Opinion

Whitmire: Both Fans and Critics of Success Academy’s Remarkable Results Will Find Something to Like in Pondiscio’s New Book. But Don’t Use It to Judge All Charter Schools

By Richard Whitmire | September 11, 2019

Photo by Getty Image

No schools anywhere in the United States are more lauded — or more despised — than New York City’s Success Academy charter schools, which educate 17,000 students, nearly all of them low-income and minority and nearly all of them performing at extraordinarily high levels.

Those who praise Success Academy (check the New York Post’s editorial page for near-daily accolades) credit its high expectations, strict discipline and rich curriculum, implying that regular New York City’s district schools could achieve the same, if only they had more gumption and less-onerous teacher contracts dictated by the unions. To them, Success founder Eva Moskowitz is a shiny reformer in armor.

Those who scorn Success Academy say that what appears to be an education miracle is nothing more than a mirage made possible by cherry-picking students, imposing harsh discipline that no child should endure and conducting relentless test prep that falls short of actually educating children. To them, Moskowitz, who regularly castigates the teachers unions, is nothing short of the devil.

Into this never-ending fray steps educator/writer Robert Pondiscio, who was granted full access in the 2016-17 school year to Success Academy Bronx 1 Elementary School in the high-poverty Mott Haven neighborhood where he once taught in a traditional public school. The result: How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice.

Given Pondiscio’s background (he’s a senior fellow at the charter-embracing Thomas B. Fordham Institute) with teaching experience at a Democracy Prep charter school, you might expect his book to land clearly in the “praise” camp. And it does, in the end, but not without doing a lot of investigative work around cherry-picking that will delight (and arm) the critics. In other words, there’s something for everyone here.

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Let’s start with what he discovered about Success Academy’s secret sauce. What happens in those classrooms that leads to these stunning results? A 2016 report showed that 10 of New York City’s top 25 schools on the state literacy test were Success Academy schools; most of the balance were selective-admission schools or were located in affluent neighborhoods. In math, Success Academy schools made up 19 of the 25 highest-scoring schools, including selective-admission and gifted and talented schools.

In the Success Academy network of schools, even the worst performer is a standout school, especially when compared with other high-poverty schools.

Pondiscio is a thoughtful teacher, especially attuned to curriculum, a big admirer of education philosopher E.D. Hirsch of Core Knowledge fame who almost single-handedly has convinced educators that decoding language is insufficient; it takes a knowledge base. You need to understand stuff to truly understand what you’re reading.

By sitting through a year’s worth of classes, Pondiscio is able to extract the teaching mechanics that account for those high reading and math test scores, despite class sizes of at least 30 students. In great detail — possibly too much detail for some readers — he shows how an exacting curriculum, executed precisely the same at all the Success Academy schools, overcomes the well-documented learning deficits that arise from living in poverty, especially the limited exposures to rich vocabularies that come naturally to middle-class students.

The curriculum is good, he concludes, but what matters most is that the teachers there, many of them very young and teaching for the first time, actually have a shared curriculum, something that is missing in many schools.

Writes Pondiscio: “But the nuts and bolts of the curriculum may matter less than the fact that Success has a set curriculum in the first place. American education tends to defer broadly to “teacher autonomy,” often giving even the least experienced teachers enormous latitude in deciding what to teach and how … The default curriculum in American education, at least in elementary and middle school, is simply stuff teachers find on the Internet.”

Success schools resemble race cars stripped of anything that gets in the way of speed. Principals there are pure instructional leaders in charge of making sure every teacher adheres exactly to well-rehearsed classroom management techniques and instructional tactics designed to ensure that every student tracks the lesson and no student disrupts learning for others.

That’s more than a full-time job, which means every school also has a BOM, or business operations manager, who sweats the non-academic stuff, making sure the cafeteria runs smoothly and the room temperatures are just right — things that eat up the day for most principals.

What strikes Pondiscio about Success is that for the first time, education innovation is bubbling up from “below,” as in the high-poverty schools. Writes Pondiscio: “Another radical aspect of Moskowitz’s model is seldom remarked on: Changes in education travel a one-way street. Innovative school models and pedagogies tend to be birthed in affluent neighborhoods and then migrate to less advantaged schools and districts once they are “proved” effective. What’s rarely considered is that any number of those programs and practices don’t work in affluent schools any better than in low-income settings. Their ineffectiveness is merely revealed when they are foisted on students who lack the cultural capital to compensate for their inherent weakness.”

That’s the positive stuff. Now, what about the negative stuff, the parts of the book that critics will pounce on?

The most common criticism of Success, aside from the charge that its intense discipline and test prep resemble child abuse, is that it “creams” students. Defenders of Success can point to the obvious: Success schools, which have far more applicants than available seats (17,000 apply for 3,000 seats) use a lottery, whereby parents apply and are then chosen at random. What could be more egalitarian?

Well, at Success Academy, winning a seat is just the beginning. The “winning” parents get summoned to school sessions where the intense demands placed on parents are made very clear — everything from making sure their students show up precisely on time with the precise school uniform to reading-with-your child requirements that have to be logged. Over and over, the parents get told: “Success Academy is not for everyone.”

The winnowing begins. Parents fearful of the time commitments and worried that their child might act up in class have second thoughts and look elsewhere. It’s safe to assume that those are children less likely to ace the state exam. Then Success turns to its considerable waiting list, which also gets winnowed down quickly.

One revealing example is the demand that parents on the waiting list still show up for a school uniform fitting. On the surface, this makes sense. If their child wins a seat at the last minute, that student will be ready to go. But here’s the catch: Students who don’t get brought to a fitting fall off the waiting list. More less-committed parents drop out of the running.

In the end, the families who show up for that first day of school struck Pondiscio as disproportionately two-parent families (and many of them religious), not the norm for that neighborhood: the exact kind of parent eager to buy into the regimen they think will launch their children out of the Bronx and into a middle-class life. Clearly, Success cherry-picks parents, just not in the nefarious way they’re accused of doing it.

Pondiscio also takes a thorough look at the discipline demands of their schools, especially the “outlier” students targeted for intervention because they disrupt classrooms. There are two ways of viewing those exhaustive interventions, which involve numerous mandatory meetings with the parents, he writes.

The first is the charitable: Success is trying to rescue all children and is willing to expend the resources to make that happen. And then there’s the less charitable view, writes Pondiscio: “It is easy to perceive this as a systematic effort to shed outlier children who are not up to the standards of conduct and performance. And maybe it is. The possibility cannot be dismissed.”

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume the less charitable view is true. Isn’t Success doing what suburban middle-class parents do when there’s a disruptive child interfering with learning: You band together with other parents and complain loudly to the principal until that child is removed. (Full disclosure: Been there, done that, in a suburban elementary school.) Is criticizing Success for doing the same with children from poor families thus hypocritical? Good question.

The true secret sauce behind Success is its culture, Pondiscio writes, a culture that’s embraced by most of the like-minded parents who endure all the demands placed on them and their children. That strict discipline isn’t just for the sake of an orderly classroom; it’s so that students can get full exposure to a rich, carefully crafted curriculum.

Is that so bad? Pondiscio believes these families in high-poverty neighborhoods deserve schools as high-performing as suburban schools, private schools and exam schools. Writes Pondiscio: “If you demand that engaged and committed parents send their children to school with the children of disengaged and uncommitted parents, then you are obligated to explain why this standard applies to low-income black and brown parents — and only to them.”

He’s right about that.

What worries me about the book is the implication that because only Success Academy posts these kind of test scores, and Success is not really replicable, that this is a judgment on the school reform movement. Writes Pondiscio: “Perhaps the hurdles to overcome generational poverty are so complex and daunting — so many social and historical factors; so much beyond a school’s sphere of influence — that only the rarest and most precise blend of conditions under a demanding and visionary leader is sufficient, making Success Academy not a blueprint to follow but something closer to a reverse perfect storm.”

Maybe he has a point. There are several thousand charter schools around the country, few of whom can match Success in test scores. A sign of failure?

Actually, I consider the true metric of success not near-perfect test scores but postsecondary success. How many students enter college and emerge with a degree? Because it didn’t graduate its first class of high school seniors until 2018, Success hasn’t had the chance to send more than a handful of alumni off to college, and college achievement gets measured six years after high school graduation. Will Success alumni succeed in college and life? I’m guessing yes, but it’s too soon to know.

It’s not too soon, however, to subject many other charter networks to the same standard — networks with plenty of graduates who have reached the six-year mark. Based on the demographics of their alumni, those networks exceed expectations by a factor ranging between two and four. And these are networks that, unlike Success, admit students in later grades and generally don’t engage in de facto cherry-picking, which may explain their less-lofty test scores.

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The best of them, such as Uncommon Schools, post college success rates nearly as good as students who come from the wealthiest families, but their students come from the streets of Newark.

Will Success ever match or exceed those college success rates? Maybe, but that’s not the point. The point is that low-income parents choosing those high-performing charters deserve those choices — just as the hyper-committed parents who believe in Moskowitz’s model deserve theirs — and the fact that students in those schools don’t ace state exams at the same rate may not be relevant.

Success Academy may be a beautiful unicorn, fully justified by what it produces for its unique set of parents. But keep in mind that there are scores of school reform experiments around the country that are working and aren’t unicorns.

Education writer Richard Whitmire is the author of the recently published The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America.

Disclosure: Campbell Brown sits on Success Academy’s board of directors. Brown co-founded The 74 and sits on its board of directors. She played no part in the reporting or editing of this story.

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