Of all the charter school networks in the country, there is none that is more controversial or more secretive than Success Academy. If ‘success’ is defined as high 3-8 state test scores, then Success Academy has earned its name. But critics charge that this ‘success’ comes at the expense of other, more important measures of success.
This past November, a seven part podcast was published by a production company called startup. Soon after it was released, there were some excerpts of some of the most negative parts of the podcast printed on some blogs, but generally it seems to have came and went.
I was very interested in this podcast for a lot of reasons. I’ve been following Success Academy for years and have been piecing together evidence about all the different wrongdoings that this network engages in. Over the years I’ve probably written twenty different blog posts with my findings. I was also interested because last summer I was interviewed by one of the producers of this podcast while they were gathering material. Besides an hour or two of interviews, I also had several follow-up emails with this producer where he asked me to clarify certain arguments. I was curious to see how balanced the eventual product would be.
The podcast runs about seven hours and I listened to it a few months ago for the first time. What I found was a bizarre mix of about six hours of puff piece and one hour of devastating expose. Throughout the episodes the producers generally gave Success Academy the benefit of the doubt any time they could — until eventually even they couldn’t near the end. But then at the end it went back to being a puff piece.
Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to write commentary about the different parts — episode 5 is the big one — though I need to work my way up to that one.
Episode 1 is called ‘The Problem’ and can be found here or on iTunes. It begins with an interview with a parent of a Success Academy student who is recalling her own schooling in New York City in the 1980s where she was bullied and even arrested for getting into a fight at school. For her son she wanted something different.
It is here that the narrator gives the first hint about her biased point of view. At 4:28 the narrator says about this mother’s choices. “Their neighborhood public school was not an option. It was bad.” With these three words — “It was bad” — and without elaboration since we all must know what she means, I definitely was concerned that this was not a great start to a seven hour podcast series. In what way was it “bad”? Were there bad teachers? Does it have bad test scores? Is the safety bad? We don’t know. This oversimplified and unfair one word condemnation of the school is unfortunately too typical. After getting through episode 5 I think most will agree that a three word summary of Success Academy could also be “It was bad.”
Forty-five seconds later the narrator says “Like many New York City parents who live in poor neighborhoods with failing schools Sherise refused to accept that her only educational options were bad ones” (5:14) So now we can add the adjective ‘failing’ — a favorite of reformers — to the list. And in the next two minutes we get our first soundbites from Eva Moskowitz: “Kids are trapped in schools where they will never learn to read” (5:54) and “You have a third of the kids completely illiterate and innumerate, another third of the kids barely able to read” (6:25)
At minute 10 we hear that the podcast is going to try to dig into what makes Success Academy successful and “do it’s victories and its growth come at a price?” (10:04)
Then the narrator gives this explanation about the importance of schools in fighting poverty. This is not from someone being interviewed but presented as fact by the narrator:
“And here’s the thing about public education in this country. If you’re poor, you’re usually doomed to a bad school. And if you go to that bad school, you’re less likely to go to college, less likely to get a stable job, less likely to get out of poverty. If you’re rich, usually your local school is OK. And if it isn’t, you’ve got options. Because you’re rich. Private school, tutors, safety net. And there’s something fundamentally messed up about that difference. Especially since education is the main way, maybe the only way these days, to get out of poverty. ” (13:13)
We meet Libby Ashton — a Teach For America alum who became the principal of a Success Academy school when she was 25 and has been one for three years already. We get to see the first day where students, especially the kindergarteners, are trained on the rules and procedures of the school, including responding to claps by the teacher.
From the narrator:
“This clap is a signal to the kids that they’re supposed to be in position. That is sitting with their backs straight, their hands folded, their ears listening, and their eyes tracking the teacher or a fellow student if they’re answering a question. This system is about controlling what each student is doing at any given moment, ruling out distracting behavior to keep the focus on learning and if their eyes drift to look out the window too many times or their hands come unlocked, they could get in trouble, a warning from the teacher or a time out.” (33:12)
Here is the place, if the podcast was trying to be balanced, where they would bring in a child development expert who would say that this kind of control is not developmentally appropriate for small children and that some, especially ones that have ADHD or similar diagnoses, it can be harmful. Instead, they make a quick mention that some people think the discipline is too harsh but then they get to a Success Academy cheerleader, Dan Weisberg — current head of Michelle Rhee’s The New Teacher Project (TNTP).
He makes an analogy about how if there is one restaurant in a town and no other choice, there won’t be good food there because there will be a lot of excuses and how when another restaurant opens which is great, it will certainly irritate the owner of the first restaurant.
At this point, episode 1 ends. Had I not already heard that fireworks were coming in later episodes, particularly episode 5, I don’t think I would have been able to listen to other episodes.
Next post, Episode 2 — The Founder.