Remember when people won’t applaud your Success
August 1, 2016
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Nobody I know disputes Success Academy charter schools get eye-popping results with students the rest of New York fails to educate.

Yet, more people are questioning how Eva Moskowitz, the Success network’s leader, gets the job done.

Jeff Copion calls her a “micromanager” in the first sentence of a textured New York Magazine profile of her. That seems like new shorthand for an intensely focused leader who suffers from the despairing lack of a penis. But I could be wrong.

This paragraph captures the cartoon that is drawn of Moskowitz:

At the crux of this sea change stands Moskowitz. At 47, she is feared, revered, and reviled in like proportions. As the face of the social-Darwinist wing of the local charter movement, she’s been cast as the grim reaper of moribund neighborhood schools, a witting tool of privatizing billionaires, and a Machiavellian schemer with her sights set on the mayoralty. “She’s the spokesperson in demonizing the public schools,” says Noah Gotbaum, president of District 3’s Community Education Council. “Eva’s philosophy is that you’ve got to burn the village to save it.”

Her critics now have a hammer to beat Success with: student discipline practices.  One of her school principals was exposed for having a “got to go” list of troubled students that needed to be counseled out of his school. He gave a pained apology. Moskovitz called the issue an anomaly, but took responsibility in a press conference.

The headlines are hysterical:

“Survival of the fittest at Success Academy,” writes teachers’ union grantee Judith Browne Diannis. “Did Eva Lie? Charter Queen claims “Got to Go” List an ‘Anomaly’,” writes teachers’ union enthusiast Alan Singer. Writing for Slate teen fiction author Laura Moser says “If Eva Moskowitz Weren’t Real, Charter School Opponents Would Have Had to Make Her Up.”

To my knowledge Browne Diannis isn’t experienced in operating a school that educates kids of color.

Singer is a teacher at Franklin K. Lane High School, a school that generated this headline: “The City’s most hated school; 20% bolt Brooklyn high school to escape crowding, crime, and low scores.”

No shade.

Moser is a charter school parent familiar with the struggles of balancing the needs of a few disruptive students with the goals of the majority of the students.

She says:

Is Success a model for how to educate disadvantaged students, or are its extreme practices doing a disservice to the charter schools out there that are taking all comers? (My son goes to one such charter, which, while not without its problems, responded to a few parents’ very, very loud calls to push out some “extremely disruptive students” last year by doubling down on its support system for them. Though I guess the fact that pushing these kids out was even a topic of discussion returns us to the original problem …)

Not all criticism comes from union apologists on the Left.

RiShawn Biddle has been giving Moskowitz the business for a while. We had a snappy exchange about it where I was stood for parents, like me, who purposefully chose schools with a strong focus on order, safety, rigor, and results. He took a moral position that equated Success practices with abuse.

Other Moskowitz supporters seem mum on the bad press. Some talking to me offline are torn about the issues, supportive of the results, queasy about authoritarian policies. For others, my guess is they see it for what the pile on for what is, an organized union attempt to take out a formidable competitor to their failing educational monopoly.

It isn’t all bad news for Moskowitz. She got a lift from Madeleine Sackler and James Lawler, the filmmakers who chronicled the efforts of four families competing with 4,000 other families seeking a seat in Success Academy. Their movie, “The Lottery,” is one of my favorites. By favorite I mean it punctured my chest, tore my heart out, poured lighter fluid on it, set it afire, put it on a stake, ran with it through the deepest recesses of my mind until it came to my conscience at which point it reignited my passion for emancipating black families from the mind-numbing starter prisons seemly good people think are appropriate for other people’s children.

Sackler and Lawler say:

We witnessed the overwhelmingly positive impact that the Success Academy’s teaching philosophy and methodology have on its students. We also saw the enthusiasm of the majority of parents with children in the school and the joy within its classrooms. But you wouldn’t know any of this from reading this article.

Instead, you focus on the experience of a handful of disgruntled parents. The implication is that Success Academy’s rigorous culture comes at an unacceptable cost.

Success has some of the lowest attrition rates in the city: Its schools lose only 10 percent of students as compared with district schools, which lose 14.3 percent. In neighborhoods like Harlem, that number climbs to 20 percent.

In New York City, only 35 percent of students passed the state math exam. At Success, that number is 93 percent.

Given the historic results that Success has achieved, the implication that its culture of excellence comes at too high a price is unfair. To the extent to which this article and others like it makes it more difficult for schools like Success, which now serves 11,000 children, to expand, it does a grave disservice to those children, to our city and to our country.

Libby Nelson has a good Vox explainer about the controversy dogging Success Academy. The piece draws an inappropriate between Success and the broader movement of charter schools (no charter chain in America is like Success), but it focus attention about the the real point of education advocacy, results for marginalized children.

Students at Success Academy schools do incredibly well on standardized tests, particularly compared with students in New York City schools as a whole. The charter school chain enrolls 11,000 students, most of them black or Hispanic and poor, in 34 schools across the city.

This year, 93 percent of Success Academy students tested as proficient in math in 2015, compared with just 35 percent of kids in New York as a whole; 68 percent tested as proficient in reading, compared with 30 percent citywide.

Even among urban charter networks, those are outstanding results.

My pro-reform friends are right to be vigilant about discipline practices are unacceptable. The school-to-prison pipeline is real. I’m just at a different point on the continuum of how strict we think schools should be in order to produce results for poor kids who are not disruptive or can be easily corrected for positive behavior. I suspect the thousands of families trying to get into Success Academy are with me on that.

For organizers opposed to charter schools (especially successful ones that discount the prevailing “poor-kids-can’t-learn” gospel of failing districts), I just can’t. Their self-interest is naked. Doubly so because they seem so inattentive to matters of equity in traditional, unionized, industrialized district schools.

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