Eva Moskowitz's Crusade to Turn Children into 'Little Test Taking Machines'
My grandfather had many folk wisdom expressions, but one that sticks with me is “When you are sitting 100 feet in the air, sawing furiously at the branch you are on, be sure to sit on the the TREE side of the cut.” The meaning here is simple enough: perilous situations demand caution, and it is probably a good idea to check and double check what you are doing lest you end up like these guys.
I don’t think anyone has shared this advice with Eva Moskowitz.
The Success Academy charter school CEO just had a truly horrible October, in which her suspension policies were put into an uncomfortable spotlight, she retaliated by publishing the disciplinary records of a former student who is only ten years old and by demanding an apology from PBS, a complaint about Moskowitz’s violation of privacy laws was filed with federal DOE, and The New York Times ran a blockbuster story on how one of Moskowitz’s principals kept a “got to go” list of students who he deliberately pushed out of his Success Academy, confirming what data already shows: Success Academy uses a combination of excessive punishment and direct pressure to remove students who win lottery seats at the school.
Under normal circumstances, a polarizing figure like Moskowitz might consider staying out of the spotlight for a time, let coverage find different stories, and work with her powerful backers behind the scenes. Such thinking does not appear to be in Moskowitz’s DNA, for she took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal on November 12th to explain what Success Academy discipline is based upon. According to Moskowitz’s telling of the story, when she founded the original school as Harlem Success Academy, she had no specific pedagogy or theory of discipline in mind, but it was the work one inspirational veteran teacher who converted her and her teachers to his particular brand of magic:
I wish I could claim that I’ve developed some revolutionary pedagogical approach at Success, but the humbling truth is this: Most of what I know about teaching I learned from one person, an educator named Paul Fucaloro who taught in New York City district schools for four decades…
…I wasn’t completely sold on Paul’s approach at first, but when one of our schools was having trouble, I’d dispatch him to help. He’d tell the teachers to give him a class full of all the kids who had the worst behavioral and academic problems. The teachers thought this was nuts but they’d do so, and then a few days later they’d drop by Paul’s classroom and find these students acting so differently that they were nearly unrecognizable. Within weeks, the students would make months’ worth of academic progress.
According to Moskowitz, Mr. Fucaloro’s technique was nothing more complicated than very high expectations and a strict insistence that students focus upon him or whoever else was talking with clear physical signs: hands clasped, eyes fixed on whoever was speaking, no fidgeting or other distractions:
Paul’s students had to sit with hands clasped and look at whomever was speaking (called “tracking”). They couldn’t stare off into space, play with objects, rest their head on their hands in boredom, or act like what Paul called “sourpusses” who brought an attitude of negativity or indifference to the classroom. Paul made students demonstrate to him that at every single moment they were focused on learning.
Readers are obviously supposed to infer that Mr. Fucaloro’s methods are so fool-proof that any sufficiently determined teacher can employ them with any group of students and achieve the same results which explains the sky high results on state examinations in her network of schools. Moskowitz claims that she was essentially a pedagogical blank slate who was only convinced by Paul Fucaloro’s astonishing results and then perpetuated his methods so effectively that Success Academy schools can literally have almost any teacher command almost any class’ full attention all day.
This narrative is not believable on numerous fronts. First, it is nearly impossible to believe that Eva Moskowitz went into the development of her charter school network a complete naif with no idea how she wanted the school to operate. Whatever criticisms she has earned over the years, not knowing her mind is hardly typical. Daniel Bergner of The New York Times published a hagiographic portrait of Moskowitz in the summer of 2014 in which the 1982 Stuyvesant graduate could not contain her contempt for what she saw as lax standards at New York City’s most selective high school. As a member of the New York City Council, Moskowitz was known as tough, confrontational, and an expert on education issues while her demanding managerial style led to high levels of turn over among her staff. Moskowitz’s own impatience with other people is even evident her only published work of scholarship following her doctoral degree in history. The book, published in 2001, is titled In Therapy We Trust: America’s Obsession With Self-Fulfillment, claiming that Americans today turn to psychology and self-help experts for guidance and “excuses” as fervently as they used to seek religious guidance. Such negative assessments of most her fellow citizens’ needs probably explains why she reacted with overt derision when Mayor Bill De Blasio sought to implement restorative discipline strategies in city schools.
Suffice to say that I find it laughable that Eva Moskowitz had no idea how strict a discipline system she wished to implement from the beginning.
Another reason for doubting this narrative is that we know that Success Academy methods are hardly limited to what Moskowitz describes, and we know it from Mr. Fucaloro himself. New York Magazine did an extensive story on the rapidly growing Success Academy chain and Ms. Moskowitz herself in 2010, and Mr. Fucaloro is featured prominently boasting that his test preparation focus and extra work transforms children into “little test taking machines.” Further, the type of extremely rigid behavior accepted at Success Academy is drilled early via Kindergarten “boot camps,” and Mr. Fucaloro makes what would be a shocking confession in a true public school:
At Harlem Success, disability is a dirty word. “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” Fucaloro says. For many children who arrive with individualized education programs, or IEPs, he goes on, the real issues are “maturity and undoing what the parents allow the kids to do in the house—usually mama—and I reverse that right away.” When remediation falls short, according to sources in and around the network, families are counseled out. “Eva told us that the school is not a social-service agency,” says the Harlem Success teacher. “That was an actual quote.”
Such attitudes appear foundational and durable at Success Academy given Kate Taylor’s report on the network’s “polarizing methods” for The New York Timesearlier this year where public shaming of low performers is common enough that children have been known to wet themselves from the stress. Mr. Fucaloro’s stance on disabilities is particularly shocking, however, and indicative that Success Academy’s Director of Instruction did far more than teach Moskowitz’s teachers to have high expectations for student behavior – and that his methods go far beyond anything he was allowed to do as a public school teacher. Simply ignoring an IEP and subjecting students with disabilities to behavior modification is not an option for public school teachers (unless abetted by an unethical administration). Nor is a Kindergarten “boot camp.” Nor is out of school suspension for five year olds. Nor is a 65 infraction long behavioral manual. This list is lengthy, but the message is clear: far from simply being inspired by the high expectations Mr. Fucaloro and his singular attention to student focus, Success Academy teachers are trained in a program of extreme behavior modification backed by punitive consequences, options that are neither professionally nor morally available to truly public schools.
Finally, we know that Moskowitz is being highly selective in her story because of the data. Let’s take her at her word that Mr. Fucaloro was a demanding but highly effective and appreciated teacher in his public school career. Not to take anything away from that, but he is hardly unique in that regard. There are countless public school teachers who work hard to effectively establish the learning environment for their students. Lots of teachers set high expectations for both learning and behavior, so that is hardly unique either. However, just demonstrating and proving tracking and other techniques, as Moskowitz claims, is hardly all that happened in the early days of Success Academy. Consider the following table, compiled from NYSED data:
Two items are of note here. First, the pattern of student attrition is curious. Success Academy has not backfilled vacated seats after third grade until this year and still only does so through fourth grade, claiming that admitting new students unused to Success Academy methods would be detrimental. It is therefore not surprising to see how many of the cohorts in the chart show drop offs around third and fourth grades – any students who left the school were not replaced as is required policy for fully public schools. This pattern repeats cohort after cohort with growth in early grades, followed by sharp winnowing accumulating over time. The third Kindergarten cohort is especially noteworthy, growing from 130 students in 2008 to 136 by third grade before shrinking to 109 two years later in fifth grade, an almost 20% change. Remember, every student who begins at a Success Academy represents a family that went out of its way to seek out that school.
The second item is the dramatic growth in out of school suspensions. NYSED reports the percentage of students suspended in a given school year, which does not account for single students suspended multiple time nor does it account for in school discipline. In its first two years, Success Academy 1 suspended 8% and 2% of its students respectively. Over the next five years, however, those numbers jumped to 12%, 15%, 22%, 27%, and 23%. These figures are eye-watering, and to compare, we can look at the same data from PS149 Sojourner Truth, the zoned K-8 public school co-located with Success Academy 1 grades Kindergarten through 4th grade:
Of course, cohorts in PS149 do experience attrition as well, sometimes significant attrition, but there is no specific pattern of when students leave the school or of when cohorts shrink or grow. However, the most striking difference is the out of school suspension rates which top out at 9% and are as low as 3% for two successive years. Whatever else is happening at PS 149, the school is not heavily wielding out of school suspension with its students.
What does this mean? The most obvious inference is that even if Moskowitz is being truthful and that Mr. Fucaloro is an astonishing teacher who was quickly able to establish a well disciplined and effective classroom environment where others struggled, it was far harder to scale up that level of discipline and effectiveness without massively increasing punitive disciplinary consequences,including out of school suspension rates nine times higher than a co-located school in the 2011-2012 school year. The “secret sauce” at Success Academy’s setting of behavior for its students is not duplicating “the most gifted educator” Moskowitz has ever met – it is sending very young children home from school, sometimes until their parents give up and go away.
By the way, the out of school suspension rate for 2011-2012 at Upper West Success, a school where 29% of students qualify for free lunch and 10% for reduced price lunch? 5%. Apparently suspension rates in the high 20s are a necessity for schools where 78% of the students are in or near poverty.
None of this is really surprising to those who have been paying attention over the years, but what is surprising is Moskowitz’s inability to resist mythologizing herself and her schools — when the people she is telling myths about are on record with the press and when the school’s use of heavy handed suspensions is not in dispute. Then again, maybe it isn’t surprising. Moskowitz provides a big and likely inadvertent insight into her thought process:
Some critics find our approach rigid and overbearing. I’ve got two of these critics in my own home: my kids, who attend Success. They complain when they get into trouble for not tracking the speaker. They were listening, they protest. Maybe so. But sometimes when kids look like they’re daydreaming, it’s because they are, and we can’t allow that possibility.
“Daydreaming….and we can’t allow that possibility.” Nobody denies that a well managed environment where students are attentive is a big part of successful teaching. Nobody even denies that some teachers have an incredible capability for that and others can learn from them. But at the point when your desire for order and control cannot allow the “possibility” that a very young child might occasionally daydream during a long school day, you are no longer practicing classroom management.
You are engaging in a pathology.
This article first appeared on Daniel Katz's blog.