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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Misery and Behaviorism Shape Climate at New York’s Success Academy Charters

I believe that John Dewey best expressed what ought to be the goal of public schools: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, 1899, p. 1)

New York City’s Success Academy Charter Schools, profiled in-depth yesterday by Kate Taylor in the NY Times, represent another kind of vision.  Success Academy Charters, with 43 schools and plans for rapid expansion, are part of a broad movement of schools designed to turn children from failures into successes by modifying their behavior and punishing them until they try harder and harder.  The children’s success is defined as we measure it these days, by their standardized test scores.  Very few people who believe themselves successful would enroll their children in such test-prep factories, which are designed and funded by the privileged specifically for other people’s children.  Eva Moskowitz, who founded Success Academies and continues to operate the network, depends on her hedge fund philanthropist friends, who added $22 million in operating dollars in 2013 to the $72 million the schools collected in public funds.

Success Academy Charters embody the Gradgrand philosophy of education described by Charles Dickens: “I shall have the satisfaction of causing you to be strictly educated; and you will be a living proof to all who come into communication with you of the advantages of the training you receive. You will be reclaimed and reformed.”  (Hard Times, Signet Classic edition, p. 55)  Success Academies offer a no-nonsense, utilitarian education that prepares a child for the state standardized test.

Maybe you don’t agree with my assessment of Eva Moskowitz’s New York City Success Academy Charter Schools.  You can decide for yourself, because Kate Taylor has written a fair and balanced profile that describes exactly how these schools operate.  I urge you to read it carefully and then reflect on what’s happening at school for Success Academy’s students and their teachers.

Moskowitz’s schools produce student success on the annual standardized test.  Beginning in January, three months before the mid-April examinations, the test-prep regimen begins: “To prepare for the reading tests, students spend up to 90 minutes each day working on ‘Close Reading Mastery’ exercises, consisting of passages followed by multiple-choice questions.  The last two Saturdays before the exams students are required to come to school for practice tests.  Students who do well on practice tests can win prizes, such as remote-controlled cars, arts and crafts kits and board games. Former teachers said they they were instructed to keep the prizes displayed in the front of their classroom to keep students motivated.  Students who are judged not to be trying hard enough are assigned to ‘effort academy.’  While they redo their work, their classmates are getting a reward—like playing dodge ball against the teachers, throwing pies in the face of the principal or running through the hallways while the students in the lower grades cheer.”

Students at Success Academy do succeed on the tests for which they are prepared.  Taylor reports that 64 percent passed the state reading tests and 94 percent passed in math, far beyond the average New York City passing rates: 29 percent in reading and 35 percent in math.

Moskowitz’s schools follow a particular strategy for success, however.  Success Academies, like KIPP schools, depend on behavior modification, punitive discipline, and competition. Students sit at attention with clasped hands. They are expected to follow the teacher with their eyes. They march to the lunch room in rows, follow a teacher’s orders to stop and start walking, and refrain from talking while moving through the hallways.

Teachers are instructed to wield shame as a motivator.  In a note to her staff after scores on practice tests were low, one teacher-leader wrote: “We can NOT let up on them. Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack will go to effort academy, have their parent called, and will miss electives.  This is serious business, and there has to be misery felt for the kids who are not doing what is expected of them.”  Students scores on practice tests are tracked on colored charts that are a fixture on the walls of the schools’ hallways.  Names of children and their performance levels are posted —with failing students’ names appearing in a red zone at the bottom of the charts.

Turnover of teachers at Success Academies is high.  Taylor interviews a number of teachers who have chosen to leave, because of demands for eleven-hour work days that left them unable to devote enough attention to their families, and because of discomfort with the schools’ learning strategy based on shame and misery.  One former special education teacher said she “would cry almost every night thinking about the way I was treating these kids, and thinking that that’s not the kind of teacher I wanted to be.”

Student suspension rates at Success Academies are significantly higher than in the surrounding public schools. “Students who frequently got in trouble sometimes left the network,” writes Taylor. “Success students who leave after fourth grade are not replaced because, Ms. Moskowitz said, new students entering at that point would be too far behind their classmates.” Taylor reports that Success Academies have fewer students whose primary language is not English and fewer special-education students.  And to make more time for the subjects being tested—math, language arts, and science—Success Academies do not offer foreign languages until eighth grade.

While Eva Moskowitz is described as believing her schools will put her schools’ students on the same college track as children in wealthier neighborhoods, and while her students score high on the state’s annual test for which they are rigidly prepped, last year Diane Ravitch reported that not one Success Academy student had passed the rigorous test for the city’s elite high schools: “When the eighth grade students who scored well on the state test took the admissions test for the specialized high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, not one of them passed the test.”

Success for the children at Success Academies seems frequently to be a miserable experience and a relatively narrow accomplishment.