Friday, April 17, 2015

Explaining Success Academy

In the summer edition of Education Next, Charles Sahm attempts a response to the recent New York Times look at Success Academy. His article, "What Explains Success at Success Academy," is long and thoughtful, but it ultimately fails to answer its own titular question.

Sahm has taken the time to visit actual Success Academies, and he manages to cheerlead for them without calling their critics a big bunch of staus-quo loving doodyheads, so if nothing else, the article proves that reform apologists can peddle their wares while remaining thoughtful, respectful and reasonable. But his explanations for SA aren't really explanations.

To what does Sahm credit Eva Moskowitz's success?

The What: Content Is King

Moskowitz brags of "balanced literacy on steroids" when she talks about their in-house reading program, and as someone who is not directly familiar with either her program or the programs used by New York public schools, I can't judge. But when Sahm credits her with ideas such as "the choice between content and skills is false," I can't help but see Moskowitz as one more educational amateur who thinks she's a genius because she just "discovered" something that working teachers have known since the dawn of time.

SA middle school students have a required reading list of seven texts, supported by a literature class and independent reading time, and while these are fine ideas, I'm waiting for the part where Moskowitz announces a revolutionary writing program where students use "words" arranged in what she likes to call "sentences." And as we'll see, when it comes to middle school reading, SA does have a secret weapon that they are more reluctant to brag about.

Sahm says that his tours revealed a rich and varied learning environment, not a test prep factory, and Moskowitz swears its true--"You cannot ace these Common Core tests with test prep" he quotes her as saying, which is one of the few times in the article that he captures her in a bald-faced lie. Of course you can; any and all standardized tests can be conquered by test prep.

The How: Quality Conversations

Moskowitz credits her teachers, who are now required to go through in-house training. Once again, we are told about innovations that aren't innovations.

T-school is intense. Instructors place teachers on the hot seat, asking them, for example, to precisely identify the main idea in a college-level text. In Mission Possible, Moskowitz notes that a big part of T-school is “understanding the why”—the purpose behind what’s taught and the way Success handles instruction:“You can’t ask people to do something and take it seriously if they don’t know why they are doing it.” In T-school, teachers learn that “a good lesson flows like a quality conversation.”

Seriously? Do I live in a magical land of awesome innovation and I just don't know it, or does Success Academy owe its success to insights on the order of "When breathing, it is best to draw air in and then exhale before inhaling again."

Sahm goes on to note that SA requires large amounts of work from its teachers. 10-12 hour days are a norm (though when I was a beginning teacher, that was my norm as well). Sahm tackles the churn numbers, and after reading on the subject, I'm prepared to say that although the numbers clearly not low, nobody really knows what they are. He also acknowledges that SA has "teacher-proofed" instruction, requiring teachers to work in lockstep across the system. He suggests this is offset with individual time; I would suggest that simply implementing someone else's lesson plan script is not actually teaching, and anybody who actually needs that script to teach does not belong in a classroom.

It is clear that SA puts plenty of money and resources where its mouth is, and that their content delivery specialists are given tools, equipment, and support.


Sahm does acknowledge some of the other standard criticisms of SA. For instance, SA serves a smaller percentage of English language learners and students with special needs than the city's public system.

Sahm also notes the backfill issue. From 3rd through 8th grade, SA loses over half of their students, and it does not fill their seats. You can see a breakdown of the numbers at this report from Democracy Builders, which shows us two things-- that attrition helps keep proficient-score percentages up even when raw numbers are plummeting, and that Success Academy is New York's Queen of off-loading students and filling schools with empty seats. (You can get an overview of the report here and here.)

Sahm also raises some objections in order to dismiss them. He notes that "many say" SA is overly secretive and dismisses that by referencing the many tours given of the school. I don't know who the "many" are, but perhaps they are referencing that time Success Academy went to court in order to block the state from auditing their books.

And he seems to like Moskowitz, calling her salary a bargain from a  ROI standpoint. "But her hands-on style, along with the fundraising juggernaut she has built (last year, Success raised $22 million in private support), does raise questions about replication and equity." Well, yes.

Why Success Academy Sure Doesn't Look Like an Education Bargain To Me

There really aren't any questions about replicating SA's success. It is neither possible nor desirable.

First, SA has defined "success" as "high test scores." This is not how great schools define success. Head up to Philips Exeter Academy and ask them to explain what makes them a great school. They will not tout test scores. We have no reason to believe that high tests scores mean squat, and certainly not educational success-- particularly when so much attention is spent on doing test prep rather than actually educating.

Furthermore, SA's "success" is based on a special blend of Things Every Decent School Already Knows and Things No Decent School Can or Would Do.

In the first category we find the idea of giving teachers support and resources to use long-known and proven educational techniques. This is not even re-inventing the wheel. This is walking out to the street, pointing at a parked car, and declaring, "Look what I invented! I'm a freaking genius!!"

The other Captain Obvious innovation is money. I imagine teachers who struggle away in schools without books, heat, light, cleaning and a host of other facilities watching someone like Moskowitz explain that having a clean, well-supplied, well-financed school really helps and thinking, "No shit, Sherlock." It's all the more galling because the bright shiny halls of SA come at the cost of those dim-lit under-funded under-resourced public schools. Moskowitz is like the bully who comes and steals the food off your plate at lunch every day and then on Friday makes fun of you-- "What's wrong with you. You look hungry and weak."

The No Backfills Allowed rule is not so much an innovation as a complete redefining of what a school is and does. It can't be replicated (would we just tell any family that moved with a child older than third grade that their children will never be able to go to school again?) and there's no reason it should be.

In fact, that 56% attrition rate is really just a 56% failure rate; those are students that SA failed to serve, failed to grow, failed to educate-- both the ones who left and the ones who were never allowed to come bask in the shiny glory of SA. There is nothing successful or spectacular about a 56% failure rate.

The SA model is unreplicable, though I'm sure all of us in public ed agree that if we had large resources, constant support, and the power to admit only the students we chose to our classroom, we would all look pretty freakin' awesome-- we just wouldn't be honoring the mission of US public education.

But the SA model is also unsustainable. It has to eat through teachers at a steady rate, adding to the background buzz that teaching is a dull, punishing field that nobody needs enter. It eats through children, creating an ever-enlarging pool of unsatisfied former customers who slowly erode the chirpy PR. And it eats through resources, resources that have to be taken from the public system (both buildings and money) and from well-heeled backers who have to be cozied up to. But a system like SA that has to feed off the public system also slowly destroys the public system. A vampire can only drain the same poor victim so many times before it destroys its own food supply.

One of my measures of a charter school's worth is whether or not it has anything to teach us in public schools. Success Academy offers no educational lessons to anybody; there's nothing new to learn there, nothing that can be replicated, nothing that will still be standing in twenty years.

(Update - I have an inexcusable tendency to misspell Moskowitz's last name. I have fixed it-- at least in this post.)

1 comment:

  1. From Phillips Exeter Academy website: "Above all," John Phillips stated, "it is expected that the attention of instructors to the disposition of the minds and morals of the youth under their charge will exceed every other care; well considering that though goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind." Screams test prep to me. Not.