Success Academy and the education debates

The NY Times recently ran an article on the Success Academy “network” or chain of schools in New York City, which has gotten a fair amount of discussion in the blogsphere (here, here, and here, for example), and elsewhere in the press (e.g. here).  The story seems interesting to me as grounds for reflection about debates about education policy, and I’ll get to that, but first some background.

Success Academy first opened a charter  in Harlem in 2006;  there are now 32 Success Academy schools.  The founder, Eva Moskowitz, hopes eventually to found 100 schools.  Moskowitz’s vision is to create a school system, as one can read on the website:  “In elementary school, scholars gain a strong foundation of core knowledge and critical thinking skills, preparing them for the growing independence of middle school. By the time they finish eighth grade, they are ready for the college prep curriculum of our High School of the Liberal Arts.”   The system-within-a-system currently includes one high school.

Here are things that one can find out from the NYTimes article, which are echoed in reporting elsewhere:  The schools’ students score very high as a group on standardized tests.  The pedagogy is billed as “inquiry” oriented, but it is also highly regimented (“teacher-proof” is a term thrown about by some commentators).  Though Moskowitz objects to the term, Success Academy is clearly aligned with the “no excuses” approach to school culture — long days, rigorous behavioral rules, relentless emphasis on test success.  Two other elements are troubling to me — a combination of heavy teacher workload and micromanagement by administrators, with a concomitant high teacher turnover;  and public pressure/shaming  (e.g. posting students’ test scores for all to see and compare) as motivation.

Success Academy (SA)  is also open to criticisms made of charter schools in general (see a trail of critiques starting here, and also an interesting report on administrative costs in charter schools here. ) .  Like many charters, Success Academy’s success is bolstered by the way it shapes its student body.  Perhaps most significant, the number of students being tested steadily drops over the course of the grades (see some charts here which also show parallel information for other NYC schools)— as students leave, they are not replaced (after a certain age — the actual rule is in flux at the moment). The SA populations also vary in the % of ELA students enrolled (many fewer than in the general population) and (to a lesser extent) in other SES factors.

The second big difference between SA and the public schools at large is money:  It is attracting a lot of private investment, in a way that public schools generally do not.  The schools are freer from constraints and accountability in other ways as well, and altogether do not seem to embody a model that is going to be either sustainable or replicable, though of course time will tell whether the benefits outweigh the costs — and by that I mean the human costs.  It seems clear from the reporting that some students, teachers, and parents are satisfied with their experience at SA;  it is also clear that satisfaction is not at all universal.  For my money, it’s not as though these two things cancel each other out, they need to be weighed each on its own merits.

In reading this story, and following the ramifying analyses and opinings of the commentariat, I find myself thinking about three topics, to which I will return in my next post:  [1] Framing, and deciding what questions should be asked;  [2] the lack of relevant research, or even information; and [3] the role that charters are supposed to play (and the roles they actually do play) in what we are pleased to call our educational “system”.  More soon.

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