There’s a charter school network in New York City that has been making headlines lately–along with its controversial founder, Eva Moskowitz. Everyone wants to know how it’s managed to achieve phenomenally high test scores with its mostly low-income students. None of the explanations makes sense to me.
In August, the Success Academy network, which serves a predominantly low-income and minority population, boasted that its test scores were higher than any traditional public school district in New York State–including the most affluent, like Chappaqua and Scarsdale. A whopping 95% of its students passed the state math tests and 84% passed the English Language Arts tests. In Scarsdale, the corresponding figures were 82% and 74%.
And the Success network, which now has 46 schools, is far larger than those wealthy districts. In fact, with over 15,000 students, its size is equivalent to the seventh largest district in the state. Last year’s scores were not an isolated incident: the network’s consistent track record of high test scores has led to its rapid expansion. It started with only one school, in Harlem, in 2006.
This fall, Moskowitz released a memoir–The Education of Eva Moskowitz–which has led to even more press attention. And the question of the hour is, as it has been for a while, what accounts for Success’s amazing results with a student demographic that typically scores much lower on tests?
Unfortunately, those looking for answers won’t find them in Moskowitz’s book, which is primarily a less-than-stirring tale of battles with politicians and the bureaucracy over issues like getting classroom doors unlocked and bathrooms cleaned properly–and getting approval to expand. To the extent that she talks about the reasons for her schools’ success, Moskowitz emphasizes their strict code of discipline and their demands that students do their best. But there are plenty of other charter schools that deploy those techniques and still don’t get the test scores Success does.
Critics of Success have their own explanations. They say the network’s harsh discipline and unforgiving attitude ends up pushing out the weaker students rather than strengthening their academic skills–and a surreptitiously filmed video of a teacher chewing out a young girl for getting a math problem wrong provides some fodder for that argument. They also point to the fact that Success, unlike some other charters, doesn’t take in new students after 4th grade, which helps them keep their test scores high. And they say–as Moskowitz admits–that there’s a huge focus on test prep.
But even if Success manages to exclude lower-performing students, the test results it’s been getting for the students it does serve are impressive. And as for test prep, the common wisdom is that that approach doesn’t cut it anymore. In the old testing era, some schools managed to boost scores with test prep drills, but when the new more rigorous Common Core tests came in several years ago, most saw their scores plummet. Success Academy was one of the few exceptions: their scores stayed high.
The explanation I heard–and believed–was that Success Academy had a content-focused elementary curriculum. The vast majority of American elementary schools–and especially those serving the neediest students–spend hours every week teaching reading comprehension skills and strategies instead of trying to impart any substantive information about subjects like history and science. The idea is that if kids learn how to “find the main idea” or “make inferences” in a simple text, they’ll be able to apply those skills to increasingly complex texts as they get older.
The leaders of Success realized–or so I was told–that what kids really need in order to understand what they read is knowledge and vocabulary. Cognitive science has determined that the most important factor in comprehending a text is not whether you’re generally skilled at “finding the main idea,” but rather whether you have background knowledge and vocabulary that is relevant to the topic.
So if we want children to learn to understand what they read, we need to provide them with as much knowledge as we can as soon as we can (that’s also the best way to expand their vocabularies). And that means having a coherent, cumulative curriculum that focuses on content and builds students’ knowledge logically from one year to the next. That, I was informed, is what Success Academy has.
Then I took a look at Success’s actual kindergarten-through-fourth-grade curriculum, which was made freely available online earlier this year. I was stunned to find that it was largely skills-focused. Kindergarteners spend all but one of their seven units supposedly developing skills–like the “skill” of reading nonfiction–and those at higher grade levels get only one or two more units per year that are content-based.
At least on paper (or on a screen), these lessons sound very similar to the fruitless exercises that are found in classrooms across the country. Teachers jump from one topic to another, using content merely as a delivery mechanism for skills, and then students are sent off to “practice” the skills on books they choose themselves.
A first grade unit on nonfiction advises teachers that their job is to provide “scholars” with a “toolkit” that will enable them to “teach themselves anything!” What’s in this toolkit? Thinking about the title, learning from text features like a glossary and a table of contents, and asking themselves questions about what they’re reading–like what the main idea is.
In the kindergarten nonfiction unit, the topics jump from vegetables (for Lesson 1, “Great readers choose books about things they love and want to learn more about”), to birds (“Great readers learn about the topic by looking at the pictures”), to penguin chicks (“Great readers ask questions as they read”), to bamboo and pandas (“Great readers gather more information about the topic as they continue to read”) and finally to sharks (“Great readers teach others what they’ve learned about a topic”). How are children supposed to acquire any substantive knowledge from this mish-mash?
I tried to raise this issue with Moskowitz herself when I encountered her at a book party a few weeks ago. “I took a look at the curriculum online,” I began, “and it looked like it was pretty focused on skills–”
“No it’s not,” she cut me off sharply as she signed my book. “It’s project-based.”
That’s true as far as it goes–for the minority of units that are content-focused. But you can’t do a project on “how to be a good nonfiction reader.”
I suspect that Moskowitz is simply unaware of the cognitive science showing the emptiness of the skills focus that characterizes most of the Success elementary curriculum. (“I believe the best way to prepare students for a reading comprehension test,” she writes, “is to teach them how to comprehend what they are reading.”) That wouldn’t be surprising. Most educators don’t know about it.
But that still doesn’t explain Success Academy’s success. One possibility is that the network’s test scores–even those on the new more rigorous tests–aren’t measuring everything. What I’d like to see are some samples of student writing, like the impressive samples provided by a truly content-focused school in London called Michaela. It’s possible that Success students are very good at taking standardized tests, but in my book, the true test of a quality education is the ability to write coherently and analytically about topics covered in the curriculum.
One reason to doubt the quality of the education Success provides is that few of their eighth-graders have gained admission to New York City’s selective high schools, which have an overall admission rate of about 20%. In 2014 and 2015, none of Success’s students gained admission. In 2016, six Success students were offered seats, out of 54 who took the test.
But perhaps I’m wrong and Success students–or “scholars,” as they’re called–truly are achieving at high levels. I can only imagine what they could do if they weren’t wasting hours every week learning “skills” instead of content.