Much-Hyped Success Academy Charter School Network Is Perfectly in Sync With Trumpian Times

Success Academy is at the forefront of an anti-democratic movement to replace public schools with charters, while curtailing government oversight.

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This week both The New Yorker and The Atlantic, among several other publications, ran prominent stories on Success Academy, the controversial New York City charter-school network.

In particular, Elizabeth Green’s piece about Success Academy and its founder, Eva Moskowitz, aims a nuclear warhead at public schools. Writes Green: “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.”

(Similarly, Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine breathlessly exclaimed: Success Academy “has done something no education-policy analyst considered remotely possible: Its schools have closed the achievement gap.”)

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It is we—that is American citizens—who should be terrified because Success Academy is entirely in-sync with the Trump era. It is unapologetically anti-democratic, anti-union, segregated and relentlessly test-driven. And, it should be noted, the CMO has not yet graduated a single high school student.

At a time when we are facing an existential threat to our democracy—one enabled by a decades-long obsession with standardized tests that narrowed curriculum and helped kill off civics education—the championing of Success Academy by writer as influential as Elizabeth Green, she is the founding editor of ChalkBeat and author of Building a Better Teacher, is worrying indeed.

Let’s be clear. Judging by its roster of 46 schools, there are potentially thousands of families who are happy with the education Success Academy provides, and many more who might have been if they had won the network’s lottery—though parents have complained of the CMO’s harsh, and even abusive, ‘boot-camp-like” culture—see here and here. Indeed, hundreds, if not thousands of children have been pulled out by their families (or forced out) because of the network’s strict demands for behavioral compliance and its single-focused pursuit of high test scores.

Among the tsunami of mostly glowing articles pegged to the publication of Moskowitz’s memoir, The Education of Eva Moskowitz, only Lisa Miller’s acid review in The New York Times asks how a defiant rule-breaker like Moskowitz would have fared in one of her own schools. (Moskowitz took a call from Mayor Michael Bloomberg during a nephew’s bar mitzvah to “threaten him with a negative press campaign.” And she was impudent to her own teachers.) Not well one assumes.

While Green notes that Success Academy students “regularly trounce their peers all across New York on state tests” she never actually gives you the scores. Rebecca Mead does—more on her New Yorker story below: On the latest tests, 95 percent of Success Academy students achieved proficiency in math and 84 percent in ELA; the comparable citywide scores are 36 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

But Green fails to address key questions about the kind of education Success kids get—and at what cost. She certainly doesn’t question whether the ever-changing, bubble-in test-scores are the best—or even a good–measure of learning. While she acknowledges giving up on democratic control of schools and districts, she never considers the historic, foundational role of public education in a democracy—and the civic cost of autocratic education systems. Nor does Green consider the successful public-school networks amid what she, rightly, describes as the crushing bureaucracy that has often stifled New York City schools—even though she has published stories about them!

Green also glosses over—and, in some cases, omits entirely—the considerable problems with the Success Academy model, including widespread creaming and credible allegations of abusive behavior toward children. Although Green’s own book points out that the best teachers have years of experience, she says not one word about Success Academy’s high teacher attrition rate. Some Success Academy schools lose over half of their teachers each year; few last more than three years.

Nor does she identify the thoughtful critics of Moskowitz, even among pro-charter reformers. “I’m no fan of Eva Moskowitz,” said Sy Fliegel, president of the Center for Education Innovation, in an interview for my upcoming book After the Education Wars. “I don’t like the way they get rid of kids. That is a charge that has been made too often now and I think it’s true.”

Another charter-school insider told me that the New York City charter establishment dreaded the possibility that Moskowitz might challenge Mayor Bill de Blasio in the last mayoral race, fearing it would bring too much adverse publicity to the sector. She decided not to run. Moskowitz also reportedly told Trump she didn’t want to be education secretary, before he gave the job to Betsy DeVos.

Fair disclosure: I have never visited a Success Academy school—but not for lack of trying. Almost exactly two years ago, I won a golden ticket to join a select few who would be allowed to tour Success Academy Bronx 1. But almost as quickly, I was disinvited. An educator who attend the tour, filled me on in on what she saw, and I wrote about it here.

However, I have spent over a decade covering both public and charter schools and have seen the rush to judgment, the embrace of miracle schools based solely on a few test scores. I’ve seen poor performing schools–both public and charter. I’ve also seen enduring public-school successes (schools that, decade after decade, have seen their poor minority kids graduate and enroll in college) ignored by media pundits and mainstream education reformers—a key focus of my upcoming book. I have seen promising mom-and-pop charters beg for support from charter gatekeepers who favor large no-excuses CMOs. And I’ve seen the consequences of charter-school expansion policies that flood poor neighborhoods with schools that cherry pick the most promising kids, leaving public schools to cope with children who have formidable problems.

Even a charter proponent like Richard Whitmire concedes that there is no “apples to apples” comparison between traditional public schools and charter management organizations, such as Success Academy. “People, and I have been guilty of this, have compared Success’ scores to traditional public schools and they’re apples and oranges,” says Whitmire. “It would be totally unfair to compare Success to a traditional New York public school that’s in the same building because Success doesn’t fill up its classes. It doesn’t backfill after fourth grade.”

So, unlike Green, I am convinced that the promotion and embrace of education reform a la Success Academy embodies a great danger to our country and our democracy. Here’s why:

Success Academy is at the forefront of an anti-democratic movement to replace public schools with charters, while, at the same time, curtailing government oversight:

Like most charter schools, Success Academy operates with an unelected corporate board, one heavy on plutocrats who use their wealth to expand charter schools. Most recently, Dan Loeb, the controversial hedge fund manager and board chairman of Success Academy, contributed $1 million in dark money to New York-based Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter nonprofit; the contribution became public when its affiliate, Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy, was fined $426,466 for violating Massachusetts campaign finance laws—the biggest such violation in state history; FESA had contributed well over a third of the $46 million spent on a referendum aimed at lifting the charter cap in the Bay State. Although the charter lobby outspent the opposition by a wide margin, the ballot initiative, known as Question 2, was roundly defeated by voters.

Moskowitz herself has been at the forefront of battling government oversight of charters. (Charter authorizers provide little or no oversight as long as charters produce high test scores.) She has pressed charter personnel to resist questioning by outsiders, including government officials. Last year a city audit found financial irregularities (though no fraud or criminality); among other things, the audit found that Success Academy billed the education department for special education services “without records to verify that they were provided” to children. Earlier, Moskowitz had sued the New York State controller challenging the state’s right to audit her schools, despite the fact that they receive public funding; a Manhattan Supreme Court Justice ruled in Moskowitz’s favor.

SuccessAcademy fuels the test-score arms race:

I have written here and here and here about New York State’s serial testing debacles, the result of an obsession with standardized tests that has defined education policy throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, and continues to this day.

Green’s article underscores the role of charter networks in exacerbating test mania. Test scores are the principle measure by which Success Academy’s performance is measured. We know nothing of its graduation rates— the network is only graduating its first class of seniors this academic year—let alone how its graduates will fare in college. We do know that attrition at Success charters is very high with the most compliant students, and the best test-takers, surviving. (Mead, in her New Yorker story, points out that Success Academy’s first high school will graduate just 17 students next spring, down from 73 first graders.)

One major problem with the rise of large CMOs is that the competition for a finite pie of philanthropic funding escalates the test-score arms race. This has helped sustain testing regimes that suck the joy and purpose out of learning. It also has marginalized mom-and-pop charters—those educator- and parent-driven local efforts that were the raison d’etreof the charter movement in the first place.

Amplified by its P.R. apparatus and its legions of business supporter, Success Academy pulls in tens-of-millions of dollars in philanthropic donations each year, which it uses to fine-tune its test-production machinery. In the process it has redefined and narrowed the definition of what constitutes a good education among both public schools and charters.

“Oh my gosh, all charters are under the gun when it comes to the scores,” says Vashti Acosta, the principal at Amber Charter School, in East Harlem, which recently opened its second charter school in the Bronx. Amber considered itself lucky to raise $45,000 at its 15th anniversary party a few years ago.

At Amber, the national obsession with test scores has meant more academics at an ever earlier age. The school prides itself on teaching music and art; but those “specials” have been reduced to just one lesson per week. The focus on test scores also helps explain changes in Kindergarten. “That they get gym, recess and art and music helps, but I have to tell you, there’s very little play in Kindergarten,” says Acosta. “Kindergarteners get nap time in the beginning of the year, but in January that disappears.”

Success Academy, like the education-reform establishment, is anti-union even though teacher voice in mostly unionized schools has been a key to improving public-school quality

Most charter management organizations are non-union. And Moskowitz’s political career—she served on the New York City Council and ran for Manhattan borough president—was defined, at least in part, by her battle against the teachers’ union. Moskowitz said her campaign for borough president would serve as the “perfect test case for whether it was possible to stand up to the teachers’ union and live to tell the tale.”

While Moskowitz, a Democrat, lost that race, it has since become acceptable for mainstream Democrats to be anti-union. Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago is a case in point.

Yet, few Democrats have asked whether the sharp decline in the labor movement—only 6 percent of private-sector workers are unionized today—has helped build the constituency for Trump, especially in states that once had robust unions, such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Politics isn’t the only reason for questioning this anti-union trend. As I point out in my book, none of the most promising reforms—in New York City or Massachusetts—were impeded by strong unions; when reformers collaborate with teachers and parents to improve education quality, unions rarely stand in the way.

Charter advocates ignore public-school success stories hiding in plain sight

Forty years ago, it was the successful reforms initiated by Tony Alvarado, best known for his superintendency of New York City’s District 2 and 4, and the founding of the small-, progressive-schools movement by Debbie Meier, the first educator to win a MacArthur genius grant, that grabbed education-reform headlines. It was that movement Sy Fliegel wrote about in his book A Miracle in Harlem.

That experiment lives on in the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of schools that has won exemptions from standardized tests, but that has racked up far higher graduation rates and college matriculation rates than traditional public schools. Among students who started a consortium high school in 2010, 77 percent graduated in four years, versus 68 percent for all New York City students. (The vast majority of consortium schools are in New York City.) Among those who became high school freshmen in 2008, 82 percent graduated by 2014, compared with 73 percent citywide.

Green’s Chalkbeat published this about the consortium schools: “The graduation rates are especially high for students with disabilities and English language learners. Nearly 70 percent of ELLs in consortium schools graduate on time, according to the report, compared to about 40 percent across the city. And half of students with disabilities in the consortium schools graduate on time, compared with fewer than a quarter citywide.”

Today there are close to 40 consortium high schools, the vast majority in New York City. In addition, there are numerous elementary- and middle-schools that emulate the consortium schools—comprising an informal network that is far larger, and of longer duration, than Success Academy.

My question for Elizabeth Green: Why does she rate Success Academy above the consortium high schools, and their like-minded elementary and middle schools, especially given that they have survived, indeed thrived, despite the very bureaucracy that Green, rightly, decries?

The consortium and like-minded schools are noteworthy in other respects: Whereas urban charter networks like Success Academy traditionally have been highly segregated, consortium schools aimed to integrate their classrooms from the beginning, and were successful. Nor do consortium schools engage in creaming.

What makes these schools successful is not only their progressive pedagogy, but also they’re collaborative approach to school improvement—one that gives voice to both teachers and students.

This brings us to Mead’s New Yorker article, which explores Moskowitz’s “quest to combine rigid discipline with a progressive curriculum.”

Mead begins by describing the “highly controlled, even repressive” Success Academy culture: The quiet hallways and carpeting that imbue “even a space occupied by more than two dozen second graders with the hush of a corporate conference room;” the demand that students make eye-contact with their teachers at all times; an almost military obsession with posture, which must always be straight, and pencils, which must be “placed to the right of the desks, aligned with the edge;” the “Cape Canaveral-style countdowns” in which every interaction, every moment is strictly timed.

Now Moskowitz is trying to layer elements of a “progressive” curriculum without loosening the no-excuses culture (Mead tells us that Moskowitz eschews the no-excuses moniker. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…)

Mead writes that when Moskowitz opened her first high school, in 2014, she “hoped to create a more relaxed and collegiate environment…There was to be a lot more free time, in which students would be the stewards of their own studies.”

Moskowitz hired Anna Switzer, a respected progressive educator, to design a curriculum of months-long projects on subjects like the native populations that originally lived on Manhattan Island and the Brooklyn Bridge. While a welcome departure from test-prep, such project-based learning (a key feature of many of the most successful public schools during the Bloomberg years), relies on the self-directed exploration and creativity of students and has run up against the limits of Success Academy’s strict-discipline culture.

“‘It just didn’t work,’” Andrew Malone, the school’s principal, told Mead. “’Many of the students slacked off academically, and there was a resurgence of behavioral issues, such as lateness to school…Students accustomed to second-by-second vigilance found it difficult to manage their time when left unsupervised.’”

More importantly, project-based learning by itself doesn’t begin to encompass the values of democratic education—the secret sauce—that are foundational to the education philosophy espoused by both John Dewey, the godfather of progressive education, or Debbie Meier. Indeed, Meier’s dictum that a school should be “a community where kids could see the complexity of democracy, and fall in love with it”—has, in the Trump era, never been more important.

As documented in Richard Kahlenberg and Haley Potter’s A Smarter Charter, schools that encourage teacher voice, produce better, richer educational opportunities for children–whether they are progressive or not.

However, both progressive pedagogy and small 'd' democracy are hard work and time-consuming. For one thing, a successful progressive curriculum relies on highly experienced teachers—unicorns at high-turnover charter networks like Success Academy.

Shael Polakow-Suransky served as the Bloomberg administration’s chief academic officer and is now president of Bank Street College of Education. He told Mead: “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? What kind of learners are you developing when the core values are around compliance? 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?”

Green doesn’t attempt to answer these questions. However, she does pinpoint a huge challenge, especially for large urban school systems:

[A]s I began work in 2010 on a book about teaching, I started to see why blowing up school districts might not be as crazy an idea as I initially thought. What struck me most is how impossible teaching is, especially in traditional public schools. While those who pursue the profession in other countries are provided with the infrastructure crucial to educating kids effectively—a clear sense of what students need to learn, the basic materials necessary to help them learn it (such as a curriculum), and a decent training system—teachers in the U.S. are left stranded.

The reason isn’t terrible union contracts or awful management decisions. The fault, I came to see, lies in the (often competing) edicts issued by municipal, state, and federal authorities, which add up to chaos for the teachers who actually have to implement them. It’s not uncommon for a teacher to start the year focused on one goal—say, improving students’ writing—only to be told mid-year that writing is no longer a priority, as happened just the other day at a Boston school I know of. We could hardly have designed a worse system for supporting good teaching had we tried.

Green’s answer is to give up on democratic school governance, a position she justifies by noting that voter turnout in school board elections averages between 5 and 10 percent. Charters have “strengthened public education by extracting it from democracy as we know it—and we shouldn’t be surprised, because democracy as we know it is the problem,” she writes.

By that logic we might as well give up on democracy altogether since voter turnout in the 2014 Congressional elections was a miserable 36 percent.

Why not advocate myriad small-bore experiments that work, instead: Policies that free public schools and districts to experiment, and then work to systematically scale the successes? Why not strive to reengage voters at the local level? Surely such ideas are no more blue sky than blowing up the public school system and entrusting it to freewheeling edupreneurs and plutocrats whose chief concern is producing employees for a 21st-century workplace, not active and engaged citizens.

But wait; that’s a false dichotomy. No healthy democracy in a fast-changing market economy can function without an informed, knowledgeable and intellectually curious citizenry.

Andrea Gabor is the Bloomberg Chair of Business Journalism at Baruch College and the author of three books. Her fourth, After the Education Wars, will be published by New Press in spring '18. Follow her on Twitter @aagabor