Wall Street Journal Fails To Answer Or Ask Many Questions About Success Academy

Success Academy is the highest profile charter network in New York.  The currently serve over 10,000 students in 40 schools.  They are known for their high test scores and their brazen founder, Eva Moskowitz.

Success Academy opened in 2006 with 83 Kindergarteners and 73 first graders.  Now, eleven years later, they are about to graduate their first cohort of students.  This has prompted a two part series in The Wall Street Journal.  The first part was called How Success Academy Got Its First Seniors Into College and the second part was called At Success Academy Charter School, Stretching Comes With Growing Pains.  These were articles that were yet another media missed opportunity.

The most notable fact in the article is that the graduating class that achieved a 100% college admissions rate had a total of 17 students.

From the first article:

Back when the Class of 2018 started, they were among 73 students in first grade. Those remaining express deep loyalty to their classmates and teachers. For years, they watched as friends left for schools that had less homework, fewer rules, shorter days, more sports and bigger pools of classmates for socializing, or the allure of selective district high schools. They take pride in their persistence.

Success Academy officials say their charters have low attrition rates compared with other schools serving their demographic.

This excerpt shows an unwillingness by The Wall Street Journal to probe into the facts about this school.  Success Academy officials may ‘say’ their charters have low attrition rates, but the numbers don’t lie.  17 out of 73 is just 23 percent of that initial cohort.

The gravity of this large attrition is definitely underplayed in this quote from the article:

Success Academy seniors joke about the intimate size of their class. The network has a sought-after lottery for enrollment in elementary grades, but doesn’t add new students after fourth grade or fill seats when children leave. Many educators argue that taxpayer-funded charters should offer vacant spots to applicants, as regular public schools do. Ms. Moskowitz says newcomers wouldn’t be prepared for the curriculum.

And that list of why students leave for the perks of other schools and for their own laziness is very unfair.  Nowhere is it mentioned that the school sometimes counsels out students with various tricks.  They even famously had something called a ‘got to go’ list of students they wanted to shed a few years back.

A few years ago one of these 17 seniors actually wrote a comment on my blog.  I commented back about the attrition rate and did she know where the rest of her cohort was.  She commented back:

The reason why many of the students left was because some of them moved out of New York City, some were expelled from Success Academy for not following our honor code and others, well I do not know about the others.

I’ve analyzed their attrition and found it to be about 17% per year for the older grades which is not low at all.

An example of a trick they use, and this is one that I know for a fact because it happened to someone I know, they will tell a parent at the end of the school year that their child is going to be left back.  But if they choose to transfer their child to another school, Success Academy will promote the student to the next grade.

The second article is about some of the problems Success Academy had had in their high schools.  According to the article, there was a student protest where 100 out of the 345 students participated.  Then later in the article it says about the principal:

Mr. Malone also has had to grapple with high staff turnover. He said almost one third of about 50 teachers last year left, in some cases due to the exhausting nature of the job.

So a school with 345 students had 50 teachers?  If these two numbers are accurate, that is quite the 7 to 1 student teacher ratio.

Part of their ‘success’ depends on their decision to not ‘backfill’ when students leave the school.  This is quite an advantage for a school seeking to keep its test scores up.  What would happen if all schools had this luxury?

Reformers are known for saying that every child should have the opportunity to a great education regardless of zip code.  By not backfilling beyond 3rd grade, Success Academy denies the right to transfer into this school for kids over 10 years old, which is definitely discriminatory.  Also this means that any child who moves to New York after 3rd grade and didn’t have the opportunity to ever apply for the Success Academy lottery will never attend a Success Academy.

The first article has testimonials from some of the seventeen seniors about how they would have never gotten into the colleges they did without Success Academy.  To me, this raises an important question.  While we will never know what would have become of these seventeen students had they not attended Success Academy, it would be very useful, I think, for education researchers on all sides of the national education debate to get more data about this very small set of kids.

Since Success Academy so often uses these kids in their own promotional materials and a small subset of even these seventeen always seem to turn up interviewed in articles like these, I’d be really interested to know more about these students to see if there is anything about them that would have made them more likely to succeed at this school than the 56 students who did not.

Like how many of the 17 were part of the original 73 students?  It is quite possible that some of those 17 were ones that ‘backfilled’ in in second or third grade.  If this is the case, then their attrition rate would be even more than the 77% it seems to be.

Did any of the 17 students take the gifted and talented test when they were in Pre-K and if so, what did they get?  Not that I think testing 4 year olds is the most accurate science, I still think it would be relevant.

How many of the 17 students have at least one parent who went to college and how does that compare to the average for the neighborhood around the school?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think these are the sorts of relevant questions that reporters who get a chance to interview the officials at the school should be asking.

A strange thing I noticed in the second article was in the caption under a picture of one of the seniors.  The caption said:

The school requires a uniform, but this was one of the occasional days when students had a more relaxed dress code.

How odd is this to say in the caption?  And how revealing of  the sort of control that Success Academy over what sorts of things they allow to be revealed in public.  There is no way that a reporter would have thought that anyone would care or notice that a student wasn’t wearing a Success Academy uniform.

I only have two first-hand experiences with Success Academy.  I was once passing by the school yard in upper west side Success Academy on one of those days where the New York City schools were closed but Success Academy was open.  I saw a very miserable looking recess with kids in straight lines and several kids crying.  I was with my daughter at the time and we didn’t watch for more than a minute so maybe things got better after we left, but it didn’t look so fun to me.

Another first-hand experience was when, a few years ago, I stumbled upon a collection of about 500 videos they use for teacher training.  I was pretty horrified by what I saw and I wrote a few posts critiquing some of the videos.  One of them showed the most unpleasant story time for kindergarteners I had ever seen where the teacher was more concerned with the kids sitting ‘tall like a rock star’ than whether they were involved with the story.  Another had two English teachers working together on test prep with sixth graders.  After I wrote a few posts I found that Success Academy took down the entire video site, which was something that flattered me a little.

Though I haven’t talked to her in a while, I do have a former student who went on to become a teacher and then some kind of administrator at Success Academy.  She said she loved it there and that it was way better than the dysfunctional Harlem Children’s Zone Charter she had worked at previously.  I haven’t heard from her in a few years though.

I think that there are some kids who would be a good fit for Success Academy.  Like my own 10 year old daughter would probably do well there and she goes to summer camp with some friends who attend Success Academy.  My 6 year old son would likely be on the ‘got to go’ list, however.  I can’t say what percent of kids have what it takes to make it through 12 years of Success Academy, but that is yet another important question to raise.

Unfortunately this two-part series in The Wall Street Journal did not make much of an effort to unravel the mystery of the most controversial charter network in the state and their tiny group of seventeen survivors, the ‘product’ of the great experiment.

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12 Responses to Wall Street Journal Fails To Answer Or Ask Many Questions About Success Academy

  1. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein: Why Does Wall Street Journal Write Puff Pieces About Success Academy? | Diane Ravitch's blog

  2. Just noticed in your quote from the first article: “or the allure of selective district high schools” — but none of those kids made the specialized schools.

  3. parent010203 says:

    Gary,

    I think you should check whether all 17 of those seniors started the first day of school. If some of them came in later to replace the students who left, that makes the statistics even more damaging to Success Academy’s false claims.

    Also, there may have been more than 73 who passed through that cohort. They started with 73, no doubt some left but it is possible that some were replaced. I would like to have Success Academy on the record — as well as those students — that all of them were from the starting cohort.

    Furthermore, according the NY State statistics, fewer than 50% of these remaining 17 students are economically disadvantaged. As juniors, there were 20 students in the class and only 9 were economically disadvantaged. Now that the 20 last year is down to 17 graduating, how many of the 3 who left were among the 9 low-income students? It is possible that this “miracle” has only 7 or 8 economically disadvantaged students graduating. Despite all the funding lavished on them and the tiniest of class sizes. If Eva Moskowitz was using this example for what lavish funding and small class sizes could do, it would be one thing. For her to demand that students in public schools make do with less because she miraculously found 9 economically disadvantaged students to teach successfully is truly shocking and one of the most selfish and immoral actions I have seen.

    • parent010203 says:

      ^^My apologies — I did not read closely enough and I see you did address that some of those 17 may have come later. Note that the Wall Street Journal article is written as if they all began together in first grade. I suspect that is poor reporting and Leslie Brody didn’t bother to check this fact and she got it wrong.

      I believe the article said they had 3 college guidance counselors for the 17 seniors. That is a better ratio than many private schools!

  4. Pingback: Links 4/2/18 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  5. ki says:

    They all entered in K or 1- SA only started backfilling in 2-4 in 2015. I find it interesting that you seem so concerned about SA’s backfilling policies but don’t know about SA’s most significant backfilling policy change.

    • garyrubinstein says:

      Just because I am concerned doesn’t mean I can know every possible detail about SA. Thanks, though, for the info. Do you think it is good that only 24% of low income students made it through?

    • parent010203 says:

      ki says: “SA only started backfilling in 2-4 in 2015”

      I am late to reply to this, but my understanding from every news article I have read — including news articles from 2014 – is that Success Academy expanded to 4th grade in 2015, but that they backfilled earlier grades before that.

      It seems very odd for “ki” to insist otherwise.

  6. Ki says:

    when I care so deeply about a topic that I write blog posts about it, I take care to find out the details. There’s no reason not to know a three year old major policy change, and your ignorance there calls into question your reliability elsewhere. Success is undoubtedly deeply flawed, but ill informed arguments like yours only weaken Success’s detractors and strengthen their supporters.

    To address your question directly- low income students are typically more transient than their affluent peers. Of course transience isn’t ideal for children ( or adults) but I can’t answer your question without more context on rates of transience among low income nyc families in the past 12 years.

    • garyrubinstein says:

      I never said I was sure they had backfill, just pondering ‘what if?’. I’m glad to get more information, I want my posts to be as accurate as possible. If you find other inaccuracies you should let me know. I’m doing the best I can to keep up on all this.

    • parent010203 says:

      Ill-informed arguments like Ki’s should be corrected. It is ironic for this poster to claim “I take care of find out the details” when apparently this poster took no care at all to find out the details.

      Ki claims that 3 years ago there was a “major policy” change and Success Academy went from not backfilling to backfilling grades 2 – 4.

      Not true.

      Success Academy’s backfill policy in 2014 was to NOT replace the students who leave in third grade and later. That meant that Success Academy could replace the students that left in 1st grade and 2nd grade. A change in backfill policy increased this backfill policy one year so that Success Academy agreed to also backfill in grade 4.

      It is incorrect to assume that all 17 graduating seniors at Success Academy won the lottery for the first grade spot and started the first day of school. That may be the case but it is just as likely that a few did not win that original Success Academy lottery but came in later after being tested for their suitability to join that class (which is a policy that SA does when backfilling). If SA tests and decides those students should be in a lower grade instead, their parents are told they either join a lower grade or may not attend at all.

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