School privatizers have flooded the media with miracle stories about saving children who are lost in the “wasteland” of public schools until they are “saved” by a particular brand of charter school. Entrepreneurial charter operators have hired expensive public relations companies to trumpet these supposed wonders to the press. In New York City, Don’t Steal Possible, a half million dollar television advertising campaign sponsored by billionaire hedge fund managers was mounted to convince parents that NYC’s mayor was trying to steal the future of their children by directing too much money to traditional public schools and not to the expansion of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools.
But underneath all of Eva Moskowitz’s glitz, we have been learning this year about ugly pressure at Success Academy charters on children and teachers to raise test scores at all costs. The NY Times published a video (secretly made) of a first grade teacher insulting and punishing a little girl who became confused as she tried to explain her arithmetic (see here, and here), and we learned that another school maintained a “got-to-go” list of children the school intended to encourage to withdraw prior to the standardized testing date. It has also been documented that Moskowitz’s schools do not “backfill” (a term commonly used in NY City charter schools) by adding new students when others drop out. In this way, the schools can cultivate a particular group of higher-testing children who have internalized the schools’ harsh, zero-tolerance culture.
This week, however, Eva Moskowitz got more very bad press. Eliza Shapiro, a reporter for POLITICO New York has uncovered new and very serious allegations of intense pressure on staff, the likelihood that some staff have been cheating to ensure their students score well, and an unusually high turnover rate among teachers. Roy Germano, an ethnographer, was hired by Moskowitz “to study her rapidly expanding charter school network.” After Germano turned in internal memos and reports in the spring and summer of 2015 that suggested teachers might be cheating, however, Moskowitz banned Germano from her schools and soon fired him. “While Germano did not conclusively prove that teachers were cheating, he reports multiple incidents of Success staffers informing him that Success teachers may have prepared students for specific questions on internal tests, allowed students to copy answers from each other, scored their own students higher than students in other classes, and pointed to incorrect answers on exams and warned students to rethink their answers. He compared Success’s data-driven, high-stakes environment to the state of the Atlanta public schools system when a widespread cheating scandal was uncovered there. Germano also suggested that Success introduce measures to spot check and prevent cheating.” His internal report warned Moskowitz: “The credibility of the organization could be greatly undermined if a third party were to detect cheating among our teachers and leaders before we detected and began dealing with it ourselves.”
Shapiro reports that, “Germano’s reports and memo, along with a trove of other documents obtained by POLITICO—a separately commissioned internal draft risk assessment report, a compilation of exit interviews, and internal Success staffing records, among other documents—paint a picture of a growing enterprise facing serious institutional strain in the form of low staff morale, unusually high turnover, and the kind of stress that could drive teachers to exaggerate their students’ progress.” “Success principals—many of whom were teachers for only a few years before being promoted—are expected to have all the children in their schools pass state exams, and have up to 80 percent of their students scoring the highest level on the tests…. Principals are sometimes rewarded with 20 percent bonuses if their students do particularly well or improve dramatically on state English and math exams… although the network’s bonus decisions are not purely based on student performance. And Success teachers are publicly ranked according to their students’ performance on tests.” Germano reports: “When observing… classrooms, I observed instances where all the emphasis on test taking strategy may be sending the message that scores matter more than actual learning and that exceptional results are to be obtained by any means possible.”
Shapiro followed up with second report yesterday that further explores the documents obtained by POLITICO NY. Moskowitz commissioned the work by Germano and a major “‘Enterprise Risk Assessment’ based on 14 interviews with members of the network’s senior leadership team” at a time when Success Academies anticipates rapid growth and expansion: “The expressions of concern come as Moskowitz aims to harness tens of millions of dollars in public and private funds to expand the network from its current 34 schools, serving 11,000 students, to 100 schools and 50,000 students over the next decade… The internal documents cited in this article illustrate some of the challenges that have already resulted from its early growth spurt to 30 schools, including considerable staff churn and uneven quality among schools within the network… (T)he risk most often cited by senior managers was the network’s ability to recruit and retain its existing staff, including school principals and top executives… In the sixteen months since the risk assessment was drafted, at least five high-level Success executives have left the network out of 20 total ‘leaders’ listed on the network’s website.”
As the network has grown rapidly, its capacity to manage data has “been plagued with problems.” Staff expressed concerns in the risk assessment, for example, that the very expensive technology system the network has been trying to develop is “slow, not very reliable lack(s) basic functionality.”
Shapiro summarizes the incredible philanthropic dollars Success Academies has been able to attract from well known hedge fund supporters including one $25 million gift this year from Julian Robertson, but she also notes the charter network’s lavish expenses: a 15-year, $30 million lease in the financial district, a $567,000 annual salary for Eva Moskowitz (more than double that of NYC schools chancellor Carmen Farina), and enormous expenses to public relations firms including the Washington, D.C. firm of SKDKnickerbocker, Sloane & Company, and now Mercury, the same company recently hired by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to help manage press coverage of the Flint water poisoning. Shapiro explains that Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter, pro-Moskowitz organization, spent $734,000 for the pro-charter, pro-Success Academy rally in Albany in March 2015, including $71,900 for beanies and $62,795 for matched T-shirts for the participants.
Although Success Academies is spending a lot of money to create the appearance of glitzy school reform and high test scores, POLITICO NY‘s important new revelations raise serious ethical and educational issues. I urge you to read both of Shapiro’s new articles here and here.
But my own deepest concerns about Moskowitz’s schools are captured in the video the NY Times posted earlier this year of a teacher’s cruelty to a first grade child and the follow-up description of the way Success Academies betrayed the hope of the child’s mother, living in a homeless shelter but trying to do the best she could for her daughter.