In “Scripting the Moves,” Joanne Golann Exposes the Demeaning Hidden Curriculum in a No-Excuses Charter School

Joanne W. Golann’s new book is all about schools that insist their teachers follow the guidance of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion instead of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but whose principals and teachers have convinced themselves they are liberating students from oppression.

Lured by the promise that their middle school will put them on the path to college, many of the students in Scripting the Moves: Culture & Control in a “No-Excuses” Charter School quickly become angry and disgruntled as teachers assign them demerits for failing to sit at attention or whispering or speaking as they walk in straight lines marked by squares on the hallway floors. At Dream Academy, teachers are driven obsessively to “sweat the small stuff.” School leaders warn teachers that the whole system might collapse if anyone loses control.

Golann explains that, Dream Academy, the pseudonymous name of the school where she conducted her ethnographic study, typifies to one degree or another no-excuses charter schools managed by many of the huge charter management organizations, beginning with KIPP, but also including Achievement First, Aspire, Democracy Prep, Green Dot, IDEA, Mastery, Match, Noble Network, Promise Academies, Rocketship, Success Academies, Uncommon Schools, and YES Prep.

Anyone with the most rudimentary, university-based, public school teacher certification training—including philosophy of education, educational psychology and learning theory—will likely find it shocking to read what Golann describes observing in her year-and-a-half ethnographic study. Yet Dream Academy exemplifies the kind of schooling so many families are choosing—based on a promise that college admission will follow.

SLANT, the basic behavioral script launched in the KIPP schools, has been copied across no-excuses charter schools including Dream Academy:  S (sit up straight), L (listen), A (ask questions), N (nod for understanding ), and T (track the speaker).  Dream Academy has added more than three dozen other possible infractions (divided into three categories according to their seriousness) for which students earn a range of penalties: “Over the course of the school year, teachers at Dream Academy assigned a total of 15,423 infractions to the school’s approximately 250 students. Students on average received 60 infractions over 188 days or approximately 1 infraction every 3 days. Six students, with an average GPA of 3.9, managed to slip by without a single infraction over the school year; on the other extreme, one fifth-grade Black boy, with a 1.36 GPA accumulated 295 infractions. Teachers had little choice but to enforce the school’s rigid behavioral scripts because they too were evaluated on their adherence to them.” (p. 32)

Golann, the ethnographer, shapes her analysis from the point of view of the sociologist: “(W)e can interpret the rigid behavioral scripts employed by no-excuses schools as in line with a long history of managing poor youth of color through social control, surveillance, and punishments. The poor have long been viewed as intractable, in need of guidance and reform.” (p. 14)  “If ‘no excuses’ is supposed to be about the school making no excuses for student failure, it ends up being about the school accepting no excuses from students for deviating from the school’s rigid behavioral script… Instead of putting the onus on schools and teachers to provide the extra supports to help all students achieve, the no-excuses philosophy was reinterpreted in the context of the school’s behavioral script to mean, as reflected in… (a) teacher’s words, ‘holding students responsible for their character and their actions and their education.’ This perspective attributes the failures of urban schools to low-income Black and Latino children who are seen as lacking the right attitudes and values (like hard work, diligence, personal responsibility) to be successful and sees success as holding these children to tighter expectations.” (p. 40)

Although Dream Academy’s staff believe they are imparting social capital and so-called “middle class values” to their students, Golann’s research demonstrates that the no-excuses school inculcates in children a very different understanding of their social place and their rights than the sense of entitlement possessed by more privileged children: “As students learned to adhere to the school’s demanding scripts in order to gain privileges, they developed what I call a sense of earningA sense of earning, however, contrasts with a sense of entitlement, which sociologist Annette Lareau has identified as a middle-class mindset. Middle-class families foster in their children a sense of entitlement whereby their children feel deserving of other people’s time and resources. Children with a sense of entitlement believe that others are partially responsible for their success. Through their self-advocacy, entitled students gain advantages for themselves, from extra attention in preschool to classwork assistance in elementary school to a grade bump in college… Schools also cater to middle-class White families, positioning them as ‘consumers’ whose needs ought to be attended to rather than ‘beneficiaries’ who should be grateful for the privilege of attending the school… Scholars have criticized the ‘myth of meritocracy’ for fostering a ‘context-neutral mindset’ that ignores or minimizes the structural obstacles that make it difficult for certain racial and socioeconomic groups to climb the social ladder. For affluent White students, believing that they have earned their way through hard work legitimates social privilege. For low-income students of color, conversely, believing in a meritocratic system puts students in the precarious position of deriving their self-worth from their achievements.” (pp. 46-47)

Golann explores Dream Academy’s failure to work with students to develop critical thinking and the kinds of study and interactive skills they will need if they do go on to college: “Dream Academy was successful in getting its middle school students to think about college and in getting its high school graduates to apply to, and be admitted to, college.  But… Dream Academy’s rigid behavioral scripts did not encourage students to develop the types of cultural capital that higher-income students use to gain advantages in college. Cultural capital, which I have defined as tools of interaction, comprises the attitudes, skills, and styles that allow individuals to navigate complex institutions and shifting expectations. These tools include skills like how to express an opinion, be flexible, display leadership, advocate a position, and make independent decisions.” (p. 58)

Finally Dream Academy teachers’ obsession with minute behavioral infractions undermines trust and generates anger and antagonism: “No-excuses schools ‘sweat the small stuff.’  Under a sweating-the-small-stuff approach, authority is exercised over ‘a multitude of items of conduct—dress, deportment, manners—that constantly occur and constantly come up for judgment.’… (A)s teachers took on the role of disciplinarians, they became enmeshed in a racist system that perpetuated stereotypes of Black and Brown bodies as needing to be controlled rather than one that humanized students as individuals to be understood, cared for, and respected.  It is unlikely that belittling and shouting at students, for example, would be acceptable at an affluent White school, yet these practices are common at no-excuses schools, which serve almost exclusively Black and Latino students.” (pp. 86-99)

Golann concludes: “Instead of developing a sense of ease with figures of authority, most of whom are White, these young Black and Latino kids developed a sense of antagonism, learning to be distant, suspicious, and resentful. A sense of antagonism impacts learning and classroom management, but also shapes how students learn to interact with authority more broadly… Sociologist Pedro Noguera writes, “When children are presumed to be wild, uncontrollable, and potentially dangerous, it is not surprising that antagonistic relations with the adults who are assigned to control them develop.” (p. 101)

In a later section of the book, Golann profiles the teachers who find themselves working in schools like Dream Academy.  Many of them are young, many inexperienced, many from Teach for America.  And, despite that Dream Academy claims the school’s scripted discipline makes it “teacher-proof,” many teachers last only for a year or two.  In the year before Golann conducted her study, the school was able to retain only 44 percent of its teachers.

In contrast to the education philosophy at Dream Academy, Paulo Freire, the father of liberation pedagogy, understands education as a mutual partnership between student and teacher: “Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.” The efforts of “the humanist, revolutionary educator” “must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization… (Teachers) must be partners of the students in their relations with them.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, pp. 53-56)

NYC Charter School Diva Eva Moskowitz and Problems at Success Academy High School

You will remember Eva Moskowitz, the New York City diva of no-excuses charter schools. In 2016, Moskowitz was paid by her board—made up of the city’s wealthy hedge funders—salary, bonuses and benefits of $782,175 to run a 46-school chain of charter schools funded primarily with public dollars. She is the melodramatic enemy of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio: She regularly complains of persecution by the mayor when he struggles to abide by the New York state law, which she and her backers drove through the legislature, requiring the New York City Public Schools either to grant Eva’s Success Academy Charters co-located space in public school buildings or to pay their rent in private accommodations.

Moskowitz’s Success Academies do not backfill. That’s what they call it in New York when charter schools replace with new students any children who drop out.  Public schools, of course, always backfill; they must serve all children who live in the school district and enroll. But Eva’s charters make a point of “preserving the school’s culture” by letting the class get smaller as children move through the grades. They do not accept new students into a class after third grade. This is, of course, a strategy for shaping a class of high scorers, even though every year the class is smaller. Raising her schools’ aggregate scores on the state’s required reading and math tests is known as Eva’s mission, and what she promises parents she will do for the children who survive her discipline code.

Success Academies epitomize no-excuses charter schools. In a new report on problems at Success Academy’s new high school, Chalkbeat’s Alex Zimmerman explains Moskowitz’s philosophy of education: “Success Academy is famous for rules. That was true when the network launched with a kindergarten and first grade in 2006 and remains true now, as Success serves about 17,000 students—mostly students of color.  The schools deploy an at-times controversial ‘no excuses’ approach, with strict discipline and high academic standards.”

In a post last winter, the retired PBS reporter John Merrow describes the code: “On my blog, I published Success Academies’ draconian list of offenses that can lead to suspension, about 65 of them in all. ‘Slouching/failing to be in Ready to Succeed position‘ more than once, ‘Getting out of one’s seat without permission at any point during the school day,’ and ‘Making noise in the hallways, in the auditorium, or any general building space without permission‘ can get an out-of-school suspension that can last as long as five days.  The code includes a catch-all, vague offense that all of us are guilty of at times, ‘Being off-task.'”

You may remember when the NY Times reporter Kate Taylor published a video of a teacher at the Cobble Hill Success Academy in Brooklyn berating a first grade girl for mistakes on her math paper, ripping up the paper, and publicly shaming the child. We learn that this technique has a name at Success Academies: “rip and redo.”

In a New Yorker profile last December, Rebecca Mead interviews Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, describing why he believes Moskowitz’s strategy is efficient for classroom management but at the same time damaging for students’ academic development: “They have a philosophy that, to create a context for learning, it’s necessary to build a total institutional culture that is very strong, enveloping, and quite authoritarian. This produces a level of compliance from children that allows for pretty much any approach to instruction, and eliminates many of the typical challenges of classroom management. There is a reason why there is a continuing pull in human organizations toward authoritarian approaches. You can get a lot done. But what kind of citizens are you producing?… Can you educate children in an authoritarian context and also empower them to be active agents in their own lives, who think critically and question injustice in the world around them?”

Can students develop intrinsic motivation when a school insists on obedience and relies almost exclusively on extrinsic motivation through rules and punishments, formal incentives and competition? Can you educate children in an authoritarian context and also empower them to be active agents in their own lives? Dr. Polakow-Suransky’s question seems to be at the heart of the problems Eva has recently been encountering in her high school. Four years ago, as the ever-diminishing class of students who made it through eighth grade at Success Academies (through all those years of no backfilling) reached high school, Eva opened a high school to serve them. Chalkbeat‘s Alex Zimmerman reports that the high school’s first class—16 students—graduated in June.

But last school year, according to Zimmerman, Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts was overcome with conflict over the very issues critics have predicted. The principal, who has now left the school, tried to give students a little more control over their education, but at the beginning of the second semester, Eva decided to crack down on students who had violated the dress code or didn’t finish assignments on time or missed class: “For the last three years, the task of figuring that out fell to Andy Malone, a well-liked former Success middle school principal who took over the high school in 2015. (The school’s first principal lasted one year.) …Malone’s strategy was to offer more freedom than was typical in the network’s lower grades. Some Advanced Placement classes pushed students to complete research papers, not focus purely on test preparation, former teachers said. Students recalled he allowed them to wear colorful headscarves featuring African prints, even if they weren’t technically in line with the network’s dress code.”

Moskowitz wasn’t pleased: “(N)etwork leaders, including Moskowitz, did not completely buy in to Malone’s approach. With Malone, Moskowitz told Chalkbeat, ‘Everything was relationship based—he’s charismatic, he’s devoted. That’s different from systems and routines and policies and procedures.’ Moskowitz began spending more time in the high school, and teachers said she worried about students’ grade point averages being too low and dress code violations becoming too common just as the school was trying to shepherd its first students into college. Moskowitz’s argument, which she often makes to parents, boils down to this: Students not turning in homework means they lack the study skills they will need to succeed in college. Uncompleted assignments also have the effect of lowering students’ GPAs, hurting their chances of getting into a selective college in the first place. America rewards college degrees, and most of Success’ students are already starting from behind compared to their wealthier peers. It’s the school’s job to make sure they don’t fall off track.”

At the beginning of the second semester of last school year, Moskowitz began sending students back to the previous grade mid-year if they had missed assignments or were struggling. One student turned in summer homework but failed to complete 10 SAT prep lessons per week over the summer. The school threatened to make her repeat her junior year even though she had taken the SAT twice already and scored 1330 out of 1600.  Under pressure the school finally relented.

Then, on June 5, the school required parents to attend a meeting during hours when many parents needed to be at work and were forced to take time off. The school announced that if parents didn’t attend the meeting, their children were being withdrawn from the high school and would no longer be considered enrolled.

Many faculty quit at the end of last spring’s semester—with 18 of 67 remaining.  A new principal has been appointed.

The question remains: can a no-excuses philosophy prepare adolescents to take responsibility for their own learning? Moskowitz seems to have forgotten that colleges expect their students to do more than follow rules. College professors assume their students will be curious enough to research and write a paper, for example, and manage their time. There is more to college than accruing high enough test scores to get in.

Of course college admission metrics are also what Moskowitz wants to be able to publish about her high school’s graduates. And as Zimmerman explains in an earlier report: “Concerns about Success’ first high school come at a delicate moment, as Moskowitz is trying to double the number of schools in what is already the city’s largest charter network.”

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.”

Charter Schools that Recruit, Skim, Flunk Out the Weak, and Refuse to ‘Backfill’

In his blog, Gene Glass, co-author of 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, a professor at Arizona State University, and senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center, declares: They Recruit, They Skim, They Flunk Out the Weak… They are Arizona’s Top Charter Schools.

He describes the 20 so-called “best” charter schools as identified by the Phoenix Business Journal: “The 20 ‘best’ charters in Phoenix serve White and Asian children… almost exclusively.  13,452 students go to these charter schools: Asian 17%, Black 2%, Hispanic 11%, and White 66%.  Free Lunch—only Paragon has free lunch students.  ELL—None.  Special Education 4%… There is not a single public district with demographics like these and almost no districts outside of Reservation schools that have 11% or less Hispanic students.  There are thousands of minority students who could do well in these college prep schools—if their parents had the skills to wade through the enrollment process—if they had transportation—if these schools really wanted to recruit them… These schools assure that they only serve successful students… One truly weeps.”

And in a fine new piece for the Albert Shanker Institute, Leo Casey explains exactly how, across the United States in New York City, Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academy Charter Schools engineer the charter chain’s high test scores through a scheme that winnows out students unlikely to post high scores: “Success Academy Charter Schools has made a conscious decision to not fill seats opened up by student attrition in the upper grades of its schools.  And this is a deliberate, network-wide practice…. In New York City, the policy of refusing to fill seats vacated by student attrition is known by the unfortunate construction metaphor of failing to ‘backfill.’ On a number of occasions, Moskowitz has forcefully defended Success Academy’s refusal to ‘backfill’ the upper grades in which students take the state’s standardized exams.  The full effect of this policy to not ‘backfill’ can be seen in the only Success Academy cohort in the data that completed all eight primary school grades: the graduating class of Harlem Success Academy I had 32 students, less than half of the 73 students who started in the cohort eight years prior.”

Casey explains parents can tell which grades are accepting students at Moskowitz’s schools because on its website, Success Academy posts only the grade levels for which each particular school is accepting students, while at the same time the New York City Charter School Center “lists all the grades currently being provided under the school’s charter.”  Casey also provides a series of graphs of enrollment by grade at seven of the Success Academy schools in Harlem and the Bronx and for the network as a whole.  Only Harlem Success Academy I has all eight grades; others are adding grades over the years.  Three of the schools now offer six grades and three others offer only four grades, but in each case, enrollment drops off significantly between second and third grade, the first year in which standardized testing is required and schools are rated by their students’ scores.  Falling enrollment continues as students move into higher grades.  Moskowitz has defended the practice as a way to ensure that her schools can enforce the particular no-excuses culture for which they are known.

Casey notes that punitive discipline and push-outs at Success Academies are one strategy that shapes the charter chain’s student body. (This blog has recently covered punitive discipline and push-outs at Success Academy Schools here, here, and here.) He adds that a policy of refusing to “backfill” also ensures that the schools serve fewer very poor students: “Transience is a central feature of poverty, and the greater the intensity of the poverty in which a student lives, the greater the transience she will experience: Homelessness is the ultimate expression of this reality.  The poorest students are thus significantly overrepresented among school ‘leavers,’ as are students who score poorly on high-stakes standardized exams.  Indeed, the two phenomena are related.”  Casey pushes his analysis further: “In response to criticism that the success Academy Charter Schools ‘cream’ their student populations to boost standardized test scores, Eva Moskowiz has argued that the attrition rates in her schools are lower than the average attrition rate for both NYC district schools and other charter schools.  But the attrition rate is not the fundamental issue here; rather it is the policy choice to not fill the empty seats left by student attrition.  To the extent that leaving students are not replaced with similar students, the student population will have fewer students living in poverty, fewer high needs students, and fewer students who score more poorly on standardized exams.  Other schools may well have higher rates of attrition, but if they ‘backfill’ their empty seats, the profile of their student population remains essentially the same.”

Casey believes Moskowitz and other charter school proprietors will strongly resist changing their policies but that society and the U.S. Department of Education will eventually be forced to face up to the ways that charter schools are quietly screening students: “To resolve these issues, Success Academy and similar charter school chains would have to make changes in policy and practice that would strike at their ability to engineer student populations to achieve high test scores.  And this would put the charter school brand itself at risk.  Do not look for Eva Moskowitz, the New York City Charter School Center and the National Association of Public Charter Schools to willingly travel down that road.  A major political battle is in the making.”

Success Academies’ No-Excuses Charters: Today’s Dickensian Cram Schools

I am a great fan of the later novels of Charles Dickens—Bleak House, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, but 40 years ago, when I read Hard Times, the fable seemed so overdone as to be far-fetched.  When I picked up this 1854 novel again last week, however, I discovered that these days, its critique seems hardly over the top at all. Hard Times is Dickens’ critique of inequality in a mid-19th century English mill town, of authoritarian schools that drill utilitarian economic theory, and of the social Darwinist ethic that celebrates the individual and the success of the self-made man.  Bounderby, Dickens’ bullying One Percenter, like Donald Trump, creates a fictitious story of a humble origin as a means of promoting the myth of his rise on his own merits.  And Thomas Gradgrind, the proprietor of the novel’s school, prefigures his modern counterpart, Eva Moskowitz.

As I watched the video on the NY Times website last Friday of a teacher at one of the “no-excuses” Success Academy Charter Schools run by Eva Moskowitz—this particular school in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, I thought of Thomas Gradgrind’s school. The video exposes a first grade teacher berating and insulting a girl who has become confused while trying to explain her math paper after the teacher has demanded that the child present her work to the class.  When the six-year-old is unable to describe her work, the teacher grabs the child’s paper, rips it in pieces, and humiliates the little girl in front of her classmates.

Dickens’ second chapter, titled “Murdering the Innocents,” begins with a definition of utilitarian education,  the children described as “little pitchers… who were to be filled so full of facts.”  Never mind their hearts.  “Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over… With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to.  It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic… Indeed… he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge.  He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed.”

Kate Taylor’s investigative report for the NY Times appears with the video. Eva Moskowitz is reported to persist in denying that the practices shown in the video are systemic across Success Academy charter schools. Moskowitz says the video documents a momentary lapse by the teacher, Charlotte Dial.  “But,” writes Taylor, “interviews with 20 current and former Success teachers suggest that while Ms. Dial’s behavior might be extreme, much of it is not uncommon within the network.”  “It’s this culture of, ‘If you’ve made them cry, you’ve succeeded in getting your point across,'” says one former teacher.  “Five of the teachers interviewed… described leaders at multiple Success schools and a Success supervisor in the teacher training program that the network runs with Touro College endorsing the practice of ripping up work if it was deemed not to reflect sufficient effort.  The purpose, they said, was to get students’ attention and demonstrate urgency.  At some schools, there was even a term for it.” “It was ‘rip and redo’…”

To demonstrate just how far the practices of the teacher in the video diverge from what is considered acceptable pedagogy today, the NY Times publishes commentary from several professors in college programs that prepare teachers.

Politico NY reports that this year as criticism of her no-excuses charter chain has grown, Moskowitz has stepped up efforts to manage public relations: “Success has switched public relations companies several times over the last year in an attempt to tamp down critical coverage of the network.  On Friday, the influential PR firm Mercury announced that it would now be representing Success, a pivot from the internal communications team that has handled the network’s media requests for roughly a year.”

Several weeks ago in the NY Times, Kate Taylor published Eva Moskowitz’s own description of the philosophy of education that is the driving force behind her Success Academy chain of schools : “Ms. Moskowitz… said that her approach was based on ‘a different view of children’ from that of the larger culture, which she described as seeking to shield children from any negative feelings.  She argued that the desire to protect children led Americans to resist setting high academic standards, because doing so would lead to some children falling short.  Of Success’s approach, she said: ‘We find in schooling that kids are resilient.  You know, they sometimes get upset when they don’t do well, and many people think that’s a tragedy.  But… Olympic athletes, when they don’t do well, they sometimes cry.  It’s not the end of the world.’”

There is one striking difference between Thomas Gradgrind’s school in Dickens’ novel and Moskowitz’s charters that exemplify today’s version of the cram school.  Gradgrind enrolls his own children, Louisa and Tom, at his school, and the novel’s plot unfolds as Gradgrind learns personally and painfully about the consequences of his philosophy of education.  In New York City today, however, neither Eva Moskowitz nor the wealthy hedge fund managers who make up her board, nor her contributors, nor the supporters of the powerful lobby that has secured for her schools enormous public financial support from Albany enroll their children in Success Academy Charter Schools.

In 2012, here is what Business Insider published about Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, the neighborhood that houses the charter school featured in last week’s video: “The Cobble Hill area of Brooklyn, now a part of the greater BoCoCa revitalization, is one of the most sought after neighborhoods in all of New York City. And unsurprisingly, it’s also one of the richest urban neighborhoods in all of America.”  Cobble Hill, eighth in the U.S. in  Higley’s List of High Income Neighborhoods, boasts a median household income of $128,123. Of its 2,423 households, 0.90 percent are Black, 4.30 percent are Asian, 5.80 percent are Hispanic,  and 86.00 percent are Non-Hispanic white.

It is clear in the video that appeared last Friday that Cobble Hill’s Success Academy is a school for other people’s children.  Although Cobble Hill is a gentrifying (or already gentrified) neighborhood in Brooklyn,  every one of the children who appears in the video is African American.