The founding class of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of “no excuses” charter schools graduated from eighth grade last week. Of the original class of 73 students who enrolled in 2006, 32 made it to last week, and, according to Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News, despite 27 of those students sitting for the entrance exams to New York City’s highly selective public high schools, no Success Academy graduate qualified for admission. Moskowitz has widely touted her schools’ closing of the achievement gap between racial demographics on state issued standardized tests, and while the city’s elite high schools are rightly criticized for their low enrollment of black and Latino children, Gonzalez notes that the overall 12% acceptance rate for black and Latino students taking the test should have given as many as 3 acceptances from Moskowitz’s school.
This is not news that should produce any satisfaction even among Ms. Moskowitz’s most fierce critics, nor should any criticism be aimed at the young children involved. Despite my serious reservations about the atmosphere and techniques employed by Ms. Moskowitz’s charter chain, I have no doubt that the young people who have been at Success Academy 1 since 2006 are admirable and hard working young people, and it is my sincerest hope that they have bright futures ahead of them. Nor do I want my criticism of Moskowitz’s methods and self promotion to second guess the parents who have sought out and appreciated her schools’ focus on discipline and raising test scores. However, Ms. Moskowitz has applied to the state for another 14 Success Academies and under the current state budget deal approved in Albany, New York City will have no say in granting these charters and will have to provide space for the schools or pay Moskowitz’s rent in another facility. The sharp decline in the enrollment of her first graduating class and her curriculum’s inability to place graduates in the city’s most selective high schools (despite her claims of closing the achievement gap) requires the asking of some sharp questions.
And it is well beyond time that Ms. Moskowitz answer questions of the public that is required by law to pay for her schools.
Ms. Moskowitz is not controversial merely for her confrontational manner nor for her refusal to let the state examine how her chain uses the substantial sums it gets from taxpayers. Success Academy is part of the “no excuses” camp of education reform that insists if you fire the right teachers, insist upon extreme personal rigor and focus upon the “basics” that you can close the historic achievement gap between white and Asian students and their black and Latino peers. The school of thought has powerful advocates among the likes of Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein and demonstrably has the ear of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the rest of the Obama administration. It has a certain appeal if you do not think about it too hard. These critics decry those who focus on anti-poverty and anti-racism efforts as “excusing” bad teaching and claim that if people just work hard enough, historic gaps in academic progress, and presumably economic progress, would close. In doing so, however, they take up two exceptionally pernicious implied arguments. The first is that the well-demonstrated deprivations of poverty do not matter so long as the school demands enough out of its students. The second is that the existence of children who demonstrate the desired perseverance proves that others are just slacking and could overcome if only they just worked hard enough. Both of these beliefs diminish genuinely complex issues to slogans and side step societal responsibility to address poverty.
Moskowitz’s schools take this to extremes. The New York Times reported in 2011, when the Success chain had only 7 schools, how children who do not fit into its very narrow mode find themselves subjected to excessive punishments and ongoing suggestions that they should leave. In less than a month of Kindergarten at Success Academy 3, Matthew Sprowal was subjected to so much pressure and punishment (he has ADD) that he was throwing up most mornings, and his mother received direct communication from Moskowitz herself strongly implying her son should be at another school. This is not an isolated case. In 2010-2011, Success 1 suspended a fifth of its students at least once. Public schools in the same neighborhood suspend 3% of students in a typical year. Further, evidence exists that the schools place special pressures on the parents of disabled students to seek different schools. A parent at Upper West Success taped school officials saying they could not properly accommodate her Kindergarten student’s IEP and offering to find him a public school placement.
Charter schools like Success Academy take students from a lottery, and in theory, that lottery ensures that they are not selective like exclusive private schools, but practices like those reported by former Success Academy families demonstrate that the schools do not abide by a spirit of inclusiveness (and may actually violate state and federal law). Moskowitz repeatedly tells the media that she is succeeding with the city’s neediest children, but her schools clearly enroll far fewer children on free and reduced lunch, fewer children with disabilities and fewer children who are second language learners than her neighboring district schools, and the pattern of those students who leave the schools in the early grades is not random.
It is true that Success Academy students get higher than average scores on state tests, but this is coming from a population of students who have already had those most likely to struggle on the tests weeded out — and it comes with the cost of extreme test preparation rolled in the curriculum. A Success Academy teacher, writing on terms of anonymity, gave the following account to NYU’s Dr. Diane Ravitch:
“Custom Test Prep Materials: I think many schools use practice workbooks from publishers like Kaplan, etc. We have people whose job it is to put together custom test prep packets based on state guidance. Much more aligned to common core and closer to the test than the published books I’ve seen. Also, teachers are putting together additional worksheets and practice based on what we see in the classroom. Huge volume of practice materials for every possible need (and we use it all, too). Also many practice tests and quizzes that copy format of the test.
“Intensive organization-wide focus on test prep: For the last months and weeks before the test, everyone from Eva on down is completely focused on test prep. Just a few examples….
“We have to give kids 1/2/3/4 scores daily. Kids are broken up into small groups based on the data and get differentiated instruction. If they get a 1, they stay back from recess or after school for extra practice.
“Thousands of dollars spent on prizes to incentivize the kids to work hard. Some teachers have expressed concern about bribing them with basketballs and other toys instead of learning for the sake of learning. The response is “prizes aren’t optional.”
“We get daily inspirational emails from principals with a countdown, anecdotes about the importance of state tests, and ever-multiplying plans for “getting kids over the finish line” (these get old fast).
Excessive test preparation is a concern for all New York City schools, and the teacher evaluation incentives implemented as part of Race to the Top have not helped. The New York legislature passed a law this Spring mandating that test preparation can take up no more than 2% of instructional time in public schools. Charter schools were exempt, which is a relief for Ms. Moskowitz’s schools who would apparently lose months of their planned curricula.
In a follow up message, the same teacher forwarded a message to Success Academy teachers from a senior administrator giving his ideas on why they have been “attacked” in the media. The message contrasts their work to the work of “failure factories”, claims to have found the “solution” to urban education, claims that people are jealous of their schools and frames Success Academy, which can raise over 7 million dollars in a one night fundraiser, as victims of teacher unions.
Missing in the self congratulatory rhetoric and the extreme test preparation? The children pressured and forced out of the network’s schools for reasons no public school could ever employ. There is no “solution” for urban education that involves losing over half a graduating class of students between first grade and eighth. There is no “solution” for the challenges of educating students with learning disabilities, behavioral disabilities or who are learning English that includes pushing them off on to other schools.
Which brings me back to the first graduating class of eighth graders at Success Academy 1. I genuinely wish them well, and I certainly admire the qualities they must possess to thrive in an environment like the one described above. But the children Ms. Moskowitz failed to mention in her address to her first class of “scholars” are the ones she failed to get to that day. Those are the children she refused to accommodate and whose education she washed her hands of.
And she should be made to account for every single one of them before New York grants her a single new classroom.