Thursday, December 14, 2017

Andrea Gabor Drills Down Into Success Academy Charter School Network

A must read analysis by Andrea Gabor. One of the best in depth articles - and she also exposes the failed journalism of Chalkbeat's Elizabeth Green.

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

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


  1. Elizabeth Green may have once been a journalist, but hasn't been for years. Instead, she is a flack for the charter industry, who skillfully salts her articles with just enough qualifiers to try to inoculate her against the charges of being the propagandist she in fact is.

  2. Moskowitch schools are a fake news bull crap and moskowitch and her cronies, bloomberg, klein are money hungry goons who prey upon the weak families that now occupy NYC neighborhoods. NYC is no longer a meca it is now a third world cess pool filled with immigrants - illegal and legal - who have brought with them their third world crap. The Moskowitchs of the world are really $$$$ money money aka bloomberg....and they have these ill advised so called parents in their palms. Public education will never be replaced in this city because with all the illegals that are there, coupled with all of the other immigrants producing a third world environment of human beings who will bring down the entire community - charter or not - and its only a matter of time. Meanwhile moskowitch is pulling in as much money as she can - half million dollars a year - Any New yorker who is a life long new yorker sees right through these people - the bloombergs and joel kleins of the world and now we have this woman monster moskowitch and her fake news organization.


Comments are welcome. Irrelevant and abusive comments will be deleted, as will all commercial links. Comment moderation is on, so if your comment does not appear it is because I have not been at my computer (I do not do cell phone moderating). Or because your comment is irrelevant or idiotic.