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Janresseger: Misery and Behaviorism Shape Climate at New York’s Success Academy Charters

I believe that John Dewey best expressed what ought to be the goal of public schools: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, 1899, p. 1)

New York City’s Success Academy Charter Schools, profiled in-depth yesterday by Kate Taylor in the NY Times, represent another kind of vision.  Success Academy Charters, with 43 schools and plans for rapid expansion, are part of a broad movement of schools designed to turn children from failures into successes by modifying their behavior and punishing them until they try harder and harder.  The children’s success is defined as we measure it these days, by their standardized test scores.  Very few people who believe themselves successful would enroll their children in such test-prep factories, which are designed and funded by the privileged specifically for other people’s children.  Eva Moskowitz, who founded Success Academies and continues to operate the network, depends on her hedge fund philanthropist friends, who added $22 million in operating dollars in 2013 to the $72 million the schools collected in public funds.

Success Academy Charters embody the Gradgrand philosophy of education described by Charles Dickens: “I shall have the satisfaction of causing you to be strictly educated; and you will be a living proof to all who come into communication with you of the advantages of the training you receive. You will be reclaimed and reformed.”  (Hard Times, Signet Classic edition, p. 55)  Success Academies offer a no-nonsense, utilitarian education that prepares a child for the state standardized test.

Maybe you don’t agree with my assessment of Eva Moskowitz’s New York City Success Academy Charter Schools.  You can decide for yourself, because Kate Taylor has written a fair and balanced profile that describes exactly how these schools operate.  I urge you to read it carefully and then reflect on what’s happening at school for Success Academy’s students and their teachers.

Moskowitz’s schools produce student success on the annual standardized test.  Beginning in January, three months before the mid-April examinations, the test-prep regimen begins: “To prepare for the reading tests, students spend up to 90 minutes each day working on ‘Close Reading Mastery’ exercises, consisting of passages followed by multiple-choice questions.  The last two Saturdays before the exams students are required to come to school for practice tests.  Students who do well on practice tests can win prizes, such as remote-controlled cars, arts and crafts kits and board games. Former teachers said they they were instructed to keep the prizes displayed in the front of their classroom to keep students motivated.  Students who are judged not to be trying hard enough are assigned to ‘effort academy.’  While they redo their work, their classmates are getting a reward—like playing dodge ball against the teachers, throwing pies in the face of the principal or running through the hallways while the students in the lower grades cheer.”

Students at Success Academy do succeed on the tests for which they are prepared.  Taylor reports that 64 percent passed the state reading tests and 94 percent passed in math, far beyond the average New York City passing rates: 29 percent in reading and 35 percent in math.

Moskowitz’s schools follow a particular strategy for success, however.  Success Academies, like KIPP schools, depend on behavior modification, punitive discipline, and competition. Students sit at attention with clasped hands. They are expected to follow the teacher with their eyes. They march to the lunch room in rows, follow a teacher’s orders to stop and start walking, and refrain from talking while moving through the hallways.

Teachers are instructed to wield shame as a motivator.  In a note to her staff after scores on practice tests were low, one teacher-leader wrote: “We can NOT let up on them. Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack will go to effort academy, have their parent called, and will miss electives.  This is serious business, and there has to be misery felt for the kids who are not doing what is expected of them.”  Students scores on practice tests are tracked on colored charts that are a fixture on the walls of the schools’ hallways.  Names of children and their performance levels are posted —with failing students’ names appearing in a red zone at the bottom of the charts.

Turnover of teachers at Success Academies is high.  Taylor interviews a number of teachers who have chosen to leave, because of demands for eleven-hour work days that left them unable to devote enough attention to their families, and because of discomfort with the schools’ learning strategy based on shame and misery.  One former special education teacher said she “would cry almost every night thinking about the way I was treating these kids, and thinking that that’s not the kind of teacher I wanted to be.”

Student suspension rates at Success Academies are significantly higher than in the surrounding public schools. “Students who frequently got in trouble sometimes left the network,” writes Taylor. “Success students who leave after fourth grade are not replaced because, Ms. Moskowitz said, new students entering at that point would be too far behind their classmates.” Taylor reports that Success Academies have fewer students whose primary language is not English and fewer special-education students.  And to make more time for the subjects being tested—math, language arts, and science—Success Academies do not offer foreign languages until eighth grade.

While Eva Moskowitz is described as believing her schools will put her schools’ students on the same college track as children in wealthier neighborhoods, and while her students score high on the state’s annual test for which they are rigidly prepped, last year Diane Ravitch reported that not one Success Academy student had passed the rigorous test for the city’s elite high schools: “When the eighth grade students who scored well on the state test took the admissions test for the specialized high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, not one of them passed the test.”

Success for the children at Success Academies seems frequently to be a miserable experience and a relatively narrow accomplishment.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...