Judge Rejects Plan to Allow New York Charter Schools to Certify Their Own Teachers

On Tuesday, a judge in New York blocked a 2017 rule made by the Charter Schools Committee of the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York (SUNY) to allow charter schools and chains of charter schools sponsored by SUNY’s Board of Trustees to certify their own teachers.  Charter school certification programs were required, under the now-banned rule, to have included at least 160 hours of classroom training plus 40 hours of practice teaching.  The rule had been approved by New York’s state legislature as part of a political deal to favor Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies.

ChalkBeat‘s Monica Disare describes the significance of Tuesday’s ruling banning the practice: “The judge’s ruling upends the plans of the city’s largest charter school network, Success Academy, and wipes out a legislative victory that New York’s charter sector thought it had won…. The regulations, approved by the State University of New York in October 2017, were designed to give charter schools more discretion over how they hired teachers. They eliminated the requirement that teachers earn master’s degrees and allowed charter schools authorized by SUNY to certify their teachers with as little as a month of classroom instruction and 40 hours of practice teaching.  Some charter networks argued their existing in-house training programs are more useful to new teachers than the training required for certification under state law.”

Desire reports that the judge’s ruling this week was not merely procedural. The decision addresses a core issue: who, under New York law, has the right to set standards and requirements for certification of school teachers: “Charter networks ‘are free to require more of the teachers they hire but they must meet the minimum standards set’ by the state, the judge wrote in her order.”

In her decision, Judge Debra J. Young writes: “SUNY Charter Schools Committee, a sub-committee of the SUNY Board of Trustees (hereinafter the SUNY Subcommittee) adopted regulations which purported to establish an independent licensure process as a substitute for the teacher certification system as established by New York State Board of Regents and the State Education Department…  Education Law 3004 provides petitioner/plaintiffs Commissioner Elia and the Board of Regents the exclusive authority regarding teacher certification.  8NYCRR Part 80 sets forth the requirements for teachers’ certificates.  This, combined with Education Law 2854 (3) (a-1) which delineates the certification requirements of teachers in charter schools sets forth the certification requirements.  Additionally, Education Law 3602-44 sets forth the requirements for certification of Universal Pre-K teachers. Under Education Law 355, contrary to respondents’/defendants/ contentions, licensure or certification of teachers does not constitute the ‘governance, structure and operations’ of charter schools. Education Law 355 (2-1) merely gives that SUNY subcommittee the power to regulate in limited areas.”

Ironically, across its many campuses, the State University of New York educates a large number of New York’s professionally certified school teachers. The SUNY Charter Schools Committee is a subcommittee of the SUNY Board of Trustees. It is not an academic body responsible for designing the content of teacher preparation; neither is it connected with any of the Schools of Education located at the regional branches of the State University of New York. Under the new rule, now banned, the charter school networks were entirely free to set their own curriculum, expectations, and standards for teacher preparation.

The NY Times’ Elizabeth Harris describes the political deal the state legislature struck to grant charters school networks the power to certify their teachers: “The rules, enacted last year by the State University of New York, one of two entities that grants charters in the state, were part of a 2016 deal in the state legislature. In exchange for extending mayoral control of New York City schools, State Senate Republicans gave SUNY more authority to regulate the schools it oversees. SUNY then used that power to allow some schools to train and certify their own teachers… Eva Moskowitz, the founder of Success Academy, is close to Senate Republicans and the deal was seen as a gift to her.  Success has had difficulty recruiting enough teachers as the network expands.”

Harris publishes the response to Tuesday’s decision from the New York state officials who are responsible for overseeing the preparation of school teachers: “Betty A. Rosa, chancellor of the Board of Regents, and MaryEllen Elia, the state education commissioner, celebrated the decision and said in a statement, ‘Every child—regardless of color, economic status or ability—deserves a qualified teacher with meaningful experience to be prepared for the classroom.”

ChalkBeat‘s Disare reports that the legal challenges to the new SUNY Committee rule had been filed by state education officials as well as the state teachers union: “(T)he rule was quickly challenged by the State Education Department and the state teachers union, which filed separate lawsuits that were joined in April. They argued that SUNY overstepped its authority and charged that the rule change would lead to children being taught by inexperienced and unqualified teachers.”

It is well known that particular chains of charter schools expect the teachers they hire to practice the schools’ own formulaic teaching techniques and that many, including Success Academies, enforce compliance and obedience by imposing punitive zero-tolerance discipline. In contrast, school teachers, educated in traditional certification programs are exposed not only teaching methodology, but also thoughtful courses on child and adolescent development, educational psychology and the philosophy of education. Such programs are designed to help educators develop an understanding of the needs of students and the importance of teaching that helps form emotionally secure, thoughtful, curious, and rigorous students and good citizens. Too frequently charter schools demand instead that teachers practice a sequence of specific techniques.

Education writer and life-long teacher of teachers at UCLA, Mike Rose criticizes the kind of technique-based training young recruits are likely to be taught in the kind of month-long training Success Academy was hoping to establish under the new SUNY rules that Judge Debra Young has now banned: “If you pare down your concept of teaching far enough, you are left with sequences of behaviors and routines—with techniques. Technique becomes central to the reformers’ redefinition of teaching, and the focus on technique is at the heart of many of the alternative teacher credentialing programs that have emerged over the past decade.  Effective techniques are an important part of the complex activity that is teaching, and good mentorship includes analyzing a teacher’s work and providing corrective feedback. Teachers of teachers have been doing this for a long time. What is new is the nearly exclusive focus on techniques, the increased role of digital technology to study them, and the attempt to define ‘effective’ by seeking positive correlations between specific techniques and, you guessed it, students’ standardized test scores.”

It is expected that Judge Young’s decision will be appealed by the SUNY Committee to a higher court.

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Beware Puff Piece in “The Atlantic” about Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy Charters

I thought just about everybody knew about Eva Moskowitz, the New York City queen of no-excuses charter schools. Moskowitz is awarded by her board (made up primarily of the city’s wealthy hedge funders) a salary of over $600,000 per year 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, a diva who regularly complains of persecution by de Blasio when she demands co-located space in one of the city’s crowded public schools.

During the holidays however, when I was out and about, I discovered people talking about Eva Moskowitz, and it became quickly apparent that most of these people had only recently become acquainted with Moskowitz in the fawning puff piece by Elizabeth Green that appears in the January-February, 2018 issue of The Atlantic. Several people, based on Green’s piece, told me I should take back my criticism of charter schools and learn about Eva Moskowitz.

Clearly an admirer of results, Green loves Success Academies’ high scores on standardized tests.  She also likes Eva’s toughness:  “(T)eacher after teacher has reported that at Success, test prep always comes first, narrowing the kind of work students do.  Similarly, however, much as Moskowitz aspires to make Success Academy inclusive, in practice she and her staff sometimes tell families to look elsewhere for a school, because Success just isn’t the right fit. And while Moskowitz has fought to favor disadvantaged groups of students in the lottery, she has declined to fully adopt another policy that would open the schools’ doors wider, a practice known in the charter world as ‘backfilling’: When students leave partway through their schooling, other charters fill spots with kids from the lottery’s waiting list. Success backfills only in kindergarten through fourth grade. Any older than that, Moskowitz argues, and the students won’t be sufficiently prepared for the school’s rigorous academics.”

“Even many supporters hold Moskowitz at what can generously be called a careful distance, and I get it. Her acid tirades are legendary, and can get scathingly personal more quickly than I might have believed had she not once dressed me down after I wrote a story she didn’t like… Entrusting a person who has such an exceptional capacity for venom with the care of children can seem unwise. Which is just one reason I am more than a little terrified by the conclusion I’ve reached: Moskowitz has created the most impressive education system I’ve ever seen.”

Green’s laudatory piece contrasts with earlier reporting on abuses at Success Academies.  At the NY Times a year ago, 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 recent weeks, Green’s article has, not surprisingly, drawn some pretty intense responses. On December 20, on his personal blog, John Merrow, the retired reporter for the PBS NewsHour, penned a scathing and very detailed condemnation of Moskowitz’s educational practices: Moskowitz and Mussolini.  Merrow writes: “Elizabeth Green’s endorsement of Success Academies and their approach to education in The Atlantic… is particularly disappointing… If she had contacted me, I could have introduced her to a Success Academy custodian who told us about regularly emptying student vomit from the wastebaskets.”

Merrow explains that Success Academies’ record of high test scores comes with a price: “The omissions in Green’s article (and, to be fair to Green, in most coverage of Moskowitz) are almost too numerous to mention: She does not tell her readers that Moskowitz drives away children—some as young as five—by excessive use of out-of-school suspensions. Banning kids from school for days at a time is an effective device for getting rid of children, particularly when the parents have jobs outside the home. And it’s easy to get suspended from Success Academy. 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 a child 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.’ Let’s play out how this might work: When an out-of-school suspension is handed out the first time, maybe the Mom asks her mother to watch the child; the second time, maybe her sister can pitch in. But the third one… that’s probably when the Mom decides to seek another school for her first grader.” “Moskowitz has perfected a ‘sorting machine.’ Not only does she sort children by test sores; she also discards those who don’t measure up.”

Merrow explores the obvious goal of such policy and compares Success Academy schools to NYC’s public schools: “Green does not bring up an important question: what happens to the children who do not meet Moskowitz’s standards?  Whether they leave of their own accord, are pushed out, or are effectively thrown out, they have to go to school somewhere. If the Moskowitz model were to be widely accepted, which is what Green is endorsing, where would these children go to school?” Then there is the alarming rate of turnover among teachers at Success Academies. There is also the focus on intense test prep for the annual standardized test: “Because Moskowitz worships test scores, students at her schools spend an inordinate amount of time being tested or practicing for tests.  Moreover, they are rewarded for obedience and punished for drawing outside the lines and thinking outside the box.” “How many of Success graduates have done well enough to gain admission to New York City’s selective high schools like Bronx Science? Last time I checked, it was zero. And Green, a veteran reporter, must have heard stories about how Success kids, after years of regimentation, proved unable to handle a relatively unstructured environment.”

Merrow’s analysis of Moskowitz’s schools is a must read, but several other thoughtful pieces have been recently published as well: Andrea Gabor’s More Breathless Praise for Success Academy; And Why We Should be “Terrified”; and Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker profile, Success Academy’s Radical Educational Experiment (along with this blog’s response to Mead’s profile, Success Academies: Can No-Excuses Charter Schools Be Called Progressive?).

Finally, please don’t miss Lisa Miller’s scathing, NY Times book review of Eva Moskowitz’s recently published memoir. Miller wonders: “How would Eva Moskowitz have fared as an impudent young girl in one of her own charter schools?  This is just one of the many unplumbed questions prompted by her new memoir. Founder of the extensive Success Academy charter-school chain, former New York City councilwoman, mother of three, Moskowitz has famously made a virtue—one might even say a brand—of her defiance. New York City’s public-school system has been her proving ground, and she has devoted herself to reforming what she sees as its bureaucratic idiocies and its codified inefficiencies, refusing to submit to any authority that she deems insufficiently worthy.” But at Success Academy charters, “Children, called ‘scholars,’ are expected to understand that ‘following the rules is a condition of being in school.’ Every teacher is required to follow Success’s pedagogical formula and ‘not create chaos by marching to the beat of her own drum.’ And yet this double standard—in which Moskowitz celebrates her own feisty disobedience while attributing the success of the students in her schools to their dutiful compliance—is never explored, leaving a reader to puzzle over whether Moskowitz has noticed it at all. The question of who in this tinderbox of a society is valued for their anti-authoritarian moxie and who for their obeisance is difficult, and charged, but it is one that the founder of a chain of 46 schools, which educate mostly poor children of color, might be expected to consider.”

Success Academies: Can No-Excuses Charter Schools Be Called Progressive?

An important piece by Rebecca Mead in this week’s New Yorker takes us into Eva Moskowitz’s very controversial Success Academy charter schools in New York City. Mead explains the point of her piece: “For all the controversy, one question has, surprisingly, been overlooked: What are the distinguishing characteristics of a Success Academy education?”

Mead’s subtitle names a contradiction at the center of Moskowitz’s educational theory: “Inside Eva Moskowitz’s Quest to Combine Rigid Discipline with a Progressive Curriculum.” Even as Moskowitz defends the rigid and punitive discipline for which her schools are famous (In Mead’s piece, Moskowitz is quoted as defending the suspension of young children out of school as an important way of impressing a lesson on children and their parents.), Moskowitz claims John Dewey, the father of progressive education, as a guide to what happens in her schools. Moskowitz describes her curriculum as an example of progressivism—“circle time on the classroom rug; interdisciplinary projects that encompass math, science, social studies, and literacy.”  The question that underlies Mead’s analysis is whether it is possible to run a progressive school with no-excuses discipline.

While on one level Mead entertains Moskowitz’s rhetoric about progressivism, Mead seems puzzled by the circle time on the classroom rug: “In the second-grade classroom in Queens, the gridded rug seemed less like a magic carpet than like a chessboard at the start of a game. Within each square there was a large colored spot the size of a chair cushion.  The children sat in rows, facing forward, each within his or her assigned square, with their legs crossed and their hands clasped or folded in their laps. Success students can expect to be called to answer a teacher’s question at any moment, not just when they raise their hand, and must keep their eyes trained on the speaker at all times, a practice known as ‘tracking.’  Staring off into space, or avoiding eye contact is not acceptable.”

Like students at progressive schools (and all kinds of public schools, actually), students in Success Academies go on field trips.  And Mead visits a room where Kindergardeners are taken to play with blocks: “The school has dedicated a special classroom to the activity, and shelves were filled with an enviable supply of blocks. The walls of the room were decorated with pictures of architectural structures that the students might seek to emulate, from the Empire State Building to the Taj Mahal. There was also a list of rules: always walk; carry two small blocks or hug one large block; speak in a whisper.” Unlike free-play at progressive early childhood centers—with dolls, and blocks, and easels and paint, and clay or PlayDoh—block time at the school Mead visits is a specific activity provided by the school in a “block” room to which the entire class of children is led for an assigned period.

For older students there are what Moskowitz likes to consider seminar-type discussions in which children explore ideas. Here is Mead considering one of the class discussions: “The teacher, after establishing that the story’s genre was realistic fiction reminded the class of the necessary ‘thinking job’ required in approaching such a text: to identify the character, the problem, the solution, and the ‘lesson learned.’…  Success Academy students are required to speak in complete sentences, often adhering to a script: ‘I disagree with X’, ‘I agree with X,’ and ‘I want to add on.’… But the lesson seemed to be as much about mastering a formula as about appreciating the nuances of the narrative. When the students were called to ‘turn and talk,’ they swivelled, inside their grids (on the rug), to face a partner, and discussed the section of the text that had been examined collectively. The exchanges I heard consisted of repeating the conclusions that had just been reached rather than independently expanding them. Some students seemed to be going through the motions of analysis and comprehension—performing thought… Nor was there time for more imaginative or personally inflected interpretations of the text—the interrogation of big ideas that happens in the kinds of graduate seminars Moskowitz held up as a model.”

These descriptions of what happened in the Success Academy schools Mead visited sent me to First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, a book published just last year by Steve Nelson, the recently retired head of the Calhoun School, a well-known progressive private school in New York City. What follows are just three of the many characteristics of progressive education that Nelson explores in this book:

  • On the difference between discovery and being taught: “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.”'(p. 11)
  • On progressive education growing from and enhancing the curiosity of students rather than being driven by adults: “In a conventional school, students are seen as vessels into which authoritative adults pour ‘content.’  In a progressive school, students are seen as unique individuals, partners in learning, with their own important ideas, values and experiences.  While there are many shades of grey, conventional schools tend to value and insist on compliance and conformity, while progressive schools encourage skepticism and originality.” (p. 12)
  • On intrinsic motivation—not rewards and punishments—as essential to progressive education: “Extrinsic motivation, especially in education, is driven by systems of rewards and punishments… Intrinsic motivation is driven by factors that emanate from within, such as self-satisfaction, desire for mastery, curiosity, fulfillment, pleasure, self-realization, desire for independence, ethical needs, etc.  Intrinsic motivation is a powerful innate characteristic of all human beings across all cultures and societies… (I)ntrinsic motivation declines as extrinsic structures dramatically increase.” (pp. 160-163)

Contrary to what Nelson identifies as the kind of child-centered, intrinsically motivated, experiential learning that defines progressive education, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies are rigid, relentlessly adult-driven, test-prep factories. Mead explains that to compensate for high turnover among teachers, “Teachers do not develop their own lesson plans; rather, they teach precisely what the network demands. Like the students in their classrooms, Success’s teachers operate within tightly defined boundaries…”

According to their purpose, Success Academy charter schools are are successful: “(T)hey get consistently high scores on standardized tests administered by the state of New York. In the most recent available results, ninety-five percent of Success Academy students achieved proficiency in math, and eighty-four percent in English Language Art: citywide, the respective rates were thirty-six and thirty-eight percent.”  There are, of course, extenuating circumstances: Success Academies do not replace students who drop out after fourth grade; Moskowitz has shamelessly admitted that students who do not fit the Success culture and expectations are encouraged to leave. Public schools, of course, must accept all children. In 2014, Success Academies opened its first high school, which last spring presented diplomas to seventeen students, whose “pioneering class originated with a cohort of seventy-three first graders.”

Mead reports that the high school has struggled with students’ learning styles formed in Success Academy elementary schools: “There was to be a lot more free time, in which students would be the stewards of their own studies.”  But, “Students accustomed to second-by-second vigilance found it difficult to manage their time when left unsupervised.”

Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, tells Mead that a Success Academies education is the very opposite of progressive: “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?”

Eva Moskowitz Likely to Continue Plaguing the Recently Re-Elected NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio

On the morning after the recent election, POLITICO New York Education reminded us that newly re-elected New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio had delayed important education decisions until after the election.  POLITICO‘s Eliza Shapiro and Keshia Clukey point readers to an upcoming and likely contentious fight about expanding the co-location of charter schools into public schools, a battle NYC’s charter school diva, Eva Moskowitz is ready to launch.

You can read about Eva Moskowitz in a clever and entertaining review in The Nation of Eva’s new memoir, The Education of Eva Moskowitz.  Megan Erickson, a NYC public school teacher and the book’s reviewer quotes Eva describing her own belief in controversy on behalf of her Success Academy Charter Schools: “If the day ever comes when I think something is okay simply because district schools do it, I hope my board fires me… To achieve excellence, one must fight such compromise with every fiber of one’s being.”

Erickson continues, “‘Excellence’ is subjective, but the test scores from Success’s students are not. In August, the network of 46 charter schools announced that its students—predominantly children of color from low-income families—had outpaced some of New York State’s highest-performing (and wealthiest) districts on math and reading tests.  Of course, those numbers come with a caveat: Success serves fewer students who are still learning English and students with disabilities than do traditional public schools, and it serves very few students with severe disabilities… But facts don’t get in the way of the sense of righteousness that animates Moskowitz’s story.”

In her review of Eva Moskowitz’s new book, Erickson summarizes what she believes are the fatal flaws in Moskowitz’s project—an alignment with wealthy hedge fund managers John Petry, Joel Greenblatt, and Dan Loeb, along with Don Fisher of The Gap and J. Crew, and the Walton and Broad Foundations to provide an escape from public schools for poor children in NYC who are able along with their parents to meet Success Academies’ demands:

“What does it mean for parents and their children to be ‘consumers’ of education, selecting from an array of options subsidized by billionaire benefactors? Some Success families would find out the hard way. Unlike in district schools, students at Success Academy are required to keep logs of their hours that their parents have read to them at home. Poor parents, Moskowitz insists, ‘can support their kids in school, if it is demanded of them.’ And if the demands don’t work, shame will.  She recalls getting one parent to cooperate by inviting the woman’s mother, who ‘seemed… more responsible,’ to a meeting about her son’s progress. Forget the paternalism of this scene for a  second—Moskowitz’s belief that achievement is more about morals than material circumstances hinders her ability to serve families who, regardless of their intentions,  simply can’t meet the requirements.”

Erickson describes parents working several jobs, for example, and wonders:  “When… parents are forced to disenroll their children because they can’t meet the school’s demands for reading time at home, is it really a choice?  And when students with special needs leave because they weren’t given appropriate accommodations by the school, or were suspended for minor infractions… is that a choice?… District schools, run by the New York City Department of Education do not have the option of sending children with behavioral issues or special needs elsewhere—nor should they, since the United States has consistently affirmed by law that it is the responsibility of public schools to educate all students in the least restrictive environment possible… But even charter schools with a lottery system ‘choose’ students indirectly by limiting the services they provide or by instituting demanding requirements for parental involvement. This is an important part of Success Academy’s seeming success….”

Erickson highlights instances when students’ rights have been violated at Success Academies: “At the state level, children have a constitutionally guaranteed right to a free education. Repeated suspensions, or suspensions lasting 45 days—as yet another Success Academy student with special needs received this past spring—are a violation of that right.  They’re also discriminatory…. (T)he hard truth of ‘school choice’ is that it leaves families with a multitude of options but few rights.”

POLITICO predicts that the issue of co-location of charter schools into public school buildings that continue to house public schools will re-emerge now that Mayor deBlasio has been re-elected.  You may remember that, as the NY Times reported in the spring of 2014, under pressure from Moskowitz and her allies, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York’s state legislature guaranteed that New York’s public school districts will provide free space in public schools or rent paid in private facilities for charter schools:  “Most significantly, the legislation would require the city to find space for charter schools inside public school buildings or pay much of the cost to house them in private space. The legislation would also prohibit the city from charging rent to charter schools, an idea Mr. de Blasio had championed as a candidate for mayor.”

In his new book about NYC’s Mayor Bill deBlasio, Reclaiming Gotham, Juan Gonzalez, 29-year New York Daily News reporter and the co-host of Democracy Now, describes the problems NYC public schools have endured in past years around co-location: “Moskowitz was at the center of many of those wars, inevitably demanding more space as her schools grew, with the Success Academy section of any building then routinely remodeled with new furniture, paint, bathrooms, and computers, while the traditional public school remained dingy and run-down, the students and teachers feeling like second-class citizens in their own building.” (p. 239)

Gonzalez summarizes his experience over the years reporting on Moskowitz and her schools: “In a series of Daily News columns from 2009 to 2016, I documented the combative style of Success Academy toward traditional public schools, as well as the network’s far higher rate of suspending children with behavior problems, and its pushing out of special needs children. But Success Academy has repeatedly defended its ‘zero tolerance’ approach for students who misbehave, with Moskowitz claiming her schools use ‘an appropriate disciplinary and restorative approach….’  Moskowitz continued to receive tens of millions of dollars from the nation’s financial elite while spending exorbitant amounts of money on a massive campaign to market and solicit applications to her schools to, in her own words, increase market share, all while paying herself a hefty salary that in 2015 exceeded $600,000 annually.” (pp. 239-240)

Some of New York’s Powerful Charter School Networks Win Right to Certify Their Own Teachers

The NY Times reports that on Wednesday, “The charter schools committee of SUNY’s Board of Trustees voted to approve regulations that will allow some (charter) schools to design their own teacher-training programs and certify their own teachers.”  This is, of course, the story of a charter-school-authorizing body in one state—a committee of the State University of New York’s Board of Trustees—that has been appointed to sponsor and oversee the operation and quality of charter schools.  But it is also a much bigger story about a nationwide problem: the influence of money and power on non-elected and unaccountable bodies that states have appointed to sponsor charter schools.

CHALKBEAT NY describes what the new rule will mean for the New York charter schools sponsored by SUNY’s Board of Trustees: “Dozens of charter schools across New York can now apply to certify their own teachers after the State University of New York’s charter school committee approved new regulations, over the vehement objections of teachers unions and state officials. In charter schools overseen by SUNY that apply to train their own teachers, prospective teachers now will only have to sit for the equivalent of a month of classroom instruction and practice teaching for 40 hours before becoming certified.  And unlike teachers on a traditional certification path in New York, they will not be required to earn a master’s degree or take all of the state’s teacher-certification exams.”  Charter school leaders had been lobbying for the new rules because they have been experiencing rapid staff turnover and a subsequent teacher shortage.

The rules had been revised in recent days, reports the NY Times, after State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia declared: “I could go into a fast-food restaurant and get more training than that.” Originally the plan had required only 30 hours of classroom training but the required hours of instruction were increased to 160 after Elia condemned the plan. However, the new regulations, which had originally required 100 hours of in-classroom teaching experience, were modified to require only 40 hours.

SUNY’s Board of Trustees is one of two charter school sponsoring bodies in New York. The 167 charter schools across the state that are sponsored by the SUNY Charter Schools Committee—including Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charters—are the only schools to which this new ruling will apply.  Teachers certified under the new rules will be eligible to teach in neither New York’s public schools nor in charter schools authorized by the state’s other sponsoring agency. Ironically, the campuses of the State University of New York educate and certify public school teachers with in-depth programs that require extensive supervised classroom teaching experience.

Eliza Shapiro, writing for POLITIO Morning Education, explains that leaders of powerful charter school networks have been pushing their sponsor for less stringent requirements for their teachers: “The city’s charter networks have long relied on young and inexperienced teachers—often on two-year, Teach for America contracts—to staff their growing networks. Charter network chiefs have been plagued by high turnover among teachers who burn out after a few years in the classroom and move on to higher-paying jobs outside of education. Certification woes have also left some of the city’s most powerful charter networks vulnerable to legal trouble. Earlier this year, POLITICO reported that officials at Success Academy privately acknowledged being out of compliance with state laws mandating a certain threshold of certified teachers in every school. Charter leaders, led by Success CEO Eva Moskowitz, have spent years pushing the SUNY board and charter-friendly legislators in Albany to come up with a solution to the problem of certification.”

In a joint statement, New York Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa and Education Commissioner Elia condemn the new rules: “We strongly disapprove of today’s actions by the SUNY Charter Schools Committee. With the adoption of the latest proposal, the Committee ignored our concerns and those of many others in education. Over the past several years, the Board of Regents and the Department have raised standards for our teachers…. This change lowers standards and will allow inexperienced and unqualified individuals to teach those children that are most in need—students of color, those who are economically disadvantaged, and students with disabilities—in SUNY-authorized charter schools.”

New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, New York State United Teachers, and the Alliance for Quality Education have threatened to challenge the new regulations in court.

It is becoming increasingly clear that 25 years ago when state legislators created charter schools with the claim they were freeing the schools from the straitjacket of bureaucracy, they naively created an education sector that is too frequently overly responsive to powerful interests and unresponsive to government’s responsibility to protect children. While the details are different from Michigan to Ohio to New York, the problem is that charter schools are shielded from government oversight in the public interest—even if, as in New York, the charter school sponsor is a committee of the board of trustees of a state university.

New Allegations Condemn Moskowitz’s NYC Charter Network for Possible Cheating

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.

Charter Schools: Publicly Funded but Accountable Neither to the Public nor to Parents

In the Public Interest supports public education.  It’s website describes the organization as “a comprehensive research and policy center committed to promoting the values, vision, and agenda for the common good and democratic control of public goods and services.”  It is the co-sponsor of Cashing In On Kids, a national campaign to confront the privatization of public education:  “We believe the American public school system should serve all students and prepare them to be good, productive citizens. Our public schools are the essential foundation of a functioning democracy and a healthy economy and require public control and vigilance to protect the common good and advance our broad public interests.”

Last Sunday in an important commentary, Donald Cohen, In the Public Interest’s executive director, wondered: Are Publicly Funded Charter Schools Accountable to Parents and Taxpayers?  Cohen responds to the important NY Times story of Nadya Miranda, the mother whose child was reprimanded by her first-grade teacher at one of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter schools, a situation that was captured in a cellphone video by an assistant teacher and posted in the NY Times.  Personnel at the school showed the video to the mother of the child who was berated by her teacher just prior to its appearance in the newspaper, despite that the event happened well over a year ago.  The mother, who lives with her children in a NYC homeless shelter and who had proudly won a space for her child by winning the school’s lottery, was devastated to learn about the school’s punitive learning policy and angered to discover that the school worried more about its own reputation than the well being of her daughter.

In his recent commentary, Donald Cohen describes the mother’s experience as she tried to hold someone accountable for what the she felt was the betrayal of her child by the school: “The student’s parent went to the NY Department of Education to file a complaint.  She was told that Success was independent from the school district and that she needed to contact the school’s board of trustees.  But the board, chaired by hedge fund CEO Dan Loeb, that gets to spend taxpayer dollars, aren’t elected by nor accountable to New York voters.”

“They are private citizens who get to spend taxpayer dollars to educate children.”  “They are a group of hedge fund and private equity investors, lawyers, public relations professionals, philanthropists and one full-time educator.”  Cohen describes the daytime jobs of seven members of the board, most of them investment bankers who represent Gotham Capital, Morgan Stanley, Herring Creek Capital, Sessa Capital, Penza Investment Manager, Angelo, Gordon David—a real estate and private equity firm, and SPO Partners & Co.  Finally there is Paul Pastorek, the man who helped charterize the public schools of New Orleans and who is now the co-executive director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

Cohen concludes, “The biggest problem with charter schools should be obvious. Charter schools are publicly funded, public schools run by private groups, accountable to neither the public who pay the bills nor the parents of children who deserve to have their voices heard.”

This blog covered the release by the NY Times of the Success Academy video here.