identifies episode 5 as the crucial reveal about Success Academy,

Gary Rubenstein identifies episode 5 as the crucial reveal about Success Academy, where even a supportive reporter notes the behaviors that shows the central message of Success Academy: Control.

Star Wars fans know that Episode 5 — The Empire Strikes Back, was the best of the Star Wars saga.  And of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, the most famous is surely his fifth.  Likewise, of the seven episodes of Startup’s podcast about Success Academy, the fifth (found here) is the most powerful and the most important.

To say that this episode has the ‘smoking gun’ would be an understatement.  This episode has not just the smoking gun, but a video of the culprit firing that gun.  I’m not sure why this episode hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.  Maybe because it is so many hours into the podcast and most people don’t listen to all the parts.  Or maybe there are so many Success Academy excuses and talking points weaved into all the other episodes that this episode just seems like a small blemish on a generally favorable portrait of the controversial charter network.  Whatever the reason, I’m hoping that people will take the time to listen to the whole podcast and to share it, along with my summary, widely.

This episode is entitled ‘Expectations’ and it explores whether or not the expectations Success Academy has for it’s students and for the parents of those students are something that the students and parents rise to meet or if they scare away potential families and families who struggle to keep up with those expectations.

They play a tape of Eva Moskowitz speaking to families who have been accepted into Success Academy:

EVA: Hi everyone, I’m Eva Moskowitz the founder and CEO of Success Academies. It’s very nice to meet you in this large auditorium.

LISA: Eva paces across the stage in stilettos, a fitted blue dress and leather bomber jacket, her standard attire. She’s speaking to a couple hundred parents, near Success Academy Union Square. That’s one of 30 Success elementary schools offering spots to new students.

EVA: First of all, congratulations for those of you who have won the lottery.

LISA: This year Success Academy had a little over 3000 spots for about 17000 applicants. That means through a random lottery, only about one out of every six kids got a spot.

Eva tells the audience that she designed Success Academy with the hope that kids would fall in love with school. They have science labs in kindergarten, kids learning chess early on. She touts the school’s high academic standards. But she is also clear about some of the things that parents might not like.

EVA: We believe in homework. A lot of it. So if you feel really strongly that that is not something you like, you probably shouldn’t come to Success. Cause we’re going to be arguing for 12 years about homework and we’re gonna win.

LISA: Want small class sizes? We don’t have that. And, of course…

EVA: Tests. Anyone against tests? Anyone want to be part of the opt-out movement? Great, thank you for your honesty. Success is not the place for you.

LISA: Success is not the place for you. Parents start hearing that line early on. Eva makes it clear at this meeting that they’ll expect a lot of parents.

EVA: We’re very very strict on kids getting to school on time. School starts August 20th and you must be here the first day of school, no exceptions. We expect at a minimum for you to return our phone calls. I had a parent who was refusing to meet with the principal. God forbid. No no no no no.

About half of the families that get into Success Academy after winning ‘the lottery’ choose to not go there, maybe because of messages like this.

The devastating part in this episode follows a 5th grader at Success Academy named Nia.  Nia had been at Success Academy since kindergarten and had passed both sections of the 3rd and 4th grade state tests.  But she was getting about a 70 average in 5th grade so the school said that she was at risk of repeating 5th grade.  According to the podcast, this is something that is said to hundreds of families each year.

Getting ‘left back’ is a big deal.  It has major consequences that can affect the rest of a student’s life.  From then on, that student will be a year older than her classmates, always having to explain why she is a year older, that she was ‘left back.’  The school said she would have to get her grades up, which she did, to about an 80.  But the school said that it wasn’t enough.  It didn’t matter that she was now comfortably passing.  It also didn’t matter that she had passed the state tests the previous years and that she was likely to pass the state test again this year.  They said that when they took it all into consideration they decided not to promote her.  However, they would promote her if she would transfer out of Success Academy.

The amazing hypocrisy here is that Success Academy is saying that the fact that this girl passed the state tests was not enough.  They are actually admitting that passing the state tests — the thing that the entire reputation of Success Academy is based on — is not an accurate measure of achievement.

The podcast goes on to compare SA to a regular public school. Gary finds the comparison shallow and disappointing.