Green opens by taking us back to her days as a "young and enthusiastic" reporter, a whole decade ago. She had come to New York "to cover the biggest education revolution ever attempted." Back then, she thought the major players were Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein, but looking back, she takes note of "a 5-foot-2-inch redhead from Harlem."
I had visited impressive schools before, but none quite like this.
From the beginning, it's clear that Green thinks Success Academies are impressive. That's an impression that she never really questions, and she seems to credit that impressiveness to just one factor-- Eva Moskowitz. Moskowitz, she says, "stalked the school corridors more like a rear admiral than a pedagogue," talking about the obstacles she faced. Green calls her "either paranoid or plagued, probably some of both." When Moscowitz feels "under siege, she could neither attack nor defend. She picked the Napoleon option."
|Nice train. I hope it's on time.|
Moskowitz had plans, Green notes. Ambitious plans, "not a proof point but a blueprint, not a Gap but a kind of educational superstore. A whole new school system, run by her instead of the government." Young Green found the plan to grow Success stunning, audacious. But Moskowitz made it all happen-- and more. Now "she has become one of the country's most influential crusaders at a turning point for charter schooling." It's a curious claim-- Moskowitz is one of the great charter survivors, but it's not clear that Eva has ever "crusaded" for anyone other than Eva.
But Green is not done providing uncritical praise:
Empire has not killed quality.
By now, you may have noticed the military leader references piling up. Moskowitz runs an "empire," and "marches" forward. And Green continues to uncritically list Moskowitz's victories in which Eva "trounces" her peers. Green reports on Success scores, but never asks how they are achieved. Nor does she mention that though Success students ace the state test, they have had trouble with NYC district tests for getting into top high schools.
Green acknowledges that even supporters keep Moskowitz at "what can generously be called a careful distance." But Green attributes this simply to Moskowitz's personal style. "Her acid tirades are legendary and can get scathingly personal more quickly than I might have believed had she not once dressed me down after I wrote a story she didn’t like."
Green says that Moskowitz's book is "plainly positioned to soften and humanize," and yet Moskowitz cannot restrain her prickly side, swiping at enemies, complaining about the media, and showing "no patience for critics who question Success's high-stress test prep." And here we arrive at Green's main thrust:
Personally, I draw the line at evil, but Moskowitz is undeniably scary. Cross her, and you’ve also crossed her students, her schools, and justice itself. Entrusting a person who has such an exceptional capacity for venom with the care of children can seem unwise. Which is just one reason 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. And as she announces in her memoir, 46 schools is just the beginning. “We need to reach more students,” she writes.
"Most impressive education system I've ever seen" is a personal, subjective measure. But Green avoids examining it. She mentions the brutal child discipline tapes covered by the New York Times (which also lead to the discovery of the Got-to-go lists), but she doesn't consider the reality of what those stories reveal. She notes the criticism of test prep at Success, but doesn't question what that says about the schools. She avoids other criticism, like the issue of high student attrition (and no backfill) at the Success Academies. They remain, in her eyes, impressive.
The next section of the piece looks at Moskowitz's evolution and career. Her growing frustration with a system that wouldn't let her do what she wanted to do. Her political aspirations thwarted by the unions.
Green sets that against her own evolution as a reporter. She recalls the growth of other reformers who seemed to "enflame" parents and whose "district-hating came with a thuggish brand of teacher-bashing." She saw vilifying teachers and unions as counter-productive because "it alienated the same overloaded foot soldiers." Note where teachers rank in Green's military model of the education world. Green knows that people like Democracy and all, but, well, she also began to see the appeal of "blowing up school districts." She was disillusioned with public school districts and their general mess.
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.
I'm with her on the terrible state and federal authority edicts (see most of the previous 2700 posts on this blog), but I'm not ready to let awful management off the hook. It is, in fact, administrators of districts who decide how much havoc those government edicts are going to create. But I think Green needs to let management off the hook, because she's working up an argument in favor of the superstar CEO model of school management.
Certainly, she declares herself a charter fan.
Of all the reforms that have set out to free schools from this trap, to date I’ve seen only one that works: the implementation of charter-school networks.
And she means large networks, ones that can supply teachers and be insulated from politics. And if you think this is an implied attack on Democracy, well, there's nothing implied about it--
They 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.
Next Green wants to argue that charter networks are "gaining traction" and spreading and she is going to trot out David Osborne, who's current tour in support of his book about Reinventing America;s School is remarkably selective in his use of facts.
She notes that opponents exist and that they call this whole trend "privatization," and while she reports that Moskowitz considers that an "inaccurate smear," she does not ask if the critics have a point. She brushes past it with a "whatever you label it," and now goes to bat for the idea of choice and lotteries.
She notes that district schools must take responsibility for all students in their sphere, whether they expel them or not, while charters can be more limited in their admissions. Green ignores the issue of backfilling vacated seats again here, and ignores the issue of lotteries that cream out only those families able to navigate that bureaucratic process. Green will, however, repeat the charter claim that they are a force for social justice. And she once again repeats, unexamined, the classic charter claim: "Charter schools, by contrast, hand the power of choice to parents who can’t afford to exercise it through real estate."
She reports uncritically the Moskowitz claim that charter schools are "the best shot at delivering the public school system we wish we had," as if Success Academy did not have a long record of serving only the students it wants to serve (which is not the public education system I wish for). She passes along Moskowitz's claim that charters are the solution to integration, as if the AP had not just released a report showing the exact opposite.
Finally, far down the page, Green admits that at Success " for all Moskowitz's eloquence about the importance of rigorous academics and extracurricular activities, test prep comes first." Finally we get to backfilling. And Green sadly notes that parents often choose schools for convenience and location, rather than excellence.
In her conclusion, Green wrestles with some issues without naming them. She earlier dismissed "privatization" as a concern, but in the final stretch she notices that Moskowitz and other charter operators are mostly a collection of rich people who are used to owning and running businesses. She claims that the unscrupulous operators gravitate toward the for-profit charters, but fails to notice the many ways that non-profits can be quite profitable (in fact, she need look no further than Moskowitz, who draws a higher salary than the chancellor of the entire New York City school system). By this point in the article, my frustration with Green is running pretty high-- she can walk right up to issues without actually naming them:
But I do think that bequeathing power over the education of America’s children to a tiny group of ever more influential plutocrats means that the rest of us will have much less say in the direction of public schools than we do today.
Well, yes. That's privatization. And anti-Democratic. And she goes on to note that overseeing charters is necessary, but difficult, because charters really resistant to being examined (again, she need look no further than Moskowitz, who has taken the state of New York to court to avoid being accountable for how she spends tax dollars).
What, Green worries, if the plutocrats who run these schools get legislators to weaken oversight and empower wealthy board members? And at this point I wonder if she has been covering Eva "Go To Albany and Demand That the Rules Be Changed To Suit Me" Moskowitz with only one eye half open. And is that eye plagued with some sort of shmutz that keeps her from examining the nasty little details of this "impressive" system?
In the end, Green seems ready to dump Democracy, scrap public schools, and elevate an autocratic Beloved Leader CEO charter system. In a way, it's fitting that in an era in which some people are willing to turn to a one-person authoritarian form of the Presidency under Beloved Leader Trump, some folks will also yearn for the same system for schools, arguing that she may be a dictator, she may be autocratic, she may require the suspension of Democracy, but I think she means well, and she makes the trains run on time. Just don't look too closely at where the train is running or exactly who gets to ride on board.