I recently listened to two illuminating podcasts about Success Academy. Hosted by Education Post CEO Chris Stewart on the Citizen Ed podcast, the first interview was with Robert Pondiscio, author of ‘How The Other Half Learns’ and the second was with Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz.
The first thing that struck me about these podcasts was that Chris Stewart, when he is not being very immature on Twitter, has it in him to be a thoughtful and humble guy. Why he acts like he does on Twitter, I guess he thinks it achieves something. We’ve had some epic Twitter battles over the years — often some TFA supporters join in and gang up on me — I can’t say I look forward to them. One thing I have earned as result of my sporadic interactions with him is that I have my own ‘tag’ on Education Post.
So to see him interview people who he has long standing relationships is an interesting experience. It’s like when the curtain is removed and we see the real Wizard of Oz that is voicing the booming avatar.
The first interview was with Pondiscio. About a year ago he published a tell-all about Success Academy. Though he set out to give a balanced picture of the good and bad of Success Academy, I wote in my review that I felt that his honest appraisal was devastating to the mythology of this controversial charter chain. Rather than try to counter the charges that the students in Success Academy are cherry picked, he embraces it. Who are we, he asks, to prevent families from self-selecting themselves by using their resources, in this case the organizational resources to do all the application steps, to attend a school with similarly advantaged families?
He says that an argument against charters is that people think that taking the most functional families from the public schools harms the kids left in that school. But he argues that we would never expect a wealthy white family to put up with sacrificing their child’s education for the greater good of society so why should we not give families who are financially poor but who have what he calls ‘social capital’ the same option? I would argue back that wealthy white families would also not put up with a school that pulls a bait-and-switch and in the end, only 20% of families who start there manage to complete the school. Success Academy is like a pyramid scheme and while I suppose we all have the right to enter a pyramid scheme if we want to, it’s better to avoid them so families deserve to know the truth about the high likelihood that they will eventually be leaving the school ‘voluntarily.’
Though some very stupid ‘reformers’ like Joel Klein, who wrote a blurb for the back cover, claim to love the book, Chris Stewart admits “If I were on the other side of this I would like your book better than if I’m a reformer. … If I was on the anti-reform side I would like it better. I actually would think that it validates more of what people have been trying to say.”
Even though Stewart does not agree with a lot of the arguments in the book, he says it is very well-written and worth reading and watching the conversation, he seems to like Pondiscio and respects him even though they may not agree on some big issues. Watching this interview makes it seem so strange to me the way that Stewart interacts with people who he must consider to be much bigger threats than Pondiscio for making almost the same arguments in their own blogs and Tweets.
A few weeks later, Stewart hosts Eva Moskowitz in a 30 minute interview that I encourage everyone to watch.
It is pretty amazing to watch Eva Moskowitz discuss education. I can see why Trump considered her for Secretary of Education.
After about 7 minutes, Stewart apologetically says that people are going to be upset if he doesn’t ask her the tough questions. The first question is whether the disciplinary measures at the school serve to weed kids out and produce an easier population to teach. Her response is that in fifteen years only one student was ever expelled. Though they may not officially ‘expel’ many students, they have different ways of dealing with students who have “got to go.” One trick they use often is telling a family that their child has to repeat a grade. But — if they act now and transfer out, they can be promoted to the next grade for their new school. This was well documented in the podcast series startup last year. A few years ago I was at a meeting in my daughter’s school’s auditorium and I overheard a parent tell another parent that his daughter went to Success Academy. When asked how it was the guy said “It’s great. They say here’s how we do it, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door.”
About their suspension rate she uses an extreme example which is likely very rare, “You’re not allowed to throw a metal chair at a teacher’s head.” I’d like to know what percent of Success Academy’s large number of yearly suspensions comes from a child throwing a metal chair at a teacher’s head. Personally, I would want to know more about what led to the student throwing a chair and if the student was deliberately trying to assault the teacher or if the student was having a tantrum and as a result a chair ended up coming close to a teacher’s head. I doubt that it is very often in Success Academy that something like this happens and, just like all schools, they should not be surprised that things like that happen, especially when you don’t know anything about chid development and how to de-escalate volatile situations.
Stewart then mentions “a particular New York critic who like to follow you guys all the time … and his number one thing is retention.” I hope I’m not too vain, but I do think that this comment is about me. So he asks how Eva would respond to charges of lack of retention of students and also about lack of backfilling.
I think that lack of backfilling is one of the main advantages that Success Academy has over other schools. When a public school loses 10 to 20 percent of their students each year — often some of the lowest performing students who have less stability in their lives — those students are replaced with other students who often also have less stability so in that way, the student population does not get any easier to teach. But Success only backfills up until elementary school, and even that is a bit shady since when a fourth grader, for example, gets a coveted spot off the Success Academy wait list, they are often brought in and tested and told that their reading level is too low so they can only come to Success Academy if they re-do third grade. Many of those families decline their wait list offer so even the backfilling has ways for Success to stack the deck. Another reason that backfilling is so important is that it would encourage Success Academy to be more accountable for retaining their students. As it is, Success Academy is rewarded when a student leaves and is not backfilled. But if they had to backfill, they might think twice about coercing a student to leave the school if they know that they can’t control who replaces that student.
She says that they don’t backfill after elementary school because it would be unfair to the students if she were to backfill and get a tenth grade who reads at a second grade level. Stewart just nods in agreement at this and I wonder where is the chops-busting Citizen Stewart from Twitter to challenge this explanation. Eva then says that their retention is very good and that they lose between 5 and 10 percent of their students each year while the neighborhood schools lose between 20 and 30 percent, to which Stewart responds “I’ve never heard that fact, actually.” I have see some analyses that have Success Academy losing about 10% a year and district school losing about 15% a year. Certainly I would expect Success Academy families who already are more stable than the average family in their district and who went through great lengths to get admitted to the school to try to stay at the school while for the district school, leaving one to go to another similar school a mile a way isn’t such a hard decision to make. So I would say that if Success attrition is below district attrition, it should be even more so.
And it’s not just about the attrition rate, but who leaves the school. I think I could win any argument about Success Academy with just a few publicly available data points.
This is one of the most telling. Here are the demographics for the graduating class 2018-2019
What this shows is that the graduating class was only 20% boys and 80% girls. Considering that these 28 students were once 80 kindergarteners, the school retained, on average, about 15% of their boys and 40% of their girls.
Eva says that families leave Success Academy for different reasons and she supports parents right to choose a school that meets their needs. She uses a ridiculous example of a male student who chose to leave the school between 8th grade and 9th grade because he didn’t think that he would have anyone to date at the Success Academy high school.
Moskowitz then wants to make the point that when you look at the low number of graduates she has (There were 16 out of 72 the first year, 26 out of 80 the second year, and 99 out of 350 this year), she says that that does not include students who have been left back but who are still in the school and will graduate the next year.
Moskowitz: “Some of our kids, often because of trauma, you know, take a fifth year of high school. And I support that. If you’ve had your father murdered (nervous laughter), your studies are not the most important thing at that moment. I have people criticizing that we started senior year with, you know, x number, I believe we started with 111 [author’s note: It was 114] if I’m remembering correctly, and we ended up with 99. Most of those kids are still going to our school. They’re just not graduating. It’s not a one size fits all. And we have a lot of kids who experience a lot of trauma and they may need to take a little bit longer.”
OK a lot to unpack here. A parent being murdered is quite an unusual situation and I seriously doubt that many of the students in the fifteen years of her school get left back for something as horrific as that. But she is right that Success Academy does leave back a lot of students. Taking a fifth year of high school, however, doesn’t usually work the way she is describing. Using her current senior class she says that there were 114 seniors in the beginning of the year and 99 of them graduated at the end of the year. So there were 15 students, over 10 percent of the class, she is to have us believe, that had to repeat 12th grade because they needed a 5th year of high school. It is more likely that someone gets left back in an earlier grade. I would think it very unusual that after making it though 12 years of Success Academy and getting to 12th grade that so many students would have to repeat 12th grade. It just doesn’t make sense.
I took a look at the numbers and found that the recent 99 graduates were actually 146 11th graders the year before with 44% boys and 56% girls.
The 99 students who graduated a year and a half later represent just 67% of the 11th graders from the beginning of 11th grade. And those 99 students were about 2/3 girls, so half of the boys who had made it to 11th grade either left the school or were left back either in 11th grade or in 12th grade and did not make it to graduate with the rest of their class.
Throughout this interview, Moskowitz operates in absurd extremes to defend her positions: Of course we suspend children when they throw metal chairs at teachers’ heads. We don’t backfill because there could be a 10th grader who reads at a second grade level, we don’t make things difficult for families which causes them to transfer out — kids choose to leave so they can have more dating options. We didn’t want to make 15 out of 114 12th graders who started at the beginning of this school year have to repeat a grade — they couldn’t focus on their studies because they were dealing with issues as serious as the murder of one of their parents. And, just to add one more comment about this one, even if it were true that one or more of those 15 12th graders lost focus because their fathers were murdered, wouldn’t it be the right thing to do to tell them that they’ve done K to 11 at Success Academy and some of their senior year so let’s give them a break and not add extra trauma to a horrific situation by making them re-do 12th grade? But Moskowitz operates in these extremes because if she were to admit that these extreme — and likely made up — scenarios are very rare.
Well, I definitely found these podcasts interesting to listen to. I was flattered to be mentioned, if not by name, even though I was being mocked for being a nay-sayer. It is important to scrutinize Success Academy since it is the only charter network in the country that is, at least in terms of test scores, doing with education reformers claimed would be done all over the place if they ever got into power. Revealing some of the data that puts some of their statistics into perspective should be something that all education reformers should be interested in learning about and should not be mocking. Genuine Success should invite and be able to withstand being prodded and examined and if it can’t withstand the scrutiny, that’s important to know that too. I play my part in raising concerns and even though it sometimes gets me into a Twitter fight, I think that it is important to do anyway.