Tag Archives: Eva Moskowitz

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.

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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

Vouchers, and Growth Scores, and Bears, Oh My!

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s designated nominee for Secretary of Education, appeared before the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions late Tuesday afternoon.  Before I comment further, here is an obligatory picture of a grizzly bear:

grizzly-sow-101

This is inspired by one of the oddest interactions of her hearing when Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut asked DeVos if she believed that guns belonged in public schools, leading to this exchange:

This was her response to Chris Murphy.  Of Connecticut.  Whose constituents endured one of the most heart breaking and devastating attacks of violence visited upon a single school in American history.  Guns in school, as a matter of principle, should be left to locales because – grizzly bears.

Just as a matter of record: in testimony that was riddled with evasions and factual errors, DeVos’ supposition about guns and grizzly bears was also wrong.  According to Politifact, Wyoming bars guns from public schools, and wildlife experts note that anti-bear spray is most likely better than a gun for most people who might confront a bear.

the-more-you-know

While the Grizzly Bear Gun Hypothesis was a humorous head scratching moment Tuesday evening, it was nowhere near the only one.  As could be expected, Republican Senators opted for extreme softball questions, and, disappointingly, Committee Chair Senator Lamar Alexander, himself a former Secretary of Education, denied repeated requests for extending time or holding a follow up hearing.  Democrats used their limited time to grill the nominee on a variety of questions about education policy, her own background as a wealthy donor to conservative candidates, and whether or not she would commit to not gutting public schools and enforcing federal education law.  In all of these exchanges, DeVos had only two modes of response.  One was slippery as an eel trying to escape from a net.  The other was woefully unprepared to demonstrate the most basic knowledge of federal education policy and how it impacts schools.  On issue after issue, DeVos was unable to articulate cogent responses that she would have known if she had spent even three days on the job as a classroom teacher, as a building or district administrator, or as an elected official with jurisdiction over school policy.

There is no other conclusion to reach:  Betsy DeVos is woefully unqualified to be Secretary of Education in the United States of America, and her confirmation puts all schools and students who rely upon the competent administration of the Department of Education at risk.

The evasions began fairly early when Senator Murray of Washington tried to pin down DeVos on potential conflicts of interest.  This is a matter of obvious concern as the nominee had still not completed her ethics review paperwork as of Monday, and her family has vast holdings and investments.  However, when the Senator tried to pin her down, this was the response:

SEN. MURRAY: WE KNOW FROM PRESS REPORTS THAT YOU AND YOUR FAMILY HAVE INVESTED IN THE EDUCATION INDUSTRY, INCLUDING INVESTMENTS IN A STUDENT LOAN REFINANCING COMPANY AND K12 INC., A CHAIN OF FOR PROFIT ONLINE CHARTER SCHOOLS. YOU TOLD THE COMMITTEE YOU WOULD SEVER TIES WITH THOSE FIRMS, AND YOU ALSO SAID HE WOULD INTEND TO RETURN TO THE BUSINESSES WHEN YOU LEAVE PUBLIC SERVICE. HOW IS THAT DIFFERENT FROM PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP’S ARRANGEMENT?

DEVOS: SENATOR, FIRST OF ALL, LET ME BE VERY CLEAR ABOUT ANY CONFLICTS. WHERE CONFLICTS ARE IDENTIFIED, THEY WILL BE RESOLVED. I WILL NOT BE CONFLICTED, PERIOD. I COMMIT THAT TO YOU WELL. — YOU ALL. WITH RESPECT TO THE ONES YOU CITED, ONE OF THE ONES WE WERE AWARE OF AS WE ENTERED THE PROCESS, THAT IS IN THE PROCESS OF BEING DIVESTED. IF THERE ARE ANY OTHERS THAT ARE IDENTIFIED, THEY WILL BE APPROPRIATELY DIVESTED AS WELL.

SEN. MURRAY: FROM YOUR ANSWER, I ASSUME THAT YOUR AND YOUR FAMILY INTEND TO FOREGO ALL INVESTMENTS IN EDUCATION COMPANIES FROM NOW ON?

DEVOS: ANYTHING DEEMED TO BE A CONFLICT WILL NOT BE PART OF OUR INVESTING.

SEN. MURRAY: HOW DO YOU INTEND TO CONVINCE THIS COMMITTEE THAT NO ENTITY WILL FEEL PRESSURED TO PURCHASE, PARTNER, OR CONTRACT WITH CORPORATE OR NONPROFIT ENTITIES YOU AND YOUR FAMILY INVESTED IN, SHOULD YOU BE CONFIRMED AS SECRETARY?

DEVOS: I CAN COMMIT TO YOU THAT NOBODY WILL FEEL ANY PRESSURE LIKE THAT.

That roughly translates to “I will not have conflicts of interest because I will not have conflicts of interest.”  I know that I feel better.  That kind of evasion continued during questions by Senator Sanders of Vermont who asked her how much money her family had donated to Republican candidates over time, an amount she claimed not to know…but Senator Sanders did:

I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but I doubt that I would forget the exact number if I ever gave $200 million to anyone or anything.  DeVos also went on to counter Senator Sanders’ questions about making tuition free at public universities and colleges by saying that “nothing is free.”  This is true – it takes approximately $200 million to buy state legislatures and Senators, for example.

Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey tried to pin down the nominee on whether or not she would uphold current guidance on Title IX that relates to sexual assault on college campuses.  He got nowhere on that as did Senator Murray who later tried to pin DeVos down a second time on the issue, which is germane given that the nominee has donated $10,000 to an advocacy group that is specifically trying to overturn the Obama administration guidelines and make it more difficult for victims of sexual assault on college campuses to get justice.  DeVos basically gaslighted Senator Casey by saying her “mom’s heart was really piqued on this issue” right before the Senator reminded her of her donations.  She also danced around the record of the charter school environment in Michigan that she and her donations helped create when questioned by Senator Bennet of Colorado, going so far as to call reports of the lack of accountability “fake news.”  It’s not, by the way.  It is extremely well documented.  Senator Whitehouse of Rhode Island followed this by schooling the nominee on legacy costs that accrue to school districts when charter school students take funding with them but leave behind the same costs in place.  He also asked DeVos if, given her history of donations and participation in organizations that deny climate change, she would make certain that the department will resist efforts to include “junk science” into school curricula.  Her answer?

IT IS PRETTY CLEAR IS THAT THE EXPECTATION IS SCIENCE IS TAUGHT IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS. I SUPPORT THE TEACHING OF GREAT SCIENCE AND ESPECIALLY SCIENCE THAT ALLOWS STUDENTS TO EXERCISE CRITICAL THINKING AND TO REALLY DISCOVER AND EXAMINE IN NEW WAYS. SCIENCE SHOULD BE SUPPORTED AT ALL LEVELS.

In case you didn’t know that is perilously similar to the kind of “teach the controversy” nonsense propagated by Creationists when trying to shoehorn their way into legitimate science classrooms on subjects that are not controversial to scientists.

Senator Warren tried to pin down DeVos on how she will use the tools of the office to make certain that students in higher education are not being subjected to waste, fraud, and abuse.  Once again, DeVos refused to commit to anything more than reviewing the issue:

DEVOS: I WANT TO MAKE SURE WE DON’T HAVE PROBLEMS WITH THAT AS WELL. IF CONFIRMED, I WILL WORK DILIGENTLY TO CONFIRM WE ARE ADDRESSING ANY OF THOSE ISSUES.

SEN. WARREN: WHAT SUGGESTION DO YOU MAKE? IT TURNS OUT MANY ROLES THAT ARE ALREADY WRITTEN, ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS ENFORCE THEM. WHAT I WANT TO KNOW IS, WHAT YOU COMMIT TO ENFORCING THESE RULES TO ENSURE THAT NO CAREER COLLEGE RECEIVES FEDERAL FUNDS UNLESS THEY CAN PROVE THEY ARE ACTUALLY PREPARING STUDENTS FOR GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT AND NOT CHEATING THEM.

DEVOS: I WILL COMMIT TO ENSURING THAT INSTITUTIONS WHICH RECEIVED FEDERAL FUNDS ARE ACTUALLY SERVING THEIR STUDENTS WELL.

SEN. WARREN: SO YOU WILL ENFORCE THE GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT RULE TO MAKE SURE THAT THESE CAREER COLLEGES ARE NOT CHEATING STUDENTS?

DEVOS: WE WILL CERTAINLY REVIEW THAT RULE.

SEN. WARREN: YOU WILL NOT COMMIT TO ENFORCE IT?

DEVOS: AND SEE THAT IT IS ACTUALLY ACHIEVING WHAT THE INTENTIONS ARE.

SEN. WARREN: I DON’T UNDERSTAND ABOUT REVIEWING IT. WE TALKED ABOUT THIS IN MY OFFICE. THERE ARE ALREADY RULES IN PLACE TO STOP WASTE, FRAUD, AND ABUSE, AND I AM NOT SURE HOW YOU CANNOT BE — SWINDLERS AND CROOKS ARE OUT THERE DOING BACK FLIPS WHEN THEY HEAR AN ANSWER LIKE THIS. IF CONFIRMED, YOU WILL BE THE COP ON THE BEAT. YOU CANNOT COMMIT TO USE THE TOOLS THAT ARE ALREADY AVAILABLE TO YOU IN THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, BUT I DON’T SEE HOW YOU COULD BE THE SECRETARY OF EDUCATION.

DeVos’ testimony turned away from evasive to and plowed directly into breathtakingly ignorant in two astonishing exchanges.  In the first, Senator Franken of Minnesota asked the nominee about her opinion on measuring performance based on proficiency or on growth, and it was quickly evident that she did not have the faintest clue what he was talking about:

SEN FRANKEN: WHEN I FIRST GOT IN THE SENATE IN 2009, I HAD A ROUNDTABLE OF PRINCIPALS IN MINNESOTA. HE SAID, WE THINK OF THE NCLB TEST AS AUTOPSIES. I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT HE MEANT. THE STUDENTS TAKE THE TEST IN APRIL, THEY GET THE RESULTS IN LATE JUNE. THE TEACHERS CANNOT USE THE TEST RESULTS TO INFORM THEIR INSTRUCTION. I SAW THAT IN MINNESOTA, THE MAJORITY OF THE SCHOOLS WERE TAKING A COMPUTER ADAPTIVE TEST, A COMPUTER TEST WHERE YOU GET THE RESULTS RIGHT AWAY, AND ADAPTIVE SO YOU CAN MEASURE OUTSIDE THE GRADE LEVEL. THIS BRINGS ME TO THE ISSUE OF PROFICIENCY, WHICH THE SENATOR CITED, VERSUS GROWTH. I WOULD LIKE YOUR VIEWS ON THE RELATIVE ADVANTAGE OF ASSESSMENTS AND USING THEM TO MEASURE PROFICIENCY OR GROWTH.

DEVOS: I THINK IF I AM UNDERSTANDING YOUR QUESTION CORRECTLY AROUND PROFICIENCY, I WOULD CORRELATE IT TO COMPETENCY AND MASTERY, SO EACH STUDENT IS MEASURED ACCORDING TO THE ADVANCEMENTS THEY ARE MAKING IN EACH SUBJECT AREA.

SEN. FRANKEN: THAT’S GROWTH. THAT’S NOT PROFICIENCY. IN OTHER WORDS, THE GROWTH THEY ARE MAKING IS NOT GROWTH. THE PROFICIENCY IS AN ARBITRARY STANDARD.

DEVOS: PROFICIENCY IS IF THEY HAVE REACHED A THIRD GRADE LEVEL FOR READING, ETC.

SEN. FRANKEN: I’M TALKING ABOUT THE DEBATE BETWEEN PROFICIENCY AND GROWTH, WHAT YOUR THOUGHTS ARE ON THAT.

DEVOS: I WAS JUST ASKING THE CLARIFY, THEN –

SEN. FRANKEN: THIS IS A SUBJECT THAT HAS BEEN DEBATED IN THE EDUCATION COMMUNITY FOR YEARS.

Later, Senator Kaine of Virginia tried to pin down DeVos on whether or not all schools which take public money – fully public or charter – should be accountable to the same laws. She danced around this as well:

SENATOR KAINE: DO YOU THINK — DO YOU THINK SCHOOLS THAT RECEIVE GOVERNMENT FUNDING SAID MEET THE SAME OUTCOME STANDARDS?

MRS. DEVOS: ALL SCHOOLS THAT RECEIVE FUNDING SHOULD BE ACCOUNTABLE.

SENATOR KAINE: THE SAME STANDARDS?

MRS. DEVOS: YES. ALTHOUGH YOU HAVE DIFFERENT ACCOUNTABILITY STANDARDS BETWEEN TRADITIONAL PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND CHARTER SCHOOLS.

SENATOR KAINE: I’M VERY INTERESTED IN THIS. PUBLIC CHARTER OR PRIVATE SCHOOLS, K-12, THEY SHOULD MEET THE SAME ACCOUNTABILITY STANDARDS.

MRS. DEVOS: YES. PARENTS SHOULD HAVE THE INFORMATION, FIRST AND FOREMOST.

SENATOR KAINE: WOULD YOU AGREE ON WILL YOU INSIST ON EQUAL ACCOUNTABILITY ON ANY EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM THAT RECEIVES FEDERAL FUNDING?

MRS. DEVOS: I SUPPORT ACCOUNTABILITY.

SENATOR KAINE: IS THAT A YES OR NO?

MRS. DEVOS: THAT IS A “I SUPPORT ACCOUNTABILITY.”

The difference between supporting “accountability” and supporting “equal accountability” is the difference between having schools that are allowed to deny students services that they do not wish to provide and schools that can do no such thing — or, if you were, the difference between a lot of charter schools and public schools.  The exchange went completely off the rails, however, when DeVos apparently did not know that there is a FEDERAL law for students with disabilities (actually, there are several) and that her role as Secretary of Education would include overseeing how it is implemented across the country:

SENATOR KAINE: SHOULD ALL SCHOOLS BE REQUIRED TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES ACT.

MRS. DEVOS: I THINK THEY ALREADY ARE.

KAINE: I’M ASKING YOU A SHOULD QUESTION. SHOULD ALL SCHOOLS THAT RECEIVE TAXPAYER FUNDING BE REQUIRED TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES AND EDUCATION.

MRS. DEVOS: I THINK THAT IS A MATTER BETTER LEFT TO THE STATES.

SENATOR KAINE: SOME STATES MIGHT BE GOOD, OTHER STATE MIGHT NOT BE SO GOOD, AND THEN PEOPLE CAN MOVE AROUND THE COUNTRY?

MRS. DEVOS: I THINK THAT IS AN ISSUE BEST LEFT TO THE STATES.

SENATOR KAINE: WHAT ABOUT THE FEDERAL REQUIREMENT? INDIVIDUALS WITH EDUCATION — INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES EDUCATION ACT. LET’S LIMIT IT TO FEDERAL FUNDING. SHOULD THEY BE REQUIRED TO FOLLOW FEDERAL LAW?

Senator Hassan of New Hampshire looped back to this question a bit later:

SENATOR HASSAN: I WANT TO GO BACK TO THE INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES IN EDUCATION LAW. THAT IS A FEDERAL LAW.

MRS. DEVOS: FEDERAL LAW MUST BE FOLLOWED WHERE FEDERAL DOLLARS ARE IN PLAY.

SENATOR HASSAN: WERE YOU UNAWARE THAT IT IS A FEDERAL LAW?

MRS. DEVOS: I MAY HAVE CONFUSED IT.

That deserves to be viewed:

“I may have confused it.”  I hope to heaven that does not become the epitaph of American public education.

I have no other word for this: breathtaking.  Betsy DeVos’ lack of knowledge on fundamental issues of great importance to the nation’s public schools is breathtaking.  The issue of proficiency versus growth as a measure of educational outcomes is fundamental to education policy across the country.  It has been debated for decades, and since the passage of No Child Left Behind, it has been front and center in our policy debates and oversight of education.  No school administrator who has had to report on Adequate Yearly Progress and no school teacher who has worked in a state where growth scores have been folded into teacher evaluations is unaware of this issue, but the nominee for Secretary of Education is.  The least prepared and most incompetent school superintendent in the entire country knows what the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act is within three days of settling into the job.  There is literally no other choice given how important and complex compliance with the law can be.  But the nominee for Secretary of Education “may have confused it”?  With what, exactly?

The grizzly bear comment has been worth a lot of memes, some of them downright funny.  Heck, here are two:

But beyond that laugh, we have a likely-t0-be-confirmed nominee who tells us to “trust” that her vast fortune and holdings will not present a conflict of interest, who will not commit to preserving public education as fully public, who will not commit to upholding protections from sexual harassment and assault on college campuses (and who has donated to a group that wants to tear down those protections), who will not commit to full enforcing existing protections against fraud and abuse in higher education lending and practices, and who appears entirely unaware of one of the central debates in education policy and one of the most important pieces of federal education law passed in the past half century.

But, good news for DeVos – she has the full throated support of New York City charter school magnate and lightening rod of self-inflicted damage, Eva Moskowitz:

Given Moskowitz’s record to date, this roughly translates to: Betsy DeVos is going to shovel as much public money as possible into my hands without holding me accountable for any of it.

Roll up the sleeves, public school advocates.  We’re gonna have to fight like hell.

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Filed under Activism, Eva Moskowitz, politics, School Choice, 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.

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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.

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

“Successification”

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.

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Filed under charter schools, child development, Media, racism, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing

Eva Moskowitz Cannot Help Herself

My grandfather had many folk wisdom expressions, but one that sticks with me is “When you are sitting 100 feet in the air, sawing furiously at the branch you are on, be sure to sit on the the TREE side of the cut.”  The meaning here is simple enough: perilous situations demand caution, and it is probably a good idea to check and double check what you are doing lest you end up like these guys:

giphy

I don’t think anyone has shared this advice with Eva Moskowitz.

The Success Academy charter school CEO just had a truly horrible October, in which her suspension policies were put into an uncomfortable spotlight, she retaliated by publishing the disciplinary records of a former student who is only ten years old and by demanding an apology from PBS, a complaint about Moskowitz’s violation of privacy laws was filed with federal DOE, and The New York Times ran a blockbuster story on how one of Moskowitz’s principals kept a “got to go” list of students who he deliberately pushed out of his Success Academy, confirming what data already shows: Success Academy uses a combination of excessive punishment and direct pressure to remove students who win lottery seats at the school.

Under normal circumstances, a polarizing figure like Moskowitz might consider staying out of the spotlight for a time, let coverage find different stories, and work with her powerful backers behind the scenes.  Such thinking does not appear to be in Moskowitz’s DNA, for she took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal on November 12th to explain what Success Academy discipline is based upon.  According to Moskowitz’s telling of the story, when she founded the original school as Harlem Success Academy, she had no specific pedagogy or theory of discipline in mind, but it was the work one inspirational veteran teacher who converted her and her teachers to his particular brand of magic:

I wish I could claim that I’ve developed some revolutionary pedagogical approach at Success, but the humbling truth is this: Most of what I know about teaching I learned from one person, an educator named Paul Fucaloro who taught in New York City district schools for four decades…

…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.

According to Moskowitz, Mr. Fucaloro’s technique was nothing more complicated than very high expectations and a strict insistence that students focus upon him or whoever else was talking with clear physical signs: hands clasped, eyes fixed on whoever was speaking, no fidgeting or other distractions:

Paul’s students had to sit with hands clasped and look at whomever was speaking (called “tracking”). They couldn’t stare off into space, play with objects, rest their head on their hands in boredom, or act like what Paul called “sourpusses” who brought an attitude of negativity or indifference to the classroom. Paul made students demonstrate to him that at every single moment they were focused on learning.

Readers are obviously supposed to infer that Mr. Fucaloro’s methods are so fool-proof that any sufficiently determined teacher can employ them with any group of students and achieve the same results which explains the sky high results on state examinations in her network of schools.  Moskowitz claims that she was essentially a pedagogical blank slate who was only convinced by Paul Fucaloro’s astonishing results and then perpetuated his methods so effectively that Success Academy schools can literally have almost any teacher command almost any class’ full attention all day.

wheels

This narrative is not believable on numerous fronts.  First, it is nearly impossible to believe that Eva Moskowitz went into the development of her charter school network a complete naif with no idea how she wanted the school to operate.   Whatever criticisms she has earned over the years, not knowing her mind is hardly typical.  Daniel Bergner of The New York Times published a hagiographic portrait of Moskowitz in the summer of 2014 in which the 1982 Stuyvesant graduate could not contain her contempt for what she saw as lax standards at New York City’s most selective high school.  As a member of the New York City Council, Moskowitz was known as tough, confrontational, and an expert on education issues while her demanding managerial style led to high levels of turn over among her staff.  Moskowitz’s own impatience with other people is even evident her only published work of scholarship following her doctoral degree in history.  The book, published in 2001, is titled In Therapy We Trust: America’s Obsession With Self-Fulfillment, claiming that Americans today turn to psychology and self-help experts for guidance and “excuses” as fervently as they used to seek religious guidance. Such negative assessments of most her fellow citizens’ needs probably explains why she reacted with overt derision when Mayor Bill De Blasio sought to implement restorative discipline strategies in city schools.

Suffice to say that I find it laughable that Eva Moskowitz had no idea how strict a discipline system she wished to implement from the beginning.

Another reason for doubting this narrative is that we know that Success Academy methods are hardly limited to what Moskowitz describes, and we know it from Mr. Fucaloro himself.  New York Magazine did an extensive story on the rapidly growing Success Academy chain  and Ms. Moskowitz herself in 2010, and Mr. Fucaloro is featured prominently boasting that his test preparation focus and extra work transforms children into “little test taking machines.”  Further, the type of extremely rigid behavior accepted at Success Academy is drilled early via Kindergarten “boot camps,” and Mr. Fucaloro makes what would be a shocking confession in a true public school:

At Harlem Success, disability is a dirty word. “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” Fucaloro says. For many children who arrive with individualized education programs, or IEPs, he goes on, the real issues are “maturity and undoing what the parents allow the kids to do in the house—usually mama—and I reverse that right away.” When remediation falls short, according to sources in and around the network, families are counseled out. “Eva told us that the school is not a social-service agency,” says the Harlem Success teacher. “That was an actual quote.”

Such attitudes appear foundational and durable at Success Academy given Kate Taylor’s report on the network’s “polarizing methods” for The New York Times earlier this year where public shaming of low performers is common enough that children have been known to wet themselves from the stress.  Mr. Fucaloro’s stance on disabilities is particularly shocking, however, and indicative that Success Academy’s Director of Instruction did far more than teach Moskowitz’s teachers to have high expectations for student behavior – and that his methods go far beyond anything he was allowed to do as a public school teacher.  Simply ignoring an IEP and subjecting students with disabilities to behavior modification is not an option for public school teachers (unless abetted by an unethical administration).  Nor is a Kindergarten “boot camp.”  Nor is out of school suspension for five year olds.  Nor is a 65 infraction long behavioral manual.  This list is lengthy, but the message is clear: far from simply being inspired by the high expectations Mr. Fucaloro and his singular attention to student focus, Success Academy teachers are trained in a program of extreme behavior modification backed by punitive consequences, options that are neither professionally nor morally available to truly public schools.

Finally, we know that Moskowitz is being highly selective in her story because of the data.  Let’s take her at her word that Mr. Fucaloro was a demanding but highly effective and appreciated teacher in his public school career.  Not to take anything away from that, but he is hardly unique in that regard. There are countless public school teachers who work hard to effectively establish the learning environment for their students.  Lots of teachers set high expectations for both learning and behavior, so that is hardly unique either.  However, just demonstrating and proving tracking and other techniques, as Moskowitz claims, is hardly all that happened in the early days of Success Academy.  Consider the following table, compiled from NYSED data:

SA1 Data

Two items are of note here.  First, the pattern of student attrition is curious.  Success Academy has not backfilled vacated seats after third grade until this year and still only does so through fourth grade, claiming that admitting new students unused to Success Academy methods would be detrimental.  It is therefore not surprising to see how many of the cohorts in the chart show drop offs around third and fourth grades – any students who left the school were not replaced as is required policy for fully public schools.  This pattern repeats cohort after cohort with growth in early grades, followed by sharp winnowing accumulating over time.  The third Kindergarten cohort is especially noteworthy, growing from 130 students in 2008 to 136 by third grade before shrinking to 109 two years later in fifth grade, an almost 20% change.  Remember, every student who begins at a Success Academy represents a family that went out of its way to seek out that school.

The second item is the dramatic growth in out of school suspensions.  NYSED reports the percentage of students suspended in a given school year, which does not account for single students suspended multiple time nor does it account for in school discipline.  In its first two years, Success Academy 1 suspended 8% and 2% of its students respectively. Over the next five years, however, those numbers jumped to 12%, 15%, 22%, 27%, and 23%.  These figures are eye-watering, and to compare, we can look at the same data from PS149 Sojourner Truth, the zoned K-8 public school co-located with Success Academy 1 grades Kindergarten through 4th grade:

PS149 Data

Of course, cohorts in PS149 do experience attrition as well, sometimes significant attrition, but there is no specific pattern of when students leave the school or of when cohorts shrink or grow.  However, the most striking difference is the out of school suspension rates which top out at 9% and are as low as 3% for two successive years.  Whatever else is happening at PS 149, the school is not heavily wielding out of school suspension with its students.

What does this mean?  The most obvious inference is that even if Moskowitz is being truthful and that Mr. Fucaloro is an astonishing teacher who was quickly able to establish a well disciplined and effective classroom environment where others struggled, it was far harder to scale up that level of discipline and effectiveness without massively increasing punitive disciplinary consequences, including out of school suspension rates nine times higher than a co-located school in the 2011-2012 school year.  The “secret sauce” at Success Academy’s setting of behavior for its students is not duplicating “the most gifted educator” Moskowitz has ever met – it is sending very young children home from school, sometimes until their parents give up and go away.

By the way, the out of school suspension rate for 2011-2012 at Upper West Success, a school where 29% of students qualify for free lunch and 10% for reduced price lunch?  5%.   Apparently suspension rates in the high 20s are a necessity for schools where 78% of the students are in or near poverty.

None of this is really surprising to those who have been paying attention over the years, but what is surprising is Moskowitz’s inability to resist mythologizing herself and her schools — when the people she is telling myths about are on record with the press and when the school’s use of heavy handed suspensions is not in dispute.  Then again, maybe it isn’t surprising.  Moskowitz provides a big and likely inadvertent insight into her thought process:

Some critics find our approach rigid and overbearing. I’ve got two of these critics in my own home: my kids, who attend Success. They complain when they get into trouble for not tracking the speaker. They were listening, they protest. Maybe so. But sometimes when kids look like they’re daydreaming, it’s because they are, and we can’t allow that possibility.

“Daydreaming….and we can’t allow that possibility.”  Nobody denies that a well managed environment where students are attentive is a big part of successful teaching.  Nobody even denies that some teachers have an incredible capability for that and others can learn from them.  But at the point when your desire for order and control cannot allow the “possibility” that a very young child might occasionally daydream during a long school day, you are no longer practicing classroom management.

You are engaging in a pathology.

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Filed under charter schools, classrooms, Data, teaching

Eva Moskowitz and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Month

Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of the Success Academy charter school network in New York City, is used to getting her way.

Since founding her first school in 2006, her network has grown to 34 schools with 11,000 students, and she is on track for 43 schools by next year with a goal of 100 eventually.  Her school lotteries were portrayed as the only hope of desperate parents in Waiting for Superman, a 2010 documentary/propaganda piece by David Guggenheim, and email records demonstrate that the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg lavished her with preferential treatment.  When both the state legislature and the office of Comptroller tried to exert legal authority to audit how Success Academy spends the public money it receives, Moskowitz has gone to court to block them – and won.  Her deep pocketed backers can raise millions of dollars on her behalf in a single night, and their donations to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, along with donations from Moskowitz’s own political action committee, have guaranteed preferential treatment from the Governor’s office.

This treatment had tangible results early in the administration of Mayor Bill DeBlasio when Governor Cuomo rode to Moskowitz’s “rescue” after the new administration put a stop to 3 of 17 hastily approved Success Academy co-locations – one of which would have displaced severely disabled students from their school and into district schools far less able to serve them properly.  Moskowitz ran to the press, declaring that the new mayor had “declared war” on her and the entire charter sector, and a multi-million dollar ad campaign materialized practically overnight.  Moskowitz closed all of her schools to take parents and students to Albany for a rally on the same day that Mayor DeBlasio was in the state capitol rallying for universal pre-Kindergarten, and Governor Cuomo appeared at her side vowing to “save” charter schools.  It was later revealed that Governor Cuomo not only attended the Moskowitz rally, but also he essentially helped orchestrate from his office.  Later that Spring, Governor Cuomo delivered a budget package that required New York City to either house charter schools in public school buildings or to pay for their private space and that forbids charging such schools rent.  Recall that Moskowitz has fought tooth and nail to prevent anyone from knowing how she spends the public funds she collects.

Moskowitz has grown used to adulation in the media as well.  Jonathan Chait believes that Moskowitz is a “hero of social justice” and declared her schools “a staggering triumph of social mobility” – an odd claim for a school network that has not graduated a single high school student yet.  Chait chalks up opposition to Moskowitz solely to unions grousing that her non-unionized faculty have such staggeringly high test scores.  The New York Times’ Daniel Bergner authored a piece for the weekly magazine that was an astonishing exercise in hagiography, plainly ignoring almost any input he got that was not laudatory.  Interestingly enough, Mr. Bergner pretty much signaled his intention to write such an imbalanced piece in the comments section of this WNYC story — almost 6 months before his article in the Times was published:

Daniel Bergner from Brooklyn

There’s something bizarre about the way the charter school story tends to be reported by the New York media….Success, the charter organization that’s been most vilified by Mayor DeBlasio, has a stunning record of academic achievement. It’s a record that puts many traditional public schools to shame. This should come at the top of any story like this one by WNYC….Money matters, yes. But the biggest question is how a school run by Success in Harlem, a school that teaches mostly underprivileged kids, has managed to out-perform every single public school in the state on math exams. Let’s look closely at that. We all might learn something infinitely valuable.

In July of this year, billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson, gave a single $8.5 million gift to the network for creating even more schools. My goodness, but it is good to be Queen.

But things have unraveled a bit for Moskowitz.  First, The New York Times ran a fairly comprehensive story in April covering the network’s record of very high standardized test scores and its similar record of extreme practices, including public shaming of students with low scores and practice test environments so high pressure that young children wet themselves. Moskowitz immediately wrote an email to her network’s employees to complain that the article, which included both positives and negatives, was “slanted” and that the Times was “out to get us.”  Moskowitz erroneously claimed that the article was the “first time” that the Times had given Success Academy “even moderate praise” — apparently forgetting the Sunday magazine feature by Daniel Bergner less than a year previously.  In her email, she continued her long standing habit of telling her employees and families that the outside world is out to get them: “We are disrupters, we are changing the status quo, and that threatens a system that has existed more or less unchanged for decades.”

The new school year began in a manner to which we have grown accustomed: Moskowitz’s political allies in the billionaire funded astroturf organization, “Families” for Excellent Schools, running hit ads on Mayor DeBlasio. The ads were racially charged, accusing the mayor of leaving over half a million students in “failing schools” (up from last year’s accusations of 140,000 students suffering that fate), and the ads drew immediate and harsh criticism.  Moskowitz used two scheduled half days of classes to provide students, families, and teachers as window dressing for different “Families” for Excellent Schools sponsored rallies, an action that would likely get any public school superintendent swiftly fired.  Moskowitz also teased the media early in October with a planned big announcement on the 7th, which turned out to be her stating that she would not seek the mayor’s office in 2017 as many of her supporters had anticipated.  Instead, she declared she would continue to focus on education where she compared the work of her network to the development of the iPhone.

Things went south rather quickly from there.

On October 12th, PBS Newshour aired a story by retiring veteran education reporter, John Merrow, detailing the use of repeated suspensions on children as young as 5 years old within the Success Academy network and accusations that Moskowitz uses her 65 infraction long discipline policy to repeatedly suspend students she does not wish to educate until parents withdraw them from school:

The piece, which includes lengthy segments of Moskowitz looking uncomfortable while claiming her schools don’t suspend students for many of the very minor infractions that are listed as suspension worthy (Mr. Merrow includes the entire disciplinary code, verbatim, on his personal blog), also included material from a mother and son who were willing to talk on camera about some of the incidents that led to his repeated suspensions from a Success Academy.  While those incidents were quite minor, his mother also speaks about her son having outbursts, allowing a reasonable viewer can infer that his full range of behavior was broader than discussed on camera, and the mother says her son was suspended in first grade for losing his temper.  The mother and son take up a grand total of one minute and 12 seconds in the over nine minute long story.  Although the story says their names, I am not going to do so for reasons that should be evident next.

Eva Moskowitz was not happy.

In a lengthy and accusatory letter to PBS that she posted to Success Academy’s website (and to which I refuse to link), she demanded an apology from PBS, disputed Mr. Merrow’s factual findings, and was especially incensed about the inclusion of material from the mother and son who were willing to go on camera.  She released a series of a email communications where she claimed Mr. Merrow misled her (although to my reading they also seem to indicate that she wanted practical editorial control over the story), and then she did something that any ethical educator should find completely unthinkable: she detailed specific incidents from the young man’s disciplinary record, including verbatim text of email communications from teachers about particular events.  PBS Newshour responded with a clarification that acknowledges the story should have allowed Moskowitz an opportunity to respond on camera to the allegations but that also defended the accuracy of Mr. Merrow’s piece overall.

The reason that I refuse to link to the Success Academy letter or to name the mother and son in this piece is because of a federal law that should have limited Moskowitz’s response to the Newshour segment.  The Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) forbids schools and school officials from releasing education records to anyone without prior approval from a parent or a student (if that student is over 18).  While I am not bound by FERPA in this matter, as a matter of ethics, I find it appalling that Moskowitz would respond to the situation by publicly releasing information on a child, now ten years old. While the mother and son did go on camera to discuss some of his disciplinary problems at Success Academy, they did not approve of the release of his full disciplinary record and FERPA is written in such a way that such express permission must be granted.  Even if one is inclined to think that Merrow did not play fair in his story, the only fully legal response from Moskowitz, and the only one Mr. Merrow could have aired, would be: “We cannot discuss his whole record without permission, but suffice to say, there was more going on than his mother said.”  It is also the only moral response, but Moskowitz has always had a scorched earth approach when it comes to her reputation.

Moskowitz was sent a cease and desist letter demanding the letter be taken down from the school web site and disputing a number of facts as portrayed in it.  In response, Success Academy put another letter on its website, claiming a “First Amendment” right to respond as they did, saying: “Success Academy had a constitutional right to speak publicly to set the record straight about the reasons that your son received suspensions.”  This interpretation is false as FERPA does not prevent them from responding, but it absolutely limits the legal content of that response.  As of October 30th, the Federal Department of Education has been sent a formal request to intervene in the case on the grounds of Moskowitz’s violation of FERPA and refusal to remedy the situation.

Moskowitz’s bad month was not over, believe it or not.

On October 29th, The New York Times ran a blockbuster story that the principal of Success Academy in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Candido Brown, kept a list of 16 students entitled “Got to Go,” meaning they were students he wanted to leave the school due to their difficulties in adjusting to the strict disciplinary policies.  Kate Taylor’s story confirms that the mother of one student on the list was actually told that Mr. Brown would have to call 911 if her daughter, who was six years old at the time, continued to defy rules.  Nine students on the list withdrew from the Fort Greene Success Academy, parents reported their lives disrupted by constant calls to pick up their children early, and four of the parents told the Times they were directly told they should seek another school.  While the “got to go” list may have been restricted to Principal Brown’s school, other sources reported similar behavior at other schools in the network.  One principal told employees not to automatically send re-enrollment paperwork to certain families, and another source described a network attorney describing the withdrawal of a particular student “a big win” for the school.  Other sources described network staff and leaders “explicitly talked about suspending students or calling parents into frequent meetings as ways to force parents to fall in line or prompt them to withdraw their children.”

Eva 4

Moskowitz quickly threw together a press conference on October 30th with many of her network’s principals standing behind her and denied that Principal Brown was following Success Academy policy.  She affirmed her support for the tough disciplinary practices of her schools but insisted they were about having high standards and denied any intention to use them to drive away undesired students.  In an interesting twist, Moskowitz declared that, despite advice from others, she would not fire Principal Brown, asserting “at Success we simply don’t believe in throwing people on the trash heap for the sake of public relations.” (That fate after all, is reserved for Kindergarten children)  Principal Brown then took the podium in tears and took full responsibility for the “got to go” list, saying “I was not advised by my organization to put children on the list. I was not advised by my organization to push children out of my school.”  Moskowitz, true to form, sent an email to staffers on the 30th where she, again, accused the media of having “conspiracy theories” about Success Academy – because when faced with the slow unraveling of your organizational mythology, the best thing to do is harp about how outsiders are out to get you.

It is, honestly, puzzling that Success Academy would continue to go through this charade trying to convince people that they do not force students out as policy – given that in 2010, they pretty much admitted it in the open in a lengthy portrait of the growing network in New York Magazine.  Consider this from the last section of the article:

At Harlem Success, disability is a dirty word. “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” Fucaloro says. For many children who arrive with individualized education programs, or IEPs, he goes on, the real issues are “maturity and undoing what the parents allow the kids to do in the house—usually mama—and I reverse that right away.” When remediation falls short, according to sources in and around the network, families are counseled out. “Eva told us that the school is not a social-service agency,” says the Harlem Success teacher. “That was an actual quote.”

…. “They don’t provide the counseling these kids need.” If students are deemed bad “fits” and their parents refuse to move them, the staffer says, the administration “makes it a nightmare” with repeated suspensions and midday summonses. After a 5-year-old was suspended for two days for allegedly running out of the building, the child’s mother says the school began calling her every day “saying he’s doing this, he’s doing that. Maybe they’re just trying to get rid of me and my child, but I’m not going to give them that satisfaction.”At her school alone, the Harlem Success teacher says, at least half a dozen lower-grade children who were eligible for IEPs have been withdrawn this school year. If this account were to reflect a pattern, Moskowitz’s network would be effectively winnowing students before third grade, the year state testing begins. “The easiest and fastest way to improve your test scores,” observes a DoE principal in Brooklyn, “is to get higher-performing students into your school.” And to get the lower-performing students out.

So we’ve known this since at least 2010.  Eva Moskowitz does not believe in serving children with special needs as required by federal law, and the network openly scoffs at individualized education plans, blaming them on bad parenting.  Her schools don’t provide needed resources and counseling, favoring repeated suspensions and harassing parents until they leave.  Moskowitz, referencing special needs children, directly told teachers that the school is “not a social service agency.”

But we’re supposed to believe Principal Brown came up with his “got to go” list all on his own.

data laughing

And just to make the month complete: Moskowitz is heading for another legal showdown.  This time, it is over her insistence that the city of New York give her money allocated for pre-Kindergarten providers but not require her to sign the city contract that every other provider, including other charter schools, has signed.  Success Academy already has 72 pre-K students, and the network would be eligible for $10,000 per student in funding, but city Comptroller Scott Stringer declared that Moskowitz cannot decline the contract that every one of the other 277 approved pre-K providers has already signed.  This is true to form for Moskowitz who has won other legal fights to prevent any state or city authority from oversight over how she spends the public money she receives.  Given how other charter providers have already signed the same contract, some grudgingly, this fight seems more geared towards maintaining her special status as the charter network entirely above public accountability of any sort than over much else.

I suspect that Moskowitz will bounce back from this month.  After all, she still has Governor Cuomo in her hip pocket (although he isn’t winning many popularity contests himself).  More importantly, she still has her billionaire backed political machine designed to bend public opinion and politicians to her cause, and there is no indication that they are going anywhere.  She is still the driving force behind the largest charter network in the city, and her goal of 100 schools is still probably attainable.  However, in a very real way, I suspect one thing is changing permanently.

Moskowitz is losing total control of her situation.

Success Academy is run in a very particular way.  It has a dynamic, forceful, and very visible personality at the top of the organization.  The policies, tone, and demeanor of the organization flow entirely from that person who exerts an extraordinary level of control of the operation right down to the classroom.  There is a very narrow band of acceptable behaviors and attitudes.  Teachers who embody those behaviors and attitudes can rise very quickly with some becoming school principals in their mid-20s, and students who do similarly well are rewarded with toys and other goodies. Those who do not thrive are subjected to rigorous and frequent “corrections” that either mold them into proper form or convince them to leave. The network has an arguably paranoid attitude towards “outsiders,” frequently declaring to themselves that figures in the press and public are out to get them because they have cracked the code and are disruptors of the status quo.  Those who leave and speak out about the network’s inside information are viciously attacked.

But Success Academy has grown far too large to keep the lid on everything now.  Moskowitz enrolls 11,000 students in 34 schools.  She has around 1000 teachers and staff.  With such numbers and given their policies, there will likely be 1000s of former “scholars” and 100s of former teachers in short order, and all of them are not going to be intimidated into silence about what they saw while there.  The simple fact is that Moskowitz absolutely cannot keep total control over what people say and know anymore, and it is her own policies of driving away students she does not want and burning out teachers that has put her in this position.  So even if she fully recovers from this month, I think it is likely we will see many more months like this.

The next couple of years will be interesting.

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Filed under "Families" For Excellent Schools, charter schools, Corruption, Media, politics

Eva Moskowitz is Out of Control

Fresh off their rally with charter school parents and students on October 7th, “Families” For Excellent Schools has announced that they will hold another rally on Wednesday the 21st of October.   This rally, which will be held in Manhattan’s Foley Square, will reportedly feature nearly 1,000 charter school teachers predominantly from Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy network.  While some teachers from Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and KIPP are expected to be present, Ms. Moskowitz’s workforce will be the primary participants, and the network just so happens to have a scheduled half school day so that teachers can show up to the rally for the purpose of pressuring law makers into allowing more charter schools in the city.  Chew on that for a moment: a scheduled half day of school.  A political rally.  The teachers in attendance.

I don’t know about you, but when my children’s unionized public school teachers take a half day, it is because they are in professional development workshops and related activities.  They certainly are not being taken from their schools to a rally organized by a lobbying group funded specifically to increase their influence with lawmakers in City Hall and in Albany.  In fact, try to imagine this scenario: Chancellor Farina organizes a half day of work for all city schools and then coordinates a rally for public schools with the UFT on the same day and 1000s of public school teachers, rather than using the half day for professional development, show up near city hall to provide the optics.  If you can pretend for one second that Governor Cuomo would not be demanding that the Assembly and Senate hold hearings and seek potential sanctions against both the union and the Chancellor, I question your grip on reality.

It would be one thing for “Families” For Excellent Schools to organize political rallies for parents and supporters of charter schools to attend and to use that platform to advocate for more such schools.  That is indisputably their right.  It becomes much more questionable when those rallies are organized in such a way that Eva Moskowitz closes her schools during multiple rallies, leaving parents with no place to send their children and essentially forcing them to take a day from work to attend so that they and their children add to event’s optics.  That is within their rights, but frankly, it is cheap and coercive.  But now the network will use a half day of instruction to provide its teachers to send a political message on education policy.  And considering the extraordinarily high pressure work environment at Success Academy that is also verified by job review sites, it is hard to believe that very many of the promised teachers for next week’s rally feel comfortable declining to participate.

And it is monstrously unethical: our fully public schools would spark legitimate outrage if they organized a school day around sending their employees to a political rally organized by a lobbyist organization.  How can it be tolerable for Eva Moskowitz to use her employees, and students, and parents as window dressing for campaigns to funnel more and more public school funding and public school facilities into her organization that she has repeatedly refused to allow “outsiders” to hold her accountable?  What Superintendent of schools has such authority?

It is important to remind ourselves that “Families” for Excellent Schools is a 501 (c) (3) “public charity” that is a front for billionaire backed efforts to radically privatize public education and break public sector unions.  While tax exempt law forbids them from backing specific political campaigns, they are allowed to lobby and to “educate” the public which they do by funneling money from a variety of sources such as the Walton Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and Education Reform Now – another dark money financed organization connected with “Democrats” For Education Reform.  “Families” For Excellent Schools suddenly shot up in revenue from June of 2013 when they reported $1,000,777 in revenue to June 2014 when they reported $12,265,162.  Of that, an eye watering $9,137,910 was spent on campaign and advocacy activities, and while their 990 Schedule A cites no portion of their contributions from “individuals” giving more than 2% of total contributions — that means anyone could give $278,103 without it showing up in that part of the form.

This is supposed to be a grassroots organization representing the families of children in charter schools.

And Eva Moskowitz consistently gives them compelling optics at their rallies with children, parents, and, now, teachers – dismissed from school for a “half day” that would get any superintendent in the state fired and possibly prosecuted.

Is Eva Moskowitz running a chain of schools or is she running the lobbying arm for her billionaire backers who see the expansion of the charter school sector as a means for profit and as a means to break public sector unions? Public school advocates certainly hold rallies to support public education, but we have to do so on weekends and after school hours for reasons that should similarly prohibit Success Academy and other charter schools from providing school hour props for “Families” For Excellent Schools.  Our appallingly lax rules for tax exempt organizations may allow for this, but there is no reason why our charter school authorizing bodies and the legislators who write school law should tolerate this.  We need our representatives in Albany to change charter school rules so that orchestrating the participation of students and teachers in obviously political events during what should be school hours is expressly prohibited.

And then maybe we should explore whether or not “Families” for Excellent Schools is actually within the allowable exempt purposes in the Internal Revenue Code, or whether it is there to use children, their families, and their teachers to enact policies that enrich its donors.

Boy, would that be interesting.

klein mosk

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Filed under "Families" For Excellent Schools, charter schools, Unions

“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.

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

Does Andrew Cuomo REALLY Want Parents to Understand What is Happening With Education?

Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sat down with the editorial board of the New York Daily News to discuss his reasons for upping the ante in his campaign to decrease teachers’ workplace protections and to make 85% of teacher evaluations depend upon standardized exams and observers outside of school.  During his meeting, he characterized the NYSUT, which withheld its endorsement during his reelection campaign, as an “industry” more interested in protecting its members than with the children that those members teach, and he bragged about berating a union representative who claimed to represent students.  The Governor also claimed that the only reason there is not more agitation for the kind of reforms that he is pursuing is because parents do not really know what is going on in their schools:

“If (the public) understood what was happening with education to their children, there would be an outrage in this city,” Cuomo said. “I’m telling you, they would take City Hall down brick by brick.

“It’s only because it’s complicated that people don’t get it.”

That’s quite a pronouncement from the Governor when citywide surveys show that well over 90% of public school parents in NYC are satisfied with the instructional environment in their children’s schools, agree that their schools keep them informed of their children’s progress, and would recommend their school to other parents.  That same survey showed that parents’ top concern by far was classroom sizes — “firing a hell of a lot more teachers” did not break into the top ten.

But, you know, Governor Cuomo knows “what is happening with education to their children” far better than the parents.

Of course, it is possible that the most vulnerable parents and student populations are not represented in the survey data which is a legitimate concern, and there is certainly no doubt that there are schools where great many students struggle to learn a basic curriculum.  However, for the Governor to claim that all sits at the feet of our teachers means he is ignoring vast amounts of evidence.  Dr. Aaron Pallas of Teachers College notes:

Anyone who doubts that poverty and district finances matter in the achievement equation need only look at a scatterplot of the percentage of third-graders in a school who are proficient in English Language Arts and the percentage of students in that school who are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. In schools where 90 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 15 percent of the students are proficient. Conversely, in schools where fewer than 10 percent of students are free-lunch-eligible, an average of 53 percent are proficient. This is not because all of the good teachers are in low-poverty schools.

So while the Governor’s proposals will make it far less likely that any beginning teacher will ever reach tenure in New York state, his proposed “solution” for schools with very few students reaching proficiency on state exams has literally no connection to the strongest correlation with low performance — poverty.

On a much broader set of issues, I am not at all certain that Governor Cuomo REALLY wants parents who “understood what was happening with education to their children” — because what is happening right out of the Governor’s office is pitchfork worthy.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is happening with funding in Albany? If they did, they would know that both litigation and legislation committed Albany to increase annual education aid to districts by 7 billion dollars in 2007, but that the state remains about 5.6 billion dollars BELOW that target.  They would know that the Governor, who scoffs at the notion that schools are underfunded, continues to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to plug holes in the operating budget by raiding promised aid to school districts, and that the GEA has stolen 8 billion dollars from districts financially squeezed on the other end by the property tax cap the Governor put in place.  They would know that using the funding formula put in place in 2007, Albany is shorting New York City as much as $3-4000 PER PUPIL in a system with over 1 million pupils.

They would know that the Governor’s pledge to increase education aid by $1.1 billion is less than 20% of the funding needed for the state to meet its obligations to schools districts, and that the $380 million he will allow if he does not get the changes he wants represents barely 7%.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is happening with charter school favoritism in Albany?  If they did, they would know that last year as New York Mayor Bill De Blasio was slowing down the expansion of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of charter schools because one such expansion was set to kick students with special needs out of their school, Governor Cuomo did not merely support Eva Moskowitz’s multi-million dollar ad campaign against the Mayor and her Albany rally to pressure lawmakers — he participated in making the rally happen.  They would know that after blindsiding the Mayor who was in Albany to rally support for universal Pre-K the same day as Moskowitz shut down her schools and bused her students and parents to the state capitol, the Governor orchestrated budget legislation mandating that New York City pay the rent of all charter schools, even ones that can raise $7.75 million in a single fund raiser.  They would know that Ms. Moskowitz in particular keeps her operations so opaque that she has sued repeatedly to prevent the state from auditing her finances.  They would find out that these supposedly “public schools” have appallingly high attrition rates that come from the almost impossibly strict behavioral standards that are applied even to Kindergarten students, and they would know that a key ally of no-excuses charter schools, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, openly admitted that such attrition is a feature rather than a bug and that the charter sector has no interest in educating all of our children.

I am quite sure that Governor Cuomo does not want parents to understand how Success Academy (and other charter school) donors have showered him with campaign donations, nor would he like them to tie his largesse to the charter sector to the same backers who have been steadily using charter schools to monetize public education expenditures.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is really happening with the PARRC examination proficiency scores?  If they did, they would know that far from representing a dramatic drop in student achievement, the drop in students reaching “proficient” or higher was engineered by the New York State Education Department under outgoing Commissioner John King.  They would know that “proficient” is neither tied to grade level expectations nor to any reasonable definition of “passing,” and they would know that when anti-teacher activists like Campbell Brown or public dollar profiteers like Eva Moskowitz repeatedly claim that our students are “failing” because of those exams that they are being “economical with the truth.”  They would know that when the Governor asks in his “Opportunity Agenda Book“:

“Last year, less than one percent of teachers in New York State were rated ineffective; but state test results show that statewide only 35.8 percent of our students in 3rd through 8th grades were proficient in math and 31.4 percent were proficient in English Language Arts. We must ask ourselves: how can so many of our students be failing if our teachers are all succeeding?” (p. 228)

…he has joined the anti-public school forces in thoroughly misrepresenting the meaning of the current test scores, and that such misrepresentation is almost certainly deliberate.  Parents would also learn that the value added models based on student standardized test scores that the Governor wants to raise to 50% of teacher evaluations are not endorsed by the American Statistical Association, and that there is no strong research basis for using them as such an important component of teacher evaluation.  They would understand that using a test score rigged to drop most students below the proficient level as the majority of teacher evaluation is little more than a set up to fire teachers with no benefit for their children.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is really happening with our democracy?  While Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s indictment for corruption represents old school quid pro quo misuse of public office for private gain, Governor Cuomo represents something potentially more dangerous to democracy.  Just 341 donors accounted for over half of the Governor’s $40 million campaign fundraising.  81.6% of his donors gave at least $10,000.  Among those donors are major backers of charter school expansion, including donors who funded a $4.2 million Students First NY effort to put the state senate in Republican hands and who collectively donated more than $160,000 directly to Governor Cuomo.

If parents “understand what is really happening” then they would likely notice how Governor Cuomo governs as if he is far more beholden to his high profile donors than to the voters of New York.

Do you REALLY want parents “to understand what is happening with education,” Mr. Cuomo?

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Filed under charter schools, Corruption, Funding, politics