I have sometimes wished it were possible to have a completely candid conversation with a teacher at a Success Academy charter school. Last week, with no advance planning, it happened.*
A young man who is related to me asked if he could introduce me to his friend, Ms. Smith (a pseudonym). He told me she teaches at Success and wanted to meet me. I said, “Of course.”
I had no idea what the evening had in store. I have talked to SA teachers before, always in public, not in the privacy of home, and they were always pleasant, neither boastful nor defensive.
When they arrived, I opened a bottle of white wine and broke open a box of macaroons. “Betty” (that’s not her name either) told me that she had worked at SA for five years. She teaches fifth grade.
What is it like, I asked.
She said she loves the children, but the atmosphere is stifling for both teachers and children. She is looking for another job. Everything is about test scores, and the competitive pressure never lets up. Right now, they are getting ready for the state exams, and signs posted everywhere say “Slam the Exams!”
I asked how long the test prep went on, and she said they have been doing test prep for months. She said the kids would not take spring vacation until the exams were finished.
What’s so bad about test prep, I asked her. She said some of the kids explode or break down. They are very young, and the pressure gets to be too much for them. They might start screaming or crying, and they have to be removed from the classroom until they calm down. The children are assigned a color depending on their test scores, and every classroom posts the names of the children and their color–red, green, blue, or yellow. I forget which is best and which is worst, but the goal is to shame the lowest performing students so they try harder to move up into the next level.
The test prep plus the ” no-excuses” climate of tough and strictly enforced rules unnerves some children, she said. And she felt badly for the children who were humiliated. The harshly competitive environment, she said, was dispiriting and joyless.
What happens with the children who can’t adjust to the highly disciplined demands of the school, I asked. She replied that these children might be suspended repeatedly or their parents or guardian might be called to the school every day. Day after day. Eventually, the child’s parent or guardian will withdraw the child because they can’t afford to miss work every day.
She realized she had had enough. The money was good, she said, but the stress was exhausting. She was also troubled by the non-stop political propaganda campaign. This year, she didn’t get on the bus with thousands of others to go to Albany and demand more money so the chain could expand. She didn’t like the way the children, parents, and teachers were being used as political pawns.
When I told her that none of the eighth grade students who had attended Success Academy had passed the competitive exams to enter the elite high schools of NYC, either last year or this year, she was momentarily surprised. Then, she said, that explains why Success Academy is opening its own high school.
Our conversation continued for more than a hour. It was clear that the scales had fallen from her eyes. She felt certain that the hedge fund managers bankrolling SA charters know nothing about the children, nor do they care about them. They want to win. They want high scores, period. Just like Wall Street. They want to be able to say at cocktail parties and dinner parties that “my school” got higher test scores than “your school.”
Why have you stayed this long, I asked her. I love the kids, she replied. She said someday she hopes to work for a nonprofit that won’t require her to sacrifice her ethics and principles.
*I thought this story was a real scoop, but then Kate Taylor of the New York Times beat me to it with this story.