“Say whatever you want about Eva Moskowitz; At least she makes the trains run on time.”
Because the above comment, not directed at me, came from across the dinner table in a large, noisy banquet room, I wasn’t able to hear responses. However, the speaker was clearly praising Moskowitz for her schools’ academic success, not equating her with the Italian Fascist dictator and Hitler ally.
But it got me thinking about both Mussolini and Moskowitz, one of whom was shot while trying to flee to Switzerland, the corpse then mauled by the public before being hanged upside down from a steel girder in a Milan suburb, while the other is riding high on a wave of adulation stoked by puff pieces in major publications including The Atlantic. In addition to a commitment to efficiency, could Moskowitz and Mussolini be close in other ways?
Back to Mussolini: How did Il Duce get the trains to run on time? Could he have ordered them to do whatever was necessary to stay on schedule? Perhaps he issued a directive: ‘If people are still trying to get on the train, but it’s time to leave–just leave.’ He might have added, ‘If a flock of sheep, or some school children, are on the tracks, don’t slow down but toot your horn and plow on through so you can stay on schedule.’ Perhaps there was a third fiat: ‘If a train is so crowded that it cannot get up to full speed, just toss some passengers off the moving train and get back up to speed.’
If tactics like that enabled Mussolini’s trains to stick to the schedule, then he and Eva Moskowitz have something in common, because the latter has a long history of discarding students who don’t meet her exacting standards. As Kate Taylor in the New York Times (also here). Juan Gonzalez in the New York Daily News (here), (here) and (here), and my colleagues and I on the PBS NewsHour have reported, Success Academies use a wide variety of questionable tactics to weed out students who are not performing–or do not seem likely to perform–well on bubble tests. Those tactics keep her trains running on time, I.E., scoring at the top of the charts on standardized tests.
Elizabeth Green’s endorsement of Success Academies and their approach to education The Atlantic, headlined “How Charter Schools Won,” is particularly disappointing. Green mentions Taylor’s New York Times reporting but only in the context of Moskowitz’s attacks on her. Green ignores reporting done by Gonzalez, a two-time recipient of the George Polk Award. If she had contacted me, I could have introduced her to a Success Academy custodian who told us about regularly emptying student vomit from the wastebaskets. Although he declined to appear on television, I believe he would have gladly educated Green.
The omissions in Green’s article (and, to be fair to Green, in most coverage of Moskowitz) are almost too numerous to mention: She does not tell her readers that Moskowitz drives away children–some as young as five–by excessive use of out-of-school suspensions. Banning kids from school for days at a time is an effective device for getting rid of children, particularly when the parents have jobs outside the home. And it’s easy to get suspended from Success Academy. On my blog I published Success Academies’ draconian list of offenses that can lead to suspension, about 65 of them in all. “Slouching/failing to be in ‘Ready to Succeed’ position” more than once, “Getting out of one’s seat without permission at any point during the school day,” and “Making noise in the hallways, in the auditorium, or any general building space without permission” can get a child an out-of-school suspension that can last as long as five days. The code includes a catch-all, vague offense that all of us are guilty of at times, “Being off-task.”
Let’s play out how this might work: When an out-of-school suspension is handed out the first time, maybe the Mom asks her mother to watch the child; the second time, maybe her sister can pitch in. But the third one…that’s probably when the Mom decides to seek another school for her first grader. Was that the administration’s goal? In our NewsHour piece we reported on the out-of-school suspensions at one Success Academy and a co-located district school, and the numbers were staggering. Kate Taylor reported on one Success Academy principal’s ‘Get Rid Of’ list. How many others have similar lists?
Although Success Academies are public (charter) schools funded with taxpayer dollars, she does not fill open spaces (after grade 3) when children leave. Law-abiding public schools are required to take all comers.
What is also missing from Green’s puff piece are other steps Moskowitz takes to ‘cull the herd,’ steps that seem designed to eliminate all but the most dedicated parents. For example, Success Academies does not participate in the free transportation for students. What is the impact of that? Does it eliminate single parents who work and don’t have time to bring their children to school? Is it designed to do that? Do any other charter schools pass up this perk? I have not found any.
Green does not bring up an important question: what happens to the children who do not meet Moskowitz’s standards? Whether they leave of their own accord, are pushed out, or are effectively thrown out, they have to go to school somewhere. If the Moskowitz model were to be widely accepted, which is what Green is endorsing, where would those children go to school?
Green’s article (and other superficial press coverage) ignore student turnover, a critically important measure of school success. After all, if students are leaving in droves, something is amiss. There are two obvious ways to measure retention, one that’s brutally honest, and one that obscures the facts. Guess which one Moskowitz employs? Here’s the honest way: The charter network known as KIPP counts students from Day One of the school year through the beginning of the next school year, meaning that whoever drops out during the summer is counted as a loss (and, from KIPP’s point of view, a failure on its part). That’s 365 days. However, strictly speaking, charter schools are allowed to count from the district’s official ‘count day’ in early October and can stop counting on the last day of school. That’s about 260 days, not 365. Doing it that way means a school does not have to report any children who leave before the ‘count day’ (perhaps because administrators have ‘encouraged’ them to leave). Nor does a school have to report those who drop away during the summer. That narrow approach is how Success Academies measures its own retention…and they still don’t do all that well.
Teacher turnover is another key measure of the health of a school that is overlooked. Teacher turnover is high at Success Academies.
Elizabeth Green admits that Eva Moskowitz is scary to cover. In our reporting, we learned just how frightened people are; close to a dozen parents whose children had been expelled from Success Academies for what seemed to be trivial offenses changed their minds, at the last minute, about appearing on camera. The source I most regret losing is that custodian who told us how many times a day he had to empty vomit from the wastebaskets in the Success Academy classrooms.
While Green is correct about the academic achievements of Success Academies, she does not explore disturbing patterns and numbers. Had she done so, she might have been less enthusiastic. How many of Success graduates have done well enough to gain admission to the New York City’s selective high schools like Bronx Science? Last time I checked, it was zero. And Green, a veteran reporter, must have heard stories about how Success kids, after years of regimentation, proved unable to handle a relatively unstructured environment. In Moskowitz’s own Success Academy high school, an attempt at a less-structured environment failed because the graduates of her highly regimented K-8 system were unprepared for even a small taste of freedom
Success Academies and their founder ignore the wisdom of Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Because Moskowitz worships test scores, students at her schools spend an inordinate amount of time being tested or practicing for tests. Moreover, they are rewarded for obedience and punished for drawing outside the lines and thinking outside the box. Who on earth thinks these students are being prepared for life in a complex society?
Dr. Moskowitz is very smart, focused and ruthless. She knows how to work the system, and she has humiliated Mayor de Blasio more than once. On one level, it’s tragic that she has bought into the ‘test scores rule’ approach to education. She does have some ‘progressive’ instincts that, had she followed them, might have produced schools that children want to attend.
However, at base, Moskowitz’s instincts are dictatorial, not democratic, and in that she resembles Mussolini, both authoritarians at their core. While it is true that democracy is messy (one of Green’s complaints), there are plenty of examples of effective schools. The best schools approach each child with a paradigm-shifting question, “How is this child intelligent?” Success Academies ask the opposite question: “How smart is this child?”
Moskowitz has perfected a ‘sorting machine.’ Not only does she sort children by test scores; she also discards those who don’t measure up. One could defend sorting if the goal were to create the best ways to help all children, but she does not do that. Instead, she discards.
I suspect that Green did not think through her endorsement very carefully, even though she wrote on Chalkbeat, the electronic newsletter she co-founded, about her anguish. I am not alone in being concerned. One other concerned observer, Andrea Gabor, just published an article worth reading.
There is clearly a powerful Moskowitz bandwagon—the $250,000 Broad Prize for charter networks, strong support from Governor Andrew Cuomo, multiple millions from billionaire supporters Dan Loeb, John Petry, Julian Robertson, and others, uncritical pieces in New York Magazine and The Atlantic, and a cautiously skeptical piece in The New Yorker. I am a contrarian. I believe that Success Academies represents an approach to schooling that we need to move away from–and as quickly as possible.