Saturday, July 28, 2018

Cyber School Kingpin Gets Slap on Wrist For Embezzling Millions from PA Students by Steven Singer


Nick Trombetta stole millions of dollars from Pennsylvania’s children.

And he cheated the federal government out of hundreds of thousands in taxes.

Yet at Tuesday’s sentencing, he got little more than a slap on the wrist – a handful of years in jail and a few fines.

As CEO and founder of PA Cyber, the biggest virtual charter school network in the state, he funneled $8 million into his own pocket.

Instead of that money going to educate kids, he used it to buy a Florida condominium, sprawling real estate and even a private jet.

But it wasn’t enough.

What does a man like that deserve for stealing from the most vulnerable among us – kids just asking for an education?

At very least, you’d think the judge would throw the book at him.

But no.

Because he took a plea deal, he got a mere 20 months in federal prison.

That’s less than two years in jail for defrauding tens of thousands of students and multiple districts across the Commonwealth.

In addition, once he serves his time he’ll be on probation for 3 years.

And even though there is no mystery about the amount of money he defrauded from the Internal Revenue Service by shifting his income to the tax returns of others – $437,632, to be exact – the amount he’ll have to pay back in restitution is yet to be determined.

One would think that’s easy math. You stole $437,632, you need to pay back at least that amount – with interest!

And what of the $8 million? Though I can’t find a single explicit reference to what happened to it in the media, it is implied that the money was recovered and returned to Pa Cyber.

Yet there seems to be no discussion of a financial penalty for embezzling all that money. If my checking account dips below a certain balance, I’m penalized. If I don’t pay the minimum on my credit cards, I’m charged an additional fee. Yet this chucklehead pilfers $8 million and won’t be docked a dime!? Just paying it back is good enough!?

But what makes this sentence even more infuriating to me is the paltry jail time Trombetta will serve.

The judge actually gave him 17 months LESS than the minimum federal guidelines for this kind of case! He should at least be serving 37 to 46 months – 3 to 4 years!

Nonviolent drug charges often lead to sentences much longer than that!

For instance, in 2010, Kevin Smith was arrested for drug possession. He was locked up in a New Orleans jail for almost 8 years (2,832 days) without ever going to trial!

But then again, most of these nonviolent drug charges are against people of color. And Trombetta is white.

So is Neal Prence, a former certified accountant who pleaded guilty to helping Trombetta hide his ill-gotten gains.

Prence will serve a year and a day in prison and pay back $50,000 in restitution.

It’s a good thing he didn’t have any drugs on him.

And that he didn’t have a tan.

This is what we talk about when we talk about white privilege.

These were mostly women and people of color.

They each got three years in prison, seven years probation, $10,000 in fines and 2,000 hours of community service.

So in America, cheating on standardized tests gets you a harder sentence than embezzling a fortune from school kids.

I’m not saying what the Atlanta teachers and administrators did was right, but their crime pales in comparison to Trombetta’s.

Think about it.

Atlanta city schools have suffered under decades of financial neglect. The kids – many of whom are students of color – receive fewer resources, have more narrowed curriculum and are forced to live under the yoke of generational poverty.

Yet their teachers were told to increase test scores with little to no help, and if they didn’t, they’d be fired.

I can’t imagine why they tried to cheat a system as fair as that.

It’s like being mugged at gunpoint and then the judge convicts you of giving your robber a wooden nickel.

The worst part of all of this is that we haven’t learned anything from either case.

High stakes standardized testing has become entrenched in our public schools by the newly passed federal law – the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

And though Trombetta resigned from his post as CEO of PA Cyber in September 2013, cyber charters are as popular as ever.

These are publicly funded but privately run schools that provide all or most instruction on-line. Think Trump University for tweens and teenagers.

You can’t turn on the TV without a commercial for a cyber charter school showing up. You can’t drive through a poor neighborhood without a billboard advertising a virtual charter. They even have ads on the buggies at the grocery store!

Yet these schools have a demonstrated track record of failure even when compared to  brick-and-mortar charter schools. And when you compare them to traditional public schools, it’s like comparing a piece of chewed up gum on the bottom of your shoe to a prime cut of filet mignon.

A 2016 study found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction than traditional public schools.

Keep in mind there are only 180 days of school in Pennsylvania!

That means cyber charters provide less math instruction than not going to school at all.

When it comes to reading, the same study found cyber charters provide 72 days less instruction than traditional public schools.

That’s like skipping 40% of the school year!

And this isn’t just at one or two cyber charters. Researchers noted that 88 percent of cyber charter schools produce weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.

They concluded that these schools have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students.


In Pennsylvania, nearly 35,100 of the 1.7 million children attending public schools are enrolled in cyber-charter schools. With more than 11,000 students, PA Cyber is by far the largest of the state’s 16 such schools.

If Trombetta had just stiffed Pennsylvania’s students that much, he wouldn’t have been in any trouble with the law.

However, he got even greedier than that!

He needed more, More, MORE!

Justice – such as it is in this case – was a long time coming.

Trombetta was first indicted back in 2013 – five years ago.

He was facing 11 counts of mail fraud, theft or bribery, conspiracy and tax offenses related to his involvement in entities that did business with Pa. Cyber. He pleaded guilty to tax conspiracy almost two years ago, acknowledging that he siphoned off $8 million from The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.

He has been free on bond all this time.

His sister, Elaine Trombetta, agreed to cooperate with prosecution, according to federal court filings. She pleaded guilty in October 2013 to filing a false individual income tax return on her brother’s behalf and has yet to be sentenced.

It was only yesterday that her brother – the kingpin of this conspiracy – was ultimately sentenced.

Finally, he’ll have to face up to what he did.

Finally, he’ll have to pay for what he’s done.

Just don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Teaching In The Age Of Trump by Andrea Rinard

Full disclosure: I’m not a Trump fan. I woke up on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 with a sense of dread and foreboding. I wondered how I was going to get up, go to school, and be a responsible high school English teacher in this brave new world of Trump.
Like many, I figured I would ride it out. My previous job, at a very conservative school, taught me to keep my head down when President Obama was elected and both colleagues and school families responded as if it were the end times. It was my turn now, I reasoned. Sure, Trump had admitted to groping women, he’d mocked a disabled journalist, done myriad things I found repugnant, but there were checks and balances. How bad could it be?
Well, I’ve now taught one school year that spanned the election and inauguration, and I’ve taught one school year under the Trump presidency. In my perspective, it’s been so much worse than I could have ever imaginedbut I have a job to do. It’s a job that I take seriously, and I’ve tried my best to be a responsible educator in the age of Trump. As I prepare for the 2018–2019 school, I wanted to share the five tenets I now cling to.

1. Kids need to learn how to be more responsible and canny media consumers
Alternative facts and fake news have become the modern version of “nuh-uh.” If you don’t like what I’m saying, call it fake news. If you can’t refute my assertion with objective facts, do it with alternative facts.
Kids (and adults) read things on social media and take them at face value. We must teach our students how to conduct responsible, ethical means of inquiry. We must coax them out of the echo chambers and help them learn how to discern what is real and what is truly “fake news.” Several infographics have circulated that show the spectrum on which news organizations can fall, showing bias to the left and right, to varying degrees. The most popular, by a lawyer named Vanessa Otero, can be seen below. Although this and other charts have been the subject of debate about the placement of particular news outlets on the spectrum, it can be an interesting starting point for a discussion of how to figure out where to get your news from.
An assignment I gave to my AP English Language kids was to take one event and compare how that one event was covered by four different news organizations. The kids analyzed the diction choices, especially adjectives and adverbs, and what details were included and left out. The kids were surprised by the variations, and I heard more than once, “But… what really happened?”
It’s so easy for kidsor anyone, for that matterto see something on social media and run with it, regardless of the source. In a May 2017 study conducted by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, 41.0% of the 1535 teachers surveyed reported that “students were more likely than in previous years to introduce unfounded claims from unreliable sources. Many teachers noted a connection between students’ use of unsubstantiated sources and growing incivility.”
2. We must create safe spaces and insist on civility
One of the refrains from the presidential election was the demonization of “political correctness.” Wherever you stand on it, our kids need to understand that a repudiation of “political correctness” does not mean a complete license to speak any unfiltered, unconsidered thought that comes into their head.
According to the same UCLA study cited above, “79% of teachers reported that their students have expressed concerns for their well-being or the well-being of their families associated with recent public policy discourse on one or more hot-button issues.” I can absolutely attest to this phenomenon. My LGBTQ, immigrant, African-American, Muslim, Hispanic, and female students are angry, confused, worried, and just downright scared. The landscape keeps shifting under them, and the loss of stability is frightening.
Moreover, there has been an emboldening of those who have, until recently, quietly nurtured bigoted and hateful ideas about certain groups. I have, in the past two years, heard students using crude, derogatory, hateful terms that have resurfaced after being chased or shamed out of the acceptable lexicon normally tolerated peer-to-peer in high school hallways. What students used to police each other on has now become acceptable, or the kids are just too intimidated to continue pushing back. Some students even feel like it’s acceptable to bring such language into the classroom. I had to have a conversation with a student about why the words he was using to refer to Puerto Rican students who’d come to our school after Hurricanes Irma and Maria decimated their homes were hurtful and would not be tolerated. I also had to explain to him that Puerto Ricans are American citizens (I honestly don’t think he believed me).
I’ve also heard things from parents that I’ve never heard before. At a recent parent conference, a parent said he’d heard there is a Muslim girl in his son’s class and asked if I was being careful not to let her spread “militant Islamic propaganda” during class discussions. I’m sure that over the years I have talked with parents with deep-seated personal prejudices, but never before has a parent felt comfortable asking such a question out loud. I can only imagine what they’re saying in the privacy of their own home in front of their kid, and how that kind of environment impacts that student’s worldview.
I try not to make my marginalized students the spokespeople of their religion, sexual orientation, gender, or ethnicity, but sometimes they take up the mantle themselves. One of the goosebumpiest moments I’ve had in a long time happened when a transgender student explained to his cisgender classmates what the big deal actually was regarding rules about using the bathroom that corresponds to your birth gender assignment rather than the gender with which you identify. There were a couple of students who expressed that they were not comfortable using a bathroom with transgender students, and they articulated their feelings and opinions in a clear and respectful way that shared their viewpoints without attacking anyone else’s. After class I thanked my transgender student for sharing his views, and he shrugged and said, “I may be the only transgender person that any of these guys know. I don’t want them to hate all of us because I’ve given them a reason to hate me because I don’t listen to what they’re saying.”
As much as I would like to deprogram or reverse-engineer kids whose parents have what I perceive to be the wrong worldview, that’s not my role. That leads to the next tenet.
3. We need to focus on teaching kids HOW, not WHAT, to think
I insist on logical argumentation. I have banned the now ubiquitous sentence stem, “I feel like…” and instead insist that students talk about what they think and then support their ideas with evidence.
In my AP English Language classes, we talk about a lot of very sensitive subjects. The kids will come to class in August after reading Columbine and are expected to be able to talk about the role of media in our society, gun rights and gun control, and mental health. Call me a masochist (and maybe a sadist), but I like to throw them into the deep end and get them talking about big stuff from the first day so that I can help them develop the skills they need to engage in meaningful dialogue. We practice active listening so that we are certain we have truly heard what is being said before we try to respond. We ask questions, and we empathize with opposing viewpoints, even if we ultimately disagree.
We look for solutions rather than insults.
My students are not permitted to get away with weak thinking. I teach them to recognize and scorn ad hominem attacks like “cuck,” “snowflake,” and “fascist.” They are expected to formulate cogent and logical arguments to support their positions. What results is dialogue. Sometimes students concede points from students with whom they disagree. Sometimes they realize that their viewpoints aren’t very far apart. Sometimes they have trouble supporting what they believe, and we call them out in a constructive way, sometimes pointing out that what they’re espousing could, in fact, be insupportable. We look for solutions rather than insults. We try to formulate open-ended ideas rather than “burns” or “roasts.” We don’t debate toward “winners” or “losers.” We discuss in order to understand all facets of issues.
Sometimes it’s really hard because I have my own hot-button issues on which I feel strongly that there is a right and a wrong position. However, I have to remain neutral and calm so that my students can see that you can discuss emotional topics without being led by emotion.
4. We need to check our personal politics at the door before we enter the school
Teaching during an election year is always interesting. There’s always that one kid who asks for whom I’m voting. They get the same speech I’ve given numerous times: “Asking someone who they’re voting for is not a casual question. You’re asking that person their views on abortion, education, gun rights, military spending, foreign affairs, the role of religion in government, and much, much more. If you want to have that conversation, fine. We can have it, but we’re not going to water it down into a single question.” I know that many teachers simply refuse to talk about politics, and that’s fine too. In my AP English Literature classes, however, being able to connect literature with the current social context is part of the point. A conversation about Othello as a manipulated, minority outsider has particular resonance. Considering the impossible choices George must make in his caretaking role of Lenny leads the class to some interesting places, given the current dialogue about mental health and healthcare access in general.
In my AP Language classes in particular, the political landscape is a rich seam that I feel compelled to mine so that the kids are able to function as responsible members of society, regardless of which political party, if any, they align with. Whether we’re talking about homelessness, immigration, or language inflation, the current political context is relevant.
Even complaining in the workroom or faculty lounge can breed a toxic work environment. Assuming that every teacher is a liberal or conservative, and believing “only idiots think ____” is a sure way to alienate colleagues and create a hostile environment.
I don’t hide my political leanings like a secret identity, but I don’t open-carry them either. I’m mindful that regardless of the fact that my kids are young adults, I am still in a position of power to influence. I will not and cannot abuse that position. Instead, I aspire to help the kids form their own opinions and see the world through their own eyes. If they disagree with me on abortion, mandatory minimum prison sentences, legalizing medical and/or recreational marijuana usethat’s the point. It’s important that we can discuss these issues without them looking to me to know what to think. They need to know what they think, and they need to know why they think it.
One disclaimer, however, is that there are objective facts. It is not partisan to say that something is objectively erroneous as long as there is clear and ethically sourced evidence.
5. We need to understand and accept that there are some things we just can’t combat in one school year
If a kid comes into your room after being raised his or her whole life with flagrantly hateful beliefs, for example, your goal may be to merely plant a seed or two, and get him or her to question why they have those beliefs and whether those beliefs are complementary and compatible with the life that student wants to lead. You can also insist that the student treat others with respect and civility, at least within the four walls of your classroom. That will have to be enough.
Whether you are a staunch supporter of President Trump and his policies or are counting the days until the 2020 election, you and I have a job to do. We need to make sure that we do not shame or harass students (or colleagues) whose opinions we would fight to the death to stamp out of existence. We need to hold the line when it comes to treating one another with respect and courtesy, and we need to teach our students how to engage within the political process and make reasoned sense of what they see around them. Ideally, if we do our jobs and help our students become more informed, logical, discerning, and empathetic citizens, we will begin to bridge the chasm that currently divides us as a country. It’s an enormous responsibility, but I have faith that we’re all up for it.


I'm a wife, mother of three, high school English teacher, writer of things, and native Floridian.

Wealth – Not Enrollment in Private School – Increases Student Achievement, According to New Study By Steven Singer

Originally published at:

Students enrolled in private schools often get good grades and high test scores.

And there’s a reason for that – they’re from wealthier families.

new peer-reviewed study from Professors Richard C. Pianta and Arya Ansari of the University of Virginia found that once you take family income out of the equation, there are absolutely zero benefits of going to a private school. The majority of the advantage comes from simply having money and all that comes with it – physical, emotional, and mental well-being, living in a stable and secure environment, knowing where your next meal will come from, etc.

The study published in July 2018attempts to correct for selection bias – the factors that contribute to a student choosing private school rather than the benefits of the school, itself.

The study’s abstract puts it this way:

“Results from this investigation revealed that in unadjusted models, children with a history of enrollment in private schools performed better on nearly all outcomes assessed in adolescence. However, by simply controlling for the sociodemographic characteristics that selected children and families into these schools, all of the advantages of private school education were eliminated. There was also no evidence to suggest that low-income children or children enrolled in urban schools benefited more from private school enrollment.”

This has major policy implications.

Corporate school reformers from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, from Arne Duncan to Betsy DeVos, from Cory Booker to Charles and David Koch, have proposed increasing privatized school options to help students struggling in public schools.

Whether it be increasing charter schools or vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, the implication is the same – such measures will not help students achieve.

We need programs aimed at poverty, itself, not at replacing public schools with private alternatives.

According to the abstract:

“By and large, the evidence on the impact of school voucher programs casts doubt on any clear conclusion that private schools are superior in producing student performance…

“In sum, we find no evidence for policies that would support widespread enrollment in private schools, as a group, as a solution for achievement gaps associated with income or race. In most discussions of such gaps and educational opportunities, it is assumed that poor children attend poor quality schools and that their families, given resources and flexibility, could choose among the existing supply of private schools to select and then enroll their children in a school that is more effective and a better match for their student’s needs. It is not at all clear that this logic holds in the real world of a limited supply of effective schools (both private and public) and the indication that once one accounts for family background, the existing supply of heterogeneous private schools (from which parents select) does not result in a superior education (even for higher income students).”

Researchers repeatedly noted that this study was not simply a snapshot of student performance. It is unique because of how long and how in depth students were observed.

The study looks at student outcomes at multiple intervals giving it a much longer time frame and much greater detail than other similar investigations. Researchers examined wide ranging family backgrounds and contextual processes to reduce selection bias.

Participants were recruited in 1991 from ten different cities: Little Rock, Arkansas; Irvine, California; Lawrence, Kansas; Boston, Massachusetts; Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Charlottesville, Virginia; Seattle, Washington; Hickory and Morganton, North Carolina; and Madison, Wisconsin. They were followed for 15 years and had to complete a month long home visit. In addition, they submitted to both annual interviews and home, school, and neighborhood observations.

The final analytic sample consisted of 1,097 children – 24% of whom were children of color, 15% had single mothers, and 10% had mothers without a high school diploma.

Moreover, student academic achievement wasn’t the only factor examined.

Researchers also assessed students social adjustment, attitudes, motivation, and risky behavior. This is significant because they noted that no other study of private schools to date has examined factors beyond academics. Also, there is a general assumption that private school has a positive effect on these nonacademic factors – an assumption for which the study could find no evidence.

From the abstract:

“In short, despite the frequent and pronounced arguments in favor of the use of vouchers or other mechanisms to support enrollment in private schools as a solution for vulnerable children and families attending local or neighborhood schools, the present study found no evidence that private schools, net of family background (particularly income), are more effective for promoting student success.”

One reason behind these results may be the startling variation in “the nature and quality of private school classrooms.” There is no consistency between what you’ll get from one private school to the next.

The x-factor appears to be family income and all that comes with it.

We see this again and again in education. For instance, standardized test scores, themselves, are highly correlated with parental wealth. Kids from wealthier families get better test scores than those from poorer families regardless of whether they attend public, charter or private schools.

It’s time our policymakers stop ignoring the effect of income inequality on our nations students.

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!


Absent Students Should Not Make Happy Teachers by Aaron Michael Baker

Originally published at:

I had a class a few years ago that in 180 days of school there seemed to be only a handful of days in which the entire class was in attendance. There were several factors which seemed to contribute to this “problem.” The class met 1st hour, which meant that absences were higher than classes that met later in the day. It was also one of those classes (every teacher knows the kind) that had several students which some principals and teachers referred to as “frequent flyers” because of how often these students were the target of administrative referrals, discipline which often resulted in removal from the classroom. And then there were students who were chronically absent for various reasons.
The presence of much smaller special education and advanced placement classes had combined to make my 1st hour my largest class by far. Schools quite often have a student to teacher ratio as low as 18:1. Specialized classes are typically much smaller than this, sometimes as small as 5 or 6 students. These small class sizes cause the number of students in what are commonly referred to as “reg. ed.” classes to swell to 30 or more.
The few days that I had full attendance in that class were very difficult for me as the teacher. In fact, I did not have enough seating for the entire class. This led me to view absences not as a problem but as a solution. My day seemed to go better when certain students were not in class. My emotional health, my happiness, began to depend upon student absences.
This is not how teaching is supposed to work. Schools are for students, and students should be at school. Teachers should not find pleasure in anything that removes a student from the learning environment. In a way, it does not matter why a student is absent, whether or not they contributed to their own absence, missed instruction is still missed instruction. But the reasons for absences do matter in the sense that schools need to know the factors leading to absences so they can adequately address those issues.
My emotional health, my happiness, began to depend upon student absences.
All educators (teachers, para-professionals, counselors, principals, and district administrators) have unique responsibilities related to student absences. The teacher, of course, is responsible for working with students to somehow compensate for the loss of class time. We call this “make up work,” which rarely even comes close to providing an education comparable to actually attending class and receiving direct instruction. Para-professionals may find the chance to have casual conversations with students about why absences occur. Counselors have the opportunity to investigate home life factors contributing to absences, though perhaps not as much time because of extra duties like coordinating standardized testing procedures. Principals can help keep students in class by reducing the amount of suspensions both in-school and out-of-school. District administrators can partner with local law enforcement and elected officials to make sure district wide absence policies and municipal truancy laws are equitable and in the best interest of students and families. All stake holders should work together to focus on getting and keeping students in the classroom.
Tunnel vision that makes it very difficult for teachers to see anything beyond the four walls of the classroom is very real. Teachers must arrive at school every day with the big picture in mind. There are a multitude of ways to engage in teacher self-care that does not include reveling in the discipline, illness, or difficult home life of students. The things that keep students out of class should not be the things that make teachers happy.