In the first episode of Startup’s seven part podcast about Success academy, they presented the case that most schools in New York City are ‘bad’ and how Success Academy’s unique approach to education levels the playing field.
Episode two, The Founder (can be found here) details Eva Moskowitz’s rise to power. She started as a very self-assured child who had a bad experience with her music teacher. Her father wrote the music teacher a note that said “(expletive deleted) you” and this becomes a theme throughout Eva’s career in education, according to the podcast — metaphorically writing ‘F You’ letters to various parties who have crossed her.
Moskowitz was elected to the City Council in 1999 and she visited hundreds of schools and found that some had broken toilets. She aggressively worked to get them fixed and found that it was frustrating dealing with the large bureaucracy of the New York City school system.
When she went to a school where she felt the lunch room was understaffed, she learned that under the teacher’s union contract, teachers are exempt from certain duties, like doing lunch duty.
The narrator, Lisa Chow, then says matter of factly: “The teachers’ union contract … a document that protects the interests of teachers in traditional public schools. She asked her staff to get a copy of the teachers contract, expecting something that was maybe 20 pages. But instead, it was 300 pages in length.”
This is common complaint I hear from reformers — that the teacher’s union contract is too long. Somehow the idea that 300 pages is too long but 20 would be about right is the reformer conventional wisdom. Well, when I signed up for ZipCar rental cars online, the contract that I skimmed through before hitting ‘accept’ was about 10 pages long, so why shouldn’t a teacher’s union contract be hundreds of pages? Where is the evidence that there is some kind of inverse relationship between the length of the teacher’s union contract and the quality of the teaching that happens in a school? I’ve been a teacher in NYC for 17 years and I don’t even know what is in the contract aside from a few lines here and there. But if something ever comes up where something in there will come in handy for me, I’ll certainly appreciate that the contract is thorough. Next time Lisa Chow rents an apartment or takes out a bank loan, I’m going to ask her if she would willingly cut the contract that lists her different rights down by 85%?
Lisa Chow continues: “The contract was packed with rules that seemed to control every minute of the school day. And Eva saw a lot of things she believed were not in the best interest of kids. For example, that rule that kept teachers out of lunchrooms — that was in it. And there were rules that promoted teachers based on seniority, regardless of whether they were actually good instructors.” So yes, teachers get raises based on years of experience. Get rid of that one and you are likely not going to attract many people to become teachers where raises from your very low starting pay will be at the whim of a computer judging you ‘effective’ or not based on standardized test scores.
Dan Weisberg, CEO of The New Teacher Project, comes back to criticize the union contract and then Lisa Chow says: “There were also rules on tenure. Dan says the contract basically insured teachers a job for life, if they met expectations through their first three years.” Ah, the old ‘job for life’ line — right out of the ‘Waiting For Superman’ screenplay.
And more from Lisa Chow: “But as Eva studied the 300 page contract, she became convinced that one of the biggest reasons New York City public schools were failing, that kids were not achieving at the levels they should or could be, was that the entire system was set up to protect the adults … not the kids.”
So Eva holds a hearing where she grills Randi Weingarten about the seniority transfer rule that existed at that time. There did used to be a rule where if there was an opening at a school, principals couldn’t hire who they wanted to fill it if a more senior teacher wanted to transfer to that position from another school. I don’t know all the arguments in favor of that rule, but this is a rule that no longer exists because of the problems associated with it. The podcast uses this as the one rule that they highlight and they never mention that this rule no longer exists, basically implying to the average listener that it does.
Eva ran for the Manhattan Borough President seat and lost, they say, because the unions had a well coordinated campaign against her.
Then she got an opportunity from two hedge funders to create her own charter school, Success Academy Harlem. She got about 80 Kindergarteners and 80 first graders to take a chance on this experiment.
Things were rocky at first. Here is an excerpt that, for me, calls into question, the accuracy of Eva’s version of events.
LISA: While all these unforeseen crises were crawling around outside the classroom, there were causes for alarm in the classroom too. Three weeks into school, Eva was stunned to walk into a math lesson and discover that they had only gotten up to the number seven.
EVA: Most of them knew the number seven. You don’t spend three weeks on the number seven. And I gathered the teachers and I said, ‘You know doesn’t this seem idiotic?’ And they said yes! And I said, ‘Well why didn’t you tell me? You should have told me three weeks ago?’ And their response was, ‘We didn’t know we could do something about it, and what are we going to do about it?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do about it but we’re not going to stick with the number seven’.
This just isn’t the way teaching happens at any school. Even with kindergarteners, you don’t have a series of lessons based on one number. There is just no way that the ‘standard curriculum’ that Success Academy eventually re-invented, had kids doing ‘the number seven’ for three weeks.
Yet, Lisa Chow says about this: “The absurdity of it taking three weeks to get to seven — a rate of about one number learned every two days — made it clear to Eva that the curriculum they’d chosen to use just didn’t match her ambitions.”
Over the next few years, Success Academy opened more schools and got excellent results on their first batch of standardized tests. No mention yet about student attrition that can help those test scores or the lack of backfilling. Some of these things will get addressed in future episodes but for now, two out of seven episodes are done and it has been pretty much all a puff-piece. Most people looking for balance would have given up by now. But there will be some balance coming soon, though probably after most people stopped listening anyway.
Next time, Part 3 — The Test