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.