something that we just were able to live with.”

On balance, huh? Whatever else you can say about Worrell-Breeden, she seems to have had the talent of conning powerful people. Or maybe just one or two powerful people in the Department of Education who had the power to get her these jobs.

This is really bad. Is it so hard to find a school principal that you have no choice but to hire someone who lies, cheats, and steals?

It just seems weird to me. I accept that all of us have character flaws, but this is ridiculous. Principal is a supervisory position. What kind of toxic environment will you have in a school where the principal is in the habit of forging documents and instructing employees to lie? How could this possibly be considered a good idea?
Before we try to answer Andrew's questions, let's fill in some context.

This 2010 piece from the NYT spells out the idea behind the school.
One of the main arguments for charter schools is that they will improve the school system as a whole by introducing innovations that traditional schools then adopt. But charter school critics charge that this is not happening — and they say that charters on the whole are weakening the schools around them by siphoning off their resources.

A new primary school proposed by Teachers College at Columbia University aims to address this issue head-on. The school’s goal, its founders say, is to transfer some of the best charter school features to a school run by the Department of Education, while showing how a primary school can benefit from a close affiliation with a college.
The new school proved enormously popular.

From the Columbia Spectator:
Though Teachers College Community School is younger than the kindergartners who are starting there this fall, the four-year-old Columbia-affiliated school on Morningside Avenue and 127th Street received more applications for its kindergarten seats this year than any other school in its district.

Applications for the school’s kindergarten have been steadily increasing since it opened in 2011, school officials say. With 469 kids vying for 50 spots this year, TCCS has become the most sought-after kindergarten in most of Northern Manhattan.

“I think we’re on a very good trajectory,” Nancy Streim, TC’s associate vice president for school and community partnerships, said.

The increase comes even as parents voiced concerns earlier this year that the New York City Department of Education’s new online application portal, Kindergarten Connect, might prevent families without Internet connections from applying.

Streim, however, said that the school hasn’t experienced any problems on that front.
And was held up as a great success.

From Susan Fuhrman, president of Teachers College [emphasis added]:
A contingent from the conference toured TCCS on a chilly April morning. The visitors got to see the 1st- and 2nd-grade classes in action, with the students working in groups and independently. They also saw the new library and the demonstration kitchen, as well as specialized art, science and music classrooms. Then they heard from the school’s dynamic principal Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, a veteran New York City school administrator and a TC Cahn Fellow who has created an inclusive culture for the school’s students and active parent community. She described TCCS to the visitors as the culmination of her dream for a true community school.


TCCS students have been achieving positive outcomes thus far. For example, among kindergarten students, 99 percent completed the 2012-2013 school year at or above grade level in reading and writing. Among first-grade students, 83 percent ended the year at or above grade level in reading and writing. In math, 96 percent of kindergarteners and 90 percent of first-grade students ended the year at or above grade level. Next year, we’ll have the official city test results for third-graders.

TCCS also has received high marks from teachers and parents in a NYC Department of Education’s annual school survey that rates every school on perceptions of academic expectations, communication, engagement and safety and respect.

As TCCS shows much promise to improve student achievement and well-being, we are looking beyond our neighborhood to encourage other universities and their partners across the country to adapt this model for their own public community schools.
A lot of that success was credited to principal Worrell-Breeden.

From Slate:
This tragedy seems to have come out of nowhere for the wildly popular Teachers College Community School, which is partnered with Columbia University’s Teachers College. Since opening in 2011, the school has become so sought-after that, this past year, it fielded 464 applications for just 50 kindergarten slots.

Worrell-Breeden had worked on Wall Street before starting a career in education 25 years ago. Though she’d been embroiled in scandal at her previous school—collecting overtime pay for supervising an after-school program when she was in fact working out with a personal trainer in the school gym three times a week—Worrell-Breeden landed the spot as founding principal of the Community School, where she made $138,000 a year. She was by all accounts a devoted and inspired leader of the school, and expectations were high for the school’s first year of testing. And maybe the expectations were part of the problem.
Now some answers.

I apologize for hammering this point yet again, but it is important to note how strong cultural forces are within the education reform movement. This translates to a reflexive distrust and hostility to outside critics and a comparable sense of loyalty to those perceived as insiders. The most extreme case of this circle-the-wagons mentality is may be Michelle Rhee who still has the support of liberals like Talking Points Memo's lead education writer even after years of scandals, union-busting, and alliances with standard TPM villains like Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.

Worrell-Breeden appears to be a well-established insider, having put in a quarter-century in the epicenter of the education reform movement (New York City) and having worked closely with the department of education. Add to this the Wall Street background (a huge plus in the world of education reform).

Under these circumstance, I'm not surprised that the people at CUTC were "able to live with" their new principal's serious (lying, stealing, forging) but relatively brief lapses. If anything, I suspect that even those mild reservations are being retconned in due to this latest scandal.

We should also keep in mind that Worrell-Breeden combined this insider status with very real accomplishments.  Did she have a talent for conning powerful people? I don't think so, at least not in the way Andrew suggests. Rather she demonstrates one of the fundamental rules of organizational politics: if you're likable and useful, your superiors will forgive almost anything as long as you didn't do it directly to them.

As for the useful part, Worrell-Breeden looked like a possible miracle worker and that's what CUTC needed because the expectation of miracles was baked into the system. The stated mission of the school was to replicate the accomplishments of schools like the Success Academy schools, which was going to be difficult since SA largely relied on the educational equivalent of stage magic. The effect works on illusions and misdirection (if the audience's attention wanders to the wrong test the trick falls apart).   

This is not to say that you can't find charter school successes (you certainly can) or that the much-touted no-excuses model can't do some good (there is research that suggests it can, though how far these results can be generalized is very much an open question), but the truly amazing stories that you hear about so often almost never hold up to scrutiny and those miracles have become a fundamental part of the movement's mythology.

To her credit, Worrell-Breeden did manage a great deal of what was asked of her. The school was wildly popular and got great press. CUTC was always happy to associate itself with her successes while the PR was good and if she had cooked her test data instead of falsifying it (which would have produced exactly the same result), they would probably still be bragging about their "dynamic principal."


  1. Mark:

    Interesting discussion; thanks. I like this point of yours: "she demonstrates one of the fundamental rules of organizational politics: if you're likable and useful, your superiors will forgive almost anything as long as you didn't do it directly to them."

    In my experience in organizational settings, I've seen this, that the higher-ups like having a middle manager who will handle things for them. And often they don't want to see the sausage being made.

    I'd just remove the word "likable" in your above sentence. Not because I know anything about the people involved here, but because I doubt likability has anything to do with it. If anything, having a reputation as an asshole or tough guy could make someone be perceived as even more useful. Indeed, one could argue that Worrell-Breeden's rulebreaking itself was a plus, in that this displays a lack of scruple that could be useful later on.

    Regarding the specifics of the Teachers College decision makers: Again, I have no direct knowledge, but to me it looks more like careerism than ideology. Nancy Streim at Teachers College gets credit for running a public school, Teachers College as a whole gets credit for engaging the community.

    There's also a potential intellectual benefit, in that this school represents a "sandbox" where the TC people can try out the latest ideas in education--but from everything I've read (including the news reports you quote above), it looks much more like TC wants credit for community engagement. Not that they actually want to run a school. If they really wanted to run a school, they wouldn't outsource the job to a crook. And if you look at the blurbs for Nancy Streim etc., it's all about getting grants and getting connections.

    Consider this bit which you quoted above, from the president of Teachers College: "we are looking beyond our neighborhood to encourage other universities and their partners across the country to adapt this model for their own public community schools."

    Don't get me wrong: I have no doubt that the people at TC want local kids to be better educated. It just doesn't seem like they have any particular interest or expertise in how this will be done. Instead of working on education, they're empire building.

    1. Andrew,

      "Likeable" is probably a poor choice of words here but I wouldn't just drop it. Unless you're not just useful but essential, being a good social fit in an organization and having the ability to navigate its office politics are necessary if you want to be truly bulletproof.

    2. Mark:

      Yes, this makes sense. But not necessarily "likable." What I've seen in an organizational setting is that there will be someone who the higher-ups perceive as being on their side and is useful to them, maybe someone who keeps the employees happy or maybe someone who's willing to do the bosses' dirty work. The point is that the higher-ups are busy and don't want to micromanage (indeed, I suspect that not-wanting-to-micromanage is a fairly important criterion here).

      In this case, this jibes with the idea that the Teachers College people didn't really want to run a community school, they just wanted to have a community school. So it's not so much that they thought Worrell-Breeden was a miracle worker; it's more that the TC people themselves felt they had no idea how to educate these kids. Yet they felt so supremely confident that they wanted their school to be a model for others.