Monday, November 18, 2019

Pondiscio: Success Academy Is Better And Worse Than You Think

Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a thinky tank steeped in conservative ed reform and staunch advocates of school choice, so one might expect that his book about Success Academy, the famous/infamous charter chain in New York City would be something of a puff piece, one more example of founder Eva Moskowitz’s broad and endless PR campaign. Indeed, the title How The Other Half Learns, seems like a bad sign-- Success Academy is not and does not represent half of anything, and to present it that way might suggest that Pondiscio is setting out a case for SA as an elite solution to education's problems.

It’s not that simple (which could be a subtitle for the book). Pondiscio brings a unique skill set to this work; he was a journalist for his first career and, in a real rarity for Reformsters, he taught in an actual classroom (five years in the South Bronx, not far from where the school that is the subject of this book now stands). Pondiscio enters this project as a fan of choice, and he leaves the same way, but along the way he gives a fairly unflinching look at his year inside the Success chain. Much of the book is commendably objective and reportorial, to the point that it can serve, as Pondiscio suggests, as a kind of Rorschach Test. If you are a supporter of charters and SA, you will find much here to confirm your beliefs; if you are an opponent, you will find many of your critiques confirmed as well. In fact, there isn't a bad thing you've heard about Success Academy that is not here in this book. If I had to pick a bottom line for the book, it would be this:

Success Academy schools are both better and worse than you think. Here are some things I learned from this book.

Success Academy Does, In Fact, Cream

But not the way they’re usually accused of. As Pondiscio details in considerable detail throughout the book, the charter chain doesn’t cream students, but families. From a demanding application process, through repeated meetings that lay out the demands of the charter, even through measuring sessions for school uniforms, through pre-school orientation meetings, Success filters out the parents who are unable or unwilling to meet their requirements. A kindergarten child whose family missed a pre-year orientation session without calling the school to explain their absence arrives on the first official day of school only to be turned away; because of the family’s absence, his seat has been given to a student on the wait list.

Success Academy demands a high degree of involvement from its parents, and only those that are willing to meet and keep meeting that demand make the cut. A not-inconsiderable number of families who make the cut will, after a tough introductory meeting, vote with their feet to attend elsewhere. In the end, Success Academy is populated with students whose families are willing to toe the school line, which helps with what may be the secret of their success.

Success Academy Thrives On A Monoculture

The outcome of that selection process is to find families that are a “culture match” for the school. Likewise, as Pondiscio puts it, “at Success Academy, adults speak with one voice.” The message, from top to bottom, is consistent. Curriculum, pedagogy, discipline, behavioral norms—it all is (or is meant to be) the same from classroom to classroom and building to building.

That monoculture’s reach extends to the home, where homework, reading, and other expectations are expected—demanded—by the school. Pondiscio depicts several school-on-parent interactions that will make public school teachers cringe. Not many parents would tolerate that kind of demanding tone, the kind of “tough love” that permeates the school. There is a central irony here—once these parents exercise the right to choose that Reformsters value so much, these parents will never have any real choice about their children’s education ever again. From sock color to paperwork, they will do as they're told until their child leaves Success Academy.

Parts Of That Culture Are Not Bad 

One aspect that every school in the US could borrow? The Business Operations Manager with a full staff that monitors and maintains every physical aspect of the school. It’s an impressive thing, though it also speaks to one of SA’s secret weapons—a whole lot of money. Still, every teacher who has waited weeks for someone from maintenance to answer their pleas to fix a thermostat or replace a light bulb will gaze in envious marvel at this feature.

Like many SA critics, I have been inclined to see the charter as a sort of grey Soviet Bloc factory, and the charters are, in Pondiscio’s words, “unabashedly behaviorist.” But coming through clearly in this book is the teachers’ love and concern for their students. And that helps feed into the culture’s demand that all these students will succeed (as SA defines success). In the hands of other teachers and staff, that demand to perform could be oppressive and even crushing. But the tempering love and support of the classroom teachers makes more explicit what is implicit in the demand “You will do this,” which is “Because you can do this.” We can, should, and will talk about whether or not the “this” is well-chosen or not, but if you believe an important, transformative element of education is having a teacher who believes in you and believes that you have what it takes, then Success Academy seems to have that.


The system puts an enormous value on compliance. Compliance by students, parents, teachers, administrators—communication is constant and much of it is about compliance, about making sure that everyone is in the same paragraph on the same page. Despite Moskowitz’s denial, Pondiscio rightly identifies SA as very much in the No Excuses camp, and that extends from everything to being on time to sitting to reading logs.

That comes with a huge amount of micro-management, particularly, it seems, of teachers who are seen as not quite on the right page. The staff churn is tremendous, moving both within and out of the chain, and the teachers are all young; someone who has a mere six years in the classroom counts as the building veteran. Pondiscio notes that the youth and inexperience doesn’t seem to get in the way of the school, but that’s because they are all fully set into compliance with the SA model, which, while it doesn’t go as far as actual scripting, expects all teachers at one level to be covering the same material in the same way on the same day at the same time.

It’s another central irony of Success Academy. Eva Moskowitz has made a career out of refusing to comply with school district leaders, civic leaders, or state leaders. But she would not tolerate that level of non-compliance from teachers or students in her charter school.

But is it a bad thing to have everyone on the same page, if it’s the right page?

The Problems 

First, that assumes that any one page can be the right page for everyone. That point may not matter here, since Moskowitz has filled schools based on selecting those who are on that same page.

But another notable feature of SA is how externally things are managed. Students depend on external verification that they have spoken correctly, walked correctly, set correctly. Part of the goal is empower them, and yet at the end of the day, what they’ve learned is that the power they have is to comply with a power greater than their own. This may be why Moskowitz’s first attempt as a high school, as chronicled by Pondiscio, was a failure. It was supposed to mirror a high-toned prep school, and she hired the people to do it, but they found the students weren't ready for it. Well, of course not-- they've enjoyed virtually no independence or self-direction in their academic career and depend on external control and validation at every turn. Also, children are much easier to push into compliance than teens.

There are also plenty of indications that SA is not on the right page. Pondiscio lays out how the SA approach to reading flies in the face of much of what we know about reading instruction. SA is also deeply attached to lexiles and leveling and uses those shaky materials in ways that even their creators wouldn’t approve of.

And then there’s the test. The great holy Big Standardized Test. Moskowitz takes the students to Radio City for a giant pep rally, and test prep dominates the school for a massive amount of time. Pondiscio gives ample space to the work of testing expert Daniel Koretz (author of The Testing Charade) in explaining the many faults, failings, and ill effects of high stakes testing. But in the end he waves it off with a “We could argue about this all day.” We could—but given the work of Koretz and Jay Greene, to name a couple, it would be a hard debate for test apologists to win. Test scores are Moskowitz’s big win, the achievement hook on which much of the charter’s press hangs (though, as Pondiscio notes, only recently have SA students started to score at all well on the city’s competitive high school exams). Are high test scores opening doors for SA alumni?

But perhaps the most surprising thing for me when reading was the degree to which Success Academy seems lost. This may well be my own Rorschach Test speaking, but in their extreme devotion to every single detail, the entire organization reminded me of a beginning teacher who isn’t sure what matters and what doesn’t, so she just lays on everything extra hard, or an English teacher who isn’t sure how to assess an essay, so scores heavily on the size of the margin and the placement of the heading. Each time I was reading about one of the caring, invested teachers, I wondered how they might flourish in a school that didn’t require them to spend their days enforcing compliance by narrating student sitting positions.

As recounted in many profiles, the school seems to exist as an extension of Eva Moskowitz’s will. She rejects the notion of outside consultants, yet rarely have I read her citing any educational research or expert writings to support her notions of how school should work. At one point, she harkens back to the 1940s and how much more smoothly schools worked then, not noting that those schools only served a portion of the population. But for me she and her schools jumped off the page as uninformed amateurs exerting enormous control with enormous certainty that they haven’t earned. And despite all of this, they are absolutely certain of their correctness. "We do it this way because we know it works,' is the message, both internally and externally, but it's an empty assertion (unless you think the purpose of school is to get scores on the state's Big Standardized Test). But that certainty--that unearned confidence is part of the sales pitch. Pondiscio notes that part of charter appeal seems to be safety, and this seems like an extension of that. What could be more safe than a school that confidently, convincingly argues that there is One Right Way to educate children and they adhere to that way, top to bottom?

The charter chain is neither scalable nor sustainable because it exists as her personal vision. It has nothing to teach other charters or the public school system. Get donors to give you lots of money? Teach only the students that will comply with your vision? Public schools already know those nuggets—but that’s not the mission for public education. SA parents echo the thoughts of many charter parents—the school is appealing because it is less chaotic and rarely disrupted, compared to the public schools. It’s a safe space; that’s the other part of its secret to success.

The Big Questions

Is that reason enough for it to exist, and what about the students causing disruption? Pondiscio, in one of his best lines, identifies an issue at the heart of the public vs. charter school debates: “A significant tension between public schools and charter schools is the question of who bears the cost and responsibility for the hardest-to-teach students.”

Who indeed? Pondiscio tracks down a student who disappeared during the year, and hears from the parents of a non-compliant child who was systematically pushed out, and he must reluctantly admit that the story tracks with many other stories like it, told by parents who found the school would use all manner of tools to convince them to get their child out of there. It’s not a good look for the charter.

But for all its faults, Pondiscio suggests, if Success Academy is providing what some parents want and those parents are happy, shouldn’t that be reason enough. Is it any worse than rich parents who buy a home in a nice neighborhood or send Junior off to Fancypants Prep School? I’d argue that it depends in part on the cost. The book ends with an analogy about a lifeboat, suggesting that charters are a way off a sinking ship. But if we’re building the lifeboats out of pieces of the sinking ship, leaving those behind in even greater peril—well, that’s difficult moral calculus. And if the lifeboats really aren’t any more seaworthy than the big ship, have we really saved anyone, or just kept them comfy a little bit longer? And why aren't we trying to do something about the ship instead of building these life boats? And what sort of equity is involved if the lifeboat seats are reserved for only the right sort, the properly compliant sort, of people? As Pondiscio says several times in the book, it’s difficult and complicated.

There's a lot more to this book, but this is already a long post. Read the book. Seriously. It probably won’t change your mind; I still would be leery of sending a child to Success Academy, and under no circumstances would I recommend them as an employer for a young teacher (and they appear uninterested in any other kind). But I understand what’s going on there a bit more clearly, and that’s not a bad accomplishment for a book.


  1. Not surprisingly, Pondiscio concludes that academic "success" is all about a child "winning the parent lottery". Nothing that most teachers haven't figured out after a just a few years in the trenches. Supportive and engaged parents who genuinely care about their child's education - and act/sacrifice accordingly - make all the difference. So, is it really about "fixing" so-called "failing" schools?

  2. Spoiler Alert: Pondiscio does not conclude "that academic 'success is all about a child 'winning the parent lottery.'" Pondiscio concludes that (as Peter correctly summarizes) that it's all quite complicated and that comparisons between Success and neighborhood schools are not fair or even possible. Neither does Pondiscio make any claims about "'fixing' so-called 'failing' schools."

  3. Would it be wrong to assume that all of the "quite complicated" variables (compliance, etc.) that factor into "success" at Success cannot happen without first "winning the parent lottery"?

    References to "fixing" so-called "failing" schools was a general remark unrelated to the specifics of Rob's book. My apologies for not being more clear on that point.

  4. Yes, it would be wrong.

    As I've noted elsewhere, I expected to write a book about curriculum and instruction, but ended up writing a book largely about school culture. While I'm sure there may be exceptions, any coherent and effective school culture seems to require a critical mass of "culture aligned" families who are eagerly buying what a school is selling. The next level down might be families who are not entirely on board but go along with it for various reasons, perhaps because it's markedly better than the alternatives. Below that are some small number who (for lack of a better description) stumble into it.

    I'm not a social scientist; I'm a writer and a teacher. Thus this is an argument resting on observation, not research, but it seems reasonable to say the ingredients are a clear, coherent vision and school culture, modeled and monitored by school staff, and subscribed to by a critical mass of parents, which creates the tipping point conditions that bring others along for the ride.

    In the case of SA, I document the "small but non-trivial" organizational hurdles parents must clear that seem to favor stable and committed families. But I cannot claim that is true of *every* family. In fact -- and again, this is purely observational -- there are obviously children at SA who did not "win the parent lottery." The issue we have as educators is that too many of us tend to dismiss those from stable homes with engaged parents as beneath our concern--an unacceptable mindset that is evenly distributed among reformers and their opponents in equal measure, in my opinion.