Another month, another Success Academy scandal.
This time it involves an undercover video of a first grade teacher in Success Academy Cobble Hill in Brooklyn that was shot by an assistant teacher who was unnerved by the ongoing abusive behavior of the lead teacher, one of the networks “exemplar teachers” who is considered so effective she trains her colleagues. The video, submitted to the New York Times, was shot in 2014 and was given to reporters when the assistant teacher left the Success Academy network last year. The video is hard to watch by anyone with a hint of empathy for very young children struggling with instructions and a challenging concept. It begins with a room of Success Academy students sitting cross-legged around the classroom rug, hands folded, backs in fully upright posture. The teacher instructs a little girl to “count it again, making sure you are counting correctly.” The girl pauses, apparently confused, and the teacher commands her to “count” in a quiet but stern voice. The girl begins to count and then looks at the teacher who immediately rips her paper in half, throws it at the child, and points sharply to a corner of the room:
Go to the calm down chair and sit. There is nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper. Somebody come up and show me how she should have counted to get her answer done with one and a split. Show my friends and teach them. (a child does as she says) Thank you. Do NOT go back to your seat and show me one thing and then don’t do it here. You’re confusing everybody. Very upset and very disappointed.
Every bit of that was delivered in a loud and angry tone of voice.
Kate Taylor, who wrote the story for the Times, reported that a Success Academy spokesperson said the teacher’s behavior was “shocking” and had been suspended from teaching, but was then back only a week and half later and still in the role of “exemplar” teacher. Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz cited network manuals that say teachers should never use sarcastic tones or humiliate students, and, as is typical, dismissed the video as an “anomaly,” telling Ms. Taylor that the teacher reacted emotionally because she “so desperately wants her kids to succeed and to fulfill their potential.” Ms. Moskowitz went on to insist that the video meant nothing and questioned the motives of the former assistant teacher who took it.
This video is not an accident. It was taken because the assistant teacher had become concerned about daily occurrences of abusive behavior and did not merely get lucky to begin filming the lead teacher at the precise moment when she anomalously lit into a very young child for a simple mistake. While the network defended itself, Ms. Taylor interviewed 20 current and former teachers whose statements indicate the behavior caught on the video is far more widespread in Success Academy than Ms. Moskowitz and her defenders admit. One teacher, Jessica Reid Sliwerski, who worked for three years as both a teacher and as an assistant principal said that embarrassing children for “slipshod” work is both common and often encouraged: “It’s this culture of, ‘If you’ve made them cry, you’ve succeeded in getting your point across.” New York University education professor Joseph P. McDonald said he would hardly be surprised if the classroom was one where children were often afraid. “The fear is likely not only about whether my teacher may at any time erupt with anger and punish me dramatically, but also whether I can ever be safe making mistakes.” This was confirmed by another former Success Academy teacher, Carly Ginsberg, who said she witnessed papers torn up in front of children as young as kindergarten, an assistant principal openly mocking a low test score in front of the child, and a lead kindergarten teacher who made a little girl cry so hard that she vomited.
None of this is surprising to observers who have long known how Success Academy uses staggering pressure and laser-like focus on standardized test scores to get their results and to drive away children who cannot quickly and totally conform. Kate Taylor’s lengthy examination of the culture of the school last summer documents it, John Merrow’s story on Success Academy’s hefty use of out of school suspensions confirms it, and the network’s scramble to explain away a principal who compiled a “got to go” list of children to drive out of the school pretty much sealed it. Success Academy does not merely have high expectations and sets lofty goals; it single-mindedly pursues them with a near zero tolerance for mistakes and for any behavior outside its rigidly defined norms. Children, and teachers for that matter, who cannot swiftly comply are subjected to mounting pressure until they either break or go away.
I’ve written previously that Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy are likely to continue to have bad press for the simple reason that there are too many former Success Academy families and teachers to keep the kind of message discipline and information control that the network has employed until recently. If Success Academy were merely an extreme anomaly in our education system, it would be possible to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude over Ms. Moskowitz’s obvious discomfort and inability to keep up the convincing arrogance that has typified her tenure as an education leader. The trouble is that while Success Academy may be an extreme instantiation of disturbing and unethical priorities in our education system, it is by no means alone. To varying degrees (and predating the founding of Ms. Moskowtiz’s network), huge swaths of American education have fallen victim to Successification: creeping emphasis on the shallowest of measures as ends unto themselves, the steady assault on childhood as a time of play and exploration, growing intolerance for error in both answers and behavior. We are doing this to ourselves and to our children.
Children of color have long known that schools in many cities show almost fanatical intolerance for misbehavior. The proliferation of “zero-tolerance” policies has lead to a “school to prison pipeline” where minor infractions of rules are criminalized and school discipline is routinely farmed out to police enforcement. In this video by the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Project Liberty, New York City students describe their experiences with these policies and the impact it has on their ability to even think about school success and their future:
Success Academy may be a pioneer in subjecting very young students to out of school suspensions and extreme levels of behavioral conformity, but schools throughout our vast education system subject students to direct contact with police and arrest for rules violations that should be treated vastly differently. The cycle here is especially vicious as suspended students often have home environments that cannot provide structure and supervision while they are out of school, leading to far greater risk of dropping out and ending up within the criminal justice system.
Schools that serve students from economically and racially privileged backgrounds place their own forms of pressure on students. Writing in The Atlantic magazine, Erika Chistakis explained how research is now showing that the increasing emphasis on academics at younger and younger ages, even to preschool children, is actually harmful:
New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.
That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.
Ms. Christakis also noted that many parents of preschool aged children approved of the new approaches because of palpable fear that their children would fall behind others and that an early stumble could have life altering consequences. Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania teacher and blogger, notes a similar theme among his own students in this very important essay entitled “One Wrong Move.” He describes a class of honors students in his small town school completely paralyzed by the fear of making errors that they could never do anything without complete assurance they would get it completely correct, all because of the outsized risks associated with ever being wrong. It reminds me very much of my own college students who are bright, caring, eager, passionate – and who are geniuses at completing four hours of homework assigned on a Monday and due on Tuesday, but who, by their own admission have very little experience with high risk work that requires them to embrace uncertainty and the possibility of instructive failure.
I was recently walking my own children to school in our New York City neighborhood when we were passed by a father and son walking together. The child looked to be about in 4th or 5th grade and was saying to his father, “You know in my school a one or a two are really not looked at as something good.” It took me a moment, and then I realized he was talking about the level indicators on the New York State assessment system that are baked into elementary school report cards as the numbers 1 through 4. At what point does it become painfully absurd for an elementary school student to have internalized the language of academic standards performance levels, and at what point does it become unethical for him to know what is or is not approved of in his school? But this is just another example for where we have come in our education system by making performance to cut levels on standardized exams more important than actual learning. We have normalized this, and our children know it.
As is typical for Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy leader lashed out at The New York Times in an email circulated to all of her employees where she claimed the newspaper has a “vendetta” against her and called her critics “haters” who are trying to “bully” the network. While it may be desirable, even necessary, to deflate the self aggrandizing mythology of Success Academy by documenting reality, it is also important to remember that the charter network is not actually the illness. It is merely an extreme rash that has broken on the surface. Looking deeper, it is evident that much of our schooling today suffers from “Successification”. Whether it is black and brown children subjected to zero tolerance policies that send them on a collision course with the criminal justice system or it is students terrified of making errors because their education has no time for learning from mistakes and genuine discovery, we are slowly building a school system where the worst priorities are granted full control.
It is time for a good, long, hard look in the mirror to see if Eva Moskowitz is staring back at us.