The City Paper’s Rachel M. Cohen has produced a carefully researched story about TenSquare, a consulting firm that has raked in millions to “turn around” struggling charter schools in D.C. and elsewhere, with sometimes dubious results. From what I’ve seen, the firm doesn’t always do even basic research to support its recommendations about one of the most important factors in school success: what to teach.
While some educators praised the firm, Cohen’s piece details concerns about TenSquare’s lack of transparency, narrow test-score focus, and Big Brother tactics. Despite its founder’s claims that schools who retain TenSquare “see dramatic improvements in their charter board evaluations,” some of those schools have in fact seen their performance fail to improve and have even had their charters revoked.
One such school is Excel Academy, which will lose its charter at the end of this school year, partly because of low test scores. It will be taken over by DC Public Schools. Over 2015 and 2016, Excel paid TenSquare $600,000, according to Cohen’s article.
I spent part of the 2016-17 school year following a first-grade class at Excel for a book I’m writing. I heard from a teacher and administrator that TenSquare had decreed a change in the elementary curriculum aimed at boosting scores on the new, more rigorous Common Core-aligned tests. The school was to use a math curriculum called Eureka Math, and a literacy curriculum called Journeys.
Eureka Math seemed to be working well, but the teacher and administrator were both dissatisfied with Journeys. And with good reason: like most commercially published reading curricula, it fails to build the kind of knowledge and vocabulary children need to do well on tests and in life. The reading selections are disjointed and superficial, organized more by illusory “comprehension skills” than by topic.
But don’t take my word for it. A well-respected organization called EdReports.org rates curricula for their alignment to the Common Core and posts those ratings online for anyone to see. Journeys gets extremely low ratings, especially on the crucial criterion of “Building Knowledge With Text, Vocabulary, and Tasks.”
Before TenSquare came along, I was told, Excel had been using a different literacy curriculum called Core Knowledge Language Arts. EdReports.org gives that curriculum its highest ratings for both text quality and knowledge-building.
It may be that EdReports had not yet rated these two curricula when TenSquare made its recommendations. And TenSquare’s staff may not be familiar with the kind of literacy curricula that work best at the elementary level. Many come from Thurgood Marshall Academy, which I’ve visited and have been impressed by–but which is a high school.
But really, that’s no excuse. If the firm is going to charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to recommend curricula, it should do enough homework to figure out which ones are likely to work.
Perhaps charter schools will think twice before succumbing to pressure to hire TenSquare in the future–or at least do a quick Google search before accepting the firm’s recommendations on curriculum.