Why Is Eva Moskowitz Taking On John Merrow Over Discipline Practices Widely Discredited?

If I were Eva Moskowitz, CEO of New York’s Success Academy Charters, I wouldn’t want to mess with John Merrow, the just-retired reporter from the PBS NewsHour. Merrow is the dogged reporter who investigated Michelle Rhee’s test score cheating scandal in Washington, D.C., and created the momentum in the press that eventually discredited Rhee as a school leader. (You can see summaries of his reports on Rhee here and here.)  But Eva, New York’s charter school diva, seems determined to get the news slanted according to her own wishes, so earlier this week she sent an eight page letter to Judy Woodruff of the NewsHour to complain about John Merrow’s recent report on Success Academies’ far-above average rates of out-of-school suspension of very young children in Kindergarten and first grade. In her letter, Moskowitz demands a correction and an apology.

Moskowitz writes: “We allowed Mr. Merrow and his team to spend many hours videotaping our school as well as interviewing me on camera.  We answered every question he had. However, towards the end of this process, it came to our attention that he intended to cover the allegations of a parent whom we knew to be unreliable, but he refused to give us any opportunity to address these allegations.”  In a press release when the letter was made public, Success Academy’s spokesperson Amanda Powell explains, “The letter, sent on Friday, October 16, details Merrow’s “willful disregard for journalistic ethics and refusal to allow Success Academy to respond to false allegations of a former parent and student, who represent that the student was suspended for not tucking in his shirt and wearing red shoes and ‘losing his temper.'”

The PBS NewsHour has released a statement that it stands by Merrow’s report, though acknowledging that, “the NewsHour regrets the decision to include that particular mother and child without providing Ms. Moskowitz with an opportunity to respond.”  “Mr. Merrow’s report was not about any particular child but about suspension policy… Ms. Moskowitz also disputes Mr. Merrow’s reporting on Success Academy’s attrition rate.  This is a complicated area because charter schools, including Success Academy Charter Schools, calculate attrition differently.  Mr. Merrow addressed these disparities by comparing similar time frames and methods for calculating attrition… Mr. Merrow reconciled those numbers fairly and thoroughly.”  “The fundamental point of Mr. Merrow’s report is about the policy of suspensions of young children.  It accurately documents that Success Academy suspends students as young as five-and six-year old at a greater rate than many other schools, which Ms. Moskowitz does not dispute.”

Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, devotes a column to examining Moskowitz’s claim that Merrow’s “allegations concerning Success’s rate of attrition are also false. Our rate of attrition is actually lower than the average for either district or charter schools.”

There are, of course, many ways to look at and present data.  Strauss begins with background about Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academies—background that helps us understand why these issues are more important than a mere spat between a school and a reporter. Strauss writes: “The Success Academy Charter School network is the largest in New York City, with 34 schools.  Its founder and chief executive officer is Eva Moskowitz, a former City Council member for the Upper East Side who has the financial backing of Wall Street financiers. Just this past July, a new $8.5 million donation to her academy was made by hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson so that she can open new middle schools. The network, which trumpets its high standardized test scores, was the star of a 2010 film called ‘The Lottery,’ which portrayed the schools as places where miracles happen, and Moskowitz considered running for mayor of New York City in the next election until recently announcing she would not do so. Moskowitz and her network have strong critics who oppose her ‘no excuses’ philosophy of schooling and who say that part of the network’s success comes from a practice of counseling out students who struggle academically and who have disciplinary issues.”

After summing up Moskowitz’s educational philosophy, Strauss directs us to a careful rebuttal of Success Academies’ harsh disciplinary policies. This is a polarized and highly politicized debate, and the arguments against Moskowitz’s policies come from Leo Casey, a researcher at the Albert Shanker Institute, an institution with ties to a teachers union. However, Leo Casey’s  Student Discipline, Race, and Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools, is thorough and very much worth considering. (Strauss excerpts Casey’s piece; all quotes here are from the original.)

Casey reminds us that the over-use of suspension and expulsion as school disciplinary policies has been widely discredited by a mass of recent research. “Based on this research evidence, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and School Discipline Consensus Project of the Council of State Governments have all gone on record on the harmful effects of employing such policies. The U.S. Education Department, the U.S. Justice Department, civil rights and civil liberties organizations, consortia of researchers, national foundations, and the Dignity in School advocacy coalition have all examined the state of student discipline in America’s schools in light of this research. Their findings? Suspensions and expulsions, the most severe forms of school discipline, are being used excessively in American schools, often for such minor infractions such as ‘talking back’ or being out of uniform.  Further, these severe punishments are being applied disproportionately to students of color, especially African-American and Latino boys, students with disabilities and LGBT youth. As a result of these data, the U.S. Education Department and the U.S. Justice Department issued guidance to schools, based on their finding that discriminatory uses of suspensions and expulsions were in violation of Title IV and Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act…”

Casey’s examination of the data is complicated by the need to compare databases maintained at the federal, state, and local levels. He concludes: “Overall, for the 2013-2014 school year… Success Academy Charter Schools had a total of 728 suspensions for a suspension rate of 11 percent, while the New York City public schools (with over a million students) had a total of 9,617 suspensions for a suspension rate of one percent.” It is important to remember that in the years for which substantial data exist, Success Academies had few middle schools and no high schools; Success Academies were serving primarily elementary school children in grades K-6.  Casey continues: “(I)n 2013-14, there was one suspension for every 67 students in the elementary school grades of New York City public schools and one suspension for every 11 students in the middle and high school grades. By contrast, in Success Academy Charter Schools there was one suspension for every nine students in 2013-14, and these students were overwhelmingly concentrated in the elementary school grades…. Shockingly, when students of the same ages were compared, Success Academy Charter schools was suspending students at a rate roughly seven times greater than in the New York City public schools.”

Casey wonders: “Why would Moskowitz feel the need to lay down a gauntlet in opposition to a president and two secretaries of education who have all been vigorous charter school supporters?  For that matter, why take on the entire civil rights community?”  “Public scrutiny of the issue is bound to grow in the wake of John Merrow’s powerful PBS NewsHour piece on Success Academy’s suspension policy. The Obama administration’s initiative to end excessive and discriminatory suspensions and expulsions will ultimately stand or fall on its willingness to take on those, such as Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools, who openly refuse to abide by federal civil rights law.”

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4 thoughts on “Why Is Eva Moskowitz Taking On John Merrow Over Discipline Practices Widely Discredited?

  1. Pingback: Moskowitz and Petrilli Push Education Model Designed to Serve Strivers and Shed the Rest | janresseger

  2. Pingback: Charter Schools that Recruit, Skim, Flunk Out the Weak, and Refuse to ‘Backfill’ | janresseger

  3. Pingback: Extra: Mother of Child Berated in Success Academy Video Talks with NY Times | janresseger

  4. Pingback: New Allegations Condemn Moskowitz’s NYC Charter Network for Possible Cheating | janresseger

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