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.”


John Merrow and Thomas Toch Debate Michelle Rhee’s Strategy for Running Urban Schools

A debate about school reform has been raging on the pages of The Washington Monthly—between Thomas Toch, a defender of what is frequently called “corporate school reform” and John Merrow, the retired education reporter for the PBS NewsHour.  The subject: Washington, D.C. school reform as launched by Michelle Rhee and further evolved during the tenure of Kaya Henderson and others whom Henderson hired.  This now-old story about the D.C. public schools still matters, because the theories and practices introduced by Michelle Rhee a decade ago in the nation’s capital continue to drive the operation of urban school districts across the United States.

Thomas Toch formerly led the think tank Education Sector and now serves as the director of FutureEd, an education think tank at Georgetown University. The July-August, Washington Monthly published Toch’s  Hot for Teachers, a paean to what he believes is a decade of public school improvement between 2007 and 2016 in the nation’s capital. Toch is careful to point out that his subject is broader than Michelle Rhee’s tenure that ended with her resignation in October of 2010. As Toch describes the elevation of test scores across the District, however, and as he celebrates a crackdown on “bad teaching,” improved recruitment and retention of teachers, and broad-scale, data-driven school management, Toch’s rhetoric betrays a pro-corporate-school-reform bias, which must filtered as one reads his story:

Toch appreciates charter schools: “Some 43 percent of D.C. students were enrolled in charters in 2013, up from less than 15 percent a decade earlier.  Many of these schools, with names like DC Prep, KIPP DC, and Achievement Prep, were earning attention for their innovative strategies and strong results.  Foundations heaped money onto them, and the young talent entering teaching through prestigious pipelines like Teach for America were keen to work in the schools.” He also celebrates Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson’s strategy for working with school teachers: “Rhee’s successors at DCPS have redesigned teaching through some of the very policies that teachers’ unions and other Rhee adversaries opposed most strongly: comprehensive teacher evaluations, the abandonment of seniority-based staffing, and performance-based promotions and compensation.”  Before Rhee resigned, “Kaya Henderson, who had been Teach for America’s D.C. director and then managed Rhee’s New Teacher Project work in the city, supervised the project as the new chancellor’s chief of human capital.  She worked with Jason Kamras, a Princeton graduate who had arrived in Washington a decade earlier through Teach for America…. At the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, Henderson and Kamras launched the most comprehensive teacher measurement system ever implemented in public education.  It set citywide teaching standards for the first time ever… Under the new system, every teacher would be observed five times a year—three times by the administrators in their schools and twice by ‘master educators’ from the central office who would provide an independent check on principals’ ratings.”  Toch believes that fear is a useful strategy for making people work harder: “Rhee’s team deepened teachers’ angst…. Henderson ordered that student test scores make up 50 percent of teachers’ ratings if they taught tested subjects and grades. That turned out to be only 15 percent of the school system’s teaching force, but the move stoked anxiety and resentment throughout the city’s teaching ranks.”

Toch’s analysis continues beyond the transition from Chancellor Rhee to Chancellor Henderson. Noting that Henderson learned from Rhee’s mistakes, Toch emphasizes that after Rhee’s exit, Henderson introduced more support for good teaching—career ladders, for example, and collaboration among grade-level teams of teachers.  Toch does betray the top-down reformer’s bias, however: “There’s no doubt that the school reform stars aligned in Washington over the past decade: There was a rare infusion of talent in the central office; stable leadership enabled by mayoral control of city schools; freedom from key collective bargaining obstacles, and substantial funding, first from grants, then from savings from improvements in the city’s special education system.”

John Merrow, the retired PBS NewsHour reporter who has repeatedly investigated Michelle Rhee’s contentious tenure as the D.C. Chancellor, collaborated with Mary Levy to publish, in the September-October Washington Monthly, a rebuttal to Toch’s story.  Merrow has also expanded this story on his personal blog.  Merrow’s response to Toch centers on the Rhee years, because that is the subject Merrow knows best and because Merrow believes Toch’s distorted portrayal of a D.C. school improvement miracle is grounded in a biased understanding of Rhee’s troubled tenure.

Merrow points to gentrification as the source of much of the test score improvement in Washington, D.C.  He documents that achievement gaps by race, ethnicity and income have not closed: “Those results, however, stop looking so good once we disaggregate data about different groups of students.  Despite small overall increases, minority and low-income scores lag far behind the NAEP’s big-city average, and the already huge achievement gaps have actually widened.  From 2007 to 2015, the NAEP reading scores of low income eighth graders increased just 1 point, from 232 to 233, while scores of non-low-income students (called ‘others’ in NAEP-speak) climbed 31 points, from 250-282.  Over that same time period, the percentage of low-income students scoring at the ‘proficient’ level remained an embarrassingly low 8 percent, while proficiency among ‘others’ climbed from 22 to 53 percent.  An analysis of the data by race between 2007 and 2015 is also discouraging: black proficiency increased 3 points, from 8 percent to 11 percent, while Hispanic proficiency actually declined from 18 percent to 17 percent.  In 2007 the white student population was not large enough to be reported, but in 2015, white proficiency was at 75 percent.”

Merrow describes what he calls “central office bloat”: “Many of these highly paid non-teachers spend their days watching over teachers in scheduled and unscheduled classroom observations, generally lasting about thirty minutes…. Why so many of these teacher watchers?  Because those who subscribe to top-down management do not trust teachers.” Merrow bemoans the result: a collapse of morale along with widespread resignations of teachers and school leaders.  Some of this is because staff are being moved among schools, enhancing disruptive change, but he notes: “Unfortunately, the greatest upheavals are in schools serving large numbers of low-income children, kids who need stability wherever they can find it.”

As he re-posts his Washington Monthly article on his personal blog, Merrow adds several pages of what he has documented over the years in his investigation of a years’ long cheating scandal in Washington DC, a scandal exposed by U.S.A. Today in March of 2011, but, as Merrow has documented repeatedly, never investigated.  He castigates Toch for (in his July-August article) dismissing the extent of the pressure Rhee was placing on school principals and the widespread reach of the cheating.

Here is some of Merrow’s rebuttal: “Contrary to Toch’s assertions, cheating—in the form of suspiciously high rates of erasures of wrong answers and filling in the right ones—occurred in more than half of DCPS schools.  The changes were never thoroughly investigated beyond an initial analysis by the agency that had corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Deep erasure analysis was never ordered by Rhee, her then deputy Henderson, or the mayor.  The ‘investigations’ Toch refers to were either controlled by Rhee and, later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators—and sometimes both… Rhee, and subsequently Henderson, tightly controlled the inquiries, limiting the number of schools that could be visited, the number of interviews that could be conducted, and even the questions, that could be asked.”

Merrow poses the essential question: “Why would so many schools be driven to cheat?  In her one-on-one meetings with all her principals, Rhee insisted that they guarantee test score increases and made it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.  The adults who subsequently changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were intent on keeping their jobs, which depended on higher scores… The rookie Chancellor met one-on-one with all her principals and, in these meetings, made them guarantee test score increases. We filmed a number of these sessions, and saw firsthand how Rhee relentlessly negotiated the numbers up, while also making it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.”

Merrow dismisses Toch’s piece as corporate-school-reform hot air: “To remain aloft, a hot air balloon must be fed regular bursts of hot air.  Without hot air, the balloon falls to earth.  That seems to be the appropriate analogy for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) during the ten-year regime (2007-2016) of Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson.  Their top-down approach to school reform might not have lasted but for the unstinting praise provided by influential supporters from the center left and right—their hot air.  The list includes the editorial page of the Washington Post, (and) former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan….”

Merrow dubs Toch’s article this summer as merely another draft of hot air.  He blasts Toch’s argument “that Rhee and Henderson revolutionized the teaching profession in D.C. schools, to the benefit of students. ”  And he calls Toch a cheerleader who, “obscures a harsh truth: on most relevant measures, Washington’s public schools have either regressed or made minimal progress under their leadership.  Schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods seem to be thriving, but outcomes for low-income minority students—the great majority of enrollment—are pitifully low.”

Thomas Toch responds to Merrow’s allegations.  His response is printed by The Washington Monthly at the end of Merrow and Mary Levy’s report, Has D.C. Teacher Reform Been Successful?

John Merrow: “Test-Based Accountability Has Failed Miserably”

Scores for high school seniors on the National Assessment of Education Progress, the NAEP, a national test considered the best gauge of our public schools over time, were released this week.  Math scores declined and reading scores flat-lined.  The test is administered across the country every other year.  The 2015 scores for students in grades 4-8 were released last fall, while 2015 scores for 12th graders were released this week.

Diane Ravitch knows a lot about the NAEP.  Appointed by President Bill Clinton, she served on the National Assessment Governing Board for seven years. She describes what this test is: “NAEP is an audit test. It is given every other year to samples of students in every state and in about 20 urban districts. No one can prepare for it, and no one gets a grade. NAEP measures the rise or fall of average scores for states… in reading and math and reports them by race, gender, disability status, English language ability, economic status, and a variety of other measures.”

Here is how Liana Heitin, a reporter for Education Week, describes the 2015 test results for high school seniors:  “Much like their 4th and 8th grade peers, high school seniors have lost ground in math over the last two years…. In reading, 12th grade scores remained flat, continuing a trend since 2009.”

It is interesting to consider that this year’s high school seniors were beginning their formal education just as No Child Left Behind’s  school accountability scheme was getting underway.  The law was signed by President George W. Bush in January of 2002 and in the early stages of implementation in the fall of 2003, as these students started Kindergarten. They are the first generation of students educated entirely in the era of high stakes test-and-punish. The goal of No Child Left Behind, as its name tells us, was to improve school achievement for all students and most particularly to close achievement gaps for those left behind.

Among this year’s high school seniors in that first NCLB generation, it is the students in the lowest-scoring 10 percent of the students tested who demonstrated that they have fallen farthest behind. Heitin explains: “Perhaps the most striking detail in the test data… is that the lowest achievers showed large score drops in both math and reading.  Between 2013 and 2015, students at or below the 10th percentile in reading went down an average of 6 points… the largest drop in a two-year period since 1994.  The high achievers, on the other hand—those at or above the 90th percentile—did significantly better in reading, gaining two points on average, while staying stagnant in math.”

What about achievement gaps? Heitin continues: “The data also show that large racial and ethnic achievement gaps have persisted.  White and Asian students continue to significantly outperform their black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native peers.  While 47 percent of Asian students and 32 percent of white students scored at or above proficient in math, just 7 percent of black students and 12 percent of Hispanic students did the same. There were no changes in the black-white and white-Hispanic score gaps for math or reading between 2013 and 2015.”

Reporters have asked whether the drop in scores might indicate that high school seniors are not taking the test seriously.  Heitin reports that NAEP officials replied: “Students are not interacting with this assessment any differently than they have in the past.”

John Merrow, the long-experienced and now-retired PBS education reporter, explains what he thinks these scores mean:

“It turns out that scores are down five points over the last 23 years on the (poorly named) ‘National Assessment of Educational Progress.’  The newest NEAP scores also reveal a widening gap in math and reading between those who score well and those who do not.  That has to be particularly disappointing to those reformers who go on and on about ‘Closing the Achievement Gap.’… (P)erhaps it’s time someone pointed out that test-based accountability, which has meant more drill and test prep and cuts in art, music, drama and all sorts of other courses that aren’t deemed ‘basic,’ has failed miserably—and there are victims.

“Students have been the losers, sentenced to mind-numbing schooling. Teachers who care about their craft have been the losers.  Craven administrators who couldn’t or didn’t stand up for what they know about learning have been the losers.  Add to the list of losers the general public, because the drumbeat of bad news has undercut faith in public education.

“There are winners: The testing companies (particularly Pearson), the academics who’ve gotten big grants from major foundations, profiteers in the charter school industry, and ideologues and politicians who want to undermine public education.

“As I see it, the underlying message of the newest NAEP results is that ‘The emperor has no clothes.’  We’ve actually known this for some time, so isn’t it time to acknowledge the truth?”

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.”

In Final PBS Broadcast, John Merrow Interviews New York City’s Controversial Eva Moskowitz

Last evening, the PBS NewsHour (October 12) aired John Merrow’s final broadcast before retiring from the NewsHour, a fascinating interview with New York City’s Eva Moskowitz, the politically polarizing CEO of New York’s Success Academy Charters.

Interviewing the principals of two New York City elementary schools co-located into one school building—Primary School 138 and a Success Academy elementary school, Merrow asks about the practice of out-of-school suspension as a discipline policy.  The Success Academy serves 203 Kindergarten and first graders and is reported to have used out-of-school suspension for the very young children in these two grades 44 times during the school year.  The public school principal has not suspended any children in the early grades and explains that she believes such harsh discipline is inappropriate for Kindergarten and first grade.  She reports that to suspend an elementary school child, she would be required to secure school district approval in advance.

Success Academy Charters operate, according to what Eva Moskowitz tells John Merrow, with a strict six page discipline code that lists 65 possible infractions—some as minor as school uniform violations or failure to pay attention, and some far more serious such as sexually explicit language, an infraction that always warrants an out-of-school suspension.

Merrow interviews parents and one child, a former Success Academy student who tells Merrow he was sent home for not paying attention.  Moskowitz denies that her schools explicitly suspend students for the purpose of encouraging students whose scores are likely to be low to drop out (and thereby raise Success Academy charters’ overall test scores). Merrow reports that some students seem to be suspended repeatedly and that for every 100 students who enroll, ten eventually do drop out.  One mother reports that while her child does sometimes act out at the public school he attends now that he has left Success Academy, the staff at his new school find ways for him to calm down and then return to class: “He’s in school and he’s getting an education.”

Merrow reports that while 93 percent of students at Success Academy charters pass the state math test, only 35 percent of students at New York City’s public schools achieve passing scores.  Attrition at Success Academies, however, is twice that at New York City’s KIPP charters, another charter chain also known for strict discipline.

I encourage you to watch Merrow’s report and interview with Eva Moskowitz.

Last week Moskowitz and her supporters at the hedge-fund-backed Families for Excellent Schools staged an enormous pro-charter rally in Brooklyn.  Moskowitz closed all Success Academy schools and asked all students, families, and teachers to attend.  The rally followed the airing (for at least two weeks) by Families for Excellent Schools of a controversial television ad with a message Ms. Moskowitz herself articulated to CBS News: “We’ve got two separate school systems where if you’re white and affluent, you’re probably going to be OK.  But if you’re a kid of color, you’re most likely trapped in a failing school at the age of 5 and then you’re going to go to a failed middle school and a failed high school.”  The ads were condemned as racist and divisive by critics of Ms. Moskowitz.

Moskowitz has been pushing to get rent-free space in the public schools next year for seven or eight new Success Academy charters to be co-located.  Mayor Bill deBlasio is quoted by CBS responding to Moskowitz’s inflamed rhetoric: “The vast majority of our kids, about 93-94 percent of our kids, are in traditional public schools… I am absolutely committed to reaching children in every neighborhood in a way that, bluntly, they haven’t been reached in the past.”

In a recent major address, DeBlasio committed to extending school improvement well beyond his vast expansion of pre-school over the past year.  Well over 65,000 children in New York City are now enrolled in pre-K programs, including many low income children, even children living in shelters for homeless families.  The district is also engaged in the ongoing transformation of New York City’s lowest-achieving schools into full-service, wraparound Community Schools.  In his recent address deBlasio promised to ensure reading specialists across the city’s second grades and access to algebra for all students by ninth grade.  He also promised that all of the small high schools created by Mayor Bloomberg will offer courses in advanced sciences and math.  Many of these schools that have offered a more personalized education have not, until now, provided a curriculum with enough courses for students to earn a Regents diploma.

Here are previous posts about Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy charter schools in New York City.

Jeff Bryant Thinks Campbell Brown Is Replacing Michelle Rhee as Face of Attacks on Teachers

In a blockbuster story at, Jeff Bryant threads together the two key school “deformer” stories of the past week.  Michelle Rhee’s star seems to be fading even as Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor who has turned herself into an opponent of job protections for teachers, seems to be rising as the darling of those intent on scapegoating school teachers.

Bryant writes:  “For years, Michelle Rhee the former District of Columbia schools chancellor, has been upheld in the media as someone with the formula and fight required to ‘fix’ public schools.  Others–okay, yours truly—have likened her more to an ‘education Ann Coulter,’ providing lots of attention-getting optics for a movement made up of rich and powerful people who press their belief that what ails public education most is ‘bad teachers.’  Supported by shadowy money and shaky science, these wealthy folks have created a ‘blame teachers first’ campaign that seeks to address education problems rooted in inequality and low investment by attacking teachers’ job protections and professional status.  Their efforts are, of course, ‘for the children.'”

Summing up the ways Rhee’s impact and reputation seem to be fading, Bryant links to reports that show her organization, StudentsFirst, has proven to have neither the members nor the organizing clout Rhee has claimed.  He reports that Rhee carries the stain of a likely, but not fully investigated and therefore unproven, scandal in Washington, DC, where it looks as though teachers and school administrators erased  the answers on hundreds of students’ standardized test answer sheets and and corrected them. He describes Rhee’s boasts of rising scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress during her tenure in Washington, DC,  and then reports that rising scores were about the same as those of her predecessors, that DC’s students’ NAEP scores overall continue to be relatively low, and that the test score gap between poor and wealthier students in Washington, DC widened during her tenure.  Bryant concludes his summary of Rhee’s fade with the news from last week that Rhee’s national organization, StudentsFirst, has quietly closed a number of its statewide offices—first in Minnesota, followed by Florida, Maine, Indiana and Iowa.

At the same time according to Bryant, Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor, seems to be rising to prominence as the spokesperson for the same causes that have been championed by Rhee and StudentsFirst.  Brown has launched the Partnership for Educational Justice to underwrite legal costs and a public relations campaign for a planned series of Vergara copycat lawsuits like the one in California, bankrolled by David Welch, a Silicon Valley multimillionaire who opposes teachers unions. The first of these copycat lawsuits was filed in New York last week.  (This blog has covered the Vergara decision and Campbell Brown’s involvement in copycat lawsuits here, here, and here.

Bryant points to a strong convergence of interests between Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown.  Brown’s husband is Dan Senor, an investment banker on the board of StudentsFirst NY.  Brown also seems to be connected with TNTP—formerly The New Teacher Project that was founded by none other than Michelle Rhee.  Like Teach for America, TNTP runs alternative summer certification programs for college graduates who lack training in education.  According to Bryant, “An analysis of the website associated with Brown’s effort to revamp teacher contracts has revealed that much of the site’s content appears to be written by TNTP without any attribution to the group…. Metadata from various documents included in the site list the author as Elizabeth Vidyarthi.  Vidyarthi works for the TNTP communications department.”

Bryant concludes: “With Brown as the new figurehead of the Blame Teachers First campaign, proponents may feel that a fresh face on a stale product is all they need to win over acceptance of their unfounded ideas.  Don’t buy it.”  I urge you to read the material Bryant has compiled here.  You may also want to read the additional article referenced below…

Addendum…   more evidence to undermine the reputation of Michelle Rhee:

In a post just yesterday John Merrow, the reporter for the PBS News Hour, published another of his scathing pieces on Michelle Rhee.  Merrow has criticized Rhee for covering up a cheating scandal while she was chancellor of the schools in Washington, D.C.  In the new piece, Merrow charges:  “Michelle Rhee is smart, talented, hard-working, charismatic and ambitious, but, in the public education arena she is a fraud.  That this truth is not widely acknowledged is a tribute to the PR skills of Anita Dunn of SKDKnickerbocker.”  “In just one year Michelle Rhee spent about $2 million to buy the public relations services of Anita Dunn and SKDKnickerbocker.  It’s a continuing relationship that goes back to early in Rhee’s Chancellorship in Washington….”  (Anita Dunn is the political strategist and public relations executive who served as the White House Communications Director in the first year of President Barack Obama’s first term. This blog has also noted, here, that Anita Dunn’s SKDKnickerbocker has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of public relations services for Eva Moskowitz and her New York Success Academy Charter Schools.)

In this post, Merrow shares the e-mail he wrote that was forwarded by the recipient and ultimately sent to StudentsFirst.  A smear campaign was subsequently launched against Merrow in letters sent to Frontline, the News Hour, PBS, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  Merrow was accused of misrepresenting facts, actively digging “dirt” on Michelle Rhee and making false allegations.  Here, he writes, is the e-mail that provided what he calls “the slender thread” for the campaign designed by SKDKnickerbocker to destroy his reputation as a journalist:

“We are editing a powerful documentary about Michelle Rhee, the controversial educator who has become a national figure.  After she left Washington, strong evidence of widespread cheating on standardized tests in roughly two-thirds of her schools emerged, along with a paper trail that indicates that the Chancellor declined to investigate the situation, despite being urged to do so by the official in charge of testing.  When test security was eventually tightened—after three years—scores declined precipitously.  In fact, at half of the schools with the highest erasure rates, where scores had jumped as much as 50%, achievement scores are now below where they were when the Chancellor took office.”

Merrow stands by every word of the statement and writes that he resents the three months he had to spend assembling the evidence to defend himself against the allegations and clear his reputation.

NCLB Was A Failure: PBS Reporter John Merrow Condemns Myopic Fixation on Testing

This week John Merrow, the PBS education reporter and columnist, insists that we tell ourselves the truth, even though some of our leaders want to keep pretending that test-based school reform is our path to universal academic prowess.  You’ll remember of course, that 2014 is the year the No Child Left Behind Act projected all American children would be above average.  Except it didn’t work.

Writing about the flat, unimproved scores among high school seniors released last week by the National Assessment for Education Progress, Merrow challenges our society’s complacent, bipartisan support for test-and-punish accountability—the school reform philosophy enshrined in federal law in January, 2002.  He writes: “Any thinking person, Republican or Democrat, looking at those numbers squarely in the face would have to question the path we are on.  No one in power seems to want to do that.”

For a particularly lucid analysis of the NAEP scores that were released last week, Merrow refers us to Guy Brandenburg’s blog.  Brandenburg writes:  “Perhaps you read or heard that the 12th grade NAEP reading and math scores, which just got reported, were “flat.”  Did you wonder what that meant?  The short answer is: those scores have essentially not changed since they began giving the tests!  Not for the kids at the top of the testing heap, not for those at the bottom, not for blacks, not for whites, not for Hispanics.  No change, nada, zip.  Not even after a full dozen years of Bush’s looney No Child Left Behind Act, nor its twisted Obama-style descendant, Race to the Top.”

The NAEP 12th grade test has been administered only since the mid-1990s, which means there are not four decades of scores, as with the 4th and 8th grade versions, but the data that has been collected for 12th graders covers the years since the passage of No Child Left Behind, America’s federal testing law, and the years of Arne Duncan’s experiment with setting aside billions of Title I dollars for competitive grant programs like Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants for the purpose of raising test scores.

Brandenburg calls his blog: “Just a blog by a guy who’s a retired math teacher”—clearly a retired math teacher who knows how to present numbers visually.  I urge you to check out his graphs which are stunning for their flat lines—flat lines for 12th grade students in the 90th percentile, the average  scorers, and those in the 10th percentile—flat lines for 12th grade black students, Hispanic students, Asian/Pacific Islander students, and white students.  Brandenburg interprets the flat lines to “mean that there has been essentially no change, despite all the efforts of the education secretaries of Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama.  And despite the wholesale replacement of an enormous fraction of the nation’s teachers, and the handing over of public education resources to charter school operators.”

Merrow condemns Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and pro-testing pundits for their myopia—a fixation on scores rising or dropping by a point or two here or there.  “What Mr. Brandenburg has done,” writes Merrow, “is look for long-term patterns, something those in authority are not prone to do.”  Merrow’s conclusion: Our flat-lined test scores are not a reason to double down on test-and-punish accountability—not through the Common Core, not through any system that makes raising test scores the definition of quality education.