Gary Rubenstein enjoyed reading Robert Pondiscio’s book about Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy. He recommends it. What Pondiscio reveals is that SA does not cherrypick students, as critics charge: It cherrypicks parents.

One premise of the book is that the fundamental secret to Success Academy’s amazing standardized test scores, mentioned throughout the work is the filtering of the right families.  On page 266 he writes “The common criticism leveled at Moskowitz and her schools is that they cherry pick students, attracting bright children and shedding the poorly behaved and hardest to teach  This misses the mark entirely. Success Academy is cherry-picking parents.” Parents must go through a series of tests and hoops to jump through for their children to get into and to stay in a Success Academy school.  First there is, of course, the lottery. But winning the lottery is just the first step. Described in great — and frightening — detail in chapter 20 “The Lottery”, lottery winners have to attend a mandatory informational session where they are told how much work it is to be a parent of a child at the school — how lateness is not tolerated and there is a 7:30 AM start time.  How there is no transportation provided. How every Wednesday is a half day and there is no after school program. How absences require a doctor’s note. Many prospective lottery winners give up after that meeting. Then there are several other steps like extensive paperwork and uniform fittings and a dress rehearsal. Even Pondiscio is shocked to watch how a student who is deep on the waitlist eventually get admitted to the school.  But having families who are this willing and able to comply with the demands made by Success Academy leads, predictably, to high standardized test scores. He doesn’t say this so bluntly, but let’s face it — this is a kind of cheating.

But if you look at the back of the book, you see that it was well reviewed by various reformers including former NYC schools Chancellor Joel Klein.  How can this be? Well even though Pondiscio says the test scores need to be seen in the context of the family selection process, he also argues, several times throughout the book, that it is OK that they do this.  The argument is that wealthy families use their resources to get their child into a school that is a good fit for them so why shouldn’t poor families who have the resource of being highly functional use that to get their child into a school that is a good fit for them too?…

My first response to this would be that only 16 out of the inaugural 73 students even endured to graduate Success Academy.  If a higher percentage were actually served by Success Academy, then this argument of ‘shouldn’t they also get to choose a school that is good for them?’ would be more compelling.  Since for the vast majority, they did not choose a school that was good for them, even after going through all those steps, and they did ultimately choose to leave, so what kind of choice did they really get?  For the small number of families and children that turn out to be a good fit after all, there are at least double that number who regretted that choice and surely feel duped by the false promise that Success Academy actually cares about their children.

Maybe an analogy will make this more clear:  On airplanes, only wealthy people have the choice of flying first class while people who can’t afford that must fly in coach.  So now Success Airlines comes along and they have something they give people the choice of flying in something like first class except the seats are outside the plane on the wings and you have to get to the seats on your own and there’s a 2/3 chance that you’re going to be jettisoned from that seat before the flight is over anyway.  Should we say that having a choice like that is something that poor people deserve to have?

If Pondiscio is making the case here that Success Academy should have the right to exist, I’ve never said that they shouldn’t exist.  But their existence should not be to just benefit the few that are a good fit at the expense of not only the students at the neighboring schools but also the students who left Success Academy before graduating.  To do this, I think that they need more oversight and regulations and transparency about what goes on inside their schools.  And I’m glad that this book does a nice job about showing the sorts of abuse that occur in the school which I’ll get to next.