A few weeks ago, I wrote a general defense of charter schools, following John Oliver’s unwarranted rip on the public school alternative for American kids. A basic summation is that the federal government is too busy, and the public school system too vast and knotty, for any one agency/policy to steer aright.
Today, it’s time to get specific. And there’s no better place to begin than in New York City, with the near-fantastical tale of urban student achievement through the network of Success Academy charters.
It will surprise few readers to learn that urban students rank lowest on the scale of academic achievement. They consistently underperform their suburban peers, a trend that shows no sign of abating.
This disparity is a fraught issue, and many will tell you that the problem lies with academic testing itself, or that the real source of different outcomes stems from a lack of funding, or some wholesale cultural prejudice built into our schools, or a combination of all three. (It’s not. The definitive predictor of academic underachievement is poverty, regardless of race/location/etc.)
But none of that explains why NYC inner-city students at Success Academy charters (93% of them children of color) are outperforming their counterparts in wealthy districts across the state, scoring higher on precisely those tests that are supposedly biased towards privileged suburban dwellers.
Some history: Begun ten years ago by founder Eva Moskowitz, the first Success Academy opened its doors to Harlem elementary students in 2006. Three years later, those Harlem students would score in the top 1% of all New York public school kids, with an unheard-of 97% pass rate on state exams.
Their first year in operation, Success Academy enrolled 165 Kindergarten and 1st grade students. They now teach 14,000 students, at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, running 41 schools in four of New York City’s burroughs.
This kind of achievement seems almost… excessive. How could the same students who would almost certainly fall well behind the statewide median, should they attend their local public school, be suddenly vaulting instead into the stratospheric height of “top 1%?”
What Eva Moskowitz has to say is enlightening. In a 2014 interview with the Wall Street Journal, she put it this way: “We think one of the sins of American education is intellectually underestimating children.” Additionally, Moskowitz observed of many public school classrooms, “It’s incredibly boring… engagement… can be done tomorrow, if the adults decide that boredom is not acceptable, and you embrace a curriculum that’s interesting and rigorous.”
“Interesting and rigorous.” Chasing after these two goals, Success Academy has developed a curriculum and culture whose results are impossible to argue with.
In 2016, the top five performing New York public schools in math were all Success Academies. All five of them. Perhaps more impressive, students with disabilities and English Language Learners (ELL for short, denoting students who speak English as a second language) outperformed their non-disabled, non-ELL peers.
The stats speak for themselves:
This does not mean Success Academy is immaculate. In February 2016, video surfaced of a 1st grade teacher overreacting to a student’s confusion about a math problem.
As a former teacher, and a mother, I am stricken by the abject meanness on display in the classroom. It’s an overreaction, and it borders on cruel. If this teacher’s tone, not to mention extreme emotional response to a math mistake, were the norm at Success Academies, I’d say we were looking at real problems.
But as a former teacher, and a mother, I am also aware that humanity interrupts us sometimes. We lose our cool, maybe overreact, maybe yell or even slam a cabinet door. Kids don’t deserve the wake of our negative emotions; but learning how to navigate and maintain our cool is part of everyone’s “growing up” experience.
(I may also be somewhat steely here, as I had a 1st grade teacher who makes this one look rather maternal by comparison).
All that acknowledged, this sort of incident is rare at Success Academies, and we can reasonably infer that similar behavior goes on at public schools as well.
It’s not ideal, and it’s not acceptable, but it is a possibility when hiring staff to teach 14,000 students.
You would not know that from the breathless headlines that followed. The Huffington Post lead with “Success Academy’s War on Children,” an article that advocated for investigating, and in fact shutting down, the entire network of schools.
There are additional accusations that Success Academies do not face the same challenges as public schools. Homeless students, for one, are too busy trying to survive with their families to enter the famed lottery system that provides one a slot at Success Academy. Those kids end up in public schools.
Diane Ravitch also wrote a thought-provoking article for The Nation, in which she questions the attrition rate at Success Academies. “The only Success Academy school that offers grades three through eight (the testing grades) tested 116 third graders but only thirty-two eighth graders. Three other Success Academy schools have expanded to sixth grade. One tested 121 third graders but only fifty-five sixth graders; another, 106 third graders but only sixty-eight sixth graders; and the last, eighty-three third graders but only fifty-four sixth graders. Why the shrinking student body?”
In other words, why are students leaving, and how would test scores change if those open slots were filled?
But my question is, to what extent does that matter?
Students might be leaving because they move, or the curriculum is just too demanding, or their friends go to a different school they want to join, or whatever. And though I wish those open seats would go to new kids, Success Academy is under no obligation to invite new students in who don’t understand or appreciate the structure or mission of what they’re trying to accomplish.
Another way to look at it: The fifty-four sixth grade students in Ravitch’s final example, the ones who did stick it out with Success Academy, and went on to exceed state standards, which is by no means the sole goal of school, but is certainly better than failing on those exams… why don’t they deserve that education, just because a set of other kids, for whatever reason, did not stay with the charter school?
Charter schools cannot replace the entire public school system. In fact, our education is rather decentralized enough already. If your local K12 is failing, the big secret you should know?
You have actual agency to fix it. You really do. Whether running for the school board, emailing the principal and teachers, organizing with other concerned parents, I promise: you can change what is happening in your community, at the local and district level.
It’s one of the little-known strengths of American public schools.
You’re more empowered than you think.
But for under-served communities, like the ones Success Academies are targeting, there are systemic, structural issues that often prevent this kind of intervention. I mentioned earlier homeless students. There is also the fact of high numbers of single-parent homes, which makes parental involvement much harder. Additionally, many of the parents in these neighborhoods did not have positive experiences with the school system themselves.
That makes it less likely that they have faith in education to be a force for good. Why invest limited time and energy in an institution that failed you?
And so this is precisely where charter schools are most needed.
And most especially, the unique model that has made Success Academies such a soaring… well, success.
Photo: Getty Images
Source: 30dB.com – Charter Schools
“At only 46% positive in social media articles like this showing the success of Charter Schools are greatly needed if the tone of the discussion is going to change on the subject.” – HowardK 30dB