Open Letters to Reformers I DON’T Know. Part V: Seven Figure Success Academy Donors

A few years back, I wrote a series of letters to ‘Reformers I know,’ trying to engage publicly with education reformers I was, at least at one time, on a friendly basis with. I then expanded to ‘Reformers I DON’T know.’ Over the course of nearly twenty letters, only three reformers ever wrote back.

For many reasons, there are not many high profile reformers remaining. Even the word ‘reform’ has become toxic, so nobody wants to be an outspoken ‘reformer’ anymore. Now reform work is done behind the scenes out of public view.   In an example of how much the pendulum has shifted, the current TIME Magazine cover story is about how teachers are underpaid. This is the same TIME Magazine that put Michelle Rhee on its cover in 2008.

So I don’t really have specific reformers to try to engage with anymore. But there is a category of people who have a lot of influence over education and these are the rich philanthropists who still like to donate to reform-friendly organizations. Bill Gates has admitted that his teacher evaluation plan was a $575 million bust, yet he still donates a lot of money to various reform groups. Mark Zuckerberg just donated a bunch of money to reform groups, including $10 million to Teach For America — as if they need it. And in addition to these household-name rich people, there are others who drop millions if not tens of millions on different reform organizations.

One place they donate is to the famous Success Academy Charter School Network in New York. Success Academy is known for its high test scores, its strict discipline, and its obsessive secrecy about much else. Its leader, Eva Moskowitz, it is said, was in contention for Betsy DeVos’s job as Trump’s Secretary of Education.

Success Academy has raised a lot of money.  Financier John Paulson gave $8.5 million in 2015, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb gave $15 million in 2018, and another hedge fund manager Julian Robertson gave a whopping $25 million in 2016.

Would these people give as much if they knew some of the dirty secrets of Success Academy? There’s only one way to find out.  This is my letter to them.

Dear Seven Digit Success Academy Donor,

Obviously if you have seven (or eight!) figures to donate to Success Academy, you are a person who does not easily fall for scams. But this time, I’m afraid you did.

There are really only two possibilities: Either Success Academy is the greatest miracle in the history of education — or the greatest Hoax.

If Success Academy’s methods are effective, we should see other charter schools with similar demographics that use all or most of these strategies getting a range of success stories. Maybe there would be a charter school in the top 10%, or one in the top 20%  But we don’t. Despite using some variation on the ‘no excuses’ philosophy’ — some maybe accept a few excuses, some are even more tolerant of excuses. But they surely have the same sorts of high expectations and the same culture of fear for their staff. Yet we see no charter school showing the test scores anywhere near Success Academy. Even the famed KIPP charter chain gets results that are only marginally better than average. And this is not just in New York City, but around the country.  The only charter schools with such high test scores are the Arizona BASIS schools, which serves a low number of Black and Hispanic students.

If Success Academy is hiding some secret methods that could be scaled around the country so that other schools could achieve results even in the same ballpark, these methods would be worth billions of dollars to Eva Moskowitz. If she is for real, she has found the equivalent of Ponce De Leon’s famed fountain of youth.

I believe that Success Academy, in various ways, obtains their high test scores through unethical behavior. By this, I don’t mean that I think they change their students’ answers on the state test. Instead they find other ways to dishonestly inflate their test scores.

I believe that their methods are not educationally sound. A few years ago I came upon about 500 videos they had published publicly on the web. Among those videos was one of a teacher reading the book ‘Caps For Sale’ to a group of Kindergarteners. Seeing the hostile way in which this story was read — the way the teacher forbade students from sitting comfortably as they read, making them sit as straight as they could at all times and admonishing them anytime one of them slouched — it was, in my estimation, a form of torture. After I wrote about what I had seen in this video and posted the link to it, Success Academy took down not just that video but all 500 videos. And it was not because they were afraid of anyone stealing their valuable secret methods, but because these methods are best kept secret since they were embarrassed by what they thought makes for appropriate childhood education. For your generous donation, perhaps you can get a copy of that video and you could show it to any childhood education expert from any university in the country. I’m quite confident that the expert will concur that the video reveals a teacher that has no understanding of the needs of small children as they first learn about literacy.

I assume you were inspired by the mind-blowing statistics from Success Academy’s PR department. I assume you were impressed by the way that their 3rd grade through 8th grade test scores would make them the top district in New York State. You assume that their methods can be replicated, but no other charter school in the state has done so.

To anyone who is knowledgeable about schools and education, these results seem too good to be true. Even the most staunch education ‘reformers’ are wary about talking much about Success Academy. If they truly believed that Success Academy is accomplishing the things that encouraged you to donate so much money to them, they would be calling for the banishment of all the other famous charter schools — the KIPPs, the Achievement Firsts, the Green Dots. But they stand by these other schools since they know there is something fishy about Success Academy.

The impressiveness of Success Academy’s test scores is based on the assumption that their students, admitted by random lottery, are a true random sampling of students throughout New York City. If that assumption is not true, any conclusions based on their test results are no longer valid.

This is an easy assumption to test.  Just choose a Success Academy school and compare the demographic data of its students to that of the nearest other elementary school.  I looked up the data for Success Academy Washington Heights and compared to nearby PS 152 Dyckman Valley.

Screen Shot 2018-09-15 at 10.12.40 PM

SA Washington Heights PS 152 Dyckman Valley
Girls% 55% 49%
Hispanic% 75% 95%
Black 16% 3%
White 6% 1%
ELL 10% 31%
Disabled 17% 25%
Economically Disadvantaged 50% 91%

I do not think their students are a random sampling. First, the families who apply are a self-selecting group. Also, students who are siblings of students already attending there get to bypass the lottery. This could be a substantial number of students now and these would be the siblings of students who have, of course, not already left the school for various reasons. So these siblings are a select group who are much more likely to be able to handle the pressures of Success Academy than a random student in New York City public schools. Of the students who ‘win’ the lottery, only about half choose to go to Success Academy anyway. Why the other half elects to go elsewhere is interesting to me. I think that many are discouraged from sending their students to the network. Some because the school refuses to provide special education services for whatever disability that student has. Some might get discouraged by some of the rules that families are forced to promise to abide by. One of these rules, for example, says that on the ‘parent report card’, the parent will receive a ‘red grade’ if the student is late more than twice in the year. Finally, considering that Success Academy is supposed to be so amazing, there is a significant amount of student attrition.

Even though Success Academy boasts that their student attrition rate is equal if not lower than that of neighboring schools, this is not correct.  Take a look at the Success Academy graduating class of 2018. Back in 2006-2007, they were a cohort of 73 first graders. They eventually graduated just 16 seniors last spring. To compare to other schools is very simple. By 2016-2017, the 73 students had dwindled to 20 juniors. This is a loss of 73% of their students over ten years or about 12% compounded per year. Now compare this to New York State as a whole. In 2006-2007, New York State had 200,272 first graders. Ten years later, the number of juniors in New York State was 194,119, a loss of about 3%, or, just 0.31% compounded per year. By my calculations, the annual attrition rate of Success Academy is nearly 40 times the annual attrition rate of students in New York State. The issue, of course, is that when Success Academy students leave after 4th grade, they are not replaced or ‘backfilled’ while the other schools in New York State generally do backfill.  If a student walks in the door mid-year, the public schools must find a place for them.  Success Academy defends its decision not to replace the students who leave after 4th grade with students from their famed waiting list by saying that it would be too disruptive to their school to bring students in who are academically behind. How can it be fair to compare a school that does not backfill to all the others that do?

But the biggest dirty secret of all (though everyone knows about this) is the way Success Academy wields the power of making a student repeat a grade. This is their secret weapon, and I do mean weapon. By one of my estimates, about 15% of Success Academy students are left back for one reason or another. Leaving a student back is something that should only be done in the most extreme circumstances — it has so many negative ramifications for students later in life. Yet Success Academy uses it recklessly. Here’s how it works: They call in the family of a student who has ‘got to go.’ They say that even though the student passed the state test, they failed to meet some other requirement. This leaves the family with two options: The first is for the student to repeat the grade they just completed. This means that they will be the ‘old kid’ in their class while all their friends (or around 85% of their friends — other kids get threatened with this too) move on to the next grade. This is a devastating consequence. But fortunately, there is one other option. The student can get promoted as long as that student ‘voluntarily’ transfers to a different school. If you want to have lunch some time with me and the father of a student who went through this to hear first hand about how the school did this for his special needs daughter after she finished fourth grade, I can arrange this.

The students aren’t the only group of people that Success Academy treats, in my opinion, abusively. Success Academy makes demands on families that they are not able to meet. The school knows how to make things especially rough on families whose students struggle with behavioral issues. They make parents repeatedly come and get their kids, even if it means the parent is jeopardizing his or her own job by having to leave the job frequently in the middle of the day. An education news site, Chalkbeat NY reported that at one of the schools Success Academy held a mandatory family meeting. For families that miss that meeting, they are told that the assumption is that the child will not be returning to the school the next year. In a pending lawsuit, some parents report that Success Academy has even resorted to reporting families to Administration For Children’s Services (ACS) for being unable to pick up their children in the middle of the day after the child apparently violated one of the many strict rules of the school.

The chaotic situation in the Success Academy high school is a huge red flag. If the Success Academy students peak in 8th grade and then have such poor results in high school, it means that their achievement through 8th grade (as measured by those state test scores) were illusory. The unusually high teacher turnover at their high schools is a symptom of this. When you are working in the most incredible educational experiment in the history of education, you don’t just quit after a year or two.  Yet over half of the high school teachers did not return this past year. This would be like the researchers at the medical lab that cured Cancer leaving at such a rate. The teachers who leave have been generally quiet about why they left. But I think it is the same reason that people have left the Trump White House. They just can’t bear being an accomplice to such an abuse of power.

Despite the fanfare surrounding these schools, from my perspective Success Academy excels most at abuse. They abuse their students through overuse of making them repeat grades, they abuse the families when they punish them — even call ACS on them — for not being able to meet their impossible demands, and they abuse the staff causing many of them to quit each year.

Success Academy is built on a foundation of lies and it is only a matter of time before it comes crumbling down. We already see so many scandals. There was the ‘rip-and-redo’ tape, the ‘go-to-go’ list, the failure to get students into the specialized high schools for the first two years in which students were eligible to apply, the summer homework revolt, and the mass exodus of almost the entire high school staff.

It is only a matter of time before enough insiders spill the beans. When that happens, you don’t want to be known as the chump who helped fund this.

Gary Rubinstein

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4 Responses to Open Letters to Reformers I DON’T Know. Part V: Seven Figure Success Academy Donors

  1. Michael Fiorillo says:

    Boy, is it going to be sweet watching Moskowitz go down in flames, rightfully loathed as she is, even by her fellow education reform privateers.

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

  3. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein Writes a Letter to the Mega-Donors Who Support Success Academy: “You’ve Been Scammed!” | Diane Ravitch's blog

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