Part four of Startup’s seven part podcast about Success Academy (found here) is centered on the ‘Got To Go’ incident where a principal was found to have created a list of students he wanted to oust from his school. This episode explores whether or not the ‘Got To Go’ list was an isolated infraction by a rogue principal or if it is something that is part of the culture of the school.
Episode 1 was about the state of public schools in NYC that would make it ripe for a network like Success Academy to emerge. Episode 2 was the story of Eva Moskowitz and how she rose to power. Episode 3 was about the emphasis the network puts on standardized tests and questions whether the high test scores come at some greater cost.
Episode 4 — Growth — is the most critical so far. The ‘Go To Go’ list was a major story in the New York Times and it corroborated what many families said about Success Academy, that they push out students which, as a side benefit for them, raises the test scores of the school.
The narrator, Lisa Chow, though, got some talking points from Success Academy about how to spin this story.
Candido Brown was a new principal, put in charge of a Success Academy elementary school in Fort Greene, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. The school had already gone through two other principals in a year. The place did not represent the Success ideal of quiet classrooms and well behaved kids. It was chaotic, teachers were demoralized, and kids were defiant. Candido had worked at Success for six years but never as a principal before. He was under pressure to turn the school around. But he said drawing up the list was his own idea.
So we are to believe that this was a huge anomaly at Success Academy because that school was in turmoil so he took it on himself to resort to such extreme measures. But how likely is it that there was actually a Success Academy that was in the chaos that Lisa Chow describes? Looking at the state data, this school, Success Academy — Fort Greene, had test scores (100% Math, 85% Reading) on par with the other Success Academy schools. So if they can get such test scores even when the school is in turmoil, perhaps the strict discipline there as described in episode 3 as so critical to their success, is not so important after all.
The next part of the podcast shows the level of control that Success Academy requires at their ideal schools, especially ones that have many inexperienced teachers.
LISA: That silence is the result of Success’ system of behavioral management. For that system to work, teachers need to build strong relationships with their students. Then, on top of that foundation, teachers do three things. Step 1: Set clear expectations… even for the simplest things.
For example, when kids at Success Academy are sitting on the rug, they need to be in what’s called magic five: hands locked, feet crossed, back straight, ears listening and eyes tracking the speaker.
Step 2 is to point out when kids are following those instructions — to narrate good behavior.
TEACHER: Liam is still in magic five. Chastity is silent. Malia’s hand are locked Kalia’s hands are locked, Kalia’s eyes are right on me. Liam is sitting up straight and tall, Sam is sitting up straight and tall. Kalia is tracking Hendrick, Amari is tracking Hendrick
LISA: And, as soon as teachers see a student who’s not following the instructions, they call out the behavior. That’s Step 3: Issue corrections.
TEACHER: Colin is sitting up super tall. Eliany hands in your lap. That’s a correction.
LISA: A correction is basically a warning to the student. The teacher here says it so matter of factly that you barely notice. That’s the point — discipline is woven into the fabric at Success. And if a student gets too many corrections it can land them in trouble — a timeout, a phone call home. For more serious infractions, they’re suspended.
This ‘behavior narration’ is something I had seen on some of the Success Academy training videos (before they took them all down from public site). It is touted in ‘Teach Like A Champion’ and is also something that Teach For America advises their teachers to do. Basically, the teacher talks for the almost the entire time the students are working, saying that this student is sitting properly and this other one isn’t. I find this quite irritating and I would, personally, not be able to concentrate if I was a student and the teacher chattered for the entire time like this.
We then hear about a teacher named Wintanna who is now a principal at a Success Academy school but who had a rocky start. Apparently she could not do the behavior narration properly and her classes were out of control. But the her principal gave her an earpiece and was coaching her through her lessons while she taught. This helped Wintanna improve where she became good enough to be a principal after five years.
In a part about Molly, another teacher who became a principal after just four years, the podcast almost touches on the well-known teacher attrition problem at Success Academy, but they soften the charge with a Success Academy talking point:
On top of that,12 of her school’s most experienced teachers left the year she became principal, many taking jobs elsewhere in the growing network
Note the “many taking jobs elsewhere in the growing network” to make it sound like the massive teacher attrition problem isn’t as bad as the numbers make it seem.
Molly’s school was, they say, completely out of control with kids flipping over their desks. As a last resort, they say, she started to suspend students since it was the solution that ensured “the greatest good for the greatest number.”
MOLLY: Some parents did take their kids out because they didn’t agree with what we were doing. And I feel sad that that happened. But I mean the school is the way it is. I’m not going to change… I will never think it’s OK for a child to flip over a desk and endanger people. But they were just not on board with those things.
Success Academy has, according to the podcast, ten times the suspension rate of the regular public schools. And for some families the constant suspensions are the last straw that gets them to ‘voluntarily’ transfer to another school.
A former Success Academy teacher named David explains how the rigid discipline system was something that some students were not capable of complying with for various reasons.
LISA: So not only was the system not working for some of his kids, David believed it was actually triggering them. The relentless management of how to move their bodies. The consequences which for some kids, felt incredibly punishing because they were so public. And then also, the injustice that some kids felt when they saw others get away with not locking their hands or tracking the speaker. David believed this system was pushing some kids to a breaking point.
This is especially true for students who have ADHD and Oppositional Defiance Disorder. There is currently an ongoing court case where a former Success Academy family is suing the school for, among other things, reporting them to child services for not being able to control their child.
David explains the dilemma well
DAVID: Greatest good for the greatest number. I mean that’s that’s that’s an upsetting thing to hear. This child wasn’t at fault. Right? He’s the victim of this system that fails him and yet he is punished. In addition to that the thing that makes me you know just makes my head kind of spin is that every time a child like that leaves Success, Success is rewarded. Right? When when that boy left my classroom, my data jumped up and now my ranking as a teacher jumped up right. And Success’ ranking as a schools can they can say well now we get this right. But that child just went to the public school system. The one thing that always it’s always bothered me is that you know when a child like that leaves he goes into the public school system, the public school system has to retain him, has to take him. And then Success turns around and says well look at this neighborhood school compared to our school. Right? Our school got 90 percent whatever, 90 percent pass rate with the neighborhood school got whatever 20 percent pass rate for example. But they’ve literally just dropped the scores of their of their neighborhood school and raise their own scores by pushing this child out, by failing this child right? And they they package it as if it’s somehow their success and not their failure.
Lisa Chow then takes a talking point from Success Academy to soften the idea that Success counsels out its most difficult students:
LISA: This idea that Success Academy might be sending some of its hardest to serve kids to the regular public schools, this is one of the main objections people have to charter schools … that they have sorting mechanisms they use to shape their student population. Now to be fair: Many public schools in New York City shape their student populations too, some very explicitly through enrollment criteria like grades and test scores. Other schools have a more opaque admissions process. And then of course, there are the geographical boundaries, or zones, that all public elementary schools draw around themselves — to determine who they serve and who they don’t. So it’s not just Success Academy that’s shaping its student body.
Another former employee, this time an administrator named Violet, who had as one of her responsibilities to counsel out families spoke about how awful it was to do this.
So episode 4 would definitely leave most listeners with, at best, mixed feelings about Success Academy. The podcast did try to give Success Academy the benefit of the doubt whenever they could. But come episode 5, even they will not be able to.
Next, episode 5 — Expectations.