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.”

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Is School Privatization Agenda Shifting to Vouchers? Charter School Advocacy Organization Collapses

On Wednesday, Politico New York‘s Morning Education update briefly covered a pro-charter schools advocacy day in Albany, New York and then noted, “The rally comes as the old guard of charter advocacy in the state officially collapsed Monday when Families for Excellent Schools announced it would close following the firing of its CEO Jeremiah Kittredge.”  Politico New York’s Eliza Shapiro broke the stories of Kittredge’s firing late last week and on Monday, Shapiro and Politico‘s Caitlin Emma broke the news that the organization will shut down.

Even if you live far away from New York, and even if you have forgotten who and what Families for Excellent Schools is, you should keep reading. Because what happened this week may signify a shift in the politics of school privatization.

It remains true that education policy shaping the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children (the 99 Percent) continues to be driven by the power of the One Percent. But in this week when we marked the first anniversary of Betsy DeVos’s tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education, the momentum behind school privatization has taken another step toward domination by the Republican libertarian crowd—the Amway DeVoses of Michigan and the Koch Brothers of Kansas—who are collaborating with the American Legislative Exchange Council to drive vouchers and neo-voucher education savings accounts and neo-voucher tuition tax credits through the nation’s 50 state legislatures and even into Puerto Rico.

It is the hedge-funded Democrats—the people who made up Families for Excellent Schools, and who continue to underwrite Education Reform Now, 50 CAN, StudentsFirst New York and Democrats for Education Reform, and who drove the expansion of charter schools during the Obama years and in Democratic states like New York—whose star seems to be fading.

Families for Excellent Schools, which collapsed this week, has also been closely tied with Eva Moskowitz’s chain of NYC Success Academy Charter Schools.  It was Families for Excellent Schools that spent $9.7 million in 2014, without revealing its donors, to campaign for charter school expansion through television advertising and sponsorship of huge rallies. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio had tried to stop the practice in NYC of co-locating charter schools into NYC public schools, but Families for Excellent Schools was powerful enough to win the support of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to pass a law dictating that the NYC Public Schools must find rent-free space in public school facilities for new charter schools or else pay the rent in commercially available buildings.

Families for Excellent Schools shut its doors this week after it was revealed that Jeremiah Kittredge, its director, had engaged in inappropriate behavior with a participant at the 2017 Camp Philos, an annual conclave of wealthy hedge fund supporters of charter schools that has been sponsored annually since 2014 at high end resorts and hotels by Education Reform Now—a sister organization of Families for Excellent Schools.

While in 2011 its founders set up Families for Excellent Schools with a name that connotes participation of a group of parents seeking better education, and while its website declares it was established “through a partnership between schools and families,” Families for Excellent Schools has been, in reality, an Astroturf—fake grassroots—organization.  Tracing ties of Families for Excellent Schools to Education Reform Now, StudentsFirst NY, and another lobbying effort, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, George Joseph reported for The Nation in 2015: “In contrast to most ‘grassroots’ parents’ organizations, Families for Excellent Schools has retained the services of David Grandeau, New York’s former top lobbying regulator, whose expertise has helped shield its donors’ identities by funneling most of its spending through a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Nevertheless, overwhelming institutional similarities indicate that Families for Excellent Schools is largely funded by the same nine hedge-fund billionaires behind almost all of New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany’s rapid expenditures.”  Joseph identifies Joel Greenblatt, Daniel Loeb, Julian H. Robertson Jr., Carl Icahn, Paul Singer, Seth Klarman, and other wealthy hedge funders, along with known donors like the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation.  Nonprofit Quarterly also identifies Jonathan Sackler of Purdue Pharma as a major donor.

It turns out that the problems of Families for Excellent Schools are much deeper than Kittredge’s misbehavior. Here is the NY TimesKate Taylor reporting this week on the real significance of the organization’s closure: “Families for Excellent Schools for years was the well-funded face of the charter school movement in New York, but its support seems to have evaporated… As a 501(c)3 organization, Families for Excellent Schools is not required under New York State law to disclose its donors. The group ran into trouble, however, in Massachusetts, where a related organization, Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, spent $15 million in 2016 as part of an unsuccessful effort to expand charter schools in the state. The ballot measure it backed was overwhelmingly defeated. In the aftermath, the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance concluded that Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy had violated the state’s campaign finance law and fined it $426,466, the largest fine in the history of the office. To resolve the case, Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy agreed to dissolve, and Families for Excellent Schools agreed not to fund-raise or engage in any election-related activity in Massachusetts for four years.”  Kittredge, who ran the Massachusetts campaign, lost support, especially after Massachusetts forced the publication of the names of donors to Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, donors who prefer secrecy when making obviously political donations.

According to Politico reporters Shapiro and Emma, Kittredge had already planned to leave Families for Excellent Schools to take an advocacy position at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools: “Although Success has internal and external media relations operations, Kittredge has frequently served as Moskowitz’s unofficial press secretary at events. As recently as November, he orchestrated a press conference on the steps of City Hall about a school space sharing dispute between Moskowitz and Mayor Bill de Blasio…. and served as the logistical arm of Success’ ambitious political advocacy program.”

After Kittredge was fired by Families for Excellent Schools last week for inappropriate behavior, however, Success Academy Charter Schools severed ties.

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

I thought just about everybody knew about Eva Moskowitz, the New York City queen of no-excuses charter schools. Moskowitz is awarded by her board (made up primarily of the city’s wealthy hedge funders) a salary of over $600,000 per year to run a 46-school chain of charter schools funded primarily with public dollars. She is the melodramatic enemy of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, a diva who regularly complains of persecution by de Blasio when she demands co-located space in one of the city’s crowded public schools.

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

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

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

Green’s laudatory piece contrasts with earlier reporting on abuses at Success Academies.  At the NY Times a year ago, Kate Taylor published a video of a teacher at the Cobble Hill Success Academy in Brooklyn berating a first grade girl for mistakes on her math paper, ripping up the paper, and publicly shaming the child. We learn that this technique has a name at Success Academies: “rip and redo.”

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

Merrow explains that Success Academies’ record of high test scores comes with a price: “The omissions in Green’s article (and, to be fair to Green, in most coverage of Moskowitz) are almost too numerous to mention: She does not tell her readers that Moskowitz drives away children—some as young as five—by excessive use of out-of-school suspensions. Banning kids from school for days at a time is an effective device for getting rid of children, particularly when the parents have jobs outside the home. And it’s easy to get suspended from Success Academy. On my blog, I published Success Academies’ draconian list of offenses that can lead to suspension, about 65 of them in all. ‘Slouching/failing to be in ‘Ready to Succeed’ position’ more than once, ‘Getting out of one’s seat without permission at any point during the school day,’ and ‘Making noise in the hallways, in the auditorium, or any general building space without permission’ can get a child an out-of-school suspension that can last as long as five days. The code includes a catch-all, vague offense that all of us are guilty of at times, ‘Being off-task.’ Let’s play out how this might work: When an out-of-school suspension is handed out the first time, maybe the Mom asks her mother to watch the child; the second time, maybe her sister can pitch in. But the third one… that’s probably when the Mom decides to seek another school for her first grader.” “Moskowitz has perfected a ‘sorting machine.’ Not only does she sort children by test sores; she also discards those who don’t measure up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, tells Mead that a Success Academies education is the very opposite of progressive: “They have a philosophy that, to create a context for learning, it’s necessary to build a total institutional culture that is very strong, enveloping, and quite authoritarian. This produces a level of compliance from children that allows for pretty much any approach to instruction, and eliminates many of the typical challenges of classroom management. There is a reason why there is a continuing pull in human organizations toward authoritarian approaches. You can get a lot done. But what kind of citizens are you producing?… Can you educate children in an authoritarian context and also empower them to be active agents in their own lives, who think critically and question injustice in the world around them?”

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.