I received an email from an anonymous teacher in Eva Moskowitz’s charter chain called Success Academy (formerly known as Harlem Success Academy until Eva decided to move into other neighborhoods in New York City).
When everyone else in the state bombed on the Common Core tests, Eva’s schools had high scores.
I asked the teacher about what happens inside these hallowed halls. The teacher said the typical work day is 7 am-6 pm at school, plus work at home. And here are the methods:
“Focus on English Language Arts and Math. We spend the vast majority of class time teaching ELA and Math all year long. Kids have several blocks of each daily. We do not teach history or foreign languages in elementary school. We do have a good science program. They have a Specials period every day too. Aside from that, it’s reading, writing, math from 8:00AM to 5:00PM. Obviously the extended day and extended school year helps in terms of sheer volume of time.
“Put the best teachers in testing grades. During the first few months of school, teachers and assistant principals are shuffled between grades and even schools. The goal is to put the strongest teachers in grades 3 and up. So a strong Kindergarten teacher might suddenly find herself teaching fourth grade.
“Test prep starts in November: ELA test prep starts in November for two periods a week. After winter break, we have daily hourlong ELA test prep. Then we add math. By late February, we spend several hours a day on it. The last few weeks are almost all day test prep.
“Custom Test Prep Materials: I think many schools use practice workbooks from publishers like Kaplan, etc. We have people whose job it is to put together custom test prep packets based on state guidance. Much more aligned to common core and closer to the test than the published books I’ve seen. Also, teachers are putting together additional worksheets and practice based on what we see in the classroom. Huge volume of practice materials for every possible need (and we use it all, too). Also many practice tests and quizzes that copy format of the test.
“Intensive organization-wide focus on test prep: For the last months and weeks before the test, everyone from Eva on down is completely focused on test prep. Just a few examples….
“We have to give kids 1/2/3/4 scores daily. Kids are broken up into small groups based on the data and get differentiated instruction. If they get a 1, they stay back from recess or after school for extra practice.
“Thousands of dollars spent on prizes to incentivize the kids to work hard. Some teachers have expressed concern about bribing them with basketballs and other toys instead of learning for the sake of learning. The response is “prizes aren’t optional.”
“We get daily inspirational emails from principals with a countdown, anecdotes about the importance of state tests, and ever-multiplying plans for “getting kids over the finish line” (these get old fast).
“Old-fashioned hard work: Teachers are working nonstop during test prep. Literally pour 100% of yourself into it day in and day out. We work hard all year, but test prep brings the hours and workload to a new level. I think the same is true of all staff in schools and at Network.
“I think those are the main points. We do not cheat on the tests, as some critics speculate. But we do devote an extraordinary amount of resources to them each year, arguably at the expense of actual learning. The justification I’ve heard is that these tests can determine our kids’ futures and we owe it to them to make sure they’re prepared. Obviously we as an organization are judged by them as well, so we make it a priority. What I find most disturbing is that we claim that the test scores are a result of our excellent curriculum…no mention of test prep. If we have faith in the curriculum, why not allow us to teach it and skip the test prep?
Then came this email:
I wrote to you earlier about Success Academy’s forced march. I apologize for remaining anonymous. I’m sure our PR team monitors all media outlets and I am really worried about losing my job.
It seems the news on the mandatory march is all over the web now, and I have an internal email to share, written by one of our directors, Jim Manly, in response to the backlash. It is copied below. To justify the march and everything else, senior management focuses on the positives and completely ignores the negatives. Eva employs the same techniques (one of her emails to teachers started, “When I walk through your classrooms, and see the incredible work that you are doing with our scholars, I just can’t understand how someone could try to oppose it. Why would anyone work against your tireless efforts to provide our scholars with a world-class education? How could science 5 days a week, and chess, and art, and sports, and raising the bar in math and reading be controversial? But it is.”)
Here is Jim Manly’s email:
“Why are we under attack?”
Eva asked this question at the leader-training day and it got me to thinking. Why do so many people, whose politics on many issues are described as progressive, have such a problem with charter schools? Consider the work we do each day and the families we serve who have been too long denied a realistic shot at upward social mobility in this country. Consider the failure factories that so many of us have worked in that produce absolutely abysmal results for the children they serve. Consider our results – truly the most outstanding in the state when demographic factors like income and parent education levels are considered. We are a true public policy success – proving that there is a solution to the issue of dysfunctional urban public schools that plagues our country and our educational establishment.
The honest answer to this question is clearly complicated. Part of it revolves around the very success that makes us so proud to work here. Many families who see our scholars clad in their orange and blue, in gorgeous classrooms, with high performing teachers get frustrated that this opportunity is denied their child. To them it doesn’t seem like their kids are possibly receiving the same amount of money and care that is being bestowed on our scholars. From this perspective the teacher’s union uses this apparent inequity to drum up suspicions that our schools operate beyond the public domain and are money machines created by big business. The fact is that teacher’s unions, with their huge bureaucracies and incredibly generous pension benefits, have so driven up the cost of public education that there is little room to spend on scholars and the resources they need to succeed. In addition, the job protections that have safeguarded teachers and principals alike are not as ironclad in our model and that is scary to those who fear that management will act capriciously and terminate employees without cause (in the most generous description of this fear). Politicians also fall in line because the unions have clout – they have money that is generated from mandatory dues and a motivated membership who remains politically active. Because charter schools serve such a small number of scholars it is easier to side with the majority rather than take a position that will embitter a well-funded and motivated supporter.
That leaves us at Success feeling like we work for Morgan Stanley. If you dare go on Gotham Schools’ blog you will see an outpouring of anger aimed at our work. While some of the questions are legitimate ones that we wrestle with everyday, the majority are either exaggerated examples of one scholar or teacher or completely fabricated hysteria designed to fire our opponents up. So despite our strong commitment to serve every scholar who walks through our doors, we are defined by the few who leave. Thus we cannot engage in the debate, like every public school, about the dilemma of how far we can go before we risk an entire class’ education in order to (poorly) serve a student with more severe needs who would benefit from a more appropriate setting. Unfortunately valid debates like this are lost in the noise about corporate privatization, rampant greed and other wild-eyed accusations that are the domain of the radical left and right. The rhetoric on the blogs is worthy more of conspiracy theories and tabloid journalism, not legitimate public policy debate. The sad truth is that the majority of the country simply doesn’t care enough about urban poverty and public schooling to rally around a cause that that is being fought on the fringes. So despite our incredible results we find ourselves characterized as the enemy by those with something to lose if we succeed.
The trick for our movement is to take the argument out of the fringes and in to the light of day. Success has built a better educational mousetrap that is reversing an endemic pattern of failure that haunts our urban public schools. We have shown that the staggeringly poor results of schools that serve predominantly poor children are grossly over-inflated. While there are educational issues that still require debate, the fundamental myth of destiny by tax bracket that lies at the heart of our country’s educational system has been exposed. So we must march. We need to take our case out to the mainstream and let them see that the only truly successful school in the city is going to have to pay rent. They need to understand that the way our city will reward a blue ribbon school in Harlem is by forcing it to cut its funding by 30%. We need to make people uncomfortable with the thought that under the name of progressive policy we are trying to close the only doors to opportunity that are available to children in poor communities. It would be easier if we didn’t have this burden and could just focus on teaching and learning. This work was never about our convenience however – it is about standing up for what is right. I look forward to standing with you on October 8th.”
That leaves unanswered this question: If a public school principal closed his or her school to conduct a political march, what would be the consequences?