Revealing Podcast About Success Academy — Part VI

Part 6 of Startup’s seven part podcast about Success Academy (available here) is titled ‘Fights.’

The first of the fights that it tells about is the fight for space to grow that Eva Moskowitz has had with Mayor de Blasio.  Some charter schools have their own buildings or they pay rent for spaces though in New York City they often move into existing schools, taking a floor or two at first.  This arrangement is called co-location.  They play a tape of De Blasio on the campaign trail in 2013 saying “Time for Eva Moskowitz to stop having the run of the place. She has to stop being tolerated, enabled, supported.”

About a month after de Blasio became mayor at the end of 2014, a high level DOE administrator called Moskowitz to tell her that three new spaces that she had been counting on, two to open new schools and one to add new grades at an existing school, were no longer going to be available to them.

About this news, they run tape of Eva saying:

EVA: I thought I must have misheard her. I cried. I mean I was crying on the phone with her… I was like ‘Kathleen, how could you do this? This is an existing school, you’re just throwing the kids out on the street? Where are they gonna go?’

The podcast then recounts the 5 million dollar PR campaign and the rally in Albany where Governor Cuomo even makes a speech in which he says “We will save charter schools.”

The TV ads are powerful.  Here is one of them:

The campaign is successful and the state legislature includes in the budget a new law where the city has to either find space in their own schools to colocate charter schools or else the city will have to pay the rent for those schools in other buildings.

The podcast only makes a brief mention of the other side of this argument — that the existing school that wanted to expand would be taking away space away from a special needs school.

But what the podcast never mentions, and something that they either purposely didn’t mention, or negligently didn’t think about, was that de Blasio was not in any way ‘closing’ that existing Success Academy middle school and, as Eva said, “throwing the kids out on the street.”  No, all he was saying was that if they wanted to grow, they would have to foot the bill for the new space.  So the melodramatic fear tactics that are used in the video with the disappearing kids was a lie.  All that would have happened if Eva had lost the battle with De Blasio would be that some of the money that Success Academy uses to pay for marketing or for PR or for defending them from the latest discrimination lawsuit would have to instead go toward rent.  The school raises tens of millions of dollars a year and the 5 million dollar ad campaign (funded, the podcast is careful to say, by an outside group) would have been easily able to pay for the rent for that school in a new space.  That school was not in jeopardy at all, it was just another lie and a cheap use of false drama, though the podcast fails to mention this.

The rest of episode 6 is about the New York Times publishing a hidden video of a first grade teacher ripping up a well-behaved child’s math paper and yelling at her because the child wasn’t explaining her thought process clearly enough.  It has become known as the ‘rip-and-redo’ video.


So the teacher wants the girl to show how to count with what sounds like “one and a split.”  The child gets confused and she sends the very calm girl to “the calm down corner.”  Then another kid comes up to do it and, though I don’t know exactly what this technique is, the kid does it very quickly so it seems like a very low level skill.  The teacher is disciplined, though not fired, and Eva says that this is not something she supports.

The big questions is whether or not this kind of behavior by teacher is common at Success Academy.  The podcast interviewed 26 current or former teachers there and of those, 21 of the 26 said that this is common.  There were also several teachers who admitted to using these extreme, one might say abusive, methods.  The fact that this ‘rip-and-redo’ is commonplace, according to the vast majority of teachers interviewed, is the biggest problem here.

When this video surfaced, there was a somewhat ironic role reversal among people in the education reform debate.  Some charter supporters who are always saying that teachers need to get fired more easily were defending this teacher, and some charter critics who are often teacher’s union supporters and try to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt were calling for the teacher to be fired.  Personally, I don’t think the teacher should have been fired if this truly was a rare occurrence for her (though, of course, it wasn’t otherwise the teacher’s aid who was taping this would not have been so ready to record this).  The issue is that Success Academy fosters this sort of pressure so it is likely that this was not just a lapse by this teacher.  Of course this teacher, Charlotte Dial, got her start in Teach For America.  She has since left Success Academy and is now the educational director of something called New York Kids Club, a preschool and enrichment program throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan.  Whether she trains her staff on the art of ‘rip-and-redo’ is anyone’s guess.

There is one episode remaining now in Startup’s attempt to answer the question of whether the pros outweigh the cons for Success Academy.

To be concluded …

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Revealing Podcast About Success Academy — Part V

Star Wars fans know that Episode 5 — The Empire Strikes Back, was the best of the Star Wars saga.  And of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, the most famous is surely his fifth.  Likewise, of the seven episodes of Startup’s podcast about Success Academy, the fifth (found here) is the most powerful and the most important.

To say that this episode has the ‘smoking gun’ would be an understatement.  This episode has not just the smoking gun, but a video of the culprit firing that gun.  I’m not sure why this episode hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.  Maybe because it is so many hours into the podcast and most people don’t listen to all the parts.  Or maybe there are so many Success Academy excuses and talking points weaved into all the other episodes that this episode just seems like a small blemish on a generally favorable portrait of the controversial charter network.  Whatever the reason, I’m hoping that people will take the time to listen to the whole podcast and to share it, along with my summary, widely.

This episode is entitled ‘Expectations’ and it explores whether or not the expectations Success Academy has for its students and for the parents of those students are something that the students and parents rise to meet or if they scare away potential families and families who struggle to keep up with those expectations.

They play a tape of Eva Moskowitz speaking to families who have been accepted into Success Academy:

EVA: Hi everyone, I’m Eva Moskowitz the founder and CEO of Success Academies. It’s very nice to meet you in this large auditorium.

LISA: Eva paces across the stage in stilettos, a fitted blue dress and leather bomber jacket, her standard attire. She’s speaking to a couple hundred parents, near Success Academy Union Square. That’s one of 30 Success elementary schools offering spots to new students.

EVA: First of all, congratulations for those of you who have won the lottery.

LISA: This year Success Academy had a little over 3000 spots for about 17000 applicants. That means through a random lottery, only about one out of every six kids got a spot.

Eva tells the audience that she designed Success Academy with the hope that kids would fall in love with school. They have science labs in kindergarten, kids learning chess early on. She touts the school’s high academic standards. But she is also clear about some of the things that parents might not like.

EVA: We believe in homework. A lot of it. So if you feel really strongly that that is not something you like, you probably shouldn’t come to Success. Cause we’re going to be arguing for 12 years about homework and we’re gonna win.

LISA: Want small class sizes? We don’t have that. And, of course…

EVA: Tests. Anyone against tests? Anyone want to be part of the opt-out movement? Great, thank you for your honesty. Success is not the place for you.

LISA: Success is not the place for you. Parents start hearing that line early on. Eva makes it clear at this meeting that they’ll expect a lot of parents.

EVA: We’re very very strict on kids getting to school on time. School starts August 20th and you must be here the first day of school, no exceptions. We expect at a minimum for you to return our phone calls. I had a parent who was refusing to meet with the principal. God forbid. No no no no no.

About half of the families that get into Success Academy after winning ‘the lottery’ choose to not go there, maybe because of messages like this.

The devastating part in this episode follows a 5th grader at Success Academy named Nia.  Nia had been at Success Academy since kindergarten and had passed both sections of the 3rd and 4th grade state tests.  But she was getting about a 70 average in 5th grade so the school said that she was at risk of repeating 5th grade.  According to the podcast, this is something that is said to hundreds of families each year.

Getting ‘left back’ is a big deal.  It has major consequences that can affect the rest of a student’s life.  From then on, that student will be a year older than her classmates, always having to explain why she is a year older, that she was ‘left back.’  The school said she would have to get her grades up, which she did, to about an 80.  But the school said that it wasn’t enough.  It didn’t matter that she was now comfortably passing.  It also didn’t matter that she had passed the state tests the previous years and that she was likely to pass the state test again this year.  They said that when they took it all into consideration they decided not to promote her.  However, they would promote her if she would transfer out of Success Academy.

The amazing hypocrisy here is that Success Academy is saying that the fact that this girl passed the state tests was not enough.  They are actually admitting that passing the state tests — the thing that the entire reputation of Success Academy is based on — is not an accurate measure of achievement.

The parent tried to appeal this decision and she even secretly taped the meeting she had with the administrator:

JO-LAINE: So I guess my question is, so this is a final decision? This is a final decision?


JO-LAINE: And I cannot appeal this process at all?


JO-LAINE: I cannot talk to anybody else about this process?

PRINCIPAL: If you would like to talk to someone you can reach out to the network.

JO-LAINE: Who, who in the network?

PRINCIPAL: You can just call the general number.

JO-LAINE: I don’t get anyone when I call that general number. Why are you doing this to my daughter? You know that she is a bright kid, you know she has potential. You know she does.

PRINCIPAL: Of course.

LISA: Of course she has potential, the principal says. And she notes the improvement Nia had made by the second trimester.

PRINCIPAL: She was at a 77 and we said if she continued going in that direction, she continued doing her homework, she continued really applying herself in class, then we could possibly promote her to the sixth grade.

LISA: Nia’s GPA had jumped from 69 to 80, and her grades for participation had trended up too. Jo-Laine asks where Nia would have needed to get.

JO-LAINE: So what is the passing GPA to be promoted?

PRINCIPAL: There is no passing GPA.

JO-LAINE: There isn’t a passing GPA, it’s so much ambiguity. How do I know how my kid is succeeding?

LISA: The principal points out that these decisions are not just about GPA — they consider a lot of factors. She says Nia doesn’t have the work habits to succeed in the sixth grade.

PRINCIPAL: So ultimately the issue is that she does not have independent work habits that she needs to be successful next year in a tougher grade with a more rigorous curriculum. Good habits of working, so like asking questions, trying hard, going back revising your work.

LISA: At some point during the back-and-forth, Jo-Laine gets more frustrated.

JO-LAINE: I have it in text message, ok, and in emails.

PRINCIPAL: Please don’t talk to me like that.

LISA: The principal says the conversation is no longer productive and asks her to leave.

JO-LAINE: I’m not leaving until we finish talking about… I do not agree with your decision.

LISA: Jo-Laine starts to say something to an assistant principal who’s also in the room.

PRINCIPAL: You’re not speaking to my assistant principal, this is my school to be clear.

JO-LAINE: Who are you talking to?

PRINCIPAL: I’m talking to you.

JO-LAINE: I am not speaking to you. You just told me I may not speak, I’m not, no.
PRINCIPAL: I’m done.

JO-LAINE: You cannot tell me I cannot speak to this woman here and that you’re going to call security on me.

PRINCIPAL: I will call security on you.

LISA: The principal calls security, and Jo-Laine is escorted out of the building.
JO-LAINE: and I left and i cried like a baby. I let out this howl when I left the building.

LISA: Jo-Laine said she felt defeated. All the opportunities she thought Nia would have because she won the lottery and got into Success were now disappearing. That’s because, if Nia was going to be held back, Jo-Laine wanted to take her out of Success when the year ended, even though the school had been Nia’s world since she was 5 years old.

what was the conversation with Nia that night?

JO-LAINE: You know Nia, things are going to be different. Same thing, same routine conversation, you got to go to school every day and do your best. Mommy has to be very honest with you. We need to try a new school.  I don’t think Success Academy is healthy for you. And she cried. Silent silent tears. And she’s like, ‘I’m going to miss my friends. This is all I know. I’m a little afraid of public school. But it’s okay Mommy.’ And that changed everything for me. I remember sitting on her bed and she’s like ‘Mommy it’s OK. You know I just want to be happy.’

LISA: While Jo-Laine was fighting to get Success to promote Nia to the next grade, she had also applied to several middle schools, as backups. And Nia had been accepted into a public school. It’s a selective one. Students have to have good marks and test scores from fourth grade to get in.

JO-LAINE: So I have the acceptance letter. And the first paragraph says, congratulations Nia, we want you to know that you were specifically chosen for this school for your academic achievement, thousands of kids applied to star academy and you were one of the 60. She was like ‘me? Oh my god, me mommy?’ and I am like ‘you’, and I could honestly say with all confidence, it wasn’t a lottery, it was like we chose you, we want you.

LISA: In Nia’s final report card, which she got in June, after the decision to hold her back had already been made, her GPA had gone up another few points to an 83. A few months later, she got her state test scores for fifth grade. Top scores again, fours on both.

The principal who defended this decision was, of course, a Teach For America alum.  So if Success Academy is leaving back students who are passing the state tests and getting an 83 average, but not meeting some nebulous metric that relies not on data, but on their gut feelings, what about the kids who are not passing the state tests?  Are we to believe that this same nebulous metric is somehow generous to those students?

Another Success Administrator is interviewed about the schools expectations

LISA: Do you think there’s such a thing as a bar that’s too high?

JAVERIA: For whom?

LISA: For kids at Success.

JAVERIA: Well see I think when people ask that question and I’m not saying you are. So please. I think when people say we’re too hard and we’re too rigorous I always ask is that because we run schools in poor neighborhoods? Do you mean is it too hard for poor neighborhoods? Because rich white kids are doing this all day and they’re paying for it.

LISA: It is a question you have to ask. Where is the bar? It seems like a very legitimate appropriate question to really think through.

JAVERIA: I do often think when that questions comes up… And by the way I wish we can control the bar but the bar often is determined by really elite colleges who get their kids great jobs.

LISA: Javeria tells me that Success Academy is trying to set its academic standards so that all students are on track to complete college in four years. Success says about 10 percent of its students get held back every year.  And half of those students end up leaving Success. When their alternative, their zoned traditional public school, is willing to take them at the next grade, that can seem like the more attractive option for families.

LISA: Do you worry about like the kids who are leaving because they were held over.

JAVERIA: I guess worry about that meaning… I guess that’s a thing, like do we think we’re doing something wrong and that’s why they’re leaving? like do we are we too rigid and too difficult and too painful of a schools so we’re pissing people off and they’re leaving? No I don’t. I mean I think I think…

LISA: Or just even studying like why kids leave? Like you know I’ve spoken to other charter school networks that are studying the kids who leave and really trying to understand that.

JAVERIA: I mean we can’t, we’re not a prison we can not make anyone sign up to do things they don’t want to do. And so that’s why I asked like is the issue should we ease our design in any way to keep more people is like I think where you’re headed in that question, which is no, we don’t want kids to come any later to school. We are going to continue to ask for them to wear a uniform. We are going to be rigorous. We are not going to willy nilly promote kids because it feels good.

LISA: Success doesn’t buy into the practice of social promotion — moving kids up through grades to keep them with their age group. The charter school network believes that promotion should be based on achievement. And in many ways, their position makes sense. You don’t want someone to graduate from high school, not being able to read an elementary school text. And yet by sticking to extremely high standards for kids, Success is, in effect, sending a lot of families to the same schools it says it’s saving them from.

So according to the podcast, with a statistic that surely came from Success Academy themselves, they leave back 5% of students each year and another 5% leave so they can escape being left back.  I think these numbers are way below the actual numbers.  I think this is one of the major reasons that students leave the school and based on their first cohort where 73 1st graders were whittled down to 16 eventual graduates, it is clear that a lot of students leave Success Academy.

Even the parent from the first episode had pulled her son from Success Academy when they threatened to have him repeat second grade.

On the podcast they say

A lot of families who leave Success, whether it’s because they were asked to repeat a grade, or were getting suspended, or just had had enough of Success’ inflexibility … a lot of those families go back into the traditional public school system, a system that Eva Moskowitz says is failing.

Then they compare Success Academy to a ‘failing’ traditional school, as measured by its test scores.  They show that the principal is much warmer in the way he deals with parents than the Success Academy administrators we have heard from in this episode.

Then a surprising thing happens where this principal Jesse Yarbrough goes off on a rant about how one of his biggest problems is that it is too hard to fire tenured teachers because of the teacher’s union contract.  I was disappointed to hear this.  I’ve taught at several ‘failing’ schools in my career and I’ve found mostly very hard working teachers at them.  And the few teachers who were not trying their hardest, well, I don’t think that our test scores would have changed that dramatically if we were to replace those teachers — there just weren’t enough of them to make a tremendous difference.  Somehow, though, on this podcast they found a traditional school where the principal did believe that the students at his school had only 20% passing the state tests because of the teacher’s union.  That is unfortunate since I’m sure that many principals would defend their staff and say that the test scores don’t reflect the commitment and quality of the teachers.

The rest of the part about the traditional school was good and showed how they were more humane to their students.  They also have this principal talk about how they get kids who were booted out of charter schools:

LISA: Jesse says his school regularly gets kids from charter schools, and what he sees are a lot of the feelings that our two families earlier in the episode expressed: feelings of shame and guilt.

JESSE: They tend to come feeling like they were pushed out. Parents have told us that the principal kept calling them in to say that the student wasn’t behaving or the student wasn’t doing their work and that kids are always coming home with infractions, whether it’s for uniform, for attendance, for lateness for homework, and if you’re constantly getting negative feedback about your child, you’re going to think that the school doesn’t want the child there. And a lot of parents come in and they say my son had so and so issues, my son was kicked out, they said that we couldn’t be there anymore. And that’s terrible too because then they have that same perception of the child.

This is where episode 5 ends.  I think any reasonable person listening to the part where they leave back the girl despite her average in the 80s and her passing the state tests, and their treatment of her mother where they call security on them, would have to conclude that there is something seriously wrong with Success Academy.

There are still two more podcasts.  Episode 6 features the ‘rip and redo’ hidden video and episode 7 is about the chaos at their first high school.  I’ll likely write those up as one post.  This one, episode 5, is really the main reason I wanted to write up these summaries, I recommend you listen to the whole thing since there are some things that are conveyed by the vocal intonations of the Success Academy administrators that a transcript can’t fully capture.

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Revealing Podcast About Success Academy — Part IV

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.

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Revealing Podcast About Success Academy — Part Three

So far, the first two episodes of StartUp’s podcast series about Success Academy has been completely one sided.  Fortunately, that begins to change in episode 3 (which can be found here).

To education reformers, grade 3-8 state test scores are the proof that schools in this country are ‘failing.’  And the promise that charter school supporters made about 10 years ago was that if charters got a chance to take the money and the students, they would show that they could get the 3-8 test scores up in their district.  For the most part, charter schools were not able to deliver on this promise.  All, that is, except Success Academy.  This episode tries to get under the hood of Success Academy’s very successful approach to getting high test scores, and what conclusions can and can’t be drawn from them.

On one metric, percent of students scoring ‘proficient’ on the state tests, Success Academy performs extremely well.  With over 90% of their students scoring a 3 or 4 on the state tests in math and reading, they have, by this metric, outscored the wealthier suburbs.  And compared to neighboring schools where they may have only 30%, this sounds like Success Academy is 3 times as good as the neighboring school.  But ‘percent getting a 3 or better’ metric can skew the comparison between two schools.  Here’s how:  The fifth grade test in reading takes place over two days and has something like 60 questions on it.  Students take the test and they are scored and rather than get scores based on percent correct, something everyone can relate to, instead they are ‘scaled’ to another number.  For 2017-2018, they were scaled to a maximum score of about 700 and a minimum score of about 500.  Then the cut scores are made.  Last year a score of 3, which counts as ‘passing’ was set at 609 for 5th grade reading.  Now suppose there are two schools, one has 90% ‘passing’ and the other has 50% ‘passing’.  It seems like the 90% passing school is much better than the 50% passing school.  But what if it turns out that in the 90% school, most of those students passed by just one question.  At at the 50% school, the students who did not pass, missed by just one question.  In that case, the schools wouldn’t be so different.  So a more relevant statistic is the ‘mean scaled score.’  I looked at the data and saw that the top Success Academy schools had a mean scaled score of about 625.  Now 625 doesn’t seem so far from the 609 cutoff, but maybe it is, there are not a lot of details released to show how many questions that is equivalent to.  The worst performing Success Academy 5th grade was the original Success Academy Harlem I, which had a mean scaled score of 614, just 5 ‘points’ from the cutoff and this worked out to 72% getting a 3 or better compared to some other Success Academy schools getting nearly 100%.  But to get a sense of how 614 is, look at the charter school just below with a mean score of 613, the Excellence Girls Charter School, they had just 59% getting a 3 or better.  Again, maybe that one point’ is hard to get — or maybe it is something like a fraction of one question on the test — the state doesn’t give any information about this.  What I’m getting at is that a little more information would be useful to put these numbers into context, the percent proficient statistic taken out of context can be miselading.

The episode starts at a ‘Slam the exam’ rally.  Most public schools can’t afford to rent out the Barclay’s Center Stadium.  Success Academy gets their students very hyped up and excited about the test.  And as they say in the podcast, the rally is just one of the things that Success Academy does in preparation for the test.  They also talk about how starting in 3rd grade a few months before the test, the students get, according to a teacher who left the school, about six hours of test prep a day.

Of course the six hours of day of test prep leading up to the test is a big factor, but I’ve wondered what the effect of the pep rally is.  Even though I do think it would be a waste of money, even if it worked, I would be curious to do a randomized experiment where some who did not go to Success Academy sat through a Slam The Exam rally.  Maybe that would make them try a little harder on the test.  There was a report recently that U.S. students don’t try as hard as students from other countries on standardized tests.

In the podcast they also show how one of the Success Academy schools goes to great lengths to make sure that the temperature in the rooms are optimal while students take the test.  Since the heaters are difficult to control, they have the custodians turn on the heat early in the morning.  Then, they turn off the heat and open the windows to get cool air into the room while the students take the test for optimal performance.

Another thing that Success Academy does different from other schools that could contribute to their overall efficiency in getting high test scores gets a brief mention in this podcast (and will get mentioned in more detail in a later episode)

Lisa Chow:  Success expects a lot from parents, too. Dropping off their kid literally a minute late is considered a tardy. If their kid is out sick… even if it’s for just one day, they need a note from the doctor.

Requiring a doctor’s note for a one day sickness is not necessary.  If a child wakes up with a fever like 101 or 102, the appropriate action by a parent is not to rush the child to the doctor.  Even if you call the doctor, she will usually tell you not to bring the child in for an appointment, she will tell you to keep an eye on it and make sure the child is eating and drinking fluids.  So Success Academy requiring a doctor’s note for a one day absence is way overboard.

And the thing about being late by one minute is another thing that can cause undue stress on a family.  If a child is late too many times at Success Academy, they are threatened with getting left back a grade — something that has not yet been mentioned in this podcast but will later.  There is no connection made here about how this kind of pressure on families helps boost the schools test scores.  And some families have plenty of pressure in their lives without having to worry that being a minute late for school could cause their child to be left back.  Some of these families will eventually choose to leave Success Academy and for sure Success Academy won’t miss them.

A former Success Academy teacher casts doubt on the significance of Success Academy’s test scores.  She says she went to visit a suburban school that had lower test scores than Success yet the students there were much better at critical thinking skills.  She also said that since the suburban schools don’t really care about the test scores and are not doing test prep for them, it is like a competition where the other team did not show up.

There is this one sentence foreshadowing episode 5 which for me is ‘the smoking gun’ episode:

Some argue that Success uses these expectations to push out lower performing students, which would boost their test scores. We’ll follow up on this critique in a later episode.

We learn in this episode about a family who were unhappy with focus on test prep that began in 3rd grade.  Their daughter attended Success Academy from kindergarten through 3rd grade, but school got a lot less interesting and fun once she got into a testing grade.  They eventually decide to pull their daughter out of the school because of the excessive test prep.  This decision, though, is downplayed by the podcast.

But instead of staying at Success, her family decided to take her out and put her in a traditional public school, in part because the testing focus was just too much for them. Madeleine has a good traditional public school option. But a lot of families at Success Academy don’t and they believe Success is their best option, their only option, which is why the charter school network has grown at an incredibly rapid clip.

The podcast found it necessary to put in the sentence “Madeleine has a good traditional public school option.” as it gives Success Academy the benefit of the doubt.  Yet there are plenty of families that leave Success Academy, voluntarily or ‘voluntarily’, to go to schools that would not be, according to the podcast, “good traditional public school” options.  Why not mention some of those families?  To me, this line is one of the most revealing let-downs in the entire series.  To imply that people generally only leave Success Academy if they have another option that is “good” by the podcast’s definition is misleading.  Every family that leaves Success Academy feels that they are going someplace that is better than Success Academy, regardless of whether it meets the podcast’s definition of ‘good.’

We also hear the story of a fourth grader who had just transferred into Success Academy that school year.  Even though the student had passed third grade in his school, Success Academy placed him into third grade since he was behind.  At the end of the year, this student passes the third grade test even though he was reading at a first grade level, they say, at the beginning of the school year.

This reminds me of one of the largest factors contributing to Success Academy’s success which is never mentioned in the nearly seven hour podcast series.  This is the controversial ‘backfilling’ policy of Success Academy.  Unlike public schools and most charter schools, Success Academy has a very strict policy of how it fills, or does not fill, the spots left by students who leave Success Academy.  For various reasons, about 15% of Success Academy students leave the network at the end of each year.  And Success Academy only replaces students who are from first to fourth grade.  This is why, for example, their first graduating class was 16 12th graders even though there were over 70 kindergarteners in that cohort originally.  And even when they do take new students in, it seems like something they like to do is have that student repeat the grade they had just completed.  Even other charter networks complain about how they can’t compete with Success since those schools backfill at all grades.  Even charter cheerleader Richard Whitmire complains about this.

No, even though this is a big part of why Success has the test scores they do, the backfill angle is never mentioned in this podcast.  And this is particularly surprising to me because I personally spoke with a producer at length about this issue the previous summer.  Surely an hour conversation about this and several follow up emails could have warranted at least one sentence about this huge issue.

To:  Gary Rubinstein

Sep 12, 2018 at 4:54 PM

Hey Gary! Hope you had a good summer. We’re still plugging away at this Success Academy series, are trying to understand attrition at Success v. district schools. I wanted to ask you a question about one of your blog posts.

It’s this one:

The hyperlink from “the latest data from the New York City Department Of Education” broke — I think the DOE rebuilt their website recently. Do you know where the data you were looking at for that lives now?

Also, do you have any idea how to calculate student attrition for individual public/zoned/district schools in New York City?

Producer, StartUp

To which I responded:

Sep 12, 2018 at 8:28 PM

Hi (redacted),

Here is that file attached. Also, as far as comparing Success Academy attrition to other school attrition, I like to look at the size of the cohort. So if Success Academy loses 20% of its students and does not admit new students to take their places, that is a 20% attrition. But if a public school loses 20% of its students and replaces all of them, I look at that as 0% attrition. I could see the argument that they both have 20% attrition, but I don’t think it is a fair comparison to do it that way.

If you ignore the number of students entering the school and just look at who leaves, I wouldn’t be surprised if, by that definition of attrition, if Success Academy has 10% attrition and district schools also have 10%. It is just misleading to compare those two numbers since if you don’t backfill, you end up with an easier to teach population.

I’ve never seen the ‘official’ attrition rate for the public schools, ones that would only consider who leaves without counting who enters the school. I just generally look at enrollment from, say, 7th grade one year to 8th grade the next year. I do this because I really think this is the most relevant way to measure attrition.


And the producer responded

Thanks so much for this Gary. On counting public school attrition, why do you think it’s more relevant to measure attrition by comparing 7th grade one year to 8th grade the next year? Wouldn’t new students entering the 8th grade year mask attrition after 7th grade?

Producer, StartUp

And I responded

Sep 13, 2018 at 6:20 PM

Hi (redacted),

I think it depends on the situation. I think if two schools both have 100 7th graders one year and then 100 8th graders the next year, I’d want to know how many of those 100 8th graders were among the 100 7th graders the year before. So in that case, I would be interested in the relative attrition between the two schools.

But if you have three schools that each have 100 7th graders, school A, B, and C. School A loses 20 students and don’t replace them. School B and C each lose 20 students, but the students who leave school B go to school C and the students who leave school C go to school B. To me, school B and C haven’t changed much as far as how strong their students are academically, the 20 students are more or less interchangeable. But school A doesn’t backfill so they lose 20 of their weaker students most likely and get better test scores because of it.

Thats why, for me, the size of the cohort is the relevant number to me, even if it masks the attrition rate.


So I certainly did what I could to inform the producer about this key component of Success Academy.  Imagine if no schools backfilled?  Where would students go who moved here from another state or from another part of the city?

Still, episode 3 is a lot better than the first two.  It does present some counterarguments and these will continue in the next three episodes before they go back to puff-piece mode in episode 7.

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Revealing Podcast About Success Academy — Part Two

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

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Revealing Podcast About Success Academy — Part One

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.

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TFA CEO’s Recent Podcast Interview

For the past six years, Elisa Villanueva Beard has been a CEO of Teach For America.  Over the years I have followed her various speeches and interviews to get a sense if TFA is evolving at all about its historically distorted view of education in this country.

In a podcast called SwampED, hosted by former Obama staff members, and leaning heavily in the ‘reform’ camp and Arne Duncan idolizing, they interviewed Villanueva-Beard the other day.

Villanueva-Beard starts with a story I’ve heard before about how she was the number one student in her high school in Texas yet she struggled to adjust to DePauw University.  She uses this story to support her claim that she makes in nearly every speech and interview that teachers in this country have low expectations for low-income students.  Her own high school teachers had low expectations for her and that’s why she was not prepared.  Those teachers, apparently, don’t deserve any credit for the great success that she has enjoyed throughout her life with the exception of maybe her first semester in college.

As always, Villanueva-Beard gets some ‘status quo’ references.  In response to a question about how TFA corps members fit in with the staff at their schools, she says:

We are bringing a type of person who is unafraid to challenge the status quo, whose on a mission to deliver for children and brings an energy to that.

Later on she get’s her second ‘status quo’ in:

You emerge from this … with a deep personal commitment to want to do something about this and then just really resolved to be part of the solution, challenge the status quo.

About TFA, she repeats the misleading claim that 85% of alumni are still working in education or impacting low income communities in some way even though only 15% of them originally wanted to be in education.  The first thing about the 85% number is that it comes from a checkbox question on a self-selected alumni survey where they have you check a box ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question:  “Is your current occupation in education or impacting low income communities.”  I’d be curious what percent of people, in general, would answer yes to that.

At the 21 minute mark, she says something very familiar, right out of the TFA ‘messaging’ guidebook:

Twenty years ago we were still asking can children in low income communities do as well as any other kid.  And now we have data and proof, hundreds of schools that show us otherwise.

Compare this to this 2009 interview that Wendy Kopp did with The Dallas News

Twenty years ago, the prevailing notion was that socioeconomic background determined educational outcomes. Today, hundreds and hundreds of teachers and schools are proving it doesn’t have to be that way and are showing us the path to success.

Early in the podcast, and then again at the end, Villanueva-Beard references a charter school she just visited in D.C., Ingenuity Prep, a school that hires lots of TFA corps members, you can bet.  She speaks about the high expectations the TFA teacher has for the kids there and how much energy she experienced in her visit hearing from the kids about their future ambitions.

But does Elisa Villanueva-Beard know that according the the school report cards, Ingenuity Prep is just considered ‘average’ even by D.C. standards.

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 9.33.13 PM

And does she know that their test scores are only a little better than the average D.C. school which, as we know, isn’t very high.  And for math, they even had a growth score that was below the average for D.C.

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 9.34.28 PM

Not that I take these numbers too seriously, but it is at least ironic that the TFA leadership of Rhee, Henderson, and Kamras who created these rating systems has judged this school, Ingenuity Prep, that so impressed Elisa Villanueva-Beard as a school that is just a bit above average.

TFA is an organization that is very slow to change.  They really only change when they think that not changing will impact their power and funding.  Still, I’ll continue to try to hold Elisa Villanueva-Beard to the high expectations that her high school teachers were unwilling to and continue analyzing her various speeches and interviews until I feel she’s met them.

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