Robert Pondiscio’s new book “How The Other Half Learns” (Avery September 2019) answers the age old question: Can a bunch of twenty-something teachers who know nothing about education, nothing about child development, and nothing about what it is like to be a parent, get a non-random sampling of students of color to pass standardized tests?
In addition to answering that question in the affirmative, Pondiscio skillfully paints the most thorough picture of what exactly goes on behind the closed doors of Success Academy charter schools. We get to meet the teachers, the administrators, the ‘scholars’, and the parents. I found the book very illuminating and recommend it highly.
There is a pretty short list of writers who Eva Moskowitz might trust enough to allow them to observe in a school for a year. I’m glad that it was Pondiscio. He is one of the few reformers I have any respect for. We disagree on some things and we agree on some other things. I even once went out to lunch with him and had a very pleasant time.
Before the book came out he wrote a blog post on The74 called “I Just Wrote a Book About Success Academy Charter Schools. It Does Not Support Your Preferred Narrative. I Hope You Hate It.” Not to dash his hopes, but I, for one, did not hate it. Overall I thought it was great which means that only reformers who are willing to be honest with themselves will actually hate this book.
One premise of the book is that the fundamental secret to Success Academy’s amazing standardized test scores, mentioned throughout the work is the filtering of the right families. On page 266 he writes “The common criticism leveled at Moskowitz and her schools is that they cherry pick students, attracting bright children and shedding the poorly behaved and hardest to teach This misses the mark entirely. Success Academy is cherry-picking parents.” Parents must go through a series of tests and hoops to jump through for their children to get into and to stay in a Success Academy school. First there is, of course, the lottery. But winning the lottery is just the first step. Described in great — and frightening — detail in chapter 20 “The Lottery”, lottery winners have to attend a mandatory informational session where they are told how much work it is to be a parent of a child at the school — how lateness is not tolerated and there is a 7:30 AM start time. How there is no transportation provided. How every Wednesday is a half day and there is no after school program. How absences require a doctor’s note. Many prospective lottery winners give up after that meeting. Then there are several other steps like extensive paperwork and uniform fittings and a dress rehearsal. Even Pondiscio is shocked to watch how a student who is deep on the waitlist eventually get admitted to the school. But having families who are this willing and able to comply with the demands made by Success Academy leads, predictably, to high standardized test scores. He doesn’t say this so bluntly, but let’s face it — this is a kind of cheating.
But if you look at the back of the book, you see that it was well reviewed by various reformers including former NYC schools Chancellor Joel Klein. How can this be? Well even though Pondiscio says the test scores need to be seen in the context of the family selection process, he also argues, several times throughout the book, that it is OK that they do this. The argument is that wealthy families use their resources to get their child into a school that is a good fit for them so why shouldn’t poor families who have the resource of being highly functional use that to get their child into a school that is a good fit for them too?
On page 333 he writes
It would be dishonest to pretend that Success Academy is not a self-selection engine that allows engaged families who happen to be poor or of modest means to get the best available education for their children. But it is equally dishonest and close to cruel to deny such families the ability to self-select in the name of “equity.” Indeed, it is nearly perverse to deny low-income families of color — and only those families — the ability to choose schools that allow their children to thrive, advance, and enjoy the full measure of their abilities.
This is not the first time I have heard this argument. A few years ago Michael Petrilli wrote a piece called “Who Will Speak For The Strivers’ in response to an article that showed that charter schools have much higher expulsion rates than in neighborhood public schools.
My first response to this would be that only 16 out of the inaugural 73 students even endured to graduate Success Academy. If a higher percentage were actually served by Success Academy, then this argument of ‘shouldn’t they also get to choose a school that is good for them?’ would be more compelling. Since for the vast majority, they did not choose a school that was good for them, even after going through all those steps, and they did ultimately choose to leave, so what kind of choice did they really get? For the small number of families and children that turn out to be a good fit after all, there are at least double that number who regretted that choice and surely feel duped by the false promise that Success Academy actually cares about their children.
Maybe an analogy will make this more clear: On airplanes, only wealthy people have the choice of flying first class while people who can’t afford that must fly in coach. So now Success Airlines comes along and they have something they give people the choice of flying in something like first class except the seats are outside the plane on the wings and you have to get to the seats on your own and there’s a 2/3 chance that you’re going to be jettisoned from that seat before the flight is over anyway. Could this really be considered a viable ‘choice’ for poor people?
If Pondiscio is making the case here that Success Academy should have the right to exist, I’ve never said that they shouldn’t exist. But their existence should not be to just benefit the few that are a good fit at the expense of not only the students at the neighboring schools but also the students who left Success Academy before graduating. To do this, I think that they need more oversight and regulations and transparency about what goes on inside their schools. And I’m glad that this book does a nice job about showing the sorts of abuse that occur in the school which I’ll get to next.
One thing that is striking about Success Academy is how young and inexperienced the teaching staff is. On page 294, the teacher attrition is rationalized this way “Teacher turnover, and lack of experience and continuity, is widely assumed to be a problem, particularly in urban schools. But it’s never suggested that our military would be better if only soldiers stayed in uniform longer. So far, the relative inexperience of Success Academy teachers hasn’t seemed to compromise their effectiveness.” I guess the problem with trying to study Success Academy scientifically is that you can’t isolate the variables. So what would a Success Academy look like if they had self-selected parents and experienced teachers? Or a Success Academy with randomly-selected parents and inexperienced teachers? Success has set up a controlled environment where even inexperienced teachers can seem like they are doing a good job. But the teachers seem to blindly follow the Success Academy protocol even when it is bad teaching practice. An example of this is their overuse of the classroom management strategy called ‘behavior narration.’ The idea is to praise students who are on-task, which of course is good in moderation. But they take it way too far, narrating and narrating which is very annoying and distracting to students and really unnecessary, their students would learn more if the teachers would cut back on that.
The best example of a bad decision by a teacher, and probably the most frightening pages of the book, happened in Chapter 15, “Come to Jesus” one of the Kindergarten teachers holds a parent meeting in January because many of the Kindergarteners are not on target to reach level C by February. The teacher hosts a parent meeting and makes a big speech about how everyone needs to work harder so the students will get back on track. She says that some kids have been absent too much and tells the parents “Anytime I’m sick, I come here. I can’t afford to lose that day with your children. At the same time, your child cannot miss that day with any of us.” She tells them that if their Kindergartners don’t get on track they will not go to college. She tells them that if they don’t get to level D by the end of Kindergarten, they will have to be left back. To me, this is showing a lack of understanding of child development. This teacher is not a parent and doesn’t really understand that children develop at different rates and that sometimes children who seem to be really behind on some developmental milestone often suddenly catch up. She asks if parents want to ask or say anything and a parent says that her child is on level C but maybe could be a D but when her child is struggling to read at home the child gets upset and the parent has her stop reading for the night.
The teacher responds that it is hard to push kids to do more and she tells them about how earlier that day a student did not do an adequate job on a book review and he lost a privilege.
From page 193:
“That was really rough for him to hear. At the same time, did I say, ‘It’s OK if you don’t finish your book review?” Now it’s Syskowski who starts to tear up. “No. It’s not OK. Because why would I let him fail when other kids are surpassing it and they’ll go to first grade? You would not want me as your child’s classroom teacher. You would not want Mr. Carnaghi or Ms. Skinner to be your child’s teacher if we were like, ‘You know what? You’re right. It is really hard. Let’s just let them be a B’” How about if they get two out of the four sight words correct? ‘That’s good enough.’ Where are they going to be in thirteen years? Then we won’t talk about college. And that something that ..” Syskowski lowers her gaze to the floor. “I get chills. That’s something that’s really hard for me to …”
Syskowsky doesn’t finish the thought. She can’t. She’s crying. “I do get emotional. Because your children are amazing. They are absolutely amazing. I try to …” She quickly gathers herself. “We will never lower that bar because it’s too hard.”
Pondiscio follows the description of this outburst with an interesting observation. He says that some people might see this (as I do) as unprofessional and unnecessary. I was nodding my head at this since she is lying to the parents about how not getting to some arbitrary reading level in four months will mean that their children are on track to get left back and eventually not go to college. But Pondiscio evidently doesn’t feel this way. He says that the critical view is the “dim view” of this. Then he gives another perspective, obviously, for him, the more accurate one:
“Or you can see Carolyn Syskowski, with her giant heart and Pez-dispenser grin, who calls every student “love bug” and spends hours each day on the floor with other people’s children, wipes their noses, pulls on their coats, sends them home, and then worries into the night about their reading and math scores. You can see, if you are so inclined, an unusually gifted and competent teacher, with emotional gears you cannot fathom, who can issue a consequence to a five-year old like a bank examiner rejecting a loan, then an hour later bring herself to teacher in front of a hundred strangers when for a single moment she catchers herself weighing the cost of not doing so.”
I don’t buy this. A teacher who does not care enough to understand basic child development and who lies to parents about how their children are not on track to go to college is someone who doesn’t really care very much.
The principal of the school is in her 30s and is portrayed, as I see her, with a narcissistic cult-leader mentality. She wins an award at the end of the book and starts weeping about how she doesn’t deserve it and I’m inclined to agree with her on that.
Pondiscio is mainly permitted to observe, not coincidentally, the smoothest running Success Academy school. He says early in the book that he was given mostly free rein of who he would observe though there were some teachers who he shouldn’t since it would make them uncomfortable. He was also not given permission to freely go to other schools in the network. There was a chapter where he visited the Harlem 2 Success Academy with Eva Moskowitz and the place was so dysfunctional that Eva said she wanted to ‘slit her wrists.’ Interestingly, that school also gets very high standardized test scores which makes me think that perhaps all the other things the ‘good’ school does by the Success Academy methods really don’t matter, at least when it comes to the test scores.
In a section that even disturbed Pondiscio, [SPOILER ALERT: SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU WANT TO BE DISTURBED BY THIS IN THE CONTEXT OF THE FULL BOOK] he interviewed the family of a student who was, essentially, kicked out of the school earlier in the book. The student had behavior problems and the school responded to them by — get this — calling 911 for an ambulance to pick him up and bring him to the hospital for this several times. They also called child services to have them investigate the family. A teacher who left the school abruptly may have also resigned over being asked to lie to investigators about this incident. I applaud Pondiscio for putting this section into the book. It really shows how heartless the school is. The school defends themselves on things like this by saying things like “If a kid is throwing a chair and it can hurt another student, we have to do something,” but of course this is just an unnecessary overreaction designed to make the parents ‘voluntarily’ pull their child from the school.
Though Pondiscio is generally a thoughtful and nuanced thinker about education, I was kind of frustrated in the simplicity in the various times he talks about neighborhood public schools. On page 17 he says “Publicly funded but privately run, charters offer a lifeboat to low-income kids from failing schools while in theory creating choice-driven market pressures that force bad schools — charter and traditional public schools alike — to improve or die.” Words like “failing”, “bad”, and “lifeboat” are too charged for my taste.
There are places in the book where I would have liked Pondiscio to provide some numerical data. Like when he writes on page 211 “It is not possible to say with certainty what percentage of the network’s students live in stable homes with both parents, or to make a comparison to students at public schools in the same districts, but dual-income household appear to be overrepresented among the Success parent body.” Spending a year in a school, it seems like the sort of thing he could have easily come up with a good estimate had he wanted to.
There are some other places, however, where he does use numerical data though that data is often taken out of context and used as a way to bolster Success Academy or to counter some of the most common criticisms of Success Academy. On page 54 he cites a CREDO study in which it was estimated that “Success Academy students gained the equivalent of 228 days [a year] in math.” I was disappointed to see him introduce a number as outrageous as that (a school year is only 180 days!) without at least mentioning that the ‘days of learning’ statistic is not meant to be taken literally.
On page 296 he uses data that seems to imply that Success Academy has a lower student attrition rate than NYC public schools in the same neighborhood. This is something I’ve studied a lot so I want to address this here. The first graduating class at Success Academy was 16 students out of 73 that had originally started there as 1st graders. (In the book Pondiscio mentions the small size of that graduating class a few times but only once mentions that the cohort started with 73 students and even then, didn’t make such a big deal out of it) I’ve crunched the numbers from 2017-2018 school year to the 2018-2019 school year and found that if the grade to grade attrition rate continues for the next twelve years then the 2,647 Kindergarteners who started at Success Academy last year will be whittled down to only 246 graduating seniors 11 years from now. (Out of 85,000 Kindergarteners who started in New York City last year, this is about 1/300 of the total population in that cohort, which is where the title of this review comes from.)
Any study that says that Success Academy has lower attrition than neighborhood public schools is not accounting for the fact that the other schools replace the students who leave, and who often have the most unstable family situations, with other students with equally difficult situations. They are also not accounting for the fact that students who leave one public school for another school similar to it are not faced with a huge dilemma. But a student leaving Success Academy — The Success Academy — for a public school, well, that’s quite a choice there. I would expect Success Academy’s attrition to be well below the attrition of public NYC schools unless they are forcing students and families out.
One of the more dramatic pieces of evidence of the selective attrition by Success Academy is that their graduating class of 2019 was 20 girls and 6 boys. Try to find a public school in New York City (besides an all-girls school) that has a gender imbalance anywhere near that. This is the sort of statistic that I think is really compelling since highly functioning families have male babies as often as they have female babies so it indicates that the filtering process beyond the initial parental filtering helps Success Academy cheat even more to improve their test scores.
There were a few mistakes, I doubt intentional, in the book I should point out since most readers would not would catch these. On page 159 he writes about the first high school cohort who will graduate in 2017. He calls them “The first class of students to have spent their entire school careers as Success Academy students” when, in fact, the 2018 cohor would be that. The 2017 cohort started as 1st graders at Success. On page 55 he writes about the famed “Waiting For A School Miracle” New York Times op-ed by Diane Ravitch. “She derided ‘miracle schools,’ citing several examples of schools whose scores skyrocketed one year and crashed the next.” I helped Ravitch with the research for that op-ed and those were not schools that ever had high test scores. They were schools touted by politicians that had 100% college acceptance rates but actually had high attrition between 9th and 12th grade and always had terrible test scores.
OK, I’m going to bring this to a close. I don’t want to spoil the book anymore than I did already. There are many other important scenes and arguments in the book and I jotted things in the margins on nearly all of the 340 pages. It is well worth reading and I’m thankful to Pondiscio for writing a book that, in my interpretation, will be devastating to the reputation of Success Academy. He certainly tried to offer some counter arguments (mostly unconvincing to me) about why Success Academy is still a good place, all things considered.
Though Pondiscio is ‘reform friendly,’ he is not of the Kool Aid drinking type of reformer. I think that in writing this book he is showing his frustration for the false promises of the reform movement. After twenty years of growing, the reform movement has been a let down. There are some reformers who are in denial about this — most TFA staffers are like this. There are other reformers who probably know how poor of a job the movement has done and they don’t really care since at least they are in power and that makes them money and feeds their egos. But Pondiscio does not belong to either of those camps. I see Pondiscio as someone who is trying to use the scientific method to improve schools. He has written about how not enough of education research is based on brain science — especially about how students learn to read. He believes, and I agree, that a lot of teacher time is spent inefficiently looking for useful curriculum materials. But unlike a lot of reformers who are not willing to evolve and incorporate the meager results of 20 years of reform experimentation into their thinking, Pondiscio writes on page 322, “But there are things we know and do not say in education and education reform. One of them is that we expect too much of schools.” And the fact that the one apparent piece of evidence of the power of education reform, Success Academy, only gets its results by a form of cheating is particularly disheartening for a reformer who cares enough about the cause to pursue it scientifically. On page 321, “Is Success Academy a proof point that the reform playbook works and that professionally run schools with high standards and even higher expectations can set any child on a path out of poverty? Or does the rarity of Moskowitz’s accomplishment suggest that however nobly intended it might have been, the reform impulse was doomed from the start?”
Sadly, most reformers are too stupid and overconfident to even know how bad they are at this. Whether or not at least their hearts are in the right place on this is also debatable. You can’t really claim to care so much if you don’t care enough to honestly assess the results of your reform experiment. I can’t see how reformers can be honestly enthusiastic about the details in this book but if it is true that reformers do really like this book and are not just pretending to then Pondiscio has really accomplished quite a feat.
Four and a half apples out of five.