You will remember Eva Moskowitz, the New York City diva of no-excuses charter schools. In 2016, Moskowitz was paid by her board—made up of the city’s wealthy hedge funders—salary, bonuses and benefits of $782,175 to run a 46-school chain of charter schools funded primarily with public dollars. She is the melodramatic enemy of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio: She regularly complains of persecution by the mayor when he struggles to abide by the New York state law, which she and her backers drove through the legislature, requiring the New York City Public Schools either to grant Eva’s Success Academy Charters co-located space in public school buildings or to pay their rent in private accommodations.
Moskowitz’s Success Academies do not backfill. That’s what they call it in New York when charter schools replace with new students any children who drop out. Public schools, of course, always backfill; they must serve all children who live in the school district and enroll. But Eva’s charters make a point of “preserving the school’s culture” by letting the class get smaller as children move through the grades. They do not accept new students into a class after third grade. This is, of course, a strategy for shaping a class of high scorers, even though every year the class is smaller. Raising her schools’ aggregate scores on the state’s required reading and math tests is known as Eva’s mission, and what she promises parents she will do for the children who survive her discipline code.
Success Academies epitomize no-excuses charter schools. In a new report on problems at Success Academy’s new high school, Chalkbeat’s Alex Zimmerman explains Moskowitz’s philosophy of education: “Success Academy is famous for rules. That was true when the network launched with a kindergarten and first grade in 2006 and remains true now, as Success serves about 17,000 students—mostly students of color. The schools deploy an at-times controversial ‘no excuses’ approach, with strict discipline and high academic standards.”
In a post last winter, the retired PBS reporter John Merrow describes the code: “On my blog, I published Success Academies’ draconian list of offenses that can lead to suspension, about 65 of them in all. ‘Slouching/failing to be in Ready to Succeed position‘ more than once, ‘Getting out of one’s seat without permission at any point during the school day,’ and ‘Making noise in the hallways, in the auditorium, or any general building space without permission‘ can get an out-of-school suspension that can last as long as five days. The code includes a catch-all, vague offense that all of us are guilty of at times, ‘Being off-task.'”
You may remember when the NY Times reporter Kate Taylor published a video of a teacher at the Cobble Hill Success Academy in Brooklyn berating a first grade girl for mistakes on her math paper, ripping up the paper, and publicly shaming the child. We learn that this technique has a name at Success Academies: “rip and redo.”
In a New Yorker profile last December, Rebecca Mead interviews Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, describing why he believes Moskowitz’s strategy is efficient for classroom management but at the same time damaging for students’ academic development: “They have a philosophy that, to create a context for learning, it’s necessary to build a total institutional culture that is very strong, enveloping, and quite authoritarian. This produces a level of compliance from children that allows for pretty much any approach to instruction, and eliminates many of the typical challenges of classroom management. There is a reason why there is a continuing pull in human organizations toward authoritarian approaches. You can get a lot done. But what kind of citizens are you producing?… Can you educate children in an authoritarian context and also empower them to be active agents in their own lives, who think critically and question injustice in the world around them?”
Can students develop intrinsic motivation when a school insists on obedience and relies almost exclusively on extrinsic motivation through rules and punishments, formal incentives and competition? Can you educate children in an authoritarian context and also empower them to be active agents in their own lives? Dr. Polakow-Suransky’s question seems to be at the heart of the problems Eva has recently been encountering in her high school. Four years ago, as the ever-diminishing class of students who made it through eighth grade at Success Academies (through all those years of no backfilling) reached high school, Eva opened a high school to serve them. Chalkbeat‘s Alex Zimmerman reports that the high school’s first class—16 students—graduated in June.
But last school year, according to Zimmerman, Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts was overcome with conflict over the very issues critics have predicted. The principal, who has now left the school, tried to give students a little more control over their education, but at the beginning of the second semester, Eva decided to crack down on students who had violated the dress code or didn’t finish assignments on time or missed class: “For the last three years, the task of figuring that out fell to Andy Malone, a well-liked former Success middle school principal who took over the high school in 2015. (The school’s first principal lasted one year.) …Malone’s strategy was to offer more freedom than was typical in the network’s lower grades. Some Advanced Placement classes pushed students to complete research papers, not focus purely on test preparation, former teachers said. Students recalled he allowed them to wear colorful headscarves featuring African prints, even if they weren’t technically in line with the network’s dress code.”
Moskowitz wasn’t pleased: “(N)etwork leaders, including Moskowitz, did not completely buy in to Malone’s approach. With Malone, Moskowitz told Chalkbeat, ‘Everything was relationship based—he’s charismatic, he’s devoted. That’s different from systems and routines and policies and procedures.’ Moskowitz began spending more time in the high school, and teachers said she worried about students’ grade point averages being too low and dress code violations becoming too common just as the school was trying to shepherd its first students into college. Moskowitz’s argument, which she often makes to parents, boils down to this: Students not turning in homework means they lack the study skills they will need to succeed in college. Uncompleted assignments also have the effect of lowering students’ GPAs, hurting their chances of getting into a selective college in the first place. America rewards college degrees, and most of Success’ students are already starting from behind compared to their wealthier peers. It’s the school’s job to make sure they don’t fall off track.”
At the beginning of the second semester of last school year, Moskowitz began sending students back to the previous grade mid-year if they had missed assignments or were struggling. One student turned in summer homework but failed to complete 10 SAT prep lessons per week over the summer. The school threatened to make her repeat her junior year even though she had taken the SAT twice already and scored 1330 out of 1600. Under pressure the school finally relented.
Then, on June 5, the school required parents to attend a meeting during hours when many parents needed to be at work and were forced to take time off. The school announced that if parents didn’t attend the meeting, their children were being withdrawn from the high school and would no longer be considered enrolled.
Many faculty quit at the end of last spring’s semester—with 18 of 67 remaining. A new principal has been appointed.
The question remains: can a no-excuses philosophy prepare adolescents to take responsibility for their own learning? Moskowitz seems to have forgotten that colleges expect their students to do more than follow rules. College professors assume their students will be curious enough to research and write a paper, for example, and manage their time. There is more to college than accruing high enough test scores to get in.
Of course college admission metrics are also what Moskowitz wants to be able to publish about her high school’s graduates. And as Zimmerman explains in an earlier report: “Concerns about Success’ first high school come at a delicate moment, as Moskowitz is trying to double the number of schools in what is already the city’s largest charter network.”