Tag Archives: Success Academy

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 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

New York Times Ignored Teacher Input on Eva Moskowitz

The September 7th New York Times Magazine ran a story by Daniel Bergner called “The Battle for New York Schools: Eva Moskowitz vs. Mayor Bill de Blasio”.  Bergner’s piece reads as an astonishing piece of hagiography to appear in the paper of record, ignoring any substantive argument about Ms. Moskowitz’s schools and repeating without critique her organization’s point of view.  Mr. Bergner did make note that he had spoken to critics of Ms. Moskowitz’s approach, notably Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University whose input he represents thusly:

When I talked with her, Ravitch indicted the hedge-fund titans and business moguls — including Kenneth Langone, a founder of Home Depot, and the Walton family of Walmart — who put their weight behind promising charter schools, leading their boards and lending political clout. “When they call themselves reformers,” she says, “it’s something I gag on.” What these philanthropists are all about, Ravitch says, is making themselves feel good while using charters as a halfway step in a covert effort to pull the country toward the privatization of education. For charter opponents, liberalism is in jeopardy. And from this perspective, Moskowitz, with her results and her readiness to trumpet them, poses the greatest risk.

Knowing something of Dr. Ravitch’s criticisms of charters schools generally and of Ms. Moskowitz specifically, this struck me as an odd and likely incomplete representation of her input.  Sure enough, several days after publication, Dr. Ravitch responded in her own blog at some length. According to Dr. Ravitch, her conversation with Mr. Bergner was not represented in the published article:

I spent a lot of time on the phone with the author, Daniel Bergner. When he asked why I was critical of Moskowitz, I said that what she does to get high test scores is not a model for public education or even for other charters. The high scores of her students is due to intensive test prep and attrition. She gets her initial group of students by holding a lottery, which in itself is a selection process because the least functional families don’t apply. She enrolls small proportions of students with disabilities and English language learners as compared to the neighborhood public school. And as time goes by, many students leave.

The only Success Academy school that has fully grown to grades 3-8 tested 116 3rd graders but only 32 8th graders. Three other Success Academy schools have grown to 6th grade. One tested 121 3rd graders but only 55 6th graders, another 106 3rd graders but only 68 6th graders, and the last 83 3rd graders but only 54 6th graders. Why the shrinking student body? When students left the school, they were not replaced by other incoming students. When the eighth grade students who scored well on the state test took the admissions test for the specialized high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, not one of them passed the test.

She goes on to note that in addition to the phenomenon of selective attrition, she also discussed high rates of teacher attrition at network schools, but that Mr. Bergner argued with her instead of interviewing her.  Dr. Ravitch also notes that Mr. Bergner used different language than she did when discussing the issues with him, and all of her points about selective attrition were either ignored or glossed over with talking points that reflect Success Academy’s standard public statements.

While Dr. Ravitch has a platform to illuminate the distressing puffery that made it to the New York Times magazine posing as a multi-sided examination of a contentious public issue, a reader would be hard pressed to know that Mr. Bergner actually spoke to public school teachers who work in fully public schools that are co-located with Success Academy schools.  The sole hint of input is presented here:

That attitude (Moskowitz’s)  infuriates many teachers at regular schools. When I spoke with a handful, they used words like “metastasize” and “venal” to describe Success Academy’s proliferation. That Moskowitz’s wealthy board members choose to highly reward her track record — her salary and bonus for the 2012-13 school year totaled $567,500 — only adds to the union’s fury.

What is astonishing about that brief mention focused entirely upon a few potential epithets and alleged jealousy of Ms. Moskowitz’s salray is that Mr. Bergner DID speak with teachers who work in co-locations with Success Academy schools.  In fact, he spoke at length and clearly decided to disregard their input almost entirely. I am fortunate to know one of those teachers through local teacher advocacy groups, and she agreed to inform me about her discussions with Mr. Bergner and to share what it is like to be a teacher at a school where Ms. Moskowitz has claimed classroom space for her students.  Her name is Ms. Mindy Rosier, and she is a teacher at P.S. 811, the Mickey Mantle School, a special needs school within P.S. 149 in District 75.  They have been co-located with Success Academy since 2006, and this Spring, she and her colleagues found themselves in the center of the storm when Mayor de Blasio decided to not allow three previously agreed upon co-locations for Success Academy expansions.  The resulting highly public battle resulted in a 6 million dollar ad campaign accusing the mayor of throwing Success Academy students out of their schools, all funded by Ms. Moskowitz’s Wall Street supporters, and it culminated in Governor Andrew Cuomo helping coordinate a pro-Moskowitz rally in Albany that resulted in the city of New York being bound by the state budget to provide co-locations or pay rent for all charter schools.

Ms. Rosier was kind enough to answer my questions about what she thinks people in NYC need to know about the consequences of charter school co-locations awarded to Success Academy.  Much of this was what she told Mr. Bergner in a 45 minute long conversation whose content never made it to the New York Times Magazine:

Can you explain the school where you work?  Who are your students and what is the mission of your school?  

My school is PS811 at PS149. We are an additional site to the Mickey Mantle School family and we are also a part of District 75. My school site serves over 100 children with autism, learning disabilities, emotional and psychiatric disorders in a low income area in Harlem. Harlem Gems also have some rooms in our building. We all get along really well, with the exception of Success Academy.

The following is our mission statement;

The core values of P811M are articulated and expressed by a family of dedicated professionals committed to educating the whole child with integrity, compassion and respect. Our collective community effectively implements instructional practices geared to the individualized achievement of students’ social, emotional and academic goals. Each child’s individual assessment data informs this instruction. It is our goal to lead students towards maximum independence. With this independence, disabilities are turned into abilities.”

How did the co-location with Success Academy happen?  Were there discussions with parents and faculty/staff?  Do you know how it was decided to co-locate at your school?

Our site opened the same time as Success Academy began. It is my understanding that at that time, space for all was agreed upon. They had a certain amount of classes on one floor in one side of the building. I was hired at that school during the same time, so I am unaware of any other previous discussions with faculty/staff and parents. I don’t think anyone had a problem with that co-location then, but then again we had no idea what was to come.

How did the co-location process work?  Did you have any input into how the building would be divided between your school and Success Academy? 

At first, everything was fine. Then, over the next several years, they have requested more and more space from us. Up until last year, I did not know what the process was. I know our teachers did not have a say in this, and I really don’t know what the involvement of my admins were. I do know that just for one year, our former Chapter Leader (who now works for the UFT division for District 75 schools) was able to prevent more expansion on her part. Overall, we lost two floors that included classrooms, our library, our music room, our art room, our science room, and as a matter of making up one classroom, we lost our technology room as well. P.S.149 was so nice and offered us some available rooms at that time. Since, Success Academy has also expanded on their side and they lost an entire floor. So by last year, we had NO free space and P.S.149 was and is crunched for space as well.

Do the schools ever share any parts of the facilities?  If yes, how does that work out most of the time?  If not, do you know why?

We are NOT allowed on their floors. However, they always go through our hallways. Because of overcrowding and for safety reasons, they were told not to walk through a certain hallway during our dismissal times. My understanding was that they were not too happy about it and I have observed this still happening a couple of times over the years. All schools share the auditorium. In order to reserve time, coordination needs to be done. When Success Academy is using the auditorium, it is usually closed off to all others. Since our building is of a decent size, many of us cut through the back of the auditorium to the other exit to get to the P.S 149 side. (We have 3 classes on their second floor as well as a speech room and a resolution room.) So many times, when SA puts on a show or an event, it is very loud! There are two sets of doors that lead to the auditorium from our hallway. We have several rooms including classrooms close by. They have no problem keeping those doors open, disturbing our classrooms and other rooms. My office happens to be near there as well. So many times I have gotten up to close those two sets of doors. Sometimes I got looks doing so, but I didn’t care. We were all being disturbed. Noise levels do not have to be that loud. Even with the two doors shut, you still can here them. We just make do, like every other time. We do share the lunch room. In the mornings, SA has their breakfast first and then we do. There is another lunchroom on the P.S.149 side and also because of scheduling, their lunch begins around 10:40. On our side it is 11:30. Whether or not lunch staff starts on time, we have to be out of there just shy of 12. Our standardized students then have recess for a half hour, and then our alternative students have the next half hour. On Wednesdays, Success Academy has early dismissal. They are supposed to come out at 12:30. They exit through our playground. For the most part, they are already lined up to leave as we are heading back in from recess. There have been some occasions where at least one of their classes had come out really early. It was about 12:15 and my assigned class were in the middle of a kickball game. I yelled out several times to that teacher to please hold off, it is still our time. I know I was loud (that’s the Brooklyn in me) so I am pretty confident she heard me but chose to ignore me. My students LOVE recess and when they saw they had to end the game early they got upset very quickly and behaviors escalated. Me and one other para(professional) were trying our best to calm them down. There was another para who had gone inside earlier with another student because of a separate issue. When I saw that para come out, I yelled to him to get help which he did. This was a 4th grade class of about 12 who are all emotionally disturbed and learning disabled.  It was such a difficult situation. Some students had to be separated because their anger looked like it was going to lead to some fights. My lunch was next period, and I immediately informed my Assistant Principal. In front of me, she called their principal. I also had to write up several incident reports.

Now back to our lunchroom….our lunchroom is also our gym. Right after breakfast, it is cleaned up and the tables are folded and pushed to the sides. We have access to this space all mornings. Now the afternoon is a different story.  SA uses the the lunchroom in the afternoons. If P.S.149’s gym is available, they have been nice enough to let us share it. Otherwise adapted phys ed is done in the classrooms. Our gym teacher is wonderful and he has been great adapting to this situation. However, these are kids, kids with special needs, and they need to run a bit.

What changes have you seen in your work and your students’ educations since co-locating with Success Academy?  What do you think accounts for that?

We have done our best over the years to make sure that our students’ education has not been compromised in  any way. However, our students as well as those in P.S.149 have picked up on the fact that we are all treated differently from them by them.  Their teachers sometimes very obviously, have always looked down at our students even us teachers. I have tried to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are new teachers and they may just not understand what our students are going through. However, that is no excuse to give us looks or ignore us for simply saying “good morning.” There have also been some times where as I was passing, some of the kids have said “hi” to me. I love all children and without even realizing it I always acknowledge their presence even if it just a smile. I remember one time in particular those kids seemed so happy that I made their eye gaze, so I quickly said “hi” to them and slowly kept on walking by. A few of them said “hi” back and proudly told me how old they were. I would have loved to engage with them but they are not our students. Their teacher snapped at them to be quiet and to stand correctly on line. I felt so bad and I did look back. I didn’t want anyone in trouble for me simply saying “hi.”

Could you explain any changes to the environment/culture/feeling of the building during that time?  What do you think accounts for that?

There is definitely and us vs. them feeling in the air. I’ve been told that they have shiny clean floors, new doors, fancy bathrooms, etc. Meanwhile, we have teachers who have bought mops and even a vacuum cleaner to clean their rooms for they feel what is done is not efficient enough. Near our entrance, we have an adult bathroom. It is for staff and our parents. Success Academy parents as well have used it. For many months that bathroom went out of order. Honestly, I am not even sure it is fixed yet, but after all this time, I really hope so. So we would have to either use the closet of a bathroom in the staff lunch area or use one of the kids’ bathroom when it is not in use. You and I know that had that been an SA bathroom, it would have been fixed by the next day. SA also throws out tons of new or practically new materials often. At first, some of their teachers would sneak us some materials thinking we could benefit from it. They stopped out of fear. With all the great stuff that they have thrown out, they got angry when they found out that teachers from P.S.149 and I believe some of our teachers too would go through the piles and take what we could use. Well, now they only throw out their garbage shortly before pick up so that no one could get at it. Nice, right?

We have all seen them get Fresh Direct deliveries. Our kids too. Our students have a general feeling that SA students are special based on how they walk around and how they are personally treated either by looks or sometimes comments. Our students may be special needs, but they understand to a point that feeling of us vs. them. We do not at all refer to things that way at all.

It truly is sad. We are a school with teachers, other staff, and students. We are all supposed to be here for a reason. It is beyond me that this has been such a battle.

This past year teachers and other faculty were very angry. Once I heard about SA’s plan to take over last September, that’s when I started to get involved. Enough was enough. In October, I attended a hearing in my school building, I went to that Panel for Education Policy (PEP) in Brooklyn a week later, and subsequent to that, I have been a part of rallies and press conferences, etc. as I have detailed in my email. All of what happened at my school has led to my educational activism. I have read so much over the years. The more and more I read, the angrier I got. The Alliance For Quality Education has done so much for our school in order to save it and for that I am very thankfully to them and I still maintain a very good relationship with them. I was introduced to MORE (Movement of Rank and File Educators) in late April, and I now sit on its Steering Committee, committed to do right by our teachers and students. Instead of just being angry as I have been for so long, I finally did something about it by being proactive. I do have to say, since my activism began, I have made tons of new like-minded friend and I am grateful of that too.

Why do you think Eva Moskowitz and Mayor Bloomberg agreed to further expansion of Success Academy in your building?  What would you say to them about that if you could?

Oh, boy! I believe they are friends and that they run in same circles. They did not care, never did. When we went to that PEP in October, about putting through those charter locations, it was like nothing I have ever seen before. It was my first one. The room was packed with teachers from so many different schools. There were parents, students, and various community leaders including Letitia James and Noah Gotbaum. People were ANGRY. So many plead their case for two minutes at the mic, some with heart wrenching stories, and all the while the panel was very busy playing on their phones, looking bored and disinterested. It was disgusting. You could hear so many people yelling, “Get off your phones!” I did not speak at this PEP ,but a dear coworker did.  I hadn’t found my voice just yet at that time. She tried to give an impassioned speech and when they did not even look at her, she called them out on it and was STILL ignored. It sure seemed to us that the fix was in. Money and power talks and all else suffers.

How could you be so heartless? How can you say you are for all children when you have thought nothing about our community’s most vulnerable children, just willing to toss them aside like trash? A population that you refuse to educate and have sent as cast-offs our way? Knowing our building did NOT have any free space, why did you purposely choose to expand here? Why were parents lied to? Why did you perpetuate lies in the media and to the general public?  These are just some of the questions I would ask her (Eva Moskowitz) based solely on what she tried to do to my school. Trust me, there are so many more that we all have been asking her for a long time.

On the Families 4 Excellent Schools’ page on Facebook, I have gone back and forth with many, and most of those were parents. They had no clue as to what the truth was. So instead of them doing their homework, it was easier to call me a liar, a racist, clueless myself, etc., etc. I didn’t go on there to bash Success Academy. I went on there to inform them of the truth that was completely hidden to them and the general public.  After a while, I just had to stop. It was like beating my head against the wall. Moskowitz seems to be this cult-like figure to parents and they adore her. I have even heard her be called a savior!

As for Bloomberg, I used to like him, but that obviously changed.  Apparently, he came to our building several times to visit SA but never us. We never said “boo.” However when Farina came to our school for a quick walk through to see our space situation during this whole debacle, it became front page news in the NY Daily News with Farina’s big picture and bold letters SNUBBED.  Something to that affect, I don’t remember exactly. SA was pissed that even though she had a specific purpose for her visit to us, she did not go to visit them. She “snubbed” them and that made the front page! Honestly, I think I would simply ask him, “Why did you put money, politics, and power over the welfare of our beautiful special needs children?”

What do you think about the presentation of your concerns in the New York Times article that ran in the September 7th magazine?  Is there anything you think the reporter ought to explain to you and your fellow teachers?

I was beyond angry. I have no problem taking time out to talk about concerns I have, and on those things that I am passionate. I spent a considerable amount giving very specific facts, and they were all ignored. Other teachers were ignored. Parents were ignored. We all gave verifiable facts, but that did not matter. I personally feel that a good reporter should report both sides of the story. Way too many reporters and various mass media outlets have failed us, our school. our students, their parents, and the general public. I want to know why he blatantly ignored all of us and deceived the general public? Important information that I feel everyone should know, instead of blindly praising a woman with obvious deceitful tendencies simply because they have higher scores. There is a reason for that and the public needs to know the actual truth. Isn’t writing about and printing the truth Reporting 101? We ALL deserve a public apology with answers to the questions I have mentioned.

We need more reporters like Juan Gonzalez who is not afraid to tell the truth. He has posted several articles on SA, even one that had a focus on our school. He is one out of how many? AND because of all the faulty and biased information out there, when he does write something, he does not get any respect and he has been bashed.  “How do you say such things about Moskowitz and her schools?”

I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!

###

Ms. Rosier has also written to the New York Times and Daniel Bergner to express her surprise that none of her conversation made it into the article, and to remind Mr. Bergner what she had said to him.  As of today, the letter has not appeared in the Times, but Ms. Rosier provides the text of it here.

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Media, Stories, Unions

Campbell Brown’s Brings the Anti-Tenure “Argument” to Stephen Colbert

As a former broadcast personality, Campbell Brown has some advantages when appearing on the media to discuss her campaign to end teachers’ workplace protections.  She has experience in interview techniques.  She understands what works well on camera and what does not.  She knows how to pitch her voice and use facial and body language to convey deep sincerity and earnestness regardless of what she really believes.  These served her well on Mr. Colbert’s program last week.

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Mr. Colbert is similarly skilled, but he plays a satirical representation of a right wing ideologue in order to lampoon a segment of the media and to keep his guests off balance.  I would argue that he did not level the full weight of his satirical talents upon Ms. Brown, but rather he waited until the end of the interview to present her with some serious challenges that she could not respond to adequately.  More on that later.

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post provides a pretty thorough assessment of Ms. Brown’s many prevarications and reliance on talking points over evidence courtesy of Dr. Alyssa Hadley Dunn of Michigan State University.  Dr. Dunn makes it very clear that there simply isn’t a research base to support any of Ms. Brown’s assertions, and since she had made those assertions in the media prior to her appearance on The Colbert Report, I wish that Mr. Colbert had been more ready to take on some of the more stubborn and egregious talking points.  For example, Ms. Brown repeated her claim that New York State’s teachers cannot possible be as effective as job evaluations say they are because student test scores are too low:

SC: Okay, how’s the crisis in New York? What’s the problem here?

CB: So, if you look at, if you look at the, um, outcomes, student outcomes in New York, okay? So, 91 percent of teachers are around the state of New York are rated either “effective” or “highly effective,” and yet [SC: Sounds good.] 31 percent, [SC: Yep.] 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing, and doing math at grade level. How does that compute? I mean, how can you argue the status quo is okay with numbers like that??

SC: Well, I went to public school in South Carolina and 31 percent sounds like a majority to me.  (transcript is courtesy of Mercedes Schneider, teacher and author)

Mr. Colbert chose to lightly mock his own education, but there is a major, I would argue deliberate, flaw in Ms. Brown’s favored talking point.  First, the 31% figure does not measure students’ grade level performance; it measures the percentage of students who scored “proficient” or above on the new Common Core aligned testing piloted by the Pearson corporation in New York.  Second, the 31% proficiency rate was gamed by the process to determine the cut scores and openly predicted by New York State Education Commissioner John King before the tests were ever deployed.  From the Times-Union in 2013:

State Education Commissioner John King said he expected some push-back. At a Times Unioneditorial board meeting on Tuesday, he said the number of students considered proficient will likely drop by 30 points. He said, while that number is intimidating, it provides a more honest assessment of what New York’s students know. He acknowledged that makes for nervous educators, but said the state can’t afford to roll back the tougher new standards students will be expected to meet because just 35 percent of New York’s high school freshmen leave ready for college or a career four years later.

How could the commissioner so accurately predict the drop in test scores for the new examinations?  According to award-winning Principal Carol Burris, it is because his office deliberately sought to peg the cut scores between proficiency levels to markers that would leave just a third of New York students making the cut.  The condensed version of Burris’ analysis:  NY DOE sought information from the College Board on what SAT scores (widely considered only a loose predictor of college success) correlated to a successful first year in college, and set measures of that “success” that are clearly aimed at that 30% target.  Once in possession of the desired SAT scores in reading, writing and mathematics for a combined 1630 points, the state’s committee went about setting cut scores for each level of performance on the new CCSS aligned tests.  From Principal Burris again:

When the cut scores were set, the overall proficiency rate was 31 percent–close to the commissioner’s prediction.  The proportion of test takers who score 1630 on the SAT is 32 percent.  Coincidence?  Bet your sleeveless pineapple it’s not. Heck, the way I see it, the kids did not even need to show up for the test.

So is it honest for Ms. Brown to keep repeating that only 31% of NY students are at “grade level”? Absolutely not — first, because this is not a “grade level” measure and second, because the result was gamed from the beginning.

This also brings up another question.  If the goal of the “proficient” rating on the exams is “college and career ready” is a 31% proficiency rating actually wrong?  In 2013, 33.6% of the U.S. population aged 25-29 had a bachelors degree, which is up over 11 points from 22.5% in 1980 when the education “crisis” rhetoric began in earnest.  More of our young population is in possession of college degree today than ever before in our history, and the economic data does not suggest we are in a crisis of too few people with such degrees in the economy.  48% of recent college graduates are underemployed, and in 2010, over 5 million college graduates were employed in jobs requiring only a high school diploma.  Moreover, according to Pew Social Trends, today’s wage benefit for obtaining a college degree comes less from rising wages for college graduates than from cratering wages for those without college.

One could argue that more students need to be on path to be “college and career ready” by their third grade exams because college is increasingly necessary to keep from falling behind economically moreso than it is necessary to get ahead.  Something tells me that today’s reform advocates don’t want to emphasize that point.  We would do better to question if the distribution of students who qualify for and are successful at college are concentrated in specific communities and neighborhoods, but discussed honestly, that would require examining America’s rising Residential Income Segregation Index, another topic education reform advocates don’t like to discuss.

Mr. Colbert made a feint at this late in his interview with Ms. Brown:

SC: You can mention. I’ll edit it out, but you can mention it. [CB: Okay.] [Audience laughter.] All right, now, but, here’s, the thing is aren’t you opening a can of worms there, because [4:00] if you say the kids are entitled to e, equal education, if that’s your argument, doesn’t that mean eventually, you’re going to say, “Every child in the state of New York should have the same amount of money spent on their education”—rich community, poor community—pool it all in, split it all up among Bobby and Susie and Billy—everywhere. [Audience applause.] Because the argument is, everyone gets the same opportunity. [Audience applause.]

CB: But, but you, you’re suggesting that mon, that it’s all about the money, and I think it’s not about the money.

SC: Well, you’re suggesting it’s about equality, and money is one of the equations in equality, or have I just schooled you? [Audience laughter.]

Mr. Colbert did not let Ms. Brown duck the question of money and school funding entirely, but she quickly professed how she wants to “pay teachers more” AND treat them like “professionals” through evaluations.  Then she sidestepped to her “safe” territory by claiming it is almost impossible to fire a teacher with tenure.  As previously noted, Dr. Dunn of Michigan State makes it clear that these claims are completely problematic because first, new evaluations using student test scores focus on formulations of teachers’ impact that only accounts for 1-14% of variability between student performance and second, Ms. Brown’s information on the length of time needed to remove a tenured teacher is badly out of date and her assessment of that time is possibly off by more than a factor of four.  This all tied to her previous claims the “least effective” teachers are concentrated in schools with high levels of disadvantaged students, but her argument against tenure is not remotely related to that because measuring effectiveness via test scores automatically makes urban teachers less effective regardless of their experience and skill. Additionally, these school have far fewer tenured teachers because the turnover rate in many urban districts tops 50% in three years, resulting in a dearth of teachers with the skills that come from experience.

If tenure were truly the problem with teacher quality, then wealthy suburban districts with more stable and experienced teacher corps would not be the districts with high test scores and large percentages of college bound graduates.  In this sense, Ms. Brown’s fight against tenure resembles Republican led drives for voter ID laws that threaten to block 100s of 1000s of currently eligible voters in order to stop a “problem,’ voter impersonation, that occurs so rarely it does not statistically exist.

Mr. Colbert then pivoted to what appears to have been his most important question of the interview — what is the money involved in Ms. Brown’s lawsuit?

SC: Just trying to win, Campbell. Just trying to win, all right? Um, your organization, where does it’s money come from? That’s one of the things they asked me to ask you.

CB: I, I saw that on my Twitter feed today. The, the, who’s funding this effort?

SC: Yeah, who’s funding your, your effort, [CB: Kirkland Ellis.] your organization.

CB: The law firm…

SC: The law firm is funding it?

CB: Well, the law firm is doing this for free, so we haven’t gone out…

Ms. Brown’s point here appears to be that despite her fronting the organization that is facilitating the lawsuit, the efforts on behalf of that suit are, in essence, charitable.  This may be true as far as legal fees are concerned, but it is absurd on the face to even hint that there is no monetary value to the assistance Ms. Brown is giving the plaintiffs her organization recruited.  First, her connections and celebrity almost certainly played a role in obtaining the legal services.  Second, Ms. Brown is a media ready spokesperson who has been giving interviews and penning opinion articles on behalf of this cause, and such services would cost dearly if they came from a private consulting firm.  Further, Ms. Brown has managed to sign up the services of Incite Agency, led by former Obama administration alumni Robert Gibbs and Ben LaBolt to do publicity for the cause on a national level.  The plaintiffs in this case are enjoying pro bono legal services, Ms. Brown’s celebrity and public relations services from former White House personnel.  I think it is sufficient to say that those are no small levels of support.

Mr. Colbert pressed on about financial support and finally got Ms. Brown to admit to something which I find astonishing:

SC: So, the Partnership for Educational Justice [7:00] has not raised any money so far?

CB:Yeah, we are raising money.

SC: And who did you raise it from?

CB: I’m not gonna reveal who the donors are because the people (pointing toward window) are out…

SC: I’m going to respect that because I had a super PAC. [Audience applause.]

CB: I hear you. But, part of the reason is the people who are outside today, trying to protest, trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate…

SC: Exercising First Amendment rights…

CB: Absolutely, but they’re also going to go after people who are funding this, and I think this is a good cause and an important cause, and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they can become a target of the people who were out there earlier today, then I respect that.

 

Ms. Brown is married to Dan Senor, who was the former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq following the fall of the Hussein Regime.  He sits on the board of of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirstNY, and he joined hedge fund Elliot Management before becoming a top adviser to Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  Ms. Brown is on the Board of Directors of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of charter schools, an organization that boasts massive financial support from Wall Street.  Her ties to people who have been pouring money into education “reform” in the interest of charter schools is not difficult to establish, as blogger Mother Crusader has demonstrated.  Suffice to say that these are incredibly wealthy and politically connected people who are the most likely donors to her organization.

And Ms. Brown wants us to believe that they need to be “protected”.  That if people want to know who is funding lawsuits to challenge laws that were passed by democratically elected governments and job protections that were subject to open and adversarial negotiations between unions and administrators, they cannot know because the donors seeking to overturn such laws could not abide potential criticism of themselves in the public sphere.

Wow.

Let’s be clear.  Who are “the people who are outside today” who Ms. Brown assumes will bully and intimidate her donors?  According to The Daily News:

 

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I am sure that Eva Moskowitz’s donors are just quaking in their boots…right after they drop another $400,000 into Governor Cuomo’s pockets.

Mr. Colbert did not sneak a camera crew down to the street to make Ms. Brown look as ridiculous as she richly deserved at that moment, but the fact that he led her to make such a ludicrous statement is telling in an of itself.  Today, it is very hard to trust that major media outlets will take the time and effort to research and interview people trying to lead public debate via deception, and on issues that require a genuine understanding of complex social phenomena, that is even less likely.  I have written before how abysmally the New York Times’ editorial staff have failed in that regard, preferring to take the statements of advocates with wealth and connections at face value.

Mr. Colbert is not a journalist, yet he and his fellow comedians Jon Stewart and John Oliver have become almost guardians of truth in recent years.  It is often more likely that Mr. Colbert or Mr. Stewart or Mr. Oliver will highlight the absurd inanities, half truths and contradictions routinely offered by politicians, pundits and advocates.  In the case of Ms. Brown, Mr. Colbert got her to openly confess to a truth that is gaining greater and greater public awareness: American governance is increasingly oligarchical in nature whereby elected officials craft policy more to serve the interests of their very wealthy donors rather than the interests of the actual voters who put them in office.  Ms. Brown’s undisclosed donor list is a perfect example of this, and her refusal to disclose under the fiction that her donors could possibly be intimidated by moms and teachers with home made posters should be mocked loudly and frequently.

I am grateful to Mr. Colbert for organizing his interview to that point, but I am saddened that we rely almost exclusively on satirists to get to the heart of public affairs these days.

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Filed under Activism, Funding, Media, politics, schools, Social Justice, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Eva Moskowitz’s “Success”

The founding class of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of “no excuses” charter schools graduated from eighth grade last week.  Of the original class of 73 students who enrolled in 2006, 32 made it to last week, and, according to Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News, despite 27 of those students sitting for the entrance exams to New York City’s highly selective public high schools, no Success Academy graduate qualified for admission.  Moskowitz has widely touted her schools’ closing of the achievement gap between racial demographics on state issued standardized tests, and while the city’s elite high schools are rightly criticized for their low enrollment of black and Latino children, Gonzalez notes that the overall 12% acceptance rate for black and Latino students taking the test should have given as many as 3 acceptances from Moskowitz’s school.

This is not news that should produce any satisfaction even among Ms. Moskowitz’s most fierce critics, nor should any criticism be aimed at the young children involved.  Despite my serious reservations about the atmosphere and techniques employed by Ms. Moskowitz’s charter chain, I have no doubt that the young people who have been at Success Academy 1 since 2006 are admirable and hard working young people, and it is my sincerest hope that they have bright futures ahead of them.  Nor do I want my criticism of Moskowitz’s methods and self promotion to second guess the parents who have sought out and appreciated her schools’ focus on discipline and raising test scores.  However, Ms. Moskowitz has applied to the state for another 14 Success Academies and under the current state budget deal approved in Albany, New York City will have no say in granting these charters and will have to provide space for the schools or pay Moskowitz’s rent in another facility.  The sharp decline in the enrollment of her first graduating class and her curriculum’s inability to place graduates in the city’s most selective high schools (despite her claims of closing the achievement gap) requires the asking of some sharp questions.

And it is well beyond time that Ms. Moskowitz answer questions of the public that is required by law to pay for her schools.

Ms. Moskowitz is not controversial merely for her confrontational manner nor for her refusal to let the state examine how her chain uses the substantial sums it gets from taxpayers.  Success Academy is part of the “no excuses” camp of education reform that insists if you fire the right teachers, insist upon extreme personal rigor and focus upon the “basics” that you can close the historic achievement gap between white and Asian students and their black and Latino peers. The school of thought has powerful advocates among the likes of Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein and demonstrably has the ear of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the rest of the Obama administration.  It has a certain appeal if you do not think about it too hard.  These critics decry those who focus on anti-poverty and anti-racism efforts as “excusing” bad teaching and claim that if people just work hard enough, historic gaps in academic progress, and presumably economic progress, would close.  In doing so, however, they take up two exceptionally pernicious implied arguments.  The first is that the well-demonstrated deprivations of poverty do not matter so long as the school demands enough out of its students.  The second is that the existence of children who demonstrate the desired perseverance proves that others are just slacking and could overcome if only they just worked hard enough.  Both of these beliefs diminish genuinely complex issues to slogans and side step societal responsibility to address poverty.

Moskowitz’s schools take this to extremes.  The New York Times reported in 2011, when the Success chain had only 7 schools, how children who do not fit into its very narrow mode find themselves subjected to excessive punishments and ongoing suggestions that they should leave.  In less than a month of Kindergarten at Success Academy 3, Matthew Sprowal was subjected to so much pressure and punishment (he has ADD) that he was throwing up most mornings, and his mother received direct communication from Moskowitz herself strongly implying her son should be at another school.  This is not an isolated case.  In 2010-2011, Success 1 suspended a fifth of its students at least once.  Public schools in the same neighborhood suspend 3% of students in a typical year.  Further, evidence exists that the schools place special pressures on the parents of disabled students to seek different schools.  A parent at Upper West Success taped school officials saying they could not properly accommodate her Kindergarten student’s IEP and offering to find him a public school placement.

Charter schools like Success Academy take students from a lottery, and in theory, that lottery ensures that they are not selective like exclusive private schools, but practices like those reported by former Success Academy families demonstrate that the schools do not abide by a spirit of inclusiveness (and may actually violate state and federal law).  Moskowitz repeatedly tells the media that she is succeeding with the city’s neediest children, but her schools clearly enroll far fewer children on free and reduced lunch, fewer children with disabilities and fewer children who are second language learners than her neighboring district schools, and the pattern of those students who leave the schools in the early grades is not random.

It is true that Success Academy students get higher than average scores on state tests, but this is coming from a population of students who have already had those most likely to struggle on the tests weeded out — and it comes with the cost of extreme test preparation rolled in the curriculum.  A Success Academy teacher, writing on terms of anonymity, gave the following account to NYU’s Dr. Diane Ravitch:

“Custom Test Prep Materials: I think many schools use practice workbooks from publishers like Kaplan, etc. We have people whose job it is to put together custom test prep packets based on state guidance. Much more aligned to common core and closer to the test than the published books I’ve seen. Also, teachers are putting together additional worksheets and practice based on what we see in the classroom. Huge volume of practice materials for every possible need (and we use it all, too). Also many practice tests and quizzes that copy format of the test.

“Intensive organization-wide focus on test prep: For the last months and weeks before the test, everyone from Eva on down is completely focused on test prep. Just a few examples….

“We have to give kids 1/2/3/4 scores daily. Kids are broken up into small groups based on the data and get differentiated instruction. If they get a 1, they stay back from recess or after school for extra practice.

“Thousands of dollars spent on prizes to incentivize the kids to work hard. Some teachers have expressed concern about bribing them with basketballs and other toys instead of learning for the sake of learning. The response is “prizes aren’t optional.”

“We get daily inspirational emails from principals with a countdown, anecdotes about the importance of state tests, and ever-multiplying plans for “getting kids over the finish line” (these get old fast).

Excessive test preparation is a concern for all New York City schools, and the teacher evaluation incentives implemented as part of Race to the Top have not helped.  The New York legislature passed a law this Spring mandating that test preparation can take up no more than 2% of instructional time in public schools.  Charter schools were exempt, which is a relief for Ms. Moskowitz’s schools who would apparently lose months of their planned curricula.

In a follow up message, the same teacher forwarded a message to Success Academy teachers from a senior administrator giving his ideas on why they have been “attacked” in the media.  The message contrasts their work to the work of “failure factories”, claims to have found the “solution” to urban education, claims that people are jealous of their schools and frames Success Academy, which can raise over 7 million dollars in a one night fundraiser, as victims of teacher unions.

Missing in the self congratulatory rhetoric and the extreme test preparation?  The children pressured and forced out of the network’s schools for reasons no public school could ever employ.  There is no “solution” for urban education that involves losing over half a graduating class of students between first grade and eighth.  There is no “solution” for the challenges of educating students with learning disabilities, behavioral disabilities or who are learning English that includes pushing them off on to other schools.

Which brings me back to the first graduating class of eighth graders at Success Academy 1.  I genuinely wish them well, and I certainly admire the qualities they must possess to thrive in an environment like the one described above.  But the children Ms. Moskowitz failed to mention in her address to her first class of “scholars” are the ones she failed to get to that day.  Those are the children she refused to accommodate and whose education she washed her hands of.

And she should be made to account for every single one of them before New York grants her a single new classroom.

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Can We Talk About Poverty And Violence NOW?

I became aware of this via a graduate school colleague.  Research from the CDC and Harvard University identifies that as much as 30% of young people in our urban areas suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as the result of living in communities afflicted by violence, a rate higher than soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  This citation recently went viral because of report on a San Francisco CBS affiliate that mentioned the research — while deciding to coin the phrase “hood disease” to describe the phenomenon.  Response to that polarizing and sensationalist turn of phrase was swift, and it was well earned.  Hopefully, it will not obscure a chance to focus on a conversation that is desperately missing from today’s education conversation — the impact of poverty and violence on children and what it means to provide meaningful education for those children.

I am not optimistic, unfortunately.  Discussing the impacts of poverty and community violence on children would mean taking a good hard look at American society as a whole, how segregated we remain as a society (and how it is getting worse since 1980), how poorly we do as a country at helping families in poverty and how we largely ignore problems that are clustered in communities that are predominantly of color. I find it hard to believe that we are ready for a conversation today.  It would require more willingness for painful introspection and confrontation of racism that many prefer to believe does not exist.

Optimism is further undercut by the fact that the impacts of poverty on all sorts of outcomes for young people is not precisely news, although the PTSD estimates for community violence should cause more people to take notice.  “Effects of Poverty on Children” was published in 1997 and found vast differences in physical, cognitive, school achievement, and emotional and behavioral outcomes for children living in poverty, and it described the ways in which poverty influences these outcomes.  They recommended community health, parental education, in home interventions, and renewed efforts to eliminate deep, sustained poverty.  Not one of these recommendations found their way into the Bush era No Child Left Behind education reform bill nor into its Obama administration successor, Race to the Top.  Arizona State University Regents’ Professor Emeritus David Berliner delivered the Presidential Invited Speech at the 2005 meeting of the American Educational Research Association, and he titled in “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform.”  Among his conclusions:

All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”

To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.

It does take a whole village to raise a child, and we actually know a little bit about how to do that. What we seem not to know how to do in modern America is to raise the village, to promote communal values that insure that all our children will prosper. We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.

But since that address in 2005, “one-way accountability” has not only dominated policy, it has actually spawned an entire industrial scaled investment in testing and data, entrenching it even deeper.  Even though it has very little to do with the issues that plague impoverished communities in our country and the schools that try to serve them.

Most of what you’ve read about our “failing” national schools is based on flawed data.  Even using the preferred tool of accountability advocates, standardized tests, the crisis in our public schools is one of community poverty.  This graphic comes courtesy of Christine McCarthy, a New York City public school teacher and recipient of a Distinguished Fullbright Award in Teaching:

Image

Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at USC provides the data for this chart which should make it crystal clear that the constant doubling down on standards and testing will have no serious impact on the international testing gaps that produce such gnashing on the teeth in the media and in Washington.  A test does not alleviate the well documented impacts of poverty.  Firing a teacher whose students are performing poorly on a test does not alleviate the well documented impacts of poverty.

It is at this junction, that a Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein comes along, sometimes on a talk show, to say that there should be “no excuses” for even a school with a 75% or higher poverty rate.  Their preferred “no excuses” methods involve firing as many people as they can, closing down schools and turning more and more children over to charter school operators.  Certainly, many of those operators like to claim that they’ve found the “secret sauce” to educating within communities afflicted by high rates of poverty.  Eva Moskowitz’s “Success Academy” empire claims that it is educating the exact same students as the neighborhood schools in Harlem, but that claim is simply false, and a parent at Upper West Side Success documented on tape how administrators have tried to counsel out her son who has an IEP, something no neighborhood school could do.  Northstar Academy in Newark loves to claim at 100% graduation rate for seniors, but it fails to report its 50% attrition rate prior to senior year.

The lesson here is that there is no “special sauce” and “Superman” is a comic book hero.  We, as a society, have never figured out a way to provide large scale, genuine, educational opportunity to children growing up in communities with deep and persistent poverty.  We, as a society, are woefully uncommitted to alleviating poverty and have even come to accept the terrifying 20% rate of childhood poverty as normal and perhaps inevitable.  But absent those two commitments, no amount of firing teachers or testing students until they cry is going to “fix” American education.

And this is where I worry for the future again:  I think it is very likely that a combination of suburban parental outrage and teacher activism is going to push back hard on current reforms.  If Common Core survives, it will be substantially modified with fewer tests and less emphasis on value added models of teacher evaluation.  The fact is that pushing the punishment narrative that has been the burden of urban schools for so long to communities that generally like their schools is going to create a backlash.  But once those parents have pushed back and changed these systems, we will still be left with communities rife with damaging poverty and violence, and we will most likely go back to ignoring those facts.

And the next cycle of “reform” will ignore it too.

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