Skip to main content

Gary Rubinstein's Blog: Success Academy Teaching Algebra to 2nd Graders: Rigor or Torture?

Success Academy is the infamous charter network of New York. Founded in 2006, and featured in Waiting For Superman, its growth was fueled by high standardized test scores. But as people, like me, looked more closely at the publicly available datapproa we found that there are some shady ways to achieve high standardized test scores.

The biggest factor inflating their test scores is student attrition. By putting pressure on the families of struggling students and by threatening to force those students to repeat a grade or two, Success Academy ends up only graduating about 25% of the students who begin there. And though they do take some students off the waitlist to replace some of the students who leave there, many of those ‘backfill’ students struggle there and are also forced to repeat a grade or have to transfer out.

With all the research I have done about Success Academy over the years, it is always strange for me when I find myself in the presence of an actual Success Academy student. It’s like being a paleontologist and seeing a live dinosaur. But a few weeks ago I got the chance to meet a child and his mother while taking my own son for a haircut.

I was waiting on the bench they have at the barber where my son was getting his haircut in the back of the shop when I overheard another boy at the front of the store talking about math with his barber. ”Ask me to count by 5s,” he said. ”Now ask me to count by 10s.” His barber started quizzing him, “How many 5s do you think are in 100?” and when the boy figured out that it was 20, the barber asked “How many 20s do you think are in 100?,” which was quite a good follow up question, I was impressed.

The boy’s mother was seated next to me and she told the barber that he was excited because he had just come back from math tutoring. She said that the extra tutoring was $60 an hour and she already paid up for a session a week until June. The barber said, “I’m in the wrong business.” She said that it was a lot of money but he needed it because his new school is really hard. I already suspected the answer but I had to ask what school is was and she told me Success Academy. Her son transferred in this year as a second grader and was not doing well, especially considering he has a learning disability.

“They teach some crazy math over there,” she said and then proceeded to take out her phone to show me some pictures she took of some of his assignments.

You don’t hear much about what they actually teach at Success Academy. I know about the test prep in the spring but it seems like it would be to their advantage to have a good, developmentally appropriate curriculum, or would it?

Looking at the phone, I had to take a second to process what I was looking at. While second grade is a time to get familiar with numbers and learn ways to add and subtract and to get some ‘number sense’ and do some basic problem solving involving adding and subtracting and even some informal multiplication (counting by 5s for example), what I was looking at was, without doubt, Algebra.

The question on the phone was to solve for c in the equation:


Algebra is when you solve for a variable by adding or subtracting equal things to both sides of an equation. In 6th or 7th grade, you would solve this by turning it into c+29=49 and then subtracting 29 from both sides of the equation to get c=20.

For this second grade class, they made the question so that a student might notice that you could put the 17 and 2 together on the right and turn this into 19+10+c=19+30 and then you can get rid of the 19s and turn it into 10+c=30 which would mean that c=20. It still is Algebra and not something that I’d advise teaching to second graders. It’s too abstract for kids that young who are just getting comfortable with numbers and adding and subtracting. So why does Success Academy think this is a good thing for second graders to learn?

The mother said that even though Success Academy is hard for her son, she wants to keep him there because “They get their students into Ivy League schools. And they help them get scholarships too.” I did not have the heart to tell her that only a very small percent of Success Academy students even make it to 12th grade there and the students who get into the Ivy Leagues are generally not the ones who transfer in during second grade.

“I heard they sometimes make students repeat a grade?” I felt bad about saying it, but I knew how she was going to respond. ”They already told us he may have to repeat,” she said and then said “You ever hear of a kindergartener having to repeat?”

“No,” I lied and she said “My friend’s son had to repeat kindergarten there.”

I didn’t pry anymore. I’m hoping that maybe her son can catch up and can thrive there and maybe be one of those 25% who graduate from there and get a scholarship to an Ivy League school. Which brings me back to the question: Why are they making second graders do Algebra?

That math is so developmentally inappropriate, there can’t be a good pedagogical rationale. It can’t be that students rise to meet the ‘rigor’ of the 6th or 7th grade math. The only reason I can speculate is that this math is designed to break kids like this boy, to use as a weapon to weed him out. If you want to make struggling second graders and their families miserable, there is no more sinister way to do this while simultaneously saying that you are doing them a favor by keeping your expectations high.

My son’s haircut ended and I said goodbye to the mother and wished her and her son good luck. It felt a little strange knowing so much about what they are likely going to suffer in the coming years but not really being able to warn them. Maybe it will work out for them, I hope so.


This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a high school math teacher. He is the recipient of the 2005 Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship. ...