“Families” For Excellent Schools Sets a New Bar for Chutzpah

“Families” For Excellent Schools, the hedge-fund and foundation backed advocacy group that has waged constant war on New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio on behalf of the charter school sector in general and Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy brand in particular, has postponed a planned rally for September 30th due to weather concerns.  Ms. Moskowitz’s 34 schools had planned to cancel classes for the morning to boost attendance for the gathering in Cadman Plaza which was to feature Jennifer Hudson.  Organizers announced the rally will go ahead on October 7th, but it also comes in the wake of a controversial ad buy by FES in which they accuse Mayor DeBlasio of condemning African American children to inferior educations, presumably by merely failing to embrace 100% of what the charter sector in New York City wants and by not allowing Ms. Moskowitz to simply point at an existing school and say “gimme” any longer.

The ad, entitled “A Tale of Two Boys,” can be easily found, and goes like this: Two young boys, one white and one black, are being walked to school, passing each other on the street.  The ad declares that the white child lives in a wealthy neighborhood and has an excellent school and will probably go on to college.  The black child, however, lives in a poor neighborhood, is forced to attend a failing school and will not have a chance to go to college.  The ad ends by contrasting the two young boys with the white child reading happily in school and the black child looking morose and bored, and then it chides the Mayor for allowing this to happen and declaring that “half a million” children “need new schools”.

The ad, which is costing FES 100s of 1000s of dollars, drew immediate criticism from numerous sources for relying upon racial stereotypes and for using the circumstances of minority children to advocate “solutions” that serve the political agenda of conservative organizations (such as the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation) who have been pushing privatizing education and breaking teachers’ unions for years.  Bertha Lewis of the Black Institute flatly declared the ad racist, and Zakiyah Ansari of the Alliance for Quality Education said, “They are using a black face to push their political agenda, and they make the assumption that all black people are poor…They used our children in a race-baiting commercial.”

Criticism of FES is not limited to the new ad buy.  Writing for The Progressive, New York City teacher, activist, and author Jose Vilson notes about the now postponed rally:

Families for Excellent Schools (an awkward name since everyone wants excellent schools surely), prints “Don’t Steal Possible” on red shirts and hands them out across the city. When a whole host of inequitable conditions, including the stratification of rich and poor, steal possibilities (and lives) from children and adults of color on a daily basis, we won’t see similarly impassioned rallies for their rights. When parents have to take off work for a rally or risk their student getting transferred to a local public school that was stripped of funds for losing students to charter schools, that’s also stealing possible….

What’s most disenchanting about the upcoming rally, though, is that the rally doesn’t serve equal and equitable agency for school-aged children. It ultimately serves the agenda of a handful of people who won’t put their shoes to the cement alongside parents who just want their children to thrive in a good school. If the messaging comes from an unknown busybody and not from the very people affected by the schooling of their children, that’s another swindle our children cannot afford.

Allow me to grant FES a crumb of fact within all of this: educational opportunities are not equally or evenly distributed throughout this city, just as they are not within this country.  Our nation is deeply segregated by income which becomes in many cases a proxy for segregation by race.  A consequence of this is that communities with notable levels of poverty tend to have high levels of poverty, meaning that in order to function well their schools need substantial funding, funding which is denied to them by state and local sources.  Many such schools struggle to provide their students with what they need, leading to lower educational outcomes and diminished opportunities.  However, Jose Vilson rightly points out that many schools with high levels of poverty actually have excellent programs, skilled teachers, and involved PTAs, and they are unfairly deemed “failures” by groups like FES because of one measure only: standardized test scores.  If such schools were also fairly funded and given the resources and capacity to provide all of the services their students need, they could thrive even more.  This is hardly an isolated case.  The portrayal of schools serving mostly minority and mostly impoverished children as nightmares of uncaring and corrupt adults passing along children without concern is a vicious narrative used to justify poaching off as much as the public system into private hands as possible.  “Families” For Excellent Schools’ preferred solutions actually make matters worse for the majority of students.

FES has only a passing relationship with the truth, as demonstrated by Professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University.  Dr. Baker thoroughly destroys the group’s argument that more money per pupil in fully public schools actually harms outcomes by demonstrating that the schools with the highest per pupil spending also have the highest concentrations of special education students and students qualifying for free lunch.  Unshockingly, schools with those populations of students need more money per student in general, and achieving higher value added as measured by tests absolutely takes more money.  Dr. Baker’s research further demonstrates that the charter school sector, as currently administered, acts in a parasitic manner, siphoning off students who have lower rates of high poverty, learning disabilities, and language learning needs and skimming the resources the fully public schools need to provide appropriate services for the children who remain.  While high need districts within New York are face serious underfunding by the state’s own formula for school aid, advocates for charter schools like FES simultaneously call for more resources to be funneled from those public schools and dare to call them “failures” for not thriving.
The nerve of FES running an ad accusing the mayor of allowing African American children to languish is failing schools should be obvious – and deeply offensive – to anyone informed on the issue.  There is no doubt that too many schools struggle, but “Families” For Excellent Schools has no actual interest in improving the educational outcomes for all students in New York City.  In fact, extending genuine opportunities to all students in New York City is completely antithetical to their operating principles and would damage their brand management strategies.
Nationwide, the charter school sector has well-crafted approaches to winnow down the families who even apply to enter open lotteries – even in states where they are mandated to use random lotteries to prevent them from cherry picking students.  While Stephanie Simon’s report for Reuters noted that well known charter operators such as KIPP and Success Academy use simple application forms, that does not mean they seek to retain all of the students who make it into their schools.  Success Academy is known, in particular for practices that drive away significant portions of their students as noted here by former New York high school principal and current Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris who noted how Success Academy 1 in Harlem opened with 127 first graders in 2009 but only 82 remained to begin 6th grade (Interestingly, Success CEO Eva Moskowitz denied the accusation of excessive attrition in the comments section, accusing Ms. Burris of ignoring data that showed charter retention was somewhat higher overall than in nearby schools within the city.  Of course, Ms. Moskowitz was citing data for the entire charter sector while Ms. Burris was looking at the original Success Academy, and Ms. Moskowitz consistently fails to acknowledge that district schools have to replace children who leave when new students arrive at any time and that every child who leaves her schools represents a family that sought out Success Academy deliberately.)
Families that do seek out and get to attend Ms. Moskowitz’s schools quickly learn what it takes to remain there.  A parent handbook for Success Academy obtained by FOIL requests shows that Success Academy requires weekend or additional “academy” sessions for repeat “violations” of its requirements.  Excused absences cannot be had for parental illness, transportation problems, or doctor appointments.  Parental reading is a daily requirement in K-2 with no exceptions as is parental oversight of homework – which is given only in English.  While parental involvement is an important aspect for many students’ achievement, Ms. Moskowitz is essentially mandating parents who are both competent in English and who are in work and family situations stable enough to meet those expectations.  A single parent working evenings and whose child care is a relative speaking limited English is going to be unable to fulfill these requirements.
 The Success Academy network is not precisely subtle that it neither has the time to work with students who need even minor behavioral accommodations nor is it willing to keep them.  Kevin Sprowal was a Kindergarten student in Success Academy who had never been in serious trouble for behavior in three years of pre-school was suddenly disciplined constantly to the point that he felt sick at the thought of going to school.  His mother, Katherine Sprowal, received a direct message from Ms. Moskowitz that she interpreted as a veiled urging to transfer, and the school psychologist flatly said her child should be in a different school.  It is hard to take the “open lottery” for Success Academy seriously when it immediately begins to filter out five year olds who turn out to have perfectly manageable attention deficit.
The network’s methods are plainly brutal in many respects. In a special report in April of this year (that, of course, drew indignant responses from Ms. Moskowtiz), The New York Times documented the extreme high pressure placed upon the network’s very young children, including practices that are, in turn, manipulative and plainly abusive:

But at Success Academy Harlem 4, one boy’s struggles were there for all to see: On two colored charts in the hallway, where the students’ performance on weekly spelling and math quizzes was tracked, his name was at the bottom, in a red zone denoting that he was below grade level….

Success has stringent rules about behavior, down to how students are supposed to sit in the classroom: their backs straight, and their feet on the floor if they are in a chair or legs crossed if they are sitting on the floor. The rationale is that good posture and not fidgeting make it easier to pay attention. Some teachers who had orderly classrooms and a record of good student performance said, after their first year, their school leaders allowed them to bend the rules somewhat, such as not requiring students to clasp their hands as long as their hands were still….

Success did not allow a reporter to observe test preparations, but teachers and students described a regimen that can sometimes be grueling.

To prepare for the reading tests, students spend up to 90 minutes each day working on “Close Reading Mastery” exercises, consisting of passages followed by multiple-choice questions. The last two Saturdays before the exams, students are required to go to school for practice tests.

Students who do well on practice tests can win prizes, such as remote-controlled cars, arts and crafts kits, and board games. Former teachers said that they were instructed to keep the prizes displayed in the front of their classroom to keep students motivated.

Students who are judged to not be trying hard enough are assigned to “effort academy.” While they redo their work, their classmates are getting a reward — like playing dodge ball against the teachers, throwing pies in the face of the principal or running through the hallways while the students in the lower grades cheer….

At one point, her leadership resident — what the network calls assistant principals — criticized her for not responding strongly enough when a student made a mistake. The leadership resident told her that she should have taken the student’s paper and ripped it up in front of her. Students were not supposed to go to the restroom during practice tests, she said, and she heard a leader from another school praise the dedication of a child who had wet his pants rather than take a break….

At Success Academy Harlem 1, as the original school is now called, 23 percent of the 896 students were suspended for at least one day in 2012-13, the last year for which the state has data. At Public School 149, a school in the same building, 3 percent of students were suspended during that same period. Statewide, the average suspension rate is 4 percent. (A spokeswoman for Success said that the suspension rate at Success Academy Harlem 1 has since declined to 14 percent, and that several of the newer schools had rates below 10 percent.)

Students who frequently got in trouble sometimes left the network, former staff members said, because their parents got frustrated with the repeated suspensions or with being called in constantly to sit with their children at school…

“We can NOT let up on them,” she continued. “Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack will go to effort academy, have their parent called, and will miss electives. This is serious business, and there has to be misery felt for the kids who are not doing what is expected of them.”

Public shaming.  Extremely narrow behavioral norms for children as low as five.  Extra school work as punishment for not meeting standardized testing goals.  Obsessive focus on standardized test preparation. Open and blatant bribes for children who excel on test based measures.  Children who can quickly adapt to this and perform on tests as expected are welcome at Success Academy.

Which brings us back to chutzpah.  “Families” For Excellent Schools will rally next week with Ms. Moskowitz’s students front and center providing the optics of minority children in need of great schools and opportunities.  They will claim to be there for the “half a million” children “trapped in failing schools” (last year, they claimed it was 143,000) and who need “new schools, now” – by which they mean charter schools in the Eva Moskowitz model.

But those charter schools – and Ms. Moskowitz’s schools in particular – do not want all of those children they will claim to speak for next week.  They want the children whose parents have stable enough work lives and English proficient enough that they can meet all of the out of school expectations without exception.  They want children who do not require any accommodations that would alter their extraordinarily rigid approach to early childhood behavior.  They want children who can immediately adapt at the age of five to excessive conformity, who can handle public shaming and extraordinary pressure, and who will emerge from that environment with high standardized scores.  Everyone else can go pound sand.  More specifically, everyone else can go back to their district schools which now have even higher concentrations of children in high poverty, with serious special learning needs, and with English language learning needs but which have fewer monetary and physical resources with which to help those children.  Far from speaking for half a million kids in need of great schools, “Families” For Excellent Schools will use 1000s of children as props to denigrate the work and efforts of 100s of schools and tens of 1000s of teachers and hundreds of 1000s of other children simply because of their test scores.  Worse, they will call for even more resources to be hoovered out of those schools – even though the “no excuses” charter sector in New York is 100% dependent upon having zoned schools that will take the children they refuse to accommodate.

“Families” For Excellent Schools does not give a damn about most of the children in New York.  Don’t let them get away with claiming they do.


Filed under "Families" For Excellent Schools, charter schools, Social Justice, Testing

2 responses to ““Families” For Excellent Schools Sets a New Bar for Chutzpah

  1. Pingback: Eva Moskowtiz is Out of Control | Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

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