Sunday, June 10, 2018

Success Academy: Much Ado About Almost Nothing

Richard Whitmire, a reliable booster for all things charter, is over at The 74, reliable reformy news-ish outlet, to celebrate news from Success Academy:

America’s most controversial — and possibly most successful — charter network leader, Eva Moskowitz, notched a major win Thursday, overseeing her first high school graduation ceremony at Success Academy, the class of 2022.

Class of 2022 is a coy way of referring to the year that these sixteen students will presumably graduate from college.

Yes, I said sixteen.

Anyway, Whitmire addresses the question suggested by that 2022. Will they actually make it to the finish line?

Impossible to say with certainty, of course, but based on my research of low-income, minority students going off to college, the odds of these 16 graduating seniors earning degrees are very high.

Sure. His argument is they've gotten into very selective schools with high graduation rates. He could be right.

But he also wants us to know that this is a huge deal, a big giant triumph for this poor little rich girl struggling against her critics:

Moskowitz is rarely one to resist settling scores with her many critics, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who once famously vowed to staunch her access to unused school buildings, or the union leaders who have thrown every weapon imaginable at her over the past dozen years. She appears to be achieving what they hold is impossible: successfully educating low-income minority children without first solving the ills of poverty. And she’s doing it at scale, not just with these 16 graduates. Her 46 schools enroll 15,500 students.

And that is as close as Whitmire comes to the facts that make this not quite so triumphant. Because Moskowitz isn't doing this at anything remotely resembling scale.

It's swell that her schools enroll 15,500 students. Twelve years ago, she was enrolling just 157 students in two grades. By 2016, those 157 students had become 52 tenth and eleventh graders. And now they have become 16 graduates (Gary Rubinstein breaks down the stunning attrition numbers more exactly here).

Success Academy has two secrets, and neither of them are important new developments in the field of education. Also, neither of them can be scaled up.

First, as indicated above, is the secret power of attrition. Get students to leave-- you might even make a got-to-go list of students that you want to push out. Never fill any empty seats after the first couple of years, so that over time you can whittle student body down to just a few who are able to work the way you want them to.

Second, be well-connected so that movers and shakers in NYC help get you what you need (including lots of contributions at fund-raisers). Use your customers as free muscle in the state capital to help get more political leverage.

Without these secrets of her success, Moskowitz is nothing special. Enroll 15,500 students? Super-- when all 15,500 graduate from your schools, then you'll have done something remarkable. And if you can do it without extra favors and extra money-- just with the same resources that any public school would have-- then you'll have done something extraordinary.

I would not for a second want to diminish what this accomplishment means to those sixteen students. This was a great thing for them, and I hope that the years ahead bring them nothing but continued success.

But do not pretend this accomplishment is magical or scalable or offers any lessons other schools could learn from. Any school with a mountain of extra money, friends in high places, and the ability to teach only the students that suit it-- any school could do the same under those conditions. If government were willing to mobilize these kind of resources for every school and every school, it would be a great thing. But in the meantime, don't tell me that Moskowitz has accomplished something great and special here. It's a great day for those sixteen students, but as a lesson in how to operate a school system, it's a big fat nothingburger.

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