Katy Crawford-Garrett is an associate professor at the University of New Mexico.


Success Academies, a network of 47 charter schools in New York City that serves a majority of Black and Brown youth from poor communities, has long been considered a star of the school reform movement, garnering accolades from politicians, philanthropists, and the media. Founded by Eva Moskowitz in 2006, Success Academies can claim some of the highest standardized test scores in the state of New York (often outperforming wealthy suburban districts), a metric which suggests that Success has done the impossible – figured out howto erase the achievement gaps that have confounded reformers, school leaders, researchers, and policymakers for decades.


At the end of a 7-episode podcast on Success Academiesdeveloped by Gimlet Media and featured as part of the StartUpseries, the host, Lisa Chow, weighs the pros and cons of Success’s controversial approach to educating poor Black and Brown youth by stating, “Maybe these emotional and social costs that families are paying, maybe those are the costs of catapulting across the vast achievement gap.” The “costs” that Chow is referring to — as articulated by parents, students, and teachers in vivid terms throughout the program — include the loss of humanity, dignity, and mental health, casualties, it seems, to achieving top scores on standardized tests. As a teacher educator and former elementary school teacher, I wondered if this was really where twenty years of aggressive educational reforms had brought us- to a place in which parents from historically-marginalized communities have to choose between their child’s scholastic success and their overall well-being.


The podcast offers a disturbing window into the approaches that Success uses in order to glean its unprecedented results including a disproportionate focus on test prep (sometimes up to 6 hours a day), harsh disciplinary practices (including record-high rates of suspension), and the revolving door of young,inexperienced teachers willing to work punishing hours and enforce strict policies, even as they have little to no formal preparation as educators.


We do hear some inspirational stories of students like Moctarwho earns a full ride to MIT and powerful accounts of children who thrive, at least initially, within the climate of academic rigor. However, like so many narratives of American education, the story of Success rests on the tired binary between innovative charter schools and status quo public schools, between lazy union employees and hard-working young idealists, and the familiar trope of the White savior and the Black and Brown children who need to be tightly controlled as they learn to dress and act more White and middle class.


Eva Moskowitz, Success Academies’ controversial founder, and the anti-hero of the podcast, counters these critiques vociferously throughout the program insisting that her schools not only teach children to read but to love reading and that beyond the robotic and stifling test prep, there exists a rigorous curriculum focused on critical thinking. It is often difficult to believe Moskowitz, earnest as she sounds, in the face of the mounting evidence that Chow and her fellow producers provide. A former teacher shares in heartbreaking terms how she found herself viewing students solely as numbers and colors- indicators of their performance on various assessments – rather than as individuals with ideas, thoughts and questions. A young Black student at the first Success Academy High School struggles with the ways in which her cultural identity is denied by the organization after non-religious head scarves are banned at the school. In the face of this critique, Moskowitz contends in a bewildered tone that all students at Success are the same,ignoring the complexity of her students’ racialized experiencesin and out of school and refusing to consider how the racist policies her schools enact actually undermine her espoused goal of ensuring student success. Throughout the podcast, I marveled at the notion that the kids are taught to master the assessmentsand adhere to the policies but never to question either.


In the Ethnic Studies movement, which has similar aims to Success but contrastive instructional approaches, posing critical questions is central to the curriculum. For over forty years, Ethnic Studies advocates have worked diligently and doggedly to foster rich educational experiences for Black and Brown youth in an effort to connect academic achievement to students’ cultural identities and to avoid the harsh disciplinary tactics and arcane policies that predominate at “No Excuses” charter schools. In Tucson, for example, a Mexican-American Studies program was introduced in 1998 as part of an effort to address endemic underachievement among Mexican-American youth. In the intervening years, literature and history courses were offeredwith an explicit focus on Mexican-American identity. By every measurable metric, the program was a success as participation in the program led to an increase in graduation rates, college attendance, and academic performance while simultaneously validating students’ cultural histories and sense of identity. Despite these laudable results, the program never had near the financial investment of Success Academies (Moskowitz spent $5 million alone on an advertising campaign when her school buildings were under threat by New York City Mayor BillDiBlasio), and instead of being scaled up, Mexican-American Studies was deemed illegal by the state of Arizona and shut down in 2011. The decision was eventually overturned after a costly and lengthy court battle; yet rebuilding the program will take years and, in the interim, countless Arizona youth were denied the opportunity to take Ethnic Studies courses. All of this exists in sharp contrast to the ways in which Success Academy has grown exponentially over the past decade, starting with one school in Harlem in 2006 and now counting 47 schools across New York City.


In the meantime, Ethnic Studies advocates have workedtirelessly, often without financial resources, investments from hedge fund managers, or the high-profile political connections enjoyed by Moskowitz to create curricula that honors students’cultural backgrounds, teaches critical consciousness, and fosters academic achievement without forcing students to make painful choices to abandon their heritage and humanity to adhere to White middle class norms.


I typically begin and end my teacher education courses with aquestion: What is education for and why does it matter? As much as we want to believe that education enhances social mobility, we know that it actually reproduces inequality- a phenomenon that Eva Moskowitz laudably seeks to address. My hope is that my students, who will all become teachers in one of the poorest states in our union, understand that asking and re-asking this question is foundational to our work as educators. If our answer focuses on educational access at all costs, then we end up with models like Success where kids learn to obey, sit with folded hands, and forsake their identities. But if our answer involves cultivating students capable of participating critically and humanely in our democracy, then we will conceptualize schooling differently and imagine new possibilities. As Moskowitz passionately argues, poor and marginalized youth deserve access to opportunity. They deserve challenge and rigor. They deserve an education that prepares them for college. But they also deserve an education that acknowledges their humanity – a process that makes all of us more fully human.