Circle Time At Success Academy

Success Academy is a network of charter schools in New York City that is quite controversial.  It is undeniable that their test scores are incredibly high.  Yet, we know very little about what happens inside these schools.  They don’t seem to be all that different from other ‘no excuses’ charters yet their test scores are so much higher than that of other charters too.

After some bad press last year in The New York Times — there was a ‘got-to-go’ list at one school and a video of a teacher ripping up a first grader’s math work — Success said they were going to share some of their best practices.  They’ve followed through on that promise posting about 500 videos on a public site.  I’ve watched about 10 of these videos and I’ve written about a few already.

I’m assuming that they expect people to watch these videos and that since they publicly posted them, they are not ashamed of anything that are in the videos.  But when I watch these videos I find most of them very disturbing.

In this six minute video we see a teacher doing ‘circle time’ reading the classic children’s book ‘Caps For Sale.’  The kids in the class are around 5 or 6 years old, I think it is a kindergarten class.  If you have time, I think you should first watch the video yourself and form your own conclusions.

Update 9/5/16:  Success Academy has deleted the video.  Where there were once nearly 500 videos on their public Vimeo page, there are now about 50.


She reminds them how to sit to make this “the most enjoyable story yet” which includes having a really straight back and hands clasped together while tracking the speaker.

There is a lot of “behavior narration” going on, where the teacher constantly points out to the class students who are following directions well.  (“Yolanni’s tracking up here.” “Davin brought it right back”)  I find it very annoying and I feel like if I were a child it would detract from the story.

The teacher is in complete control.  She allows the kids to make some gestures from time to time, but then quickly gets them to return their hands to their laps.  I’m kind of scared of this teacher, whoever she is.

A bizarre thing seems to happen at the 4:55 mark.  The assistant teacher comes over to one of the girls in the class, a girl who has not been engaged so much in the reading and, I’ve watched this a bunch of times so tell me if I’m seeing things, seems to put a sticker or something onto the child’s face.  The child does not resist in any way, it is just something that happens, I guess, at this school.  I don’t know what the sticker signifies.  I didn’t see that child get any of the many ‘corrections’ that some students have received during the story so I’m not sure what that was all about.


I’m a high school teacher and can’t claim to be an expert in reading to children.  (I did co-write a children’s book, ‘The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes’ if that gets me any credibility on this topic)  Still, watching this video causes me some anxiety.  The overly controlled environment the teacher with her constant corrections and narration.  I’m just so thankful that my own children don’t go to this school.  If this is the price to pay for incredibly high test scores, I feel like it is too steep.

I’m interested to hear from people who are experts at teaching small children if my instincts in watching this are off at all, let me know in the comments.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Circle Time At Success Academy

  1. mjpledger says:

    i’m just a parent helper in classrooms not a teacher but I thought the teacher read incredibly fast and with lots of huffing and puffing and running the words together – like it was more important to give out the next correction/s than to read the story so that the kids could hear every syllable of every word. I’m assuming the are learning to read by phonics which means they need to hear every syllable so they can make the connection with reading.

    Just before the sticker gets placed the girl has her hands unclasped (after rearranging her legs/skirt a few moments earlier). She feels the presence of the teacher coming and quickly grasps them together and then the sticker comes. She’d got told off earlier for how her legs were arranged. I suspect the kids had been sitting around for a while and her legs had become uncomfortable. That’s the problem if there is only one acceptable position to sit.

    The sticker obviously has meaning for her because she was more “on task” afterwards.

  2. Amanda says:

    The teachers loud, yelly, “reading” voice makes the whole thing uncomfortable to listen to. And no idea what the assistant does to the little girl’s head.

  3. suecowley says:

    I’m very uncomfortable with this level of control over such small children. You would expect children this age to naturally engage in a story via the gentle engaging way it is told by their teacher. I would not expect to see any teacher putting a sticker on a child’s face, ever, whatever the reasoning behind it.

  4. Assissi says:

    I was infant (5-7) trained a long long time ago but taught in secondary (11-16). I’m also old enough that my schooldays were fairly formal.
    Take the story-time element out of this for a moment, Games like “Simon says” get used throughout the age-range to get kids to respond/listen/focus/follow instruction – perfectly valid in its place. Remove the story and that’s largely what you see.
    Storytime however is about language, listening to words, anticipating plot, the ordering/sequence of pages and structure, learning to love literature and appreciating the joy of reading. I could go on. Active listening is a requirement for it to happen but this is training at a different level.
    i don’t know what the objective was here but I think combining the “Simon says” stuff is killing the other activity.

  5. daveeckstrom says:

    I know that when I sat down with my cup of coffee this morning to read a short story from my Wallace Stegner collection, I made sure I was ready to make it the best story yet by locking my hands in my lap and sitting up super-straight.

    I have a neighbor who trains hunting dogs. What he does with his labradors looks a lot like what this teacher is doing with these kids. I’m not sure what the objective of the lesson was, but if it was training animals to follow strict directions from their master without fail, the teacher was doing it right.

  6. Pat says:

    I’ve taught early childhood for 34 years and just retired. This was very stressful to sit through. Very few children were listening to why they should sit the way the teacher explained. She tried to sound excited, but was. very mechsnical. She introduced the book as if it were the first time ( It’s one of my favorite books), then reminded the children they had read it before. She was so irritating and obnoxious with the constant behavior corrections. One child got a warning and I couldn’t tell what he did wrong. (I couldn’t bear to watch a second time).The assistant teacher, who is walking around, not sitting near a child who may need help focusing, appeared to be on the lookout for “inappropriate” behavior. If a story is read in an engaging manner, you don’t need all that constant discipline. The story will interest the children and draw them in. As soon as they were showng enjoyment by participating, she would remind them about how to sit. If I were her mentor, coach or administrator, we would have a lot to talk about. I can’t believe that SA thinks this is good practice. These poor children must be nervous wrecks. As more of these videos get released, parents need to see what their children are enduring. I would pull my child out immediately!

    • Laura says:

      I agree with you completely. Having been a K-2 teacher, circle time is a time for enjoyment of a book and conversation around the book. If the children are engaged in the story the behavior narration is not necessary and a distraction.

  7. Christine Langhoff says:

    If I were a child new to a schooling environment, for whom being away from home is a recent experience, I would be frightened by this teacher. The decibel level of her voice is just this side of shouting; there is no kindness in her words, body language or her tone. The child who gets stickered (or whatever) seems a little bit out of kilter. A culture of kindness would allow for a private conversation between the teacher and child along the lines of -What’s the matter this morning? Are you not feeling well? (Looks to me like the child is mouth-breathing, maybe she has a cold?) The result is the child would feel known and welcome and the teacher would be able to build a connection of trust.

    My takeaway is SA doesn’t give two hoots about any of that. This is no way to treat children.

    • daveeckstrom says:

      Of course SA doesn’t give two hoots about any of that. Good grief, try to pay attention.

      You don’t get the test scores they get being distracted by all the little humans.

  8. Ali B says:

    I am an early childhood educator (certified in special education birth- age 8, and gen ed pre-k to third if that matters.) I have taught K and various inclusive pre-school/pre-k programs.

    I found that read-aloud painful to get through. One of my most important roles as an early childhood educator is to infuse my students with a love of learning and school. That should be easy, because learning should be engaging, fun and hands on for our youngest learners.

    The behavior narration broke up the story in such a way that it would be incongruous for anyone and enjoyable for no one. The teacher seems afraid of letting her children have fun engaging with the story. She snaps them back to attention and hands in lap. She could have used visuals as needed to remind students of expectations if needed without breaking up the flow of the story. She could have let them enjoy the story. She also could have demonstrated her love for the story by relaxing and smiling and showing enjoyment of reading.

    I did not like her delivery but that isn’t my biggest problem with her read-aloud. Also, I feel that video does not respect students with the corrections and stickering- whatever that was. There is usually a reason children are not engaged in the early years. They may be sick, tired, hungry, or need to move rather than sit to listen. This should be addressed in a way that is respectful to children. Putting a sticker on her face is not respectful.

  9. caroline130 says:

    This made me feel uncomfortable and anxious, it feels like a harsh lesson in how to conform and learn my rote. No notion of inclusion or individuality seems to be present in this clip and I know so may children who would be fearful and more who would just switch off if faced with this garage of storytelling. There seems to be no joy or effective interaction just presentation and a fierce monitoring. I can’t believe that this teacher or her assistant are enjoying this and they must be exhausted. Lets hope that they take a little time to think?

  10. Kevin says:

    I actually couldn’t watch the whole video. If teachers in my school read like this I’d be horrified.I think the teacher showed signs of stress too; almost as if working at that school and failing to follow the correct procedure would be something to be held against you. Scary stuff!

  11. David Holmes says:

    Judging the success of this lesson would require knowing its aim. I’m ignorant about whether the aim is “enjoyment of a book and conversation around the book” (Laura’s suggestion above) or learning and practicing “how to sit on the rug” (teacher at 0:25), which might be part of a large goal of learning to learn. I’d have more fun teaching literature (“You monkeys, you!”) than learning (“Ears listening”). But I don’t know which is more valuable for the students, learning to pay attention or learning to anticipate words in a story’s context.

    Maybe SA thinks they know. As Gary points out, the videos may be useful for learning how SA achieves high test scores. If test scores don’t matter (and maybe they shouldn’t), then this lesson is a reading interrupted too often by corrections. On the other hand, if the lesson aims to teach the way SA thinks students should behave, it seems about as enjoyable as one could hope that lesson could be: shout “caps”; return to Magic 5; wave hands over your head; return to Magic 5; act tired; return to Magic 5… daveeckstrom makes this observation above, although couched in the assumption that the goal is learning to enjoy Wallace Stegner. rather than learning to follow directions. That may be right.

    If SA has decided to teach kindergarteners to take directions on a rug, there is a tiny data point showing success in the 52-second video Gary blogs about ( Those older students may or may not invent multiplication for computing areas, but their class spends zero of those 52 seconds working on the Magic 5. That teacher, like me, might rather teach multiplication via tiles than learning to sit on a rug; if so, we would both be grateful to Ms. Caps-for-Sale, who interrupts her high-energy reading of a favorite story to teach the latter.

    Maybe lots of the commenters above resemble me: we’d rather teach the fun stuff, literature or multiplication. SA apparently spends time on teaching quiet. But that only shows that teaching at SA would be bad for me. It is an open question which is better for the students, and teaching is supposed to be about the students.

    • daveeckstrom says:

      At the beginning of the lesson, she said that the kids would make it “the best story yet” by locking hands in their laps and sitting up suuuper straight. I was just riffing off the stupidity of that setup for making any reading experience the “best yet.” When I’m really getting something out of what I’m reading, I’m usually slouching in a comfy position, stopping from time to time to stare at the ceiling and cogitate, beverage and/or pencil in hand. If it really is her objective to teach the kids to be silent and motionless while staring at the teacher, (a) why? and (b) please let’s not associate such unpleasant behavior with reading a book; she’ll poison reading forever for those poor kids.

    • Don Corley says:

      What they are doing is focusing on test scores, not students. It is not good for these children. Ask yourself not whether you would be happy teaching here, but would your children, or children in general, be happy learning here. I think the answer is obvious. I was an elementary educator for 30 years, and I certainly would not want my grandchildren placed in such an environment.

  12. Monica says:

    Hi Gary:
    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog a long time, but haven’t visited recently. Looks like I picked the right day to return. I teach first grade in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m a reading specialist and I have my masters in language & literacy and I’ve taught early literacy methods to pre-service teachers at San Francisco State. I consider good read-aloud with children a kind of performance art, complete with in-person voice over, comic timing and dramatic flair. With that in mind, I’d say this poor young teacher is definitely over-acting. I also remember hearing this story read professionally decades ago in my own childhood. That audio is still available and is a soothing, measured telling that riveted me as a young child.

    I agree with the other comments. The constant prattle around how the children are sitting, their posture, the direction of their eyes completely distracts from the story, interrupting the flow, and de-railing any productive comprehension.

    In the first frames, her enthusiasm for the book comes off with a touch of wild-eyed insanity. Meanwhile she doesn’t even bother to elicit anything from the kids. How do they feel about the story? They’ve heard it before. Why not ask them what THEY like about it? From there, she never elicits any commentary from them, no thoughts, questions, or responses. She does invite some pantomime from the children, but immediately follows up with anxious behavior reinforcements. This is HER show, and there will be NO heckling (or dress-straightening, or nose-wiping, or eye-blinking). All this while reading a story about ill-behaved monkeys! She’s quite a risk-taker!

    The purpose of this read-aloud was not to engage with literature or develop comprehension or thinking skills. It was all about controlling every twitch to avoid censure, or to gain a behavioral narration talking point. Can children this age coordinate their constant self-monitoring with listening meaningfully to a story? How can they not feel stress from the over-the-top admonishments?

    Instructionally, the teacher might have had those key words (top, you, caps, no etc.) on a chart, or some key sentences for the children to SEE as well as recite. But no. Instruction is clearly secondary. Control is the prime directive.

    I am frankly amazed the Success network scores so high on tests if this is how they begin their youngest students. That must mean only one thing: all test-prep all the time. Very sad.

  13. David Holmes says:

    Judging the success of this lesson would require knowing its aim. I’m ignorant about whether the aim is “enjoyment of a book and conversation around the book” (Laura’s suggestion above) or learning “how to sit on the rug” (teacher at 0:25), which might be part of a large goal of learning to learn. I’d have more fun teaching literature (“You monkeys, you!”) than learning (“Ears listening”). But I don’t know which is more valuable for the students, learning to anticipate words in a story’s context versus learning to pay attention.

    Maybe SA thinks the the answer is “learning to pay attention”. As Gary points out, the videos may be useful for educating me on how SA achieves high test scores. If test scores don’t matter (and maybe they shouldn’t), then this lesson is a reading interrupted too often by corrections. On the other hand, if the lesson aims to teach behaviors that SA seeks from its students, it seems about as enjoyable as one could hope that lesson could be: listen to a story and shout “caps”; return to Magic 5; wave your hands over your head; return to Magic 5; make a mad face; return to Magic 5… daveeckstrom makes this observation above, although couched in the assumption that the goal is learning to enjoy Wallace Stegner, rather than learning to follow directions. That may be right, but SA’s priorities may differ.

    To develop an informed opinion on SA’s priorities, consider a few of the other SA videos with the same teacher, at One of those videos, “Setting Carpet Expectations”, ( provides some evidence that the aim was learning to pay attention. That video shows what may be a recap of this lesson, given at the beginning of the next week. “Last week we learned how to sit Magic 5”, says the teacher, going on to narrate the behavior of people who seem to have learned how.

    If SA has decided to teach kindergarteners to take directions on a rug, there is a tiny data point showing success, in the 52-second video Gary blogs about elsewhere ( The older students (4th grade?) may or may not invent multiplication for computing areas, but their class spends zero of those 52 seconds working on the Magic 5. That teacher, like me, might rather teach multiplication via tiles than learning to sit on a rug; if so, we would both be grateful to Ms. Caps-for-Sale, who makes her high-energy reading of a favorite story subsidiary to teaching the latter.

    Maybe lots of the commenters above resemble me: we’d prefer teach the subjects we relish, say, literature or multiplication. SA, by contrast, apparently spends time on teaching rug-sitting. My preference doesn’t mean SA is wrong; it just means that teaching at SA would be bad for me. It is an open question which is better for the students. Teaching is about the students.

    • parent010203 says:

      David Holmes,

      I’d like to look at the links you posted of the SA teacher in other videos, but somehow they disappeared. During a Labor Day Monday evening.

      Somehow public schools for middle class kids have managed to flourish for years without having 5 year olds have lessons in “rug sitting” with the Scarlet Letter mark on students who fail in their duty to keep eyes on teachers at all times while sitting straight and folding hands. Sure some parents sent their kids to military academies, but most didn’t.

      What is so offensive is that people say “Success Academy gets high scores” so this system works. Wrong. Success Academy gets high scores because this system weeds out the low scoring kids. There is absolutely no reason to think that most of these kids couldn’t be in a public school without such tactics. In fact, most of the students in the video were NOT subject to those tactics! The teacher overlooked minor infractions in some students while jumping on everything done by the student who was obviously not liked and unhappy in class. As I stated below, this might be fine if Success Academy’s attrition rate wasn’t significantly higher than almost any other charter school in NYC, despite offering the extras that no parent would turn down unless their kid was miserable at the school. I think this shows how to make a kid feel miserable.

      Recall the teacher never once complimented the girl after her behavior improved. She didn’t even look at her. And eventually the girl started to look disinterested and glum again. If the girl turns out to be a high scoring test-taker, no doubt she will be treated much more nicely. If she turns out to struggle academically, no doubt she will experience more of what we witnessed until she goes. You don’t get 99% passing rates with huge cohorts of missing children by accident. It takes a very special kind of teaching that we all witnessed. I guess SA realized it themselves.

      If Success Academy really believes in this system, these links will be back. If they found it too revealing, they will stay gone. Maybe the problem is that the child targeted in the video has already left the school and a little reporting might reveal that.

  14. mjpledger says:

    The little girl actually looks like she has a sticker on her face already. It looks like a purple loop, just forward of her ear. I thought it was a birth mark but, when it’s in focus, it looks man made.

    I guess the other thing I am surprised at is that the teacher is showing them the book with such a small font, specially when they are sitting so spread out. It’s hard for the kids to follow what she is reading and it doesn’t help that she moves around and flaps the book all over the place.

  15. meghank10 says:

    I jist read Caps for Sale in my first grade class. It was very different from this! First we made caps out of construction paper and brass fasteners (brads). Then I borrowed the kids’ caps to use as props during the story. I sure hope I told it better than this teacher did! The kids really enjoyed it. I also have a monkey puppet. I can’t imagine this teacher using props. Then again, being videotaped I would have done a much worse job. Maybe she reads stories well when she’s not being filmed. Probably that one girl was on a special behavior plan and she was being rewarded for being quiet.

  16. I couldn’t finish watching. Stomach in knots. I’ve been a public elementary school teacher for 25+ years (3rd, 4th, 5th, and K for 3 yrs.) I believe the instincts even non-teachers would be screaming “WRONG! WRONG! WRONG!”

  17. parent010203 says:

    I found this class to be typical of everything that is wrong with Success Academy and demonstrates exactly why they have such high attrition rates.

    It is obvious that the young girl who got the “I’m bad, so humiliate me” sticker on her forehead is already the target of this teacher. Sure, she is not quite as engaged, but she never disrupted the class nor did she act out. I noticed other children whose attention wandered or who forgot to do the motions and the teacher did not immediately call them out. It is human nature not to notice anything wrong that one of your favorite students is doing and to notice every possible infraction that one of your least favorite students is doing. The student who got the “I’m bad” sticker seemed unhappy from the beginning. I don’t think the sticker helped. When it came time for the kids to have fun making mad faces, she just sat there, alone, with hands crossed, looking glum. The teacher ignores her, smiling and engaging with the “good” students. No eye contact with the “bad” student when she did what she was supposed to do, or a little smile of encouragement.

    No doubt some version of favoritism happens at every school, and teachers like and dislike kids and their actions reveal their biases. But if a child who is disliked and targeted by a teacher acts out at a public school, there is an incentive to figure out what is going on. At charters, low-performing children can be targeted like this — this is very similar to what the model teacher in the “undercover” video did — and the incentive is to have them disappear, not figure out what is wrong. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature that is highly rewarded because it makes low-performing kids leave. Fewer kids who have to be held back (which also happens extraordinarily often but is mysteriously never mentioned.)

    If you are a well-behaved, high performing child and slouch a bit or stop crossing your hands to keep scratching your itchy nose, the Success Academy teacher doesn’t notice. She just notices when a kid who isn’t a good “fit” does it. There is a reason why Success Academy’s attrition rates are twice as high as much worse performing charters. Set up a system where you are free to keep targeting low-performing kids for the same minor infractions that high performing kids get away with, and you will get high attrition rates and 99% passing rates.

    Kids don’t leave high performing schools in large number. They just don’t. The best public schools have the lowest attrition rate because parents want their kids in the best schools! Except for charters. Somehow charter school parents leave top performing charter schools far more frequently than they leave mediocre ones. That’s what we are supposed to believe. It’s not because low-performing kids get targeted like the unhappy sticker girl is and like the girl in the hidden video is. It’s just that so many low-income parents realize that their kid would be better served in a failing and underfunded public school than the best school money can buy. If we were talking about the top performing suburban school that raised a million dollars a year, but large groups of affluent white students were instead leaving for a failing school with no money, people would certainly start to ask questions. Not watch a video and say “isn’t it great how many students sit quietly, no need to look further”.

  18. parent010203 says:

    ^^Wow, I guess they really didn’t like my comment, since the video has disappeared. Is there a link somewhere else?

  19. Pingback: Success Academy Scrubs Their Public Video Page | Gary Rubinstein's Blog

  20. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein: Circle Time at Success Academy | Diane Ravitch's blog

  21. annat says:

    Reading that book should be a JOYFUL experience. What a horrible, miserable teacher.

  22. ECE Professional says:

    I’ve been an Early Childhood Educator for 48 years, including training, mentoring and coaching teachers on site, as well as preparing them in Teacher Education at colleges for over 20 years. Based on my observations, what SA “teachers” and those at other “no excuses” charters do to children is abhorrent and contrary to developmentally appropriate practice. I’ve seen this kind of thing done many times before, too. I’ve seen it in private child care centers, because states often have very limited educational requirements for “teachers” of young children there. I’ve seen it in public schools, too, because people who were trained in different disciplines, like library science and art, teach the little kids too, and they often have no clue how to do that. Hence the librarian who I observed spending a minimum of 20 minutes on seating children, one by one, every single time the class went to the library –which took up about half of their library time! It’s what uninformed and untrained people (who I think of as teacher imposters) resort to doing because they know nothing about child development and pedagogy, and they think that teaching is all about exerting power over kids.

    What happens with this mindset is that every lesson becomes an exercise that is primarily about the teacher trying to prove that s/he is in control of the students, and attaining that control takes precedence over and above the content that’s supposed to be covered. These folks never seem to realize that If what they were doing really worked, they should not have to keep doing it over and over again. This is precisely why I was thrilled that SA lost their battle with NYC over PreK, because if you think this is scary to watch with Kindergartners, just try to imagine how horrible it is for 3 and 4 year olds! (I have seen that way too much in my career.)

  23. Pingback: Links 9/11/16 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  24. Rob says:

    Teachers give students stickers as rewards for good behavior – at the end of a lesson or even the day, kids will often have ten to 20 stickers all over their faces. It is often a competition and often used as behavioral management. Teachers are trained to believe that they are training children to be “professional scholars” – hence the focus on sitting straight, locking hands, and tracking – also known as Magic 5. It’s not about joy it’s about control. Many teachers leave SA when they realize there are other ways to teach.

  25. Pingback: Wall Street Journal Fails To Answer Or Ask Many Questions About Success Academy | Gary Rubinstein's Blog

  26. Pingback: Open Letters to Reformers I DON’T Know. Part V: Seven Figure Success Academy Donors | Gary Rubinstein's Blog

  27. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein Writes to the “Seven-Figure Success Academy Donors” | deutsch29

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s