In February 2016, The New York Times revealed that a celebrated teacher at Success Academy utilized a teaching technique known as ‘rip and redo’ on an unsuspecting 1st grader. The chain insisted that this was an anomaly as was the now infamous ‘got to go’ list, also revealed by The New York Times a few months earlier.
One purpose of charters, at least originally, was for them to experiment with things and share their best practices with the public schools. And of course there are a lot of other things, good and bad, that are happening at Success Academy, but it is pretty amazing that the public doesn’t get a chance to see what they are doing to achieve such unbelievable test scores. It’s as if one hospital seems to have found the cure to Cancer and scientists are not permitted to verify their claims or learn how the treatment works.
So a few months later Success started posting videos on a public site where they are actually sharing what they consider to be their best practices. There are about 500 videos so far, probably amounting to twenty hours of footage (most videos are just a minute or two).
Maybe people don’t know this about me considering that I’m a critic of ‘No Excuses’ charter schools, but as a teacher I am someone who likes my class to be pretty orderly. I’ve written two guidebooks for new teachers ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian’ and ‘Beyond Survival’ and I do think, especially for new teachers, it is better to be too strict if the only other option is to have no control over your classes. As I’ve aged, I’ve mellowed and gotten more confidence in myself as a teacher so I no longer ‘need’ to have total control at all times, which has definitely made me a happier teacher.
I haven’t watched many of these videos so don’t think that I’ve somehow cherry picked three that prove whatever point I’m trying to make, but I have selected three to analyze a bit. Some people may see these videos and like what they see. Surely Success Academy, as private as they are, must think that these are videos to be proud of otherwise they would not go through the effort of posting them.
This first video is just 52 seconds long. The teacher is explaining how each student will get a jar of tiles and the students have to arrange the tiles into a rectangle and then figure out a short cut to count the tiles (presumably by multiplying the length and width of the rectangle they form)
As this is a ‘hands on’ activity, I was a bit surprised that students were instructed to work in ‘zero noise’ and ‘making sure that none of your tiles falls to the floor.’ I do think that a teacher should make it clear that when using manipulatives like this, they are not toys and students should take them seriously. But what is the big deal if a tile falls on the floor once in a while? I would not be thrilled if my child were in this overly controlled classroom.
This next video is one that I found very disturbing. The teacher is coaching the student before the a test about how he should be ‘precise.’ She repeats this a bunch of times and watching the student, and I know that he could be nervous about being on camera, but I still find this interaction very awkward. Something I’ve noticed from the few videos I’ve seen is that the teachers, at least the ones featured on the videos, are very robotic and cold. I think that in a school there should be a mix of different ‘types’ of teacher as some kids may relate to one type better than another, and also it’s good to get to experience dealing with different personality types. I haven’t looked at many videos, but of the ones I saw, all the teachers seemed to be twenty-something white women with type-A personalities (not to stereotype, or anything). If people who read this blog watch some other videos and notice different personality types, leave comments after this post.
This last video is long, but I was most struck by the first two minutes where the teacher (A TFA teacher, actually) is giving a pep talk before the activity, reading some non-fiction passages and answering 7 questions. In the first two minutes the word “score” is said ten times. At 4:43 a student mentions the state tests as a reason for learning about reading. At 5:00 a second student chimes in and mentions the state tests. These students have been trained well indeed!
I notice that any time a teacher poses a question to the class, the students seem to have to respond by first rephrasing the question. So the teacher asks “Why is it important to have a deep understanding of the passage before answering the question?” and the student answers by first saying “It is important to have a deep understanding of the passage before answering the question because …” It seems very ‘conformist’ to me.
The students do get opportunity to talk and answer questions and express ideas but this lesson is extremely ‘teacher-driven.’ Also, these are 6th graders doing a reading passage with 7 questions after they’ve already been through the Success Academy program for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade test prep so this lesson seems a bit unnecessary to me.
At 34:10 students are asked to raise their hand if they got a 4, 3, 2, or 1, which I don’t think is right to publicly shame kids who did poorly on an assignment.
As I’ve mentioned, I was one of the original uptight controlling teachers in my younger days. I still don’t like watching a class that is in chaos even if its some kind of controlled chaos where the students are actually learning even if it doesn’t seem like it.
I do appreciate that the teachers are certainly working hard at this test prep lesson. I’m just hoping that when my kids are in 6th grade they don’t have to endure a lesson like this. People who read this blog may disagree with me, and that’s fine too.