The Color of Success: Eva Moskowitz's Academies of Misery

Recently, after pressing “publish” and posting “Tenicka Boyd Opts Out of the Opt-Out Movement” to my blog, I panicked.  Who was I—a white, privileged, card-carrying member of the northeastern elite—to challenge this woman of color? Where did I come off foisting my progressive, developmental interactionist approach on someone who thinks children are better off enduring endless testing?

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Rooted in “interconnected spheres of thought and emotion,” this philosophy spawns teaching that puts a high premium on meeting children at their particular stage of growth, and engagement with people, the environment, and the community.   It says nothing about testing in overdrive.

Was I some kind of a whacked-out cultural supremacist?  Never mind that Boyd was opting in for precisely that kind of philosophy when she sent her own daughter to P.S. 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, whose principal has taken to the pages of the New York Times to protest the way things are going for young children and education policy today.

“Have you read anything by Denisha Jones?” asked Geralyn McLaughlin, director of the DEY Project (as in Defending the Early Years). Jones, a veteran professor of early childhood education who has taught kindergarten and preschool, is a leader in fighting the Common Core State Standards.

She is also a contributor to emPower magazine, where she has eloquently and persuasively lambasted the co-optation of the Civil Rights Movement by privatization,  and the proliferation of high-stakes testing in a piece with the wonderful title: “Empathy vs. Criticism: How to Respond to Those Who Think More Testing is Needed to Improve Public Education.”

Whatever did happen to empathy?

Here in New York City, Eva Moskowitz’s charter schools market in high test scores.  But how she gets them is another matter—one that has everything to do with the well-being of the children unlucky enough to win the lottery for one of the schools in her Success Academy ecosystem, sprouting like mushrooms all over town. Finally, her mad methods have been laid bare, in a first-rate expose by Kate Taylor, at the New York Times.

Here are some highlights.  These institutions are, needless to say, a nightmare for teachers, who are, apparently, leaving them in droves. According to Taylor, who relied on the latest school report cards from 2013-14, turnover at Success exceeded 50 percent in three of the chain’s schools:

Rachel Tuchman, 25, said that during her three years as a teacher at Success, she had friends who worked in the fields of finance and consulting, and she went to work earlier and stayed later than they did.

“You’re being treated like you’re on the trading floor at Goldman while you’re teaching in Harlem,” said Ms. Tuchman, who is now in her first year at Yale Law School.

One consequence of the competitive environment is a high rate of teacher turnover. Some teachers who left said that the job was too stressful. Others said they left because they disagreed with the network’s approach, particularly when they believed it was taken to extremes. In an internal email that some former teachers said typified the attitude at some schools, one school leader said that students who were lagging should be made to feel “misery.”

I’m worried about the teachers, of course; their well-being, autonomy, and commitment are all critical to best outcomes for teaching and learning.  But what about these young children, on the treadmill for college and career-readiness?

…at Success Academy Harlem 4, one boy’s struggles were there for all to see: On two colored charts in the hallway, where the students’ performance on weekly spelling and math quizzes was tracked, his name was at the bottom, in a red zone denoting that he was below grade level.

The boy, a fourth grader, had been in the red zone for months. His teacher, Kristin Jones, 23, had held meetings with his mother, where the teacher spread out all the weekly class newsletters from the year, in which the charts were reproduced. If he studied, he could pass the spelling quizzes, Ms. Jones said — he just was not trying. But the boy got increasingly frustrated, and some weeks Ms. Jones had to stop herself from looking over his shoulder during the quizzes so she would not become upset by his continued mistakes.

In Success schools, the approach toward discipline is “exacting,” and incentives are offered for good behavior.  Never mind that these kids will never know the joy of intrinsic motivation–you know, development of persistence and curiosity, and all that good stuff that propels children forward.  Who needs it?  And what about those third-graders, or older students, wetting themselves during practice tests? It builds strong character, right?

Rules are explicit and expectations precise. Students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker; reading passages must be neatly annotated with a main idea.

Incentives are offered, such as candy for good behavior, and Nerf guns and basketballs for high scores on practice tests. For those deemed not trying hard enough, there is “effort academy,” which is part detention, part study hall.

Ms. Moskowitz and a number of her teachers saw the network’s exacting approach in a different way: as putting their students on the same college track as children in wealthier neighborhoods who had better schools and money for extra help. Success students are generally barred from the city’s best elementary schools because they do not live in those schools’ zones.

“For affluent parents who are concerned about the test scores, they have an exit strategy — their exit strategy is to hire a private tutor,” Ms. Moskowitz said.

No one criticizes those parents, but “when we support our students, we get criticized,” she said.

Poor Eva.  It’s so tough to be evaluated, isn’t it?

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2 comments to The Color of Success: Eva Moskowitz’s Academies of Misery

  • Rachel Tuchman

    Rachel Tuchman, here. The person was quoted in the NYT article (incorrectly). I just want to clarify I support Success, and my quote was actually taken out of context. I was saying that teaching SHOULD be a demanding job, it is the MOST important job in this country and we should it should have the same rigor as finance or law. It, of course, should be compensated as such which is a broader national conversation.

    • Thank you, Rachel. As a former journalist, I’m disturbed to hear that I re-quoted you incorrectly. My apologies! I couldn’t agree more that teaching is the MOST important job in the country–along with parenting. As my book, Squandering America’s Future, makes clear, we are leaving families and educators, “venture capitalists” for the nation’s future wealth producers, in the lurch. And neither job is anywhere to be seen on the ledger sheets for our GDP. As you suggest, this is part of a broader national conversation. But as a New Yorker and advocate for rich educational experiences that foster higher order thinking skills, creativity, empathy, and innovation, I’m horrified by the practice and policies of Eva Moskowitz’s Success charter network. They are punitive, and violate the principles of an early childhood education that is attuned to the needs of the whole child.

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