Category Archives: Success Academy

An Opt Out Lament – and a Deeper Lesson

It is nearing the end of March, which means that my social media feeds and the blogs that I read are full of materials pertaining to the Opt Out movement.  Contrary to years of efforts by testing advocates to portray Opt Out as wholly of phenomenon of privileged parents, I know that the efforts I witness represent the work of parents facing bullying and misinformation from administrators trying to keep their test participation levels above 95%.  It is also represents the work of brave teachers risking sanction and professional consequences for speaking out against damaging policies that distort curricula and classroom choices.  Further, it represents the work of urban education activists who have seen over and over again how annual test data is abused by politicians and policymakers and is used to rank teachers on flawed measures of their performance and to close schools instead of to help and nurture them.

The reasons to support opting out are legion.  Peter Greene provides an excellent breakdown of eight compelling reasons in this postKatie Lapham clearly articulates how test refusal is a form of people power that says “no” to a variety of practices that actively harm schools and children.  Last year, Bronx Principal Jamaal Bowman made an impassioned case for why he supports parents’ rights to refuse the state exams, asking why if the city’s most elite private schools refuse to give exams like these why do we just accept them as necessary for schools full of children in poverty?  New York State Allies for Public Education published this informative response to general misinformation and obfuscation on testing policy put into the state “information toolkit” for administrators.  I urge you to read these pieces carefully and thoughtfully and to seek out others on the subject if you are not already deeply informed on the issues regarding testing.

From where I sit, there are two fundamental reasons why parents should consider opting their children out of the annual examinations.  First, they are a failed policy.  Annual, high stakes, standardized examinations were ushered in as part of the No Child Left Behind legislation under President Bush with a promise that with an ongoing set of achievement data that could be compared against annual improvement targets and consequences for not meeting those targets that schools would improve, especially schools that serve student populations who consistently struggled.  The promise was enticing enough that a bi-partisan coalition signed up, including civil rights organizations convinced that states and cities would be forced to help schools where most students were of color.

That reality never materialized.  While states were flush with data that showed exactly what could have been predicted using other data sources, the “help” that was supposed to flow to struggling schools never measured up to the task while the threat of consequences narrowed more and more student experiences into ongoing test preparation.  Writing during the 2015 debate over the Every Student Succeeds Act, Kevin Welner and William Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder concluded that test-based accountability as practiced in the NCLB era had demonstrably failed to demonstrate real improvement in the nation’s schools:

We as a nation have devoted enormous amounts of time and money to the focused goal of increasing test scores, and we have almost nothing to show for it.  Just as importantly, there is no evidence that any test score increases represent the broader learning increases that were the true goals of the policy – goals such as critical thinking; the creation of lifelong learners; and more students graduating high school ready for college, career, and civic participation.  While testing advocates proclaim that testing drives student learning, they resist evidence-based explanations for why, after two decades of test-driven accountability, these reforms have yielded such unimpressive results.

Second, test-based accountability is monstrously unjust and racist, subjecting communities to punitive results and “solutions” that aid only a few and which disproportionately take away input into education from parents of color. While No Child Left Behind had already done significant damage to schools and learning, the Obama administration’s policies went much further.  Under the Race to the Top competition, states were incentivized to adopt common standards, to join mass testing consortia, and to use the results of test data to promote school choice and to evaluate teachers.  These are not benign policies.  Value added measures of teacher performance have been and remain highly unreliable ways to evaluate teachers, and while school choice advocates like current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her predecessors in the Obama administration like to portray school choice as empowerment for students and parents, they persistently fail to consider the nature and consequences of those choices.  Urban charter schools rarely enroll identical populations of students as their host districts, and high performing charter schools frequently use shockingly high attrition rates to enhance their overall test scores.  The idea that urban charter schools offer parents “choices” the way that suburban parents enjoy choices, as so often claimed by their proponents, is laughable – it is hardly a choice to be offered a district schools that is chronically underfunded and neglected by policy makers or a charter school that is well resourced thanks to wealthy donors but which routinely drives away its students.  And yet those are the “choices” offered to urban parents of color thanks to testing policies, choices that would cause their white, wealthy peers to oust elected leaders.

And yet, despite these reasons which I believe whole-heartedly, my family will not opt out of the tests this year.

That admission comes as a bit of a shock and leaves me with deeply conflicted feelings, perhaps even trepidation that I will lose respect among people whose advocacy and bravery I greatly respect.  However, I cannot demand that we be an opt out family this year and honor a promise we made to our children.

Last year, as testing time approached, we spoke to our oldest child about the upcoming exams and why we did not like them as a school policy. They were poorly written (they still are).  They took up far too much time just taking them and consumed way too much teaching time preparing for them (they still do).  The state and city would use the test scores to unfairly judge schools and teachers (and they still will).  Based on those reasons, we explained to our child that it was possible to refuse to take the exams and that we would be pleased to make certain the school knew not to administer the exam.  It did not take much to get a “yes” in response to this argument, and for those who think we may have pressured our child, this is a young person who, at the age of six, deduced atheism without any outside influence.  It was important to us that this be a family decision that our child participated in rather than one we insisted upon without listening. Compared to many families who opt out, we were exceedingly lucky.  The school knows what I do for a living, and we were subjected to no active campaign to get us to change our mind, even though New York state policy encourages principals to do just that.

On the other hand, our school really has no active opt out presence, and to my knowledge, our child was the ONLY student in the school to opt out and spent the better part of two different weeks helping out in a Kindergarten class.  Again, better than what happens to many students, but it also made our child stand out.

So when testing time approached again this year, we sat down for another conversation, but the result was very different.  Without being particularly upset or visibly shaken by the previous year’s experience, our child decided to NOT opt out. Part of keeping my word on our child having the right to have a say in this means that we are not an opt out family this year.  Over the weeks, I have managed to tease out my child’s reasons.  Some of it is sheer curiosity about what the other kids will be spending so much time doing.  Some of it is recalling feeling awkward in a classroom full of Kindergarten kids.  Some of it is feeling uneasy being the only student in the grade not taking the test.  Some of it is knowing that the test is part of the teachers’ evaluations and concern not taking it will be harmful – I said that the last fear was not what would happen, but the other reasons?  I don’t really have an argument there, and I strongly suspect there is no small part of this decision that is based upon not wanting to be the only kid opting out again.  I cannot find fault with that.  No matter how much I say that this is a “family decision,” at the end of the day, it is my child who has to enact it, for hours and hours at a time, and that would be a very lonely and potentially ostracizing act.

Of course, honoring my child’s participation in this decision also means recognizing that we are participating, unnecessarily in my opinion, in a policy that is both a failure and which is used to justify a racist status quo.  Just this past week, the New York City Panel on Educational Policy voted to shutter more schools that were supposed to be getting extra assistance and resources as part of a renewal program, assistance and resources that community members in the Bronx say never materialized for JHS 145 Arturo Toscanini.  Those same community members present strong arguments that their school was already slated to be taken over by a charter school before the decision on closing was finalized.  All of this is made far more possible by the abuse of testing data in decision making, testing data our family will contribute to this year.

It is hard to swallow, but perhaps it is also an opportunity for deeper and more incisive self critique.  The state tests may help to fuel failed and racist policies, but they are by no means the only examples of injustice in our school system.  I prepare college students to become teachers, but am I doing enough to teach them to confront the school to prison pipeline?  Am I doing enough to help them drop the pitfalls of “white savior complex” and really learn about their students of color?  Am I working to shine a light on how gentrification brings wealth into neighborhoods and opens trendy night spots but rarely does anything for the public schools?  What level of my own comfort within the education system that I work for and in which my children are enrolled am I willing to put at risk?

How much am I complacent in a much larger system of injustices even if I am able to identify the state tests as especially troubling?  Taking time to answer these questions is more important than ever, and my child’s decision about this year’s tests plays no small role in it.

2 Comments

Filed under Activism, Arne Duncan, Betsy DeVos, charter schools, Common Core, Data, ESSA, Eva Moskowitz, Funding, Opt Out, politics, racism, schools, Success Academy, Testing, VAMs

Eva Moskowitz Cancelled Her Own Pre-K

Eva Moskowitz, the founder and head of the Success Academy charter school network has control issues.  In many aspects of life, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Steve Jobs was famously involved in the many details of design and development of Apple’s products, arguably responsible for the level of innovation that drove an entire industry.  The private sector, in fact, is often lead by people who are extraordinarily demanding of themselves and of everyone in their organizations — which may well drive people close to them nuts but which gets results for consumers and investors.

That’s not remotely the best way for public education to operate.

To be sure, schools and school systems need involved, high energy, and dynamic leaders.  But they also need leaders who understand and can navigate the complex system of loosely coupled and interlocking stakeholders who have legitimate say in how schools operate.  They need to respond respectfully and thoughtfully to potentially contradictory demands and navigate an optimal course forward.  School leaders need to understand and accept accountability to the tax payers whose money from local, state, and federal revenues fund the system.  “My way or the highway”ism might be functional for some aspects of entrepreneurship in certain visionary companies — it is absolutely awful in public education.

Ms. Moskowitz exerts extremely tight and thorough control over the operation of Success Academy, and she is extremely zealous in her insistence that nobody other than the State University of New York charter authorizer has any say whatsoever.  In fact, Ms. Moskowitz has been to court multiple times to prevent that New York State Comptroller’s office from auditing her books — which are full of taxpayers’ money that the Comptroller is supposed to monitor.  Charter school laws do free up the sector from a great many of the labor and education rules that govern our fully public schools, but Ms. Moskowitz has been singular in her insistence that no governmental authority can so much as examine her books.

So it was hardly surprising that when the New York City received money from the state of New York to open free public pre-Kindergarten programs, Ms. Moskowitz wanted a share of that money to support the program at her schools.  It was also not surprising that she immediately refused to sign the contract that the city required of all pre-K providers – including other charter school networks – that got money.  The city insisted that the contract to provide some oversight of pre-K programs was required to fulfill its obligations under the state grant that provided the funds in the first place. Ms. Moskowitz insisted that didn’t matter.  In this March Op-Ed announcing that Success Academy was suing the city for the pre-K money without the contract, Ms. Moskowitz makes it crystal clear that she believes charter schools cannot be made to answer to any state or city authority other than SUNY.

Ms. Moskowitz’s argument here involves some sleight of hand.  Yes, charter schools were granted legal permission to operate pre-K programs.  However, as Jersey Jazzman notes very cogently, this particular money was coming from the New York City DOE which made a proposal to the state for pre-K funds that required the city to engage in oversight of the program including making certain that all applicable federal and state laws and regulations were followed.  Ms. Moskowitz filed suit against the city because the city refused to violate its own agreement with the state when it applied for the universal pre-K funding in the first place. Further, again as noted by Jersey Jazzman, the law that Ms. Moskowitz insists grants her the ability to run a pre-K requires a school district to seek participants including charter schools, but it also allows the district to deny organizations inclusion in its application and allows those organizations to apply individually for funds.

Simply put:  Success Academy did not want to apply for pre-K funding on its own, AND they did want to be held to the same rules as every other pre-K provider included in New York City’s application to the state.

Neither the state nor the city decided to budge on the matter, and with a lawsuit still in process, Success Academy announced last week that they were cancelling all of their pre-K programs.  In typical Success Academy fashion, Ms. Moskowitz declared that the state and city were putting “politics” ahead of education, said the mayor had a “war” against her schools, and lamented that the courts would not “rescue” the pre-K classes.

analog volume meter

 

Cancelling their pre-K has absolutely nothing to do with Success Academy’s financial need. The money at stake was around $720,000, and while that is not chicken scratch, Success Academy could put together that sum easily.  This is an organization that can put together a $9 million fundraiser for a single night’s event.  This is an organization that spent more than $700,000 in a single day for a rally in Albany (including almost $72,000 for beanies) and which expected $39 million in philanthropic money for fiscal year 2016 – BEFORE the announcement of a $25 million dollar gift from billionaire Julian Robertson.  This is also an organization that is entirely capable of applying for pre-K funds from the state directly, and while it is not guaranteed that their application would be approved, given Success Academy’s extremely powerful and politically influential circle of close friends, I have little doubt they’d get money.

Success Academy could have very well “rescued” its own pre-K program by calling up any of its billionaire patrons, by submitting their own application to the state, or by signing the city’s agreement with the state for the money under city control.  But Eva Moskowitz wanted none of that because this isn’t about Success Academy’s pre-K classes or the very young children she is using as props.  This is about Eva Moskowitz being able to plant her flag on any available pot of public funding and demand that she be given it with no oversight or accountability whatsoever.  This is about control, plain and simple.  Control of public funds.  Control of the process that distributes them.  Control of the politicians and agencies that are entrusted to oversee them.  Ms. Moskowitz saw available funding to expand Success Academy’s footprint, and she was given every fair opportunity to access it either with or without city oversight.

She wanted to dictate the terms of how that money got to her schools.  The only one who cancelled Success Academy’s pre-K program is Eva Moskowitz and her demand for control.

Leave a comment

Filed under "Families" For Excellent Schools, charter schools, Corruption, Eva Moskowitz, Funding, MaryEllen Elia, politics, Success Academy

The Price of “Success”

At the end of 2014, the rapidly expanding Success Academy charter school network in New York City announced they would hire an in house ethnographer.  At the time, the network had 9,400 students in grades K-9 across 32 schools and had plans for further expansion.  The job description for the opening read:

“We want to expand the scope and quality of our data collection to focus on the lived experience within our schools,” the description reads, adding that the position would help the network focus on “questions we’ve never thought to ask.”

At the time, seeking a genuine social scientist to truly study the network gained high praise from representatives of the charter sector in public education such as Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, who said the move was unique among charter schools across the nation.

The post was filled by Dr. Roy Germano who got to work in early 2015, examining the culture of Success Academy and seeking potential research questions to help the network focus, as they said, on things they’d “never thought to ask.”  Dr. Germano’s early work appeared to center on the high pressure and test-score centered professional culture of the charter school network, and the potential consequences that might have for teacher and administrator behavior.  According to documents that were obtained by PoliticoNewYork, Dr. Germano used his early investigations to write a proposal for a study of possible cheating by teachers within the network in response to the organization’s incentive structure.  Dr. Germano had no conclusive proof of cheating, but his interest stemmed from various examples teachers explained to him in interviews of colleagues correcting student work or suggesting that they “rethink” their answers, and to parallels he drew between Success’ high stakes environment and the Atlanta Public Schools where widespread cheating on standardized examinations eventually surfaced.  Dr. Germano further noted that “there are no rewards at Success for ethical teachers who try their best and fail.”

The research proposal and reasons for the concern rocked the higher administration at Success Academy to its core, and immediately resulted in a top to bottom self examination of incentives and practices that might negatively impact teaching and learning within the network.  Principals were directed to give Dr. Germano full access to faculty and students and to begin a careful process of reviewing how they support teachers in fostering genuine student learning where high test scores are the outcome of an ethical and deeply enriched school environment.  The reward and career advancement structure at the network was immediately scrutinized to determine what changes could be made to be absolutely sure that rewards and bonuses do not incentivize questionable practices, and the policy of publicly stack ranking teachers based on student test scores came under question as well.  Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz recently announced that she is “eagerly awaiting” the results of Dr. Germano’s research and learning what the network can do to continuously improve.

Ha, ha – just kidding.  She totally banned him from the schools, fired him, and wrote nasty memos about him to the staff.

Dr. Germano, who now works as a research professor at New York University, was apparently required to write a follow up report in which he noted: “I am told Eva Moskowitz made disparaging comments about me in reaction to the report…I was told to write a follow-up report that would essentially downplay my findings and told by [recently departed Success vice president] Keri Hoyt not to use the word ‘cheating’ in any future reports. Finally, I was told that I was banned from visiting schools for the remaining 4 weeks of the school year, and that I could only visit schools next year if accompanied by ‘a chaperone.’”  He also noted in that follow up, “Comments about a culture of fear at Success have been a recurring theme in my interviews.” Spokesperson Stefan Friedman told Politico: “As to the allegations raised in the title of Mr. Germano’s memo, though he interviewed just 13 teachers out of 1,400 to justify that title, we conducted a thorough investigation and found no evidence to substantiate his speculation…Any suggestion that we utilized these methods — or anything untoward — on state standardized exams is categorically false and not supported by a scintilla of fact.”

Dr. Germano’s proposed research was submitted to Success in May of 2015.  By August, he was dismissed after having been forbidden to visit schools.  With such a severe reaction and so quick a dismissal, Mr. Friedman’s assertion that Success Academy “conducted a thorough investigation” is plainly laughable.  So much for asking questions.

Dr. Germano’s questions actually come as no surprise to those who have watched Success Academy closely, nor does his prompt dismissal after actually doing the job for which he was supposedly hired.  The pressure cooker atmosphere and singular focus on standardized test results has been evident at the rapidly growing network since at least 2010, when Success Academy’s Paul Fucaloro openly told New York Magazine that his program turned their students “into little test taking machines,” and he actually said, “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” blaming bad parenting for most special needs students.  In the same article, other sources says that students who do not bend to the Success Academy method were counseled out and that founder Eva Moskowitz told the staff that “Success Academy is not a social service agency.”

A year later, The New York Times ran a story on the subtle and direct ways that the network tries to rid itself of students who do not quickly and completely comply.  The story described the experiences of Kevin Sprowal who, mere weeks into his Kindergarten year, was throwing up most mornings before school because of the constant and increasing punishments.  Recently, a series of news stories have placed further emphasis on the high pressure environment in the network.  In April of 2015, Kate Taylor ran a story in The New York Times highlighting both the very high test score results and the extreme pressure environment within Success Academy – including an incentive system for students that include publicly shaming students with low test scores.  On October 12th, veteran education reporter John Merrow did an extended segment on the PBS Newshour on the use of out of school suspensions at Success Academy – for children as young as Kindergarten:

Eva Moskowitz retaliated by lobbing a lengthy complaint against Mr. Merrow at PBS and by publishing a response that included federally protected information identifying the disciplinary record of a former Success Academy student who appeared on camera.  This earned her a cease and desist order and a formal complaint filed with the Federal Department of Education.

Before October was over, The New York Times ran another story on Success Academy – this time, a “got to go list” was leaked from Success Academy in Fort Green, Brooklyn.  In addition to the shocking targeting of specific students, other sources confirmed practices across the network such as not sending automatic re-enrollment paperwork to certain families, and a network attorney calling one student leaving “a big win for us”.  Ms. Moskowitz responded with a press conference calling the “got to go list” an aberration – and with an email to staff declaring the bad press the result of media “conspiracy theories.”  Ms. Moskowitz then took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal in an editorial piece claiming that the only real “secret” to Success Academy is imitating the teaching of Paul Fucaloro:

…I wasn’t completely sold on Paul’s approach at first, but when one of our schools was having trouble, I’d dispatch him to help. He’d tell the teachers to give him a class full of all the kids who had the worst behavioral and academic problems. The teachers thought this was nuts but they’d do so, and then a few days later they’d drop by Paul’s classroom and find these students acting so differently that they were nearly unrecognizable. Within weeks, the students would make months’ worth of academic progress.

Ms. Moskowitz wanted her readers to infer that all Success Academy has done is simply scale up the teaching methods of one man into a system of nearly 3 dozen schools and roughly 10,000 students.

But if that is the case, the public had to wonder just what kind of person Ms. Moskowitz chose to clone across her entire staff when a video of one of the network’s “exemplar teachers” surfaced.  In the video, a calm and passive Success Academy student has trouble following her teacher’s instructions and is treated to having her work paper ripped in half in front of her classmates, being sent to the “calm down chair,” and berate in angry tones.  The video was not an accident: the assistant teacher was specifically keeping her cell phone ready in order to catch an example of just that kind of behavior because she had seen it so often.  In what is now her typical fashion, Eva Moskowitz lashed out at the press for the story, calling her critics haters and bullies.

This is a long record of employing not merely high standards, but also of employing extreme high pressure and of tolerating plainly unethical practices from teachers and administrators so long as the bottom line – very high standardized test scores – remains intact.  Dr. Germano’s questions were entirely appropriate as the beginning of a research program within Success Academy precisely because the bottom line at the network is entirely tangled up with test scores first and the means to get those scores second. If it means suspending Kindergarten children repeatedly until the submit to total control of their behavior, so be it.  If it means conspiring to pressure certain families to leave the school, so be it.  If it means humiliating a little girl in front of her peers so she learns that mistakes are never tolerated, so be it.  Dr. Germano’s original proposal stated the central problem at Success Academy perfectly: “There are no rewards at Success for ethical teachers who try their best and fail.”

Incentives matter. And organizational values are completely intertwined with what is measured and rewarded.  The is well known in the business world, even though companies from Enron to General Motors do not always learn from it.  The lesson from Success Academy is that when a school is entirely obsessed with high standardized test scores and when it is removed from nearly every system of public accountability available, it can get those test scores – but at an extremely high cost to anyone who does not serve that end.  Perhaps overt, organized, cheating is not a problem at Success Academy (yet), but the organizational incentives for it exist from the very top all the way down to their youngest students.

Dr. Germano tried to warn them, but nobody at Success Academy seems capable of listening.

1 Comment

Filed under charter schools, classrooms, Corruption, Eva Moskowitz, Media, Social Justice, Success Academy