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?”


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.

Extra: Mother of Child Berated in Success Academy Video Talks with NY Times

There is hardly any way to comment on the powerful story in today’s NY Times: Mother of Girl Berated in Video Assails Success Academy’s Response.

The story speaks for itself.  Please do read it and urge others to read it.

It is the story of the mother of the little girl who was humiliated by her Success Academy Charter School teacher in a short video that was released two weeks ago by the NY Times.  The child had won a place at the school by lottery, and the mother had sent her there with hopes the school would prepare her for college.

The school showed the video to the mother just prior to its release in the newspaper.  The mother says school officials apologized to her but never to her daughter.

The mother has now removed her child from the Success Academy school and enrolled her in a public school, but the incident in the video clip happened two years ago, and the mother now wonders how to build up her child’s confidence.

This blog has covered New York City’s Success Academy Charter Schools here, herehere, and here.

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.

NY Charter School Diva Defends Harsh Discipline; Parents File Civil Rights Complaint

Last Wednesday, 13 New York City parents filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.  The parents claim that New York’s Success Academy Charter Schools have persistently violated the rights of students with special needs.  Success Academy Charters, as charter schools receiving public funding, are required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to protect the rights of children who need special learning accommodations.

Here are the allegations from the complaint as filed: “Complainants allege that Success Academy engages in policies and practices throughout their network which violate students’ rights under Section 504 and the IDEA, including but not limited to:

  • Success Academy discriminates against students with disabilities by failing to identify them or provide them with reasonable accommodations;
  • Success Academy discriminates and retaliates against students with disabilities by taking measures to coerce them to leave Success Academy when they require or may require services related to a disability;
  • Success Academy fails to comply with the disciplinary due process rights of students;
  • Success Academy fails to refer students who have or may have a disability for appropriate evaluations at public expense; and
  • Success Academy fails to provide parents with meaningful notice regarding their rights, inter alia, to programs, supports and accommodations.”

Joining the parents in filing the formal complaint are The Public Advocate for the City of New York; Council Member Daniel Dromm; The Legal Aid Society; MFY Legal Services, Inc.; Partnership for Children’s Rights; and New York Legal Assistance Group.

Juan Gonzalez, reporter for the New York Daily News, describes the comments of two of the parents who filed the complaint and agreed to be interviewed.  In both instances, evaluations of the children’s special education needs determined that the children have serious learning disabilities and recommended that they be placed in classes of no more than 12 students.  One school has placed the child whose parent has joined the complaint on a waiting list for a smaller class, though after two years, such a class has not been found for him. Instead he was required to repeat first grade.  Staff at his school have recently recommended his needs would be better met in a NYC public school.  The other child, a girl who had been receiving speech and physical therapy in pre-school, was held back at a Success Academy in Kindergarten and again in first grade.  After the parent had her child independently evaluated, an assessment in which additional special learning needs were identified, the child has been moved to a special school and her education is being paid for by the public schools, but the child was ill-served over a period of years at the Success Academy.

Gonzalez concludes his report: “Critics of Success Network have long suspected its astounding test scores—among the highest in the state—are made possible by its shedding of children with disabilities. Those scores have greased the network’s rapid growth to 36 schools, garnered it tens of millions of dollars in private donations, and won effusive support from politicians in Albany.  But when your charter network gets to be as big and wealthy as many suburban school districts, what’s the excuse for not appropriately servicing your special needs students?  Maybe a federal probe will find out.”

Last Friday in the NY Times, Kate Taylor published the description by Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, of her philosophy of education: “Ms. Moskowitz… discussed her educational philosophy and 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.'”

Moskowitz and Petrilli Push Education Model Designed to Serve Strivers and Shed the Rest

It is amazing to watch Eva Moskowitz, New York City’s charter school diva, take on her arch political rival, Mayor Bill de Blasio in a charter school war she wages through histrionics and melodrama.  The two were rivals in New York’s city council, and only recently did Moskowitz decide not to challenge de Blasio for mayor in the next election.  She has amassed a powerful backing—from billionaire hedge fund managers to New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo, who has proven himself responsive to the money Moskowitz’s supporters have donated to underwrite his own political campaigns.

Moskowitz, who eschews the term “brand,” has spent lots of time and money creating one.  It has been documented here and here that she and her supporters have employed the Washington, D.C. communications firm, SKD Knickerbocker, whose managing partner is Anita Dunn, the former communications director for the Obama White House.  One problem Moskowitz may not see, due to her obsession with building the power of her own Success Academy Charters, is that she may be damaging the entire charter school “brand” by persistently demonstrating the ethical problem inherent in school choice: such programs favor the few who are most promising at the expense of children who are more vulnerable and less desirable.

First, a couple of weeks ago, the PBS NewsHour aired a piece filmed by John Merrow on the outrageous suspension rates for children in Kindergarten and first grade at Success Academy Charters.  (This blog covered Merrow’s report here.)  Eva responded, typically, by attacking PBS and John Merrow.  Then last Thursday, Kate Taylor reported in depth for the New York Times on a Success Academy charter school that singled out children for disciplinary action after the school had determined that some children should be on a “Got to Go” list.  Taylor explains, “Success Academy, which is run by Eva S. Moskowitz, a former New York City councilwoman, is the city’s largest charter school network.  It has 34 schools, and plans to grow to 70 in five or six years.  The network serves mostly black and Hispanic students and is known for exacting behavior rules.  Even the youngest pupils are expected to sit with their backs straight, their hands clasped and their eyes on the teacher, a posture that the network believes helps children pay attention… Good behavior and effort are rewarded with candy and prizes, while infractions and shoddy work are penalized with reprimands, loss of recess time, extra assignments and in some cases suspensions, as early as kindergarten.” While Success Academies must follow strict New York guidelines before expelling any student, Taylor reports that, “Success’s critics accuse it of pushing children out by making their parents’ lives so difficult that they withdraw.”  Taylor interviews parents who were called repeatedly to come to school and who were threatened that the school would call 911 if their very young children’s behavior did not improve. The implication, of course, is that if Success Academies can shape their classes by driving out “problem students”  before third grade when federally mandated testing begins, the test scores will be higher.

It has occurred to me to try to put together for this blog a history of the outrageous behavior of Eva Moskowitz, which this blog has covered on many occasions, but Daniel Katz, the director of the teacher preparation program for secondary and secondary special education teachers at Seton Hall University, accomplished just such a project over the weekend.  I urge you to read Katz’s blog post, Eva Moskowitz and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Month.  It is a wonderfully readable profile of Eva and the building of her brand.  Katz begins by filling in some history for those of us who may have forgotten: “Since founding her first school in 2006, her network has grown to 34 schools with 11,000 students, and she is on track for 43 schools by next year with a goal of 100 eventually.  Her school lotteries were portrayed as the only hope of desperate parents in Waiting for Superman, a 2010 documentary/propaganda piece by Davis Guggenheim, and email records demonstrate that the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg lavished her with preferential treatment.  When both the state legislature and the office of Comptroller tried to exert legal authority to audit how Success Academy spends the public money it receives, Moskowitz has gone to court to block them – and won.  Her deep pocketed backers can raise millions of dollars on her behalf in a single night, and their donations to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, along with donations from Moskowitz’s own political action committee, have guaranteed preferential treatment from the Governor’s office…  In July of this year, billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson, gave a single $8.5 million gift to the network for creating even more schools. My goodness, but it is good to be Queen.  But things have unraveled a bit for Moskowitz.”

In recent days, Eva has called on her supporters to try to help with damage control.  One of them, Michael Petrilli, president of the pro-school choice, pro-charter Thomas B. Fordham Institute, published an op-ed in the New York Daily News last Friday that declares what has has become Petrilli’s argument for charters: that they should be permitted to shun students who pose behavior problems.  The headline screams: The Real Moral Duty of Charter Schools: The Goal Should Be to Create Orderly and Challenging Environments Where Strivers from Poor Families Can Learn.  Petrilli explains that “troubled students have a statistically significant negative effect on their peers’ reading and math test scores.” He continues: “Parents understand this, and the desire for orderly schools with high expectations for student behavior is a major reason they search out high-quality charter schools.”  Petrilli criticizes public school policies: “They have to serve all comers, including students with significant cognitive disabilities and children who can’t speak a word of English.  To accomplish this next-to-impossible feat, (teachers are) told to ‘differentiate their instruction.’  We do this in the name of kindness, liberalism, and above all, ‘equity.'”

Petrilli does not discuss ways that better funded public schools could surround struggling children and families with social services or reduce class size to ensure more personal attention for each child.  Neither does Petrilli admit that what he is advocating is a system of traditional public school districts of last resort for the children who are not to be favored by attending places like Eva Moskowitz’s charter schools.  Perhaps, although he will not admit what may be the ultimate logic of his argument, he thinks there are some children who do not deserve to be educated at all.

School choice has been rapidly expanding now for two decades, and we need to be honest about what is happening across our cities.  If the parents who are the most persistent, savvy strivers opt out of the public schools and the charters find ways to shed the least desirable children, we end up with a nightmare in which parents with grit and children with discipline are are served and the rest of the children warehoused in the poorly funded institutions we require to serve all the children who appear at the door. It is a system based on competition and the exclusion of the children who show the least promise.

We ought to notice and consider the implications when politicians and far-right think tanks advocate through their actions and words that we move away from the ideal of inclusion that has been central to our understanding of public education.  Our society’s concept of public ethics has historically been influenced not only by the secular concept of the social contract but also by the traditional religious definition of justice, which springs from the belief that all are created equal, no person more valuable than another.  At a Washington, D.C. town hall in December of 2011, the Rev. Jesse Jackson warned about the meaning of competitive school choice: “There are those who would make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run.  But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Another religious leader, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the retired pastor of Washington, D.C.’s Foundry United Methodist Church, defines justice in terms that directly challenge the thinking of Eva Moskowitz and Michael Petrilli as they defend school choice: “(J)ustice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence of God, then it is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that  communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” (Christian Perspectives on Politics, p. 216)