On this episode of On the Road, RiShawn Biddle joins Steven Evangelista of Harlem Link Charter School, Shawn Hardnett of NewSchools Venture Fund, University of Pennsylvania’s Matthew Steinberg, and Mastery Charter School’s Scott Gordon in a discussion at NewSchools’ annual conference on the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other harsh school discipline.
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Contrary to the opinions of many traditionalists and more than a few reformers, the much-necessary discussion about overuse of harsh school discipline in traditional districts and public charter schools should be understood as an opportunity for people in schools to revisit their practices and results, and to consider how they might adjust strategies. For those of us who focus on policy and research, it is helpful to appreciate how many people are already working on the issue.
Since the New York Times and other outlets raised new questions about the school discipline practices of Success Academy last year, I’ve heard from lots of school leaders and teachers who have been wrestling with student discipline. These are men and women who have taken great pains to engage in introspection, both about discipline as well as other practices related to instruction and leadership.
These people talk about discipline. But they also talk about school culture and how to make their schools more successful with all students. We may not always agree with the practices they may use. The criticisms, regardless of who lodges them, may be valid. At the same time, let’s admit that these people are not engaging in surprising or novel exercises.
Personal observations can never substitute for objective data and evidence. But in my own research and interactions, the school leaders and teachers I deal with are downright obsessed with keeping kids on task and with thinking about how to help more kids succeed. They truly “own” the issue of student discipline. They examine data. They look at what they are doing in their classrooms and hallways. They talk together about their values, their practices, and how to adjust what they do. They try to figure out how their practices affect how children behave. They want children to learn, want to reduce the likelihood that a few kids will act out in ways that make it hard for all kids to learn, and also keep children who are misbehaving from failing and leaving school.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education convened leaders from charter school operators that receive replication and expansion grants under the Charter School Program. This was a group of very successful charter operators with impressive academic performance. The issue of student discipline was a big priority for the U.S. Department. I honestly came to the meeting a little anxious that there might be too much “talking down” to school people about what they needed to do, or too much defensiveness from the school operators. I was wrong on both fronts.
To its credit, the Obama Administration brought forward the issue as a real challenge that we must collectively address both in charters as well as within traditional districts. They presented the issue as one on which we should all problem-solve. Charter school operators, in turn, came to the topic equally ready to talk about the work. Perhaps because of the careful set-up, there was no defensiveness, no denial of the issues’ importance, or bemoaning how opponents were blowing a few cases out of proportion.
Instead, leaders talked about the conversations they were having with their staff, the examination of data, their brainstorming around what they do when children misbehave, and the ways they can adjust their procedures and programs to support strong learning environments while reducing the practices that lead to suspension or expulsion. They were talking about how to build consensus about the need for change, and the details of work that might make things better.
The charter school operators at the session weren’t looking to abandon their approaches to schooling. Their schools are highly successful. They have developed innovative programs — and their approaches produce results. At the same time, they realized that the current debate over discipline as an opportunity to leverage what is working well, to engage in serious introspection about their own practices, and to encourage their colleagues to change particular practices that may not always be helpful in improving student learning. All this was in order to design changes that they believe will lead to even better results for even more children.
What we have here is not a “gotcha” for opponents of school choice. The notion that some single unified approach to schooling has been shown to be unacceptable and that now we will abandon “no excuses” schooling is an incredibly simplistic and unreasonable characterization of what is going on. It is equally simplistic to argue that no introspection or rethinking of how we educate children isn’t in order. Instead, people who work in schools — people that live and breathe student behavior every day — have been stirred by events and a little external pressure to start important conversations.
There are of important mid-course adjustments in the works, and I look forward to talking with them about these changes as they make them.
Just when you thought that the latest controversy involving Success Academy was about to die down, it fans even more flames with its latest effort to blame the media. But in the process of arguing the New York Times fails to cover incidents of teachers engaging in educational and physical abuse of children in their care, the charter school operator (along with today’s report in the Times on how Success addressed the incident) once again reminds us of how it has failed to adequately address the abuses of Charlotte Dial, the teacher whose actions were revealed by the paper two weeks ago.
Since the revelation by the Times of Dial snatching and ripping the class work of the then-six year old daughter of Nadya Miranda for not answering a question to her satisfaction, then ranting that “there’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper”, Success and its founder, Eva Moskowitz, have worked overtime with its allies among school reformers to argue that the newspaper has some kind of vendetta against it. On Tuesday, Success upped the ante by issuing an 11-page letter to the paper’s editor in charge of Big Apple education news coverage, Amy Virshup, complaining that the Times has focused undue attention on the operator while ignoring criminal and educational abuse of children by teachers working within New York City’s traditional district.
In the letter, Moskowitz argues that the Timeshas done little more than provide “feel-good” stories on district schools while ignoring incidents such as the arrest of Mark Valentinetti, a teacher who worked at P.S. 83 in the Bronx, for slapping of his students, as well as the return of teacher Richard Parlini to the classrooms of another district school in spite of being previously removed for spanking his students. Declares Moskowitz: “the so-called “paper of record” has to date devoted none of its considerable resources to cover these stories, let alone investigate this systemic pattern of abuses.”
Let’s give Moskowitz and her public relations staff some credit: It didn’t violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, as her previous effort last year against PBS NewsHour. Just as importantly, the letter is another reminder of the need to overhaul teacher dismissal rules and end near-lifetime employment laws that protect laggard and criminally-abusive teachers. Oddly enough, this is an issue on which the Times, along with the Daily News and the New York Post, has covered for the past few years. There are far too many criminally-abusive teachers like those cited in the letter working in classrooms and they shouldn’t be there. [If Success Academy was setting a good example on its own, its commentary on educational malpractice would come off as anything but hypocritical.]
Yet Moskowitz hasn’t proven her argument that the Times is somehow biased against the schools Success operates. For one, the paper has shed plenty of light on educational abuses throughout the district. One simple search on the paper’s own Web site reveals stories on the city’s test-cheating scandal, which has led to the firing of now-former John Dewey High School Principal Kathleen Elvin as well as the suicide of another principal, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, who ran Teachers College Community School. The Times also covered the arrest of a school leader, John DiFiore, on charges of criminally-abusing a 14-year-old student in his care. The Times also took aim at the district’s continuing failure to do well by children trapped in its special education ghettos, as well as its failure to disclose a third of violent incidents that happened in its school buildings.
Then there’s the Times‘s two year-long coverage of the crimes of Sean Shaynak, a former teacher at the prestigious Brooklyn Tech, who pled guilty in December to abducting and showing nude photos of himself to one of the students in his care. In 2014 alone, the Old Gray Lady wrote two extensive profiles on how Shaynak managed to get hired by the district spite of a record that included having been charged (though not convicted) of beating up the son of one of his neighbors. [Both profiles, by the way, were cowritten by Kate Taylor, the reporter who is the source of Moskowitz’s ire.]
Moskowitz cites none of these stories in her letter decrying the Times‘ coverage. In fact, she seems to go out of her way not to do so. Apparently the school operator complaining about fairness doesn’t believe in extending such courtesy itself. Lucky for Success that it is a school operator, not a media outlet that subjects itself to the traditional rules of objective journalism.
One can argue that the Times could spend more time covering every incident of abuse by teachers. I wouldn’t disagree one bit. But media outlets, as entities that have deal with limited space (and even smaller budgets), have to make choices on coverage. Let’s also keep in mind that the Times is also covering other issues that also affect children beyond classroom walls. This includes reports on abuse and killing of inmates at Riker’s Island and Clinton Correctional, two major prisons that house many parents of children who attend traditional district and public charter schools. Again, Moskowitz’s argument about the Times‘ coverage has no merit.
But while Moskowitz cites examples of educational and criminal abuse of children by teachers in traditional districts, she downplays Dial’s own abuse as well as the school operator’s refusal to deal with it properly by kicking her out of its classrooms. As far as Moskowitz is concerned, firing Dial would have been nothing more than the pursuit of “better PR” at the expense of what Success considers to be a model teacher “dedicated to teaching and improving”.
But in simply suspending Dial and returning her to the classroom, Moskowitz has done little more than tolerate the kind of educational malpractice that happens far too often in traditional districts. In fact, one can argue it is even worse because Success isn’t governed by collective bargaining agreements or by state laws governing tenure and dismissal, and therefore, can more-easily rid its schools of laggard and abusive teachers. Moskowitz has actually behaved worse in this situation than your average district superintendent.
What Success has done instead is engage in a crisis management strategy geared toward protecting Dial and its own practices from scrutiny. This becomes clear from the Times‘ latest story on the teacher’s malpractice, which features an interview with Nadya Miranda, the mother of the harmed girl. As the Times reports, after Success finally showed the video to Miranda, she was asked by Success staffers to sign on to an e-mail it drafted telling the paper that she didn’t want the video released to the public. When Miranda confronted Moskowitz during a meeting about the video a week later, Miranda said the school leader told her curtly that “you had enough to say”. Miranda, along with several other parents, walked out of the meeting, then pulled her daughter from the school. The fact that Miranda and her children are homeless, and thus, struggling with other issues, makes Dial’s malpractice even more unacceptable.
Anyone who has paid attention to Success’ crisis management tactics over the past few months shouldn’t be surprised — nor should anyone else. Through actions such as Moskowitz’s unauthorized release of school discipline data on the son of Faida Geidi, Success has proven more interested in defending the outfit than in doing right by the children and families it serves. That its board members, including CNN anchor-turned-reform advocate Campbell Brown have used their own media outlets to defend Success from criticism makes clear that the organization will not address its issues even when a media outlet shines light on them.
These issues are deeply-ingrained. As former Success teachers and school leaders such as Jessica Reid Sliwerski have noted in the Times first story on Dial’s misdeed, the practice of ripping papers and embarrassing children for their learning struggles has been common practice within the operator for some time, and has been taught in professional development courses it has held. Moskowitz, in particular, is unwilling to consider that Dial’s “model” is damaging children in the operator’s care, an issue pointed out by Miranda in her interview. Add in Success’ long-documented overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline, and it becomes clear that the operator approaches teaching poor and minority children from a Poverty Myth thinking similar to that of far too many traditionalists.
Firing Dial would have been a tacit admission by Success that all isn’t well within it. Such humility isn’t possible, either for the institution, its founder, and its allies. For traditionalists looking to halt the expansion of school choice in both New York City and the rest of the nation, Success’ unwillingness to address the damage its educational malpractice does to futures of children gives them the ammunition they need to continue their own.
As you would expect, Tuesday’s commentary on Success Academy’s pattern of educational abuse garnered plenty of reaction from reformers and traditionalists alike. Even more discussion continued about the New York Times‘ revelation that the charter school operator’s “model teacher”, Charlotte Dial, berated and embarrassed a first-grader for failing to answer a math question to her liking, an approach that the outfit encourages through its professional development and daily practices.
But Success and its founder, Eva Moskowitz, can always count on more than a few allies within the school reform movement to defend it. Over the past couple of days, some reformers have offered up more excuses than any sensible person would want to hear. And in the process, Success Academy’s defenders have done a disservice, both to the school reform movement’s mission of building brighter futures for children and to the communities we are supposed to serve.
You already know one of the lines of defense that defenders of Success Academy usually trot out: That any critique of its practices by reformers concerned about them is de facto opposition to school choice. Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in his attempt to be clever, tried this line of argument early on. Your editor has already detailed why this argument is pure hogwash; this includes the reality that families may be choosing Success not because it wants its model of educational practice, but because New York City has restricted the expansion of high-quality alternatives from which they can choose.
There’s also the fact that Success supporters are conflating criticism of charter school operators and other institutions with support or opposition to advancing the power of families to choose high-quality education. This is just as intellectually dishonest as traditionalists conflating criticism of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers with esteem for teachers. Just as importantly, while there are traditionalists taking aim at Success’ practices are aiming to oppose expansion of choice, taking aims at motivations of critics doesn’t address the lengthy evidence of Success’ failures in educational practice.
But never think that those willing to defend the indefensible will settle on one line of argument. The latest attempt to defend Success’ practices seems ripped from the words of your average 10-year-old after being caught misbehaving in class: Traditional districts engage in educational abuse, too. According to this line of argument, traditionalists (and by association, reformers) calling out Success for overusing suspensions, allegedly engaging in pushing children out of its schools, or keeping educationally-abusive teachers on payrolls are engaging in utter hypocrisy if they also don’t call out traditional districts for the long and sorry record of similar misbehavior. Otherwise Success should be left alone and the video of Dial’s misdeed ignored (or else someone conclude that it may be more-representative of what happens in its schools that photos of smiling faces for public relations purposes).
Certainly those who offer this excuse have a point: Many traditionalists have long-failed to acknowledge the academic and even physical abuse that has gone on within more than a few traditional districts. In fact, many of these folks, including those running the National Educational Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have done all they can to oppose reforms of teacher dismissal policies that keep academically- and criminally-abusive teachers in classrooms.
But there are many problems with this argument. For one, it ignores the fact that there have been more than a few traditionalists who have stood against such abuses. Particularly on the school discipline front, traditionalists such as the AFT’s Chicago Teachers Union have been more-active in pushing against the overuse of suspensions and expulsions than many within the school reform movement itself. This is a point made by former Newark Supt. Cami Anderson earlier this month at Teach For America’s annual summit. All in all, Success Academy defenders pushing this argument come off as being selective in their outrage.
If anything, by implicitly comparing their own failure to argue strongly against both Success’ school discipline practices and its failure to fire Dial, reformers defending Moskowitz are essentially admitting that they are no better than traditionalists who conveniently ignore these acts of educational abuse. Which is true. As Dropout Nation has documented ad nauseam, many in the movement either seem comfortable with overuse of harsh school discipline so long as it is done by the operators they favor, or are cowardly silent in the face of the facts.
Meanwhile reformers defending Success are taking another tact: Blame the media. From where they sit, the New York Times‘ coverage of the operator’s spate of problems –including its revelation of the Dial video — is biased because the newspaper supposedly doesn’t cover the educational and even criminal abuse that happens within the Big Apple’s traditional district and other school operators.
One problem with this argument: A simple Google search proves it to be untrue. This includes a story three years ago detailing how 16 teachers in New York City kept their jobs despite evidence of engaging in sexual misconduct against children in their care; allegations of sexual misconduct by Nicole DuFault, who worked in the Maplewood district in nearby New Jersey; and the crimes of now-convicted former Brooklyn Tech instructor Sean Shaynak. As with any newspaper, the Times is going to dig deep into a hot story featuring an institution or leader of significant presence, influence, and controversy. For the Times to ignore Success Academy, one of the foremost and most-controversial players in American public education, would be tantamount to journalistic malpractice.
At the same time, in complaining about the Times‘ coverage, Success defenders have failed to appreciate that the newspaper isn’t in the business of providing coverage they find favorable. After all, the Times is supposed to be both a news outlet that practices traditional objective journalism and an institution charged by the First Amendment and journalistic tradition to shed light and aid the afflicted. This includes families of children who have not been well-served by Success Academy’s schools and its staffers. If anything, as evidenced by how Moskowitz and her team handled the revelation of Dial’s malpractice, the Times proved to be as necessary as ever. The teacher’s aide who provided the video likely did so because she knew all too well that Success would do nothing right by the child in Dial’s care.
Instead of criticizing the Times for doing its job, reformers defending Moskowitz and Success should engage in some self-examination. Why do they defend overuse of harsh school discipline that has been overwhelmingly proven by data and evidence to do little to improve (and actually damages) student achievement and school cultures? Why are they defending a school operator against whom there has been a lengthy record of documented educational malpractice — including former teachers and school leaders pointing to teaching approaches that damage the self-worth of children in its care? Why are they so insistent on being unwilling to strongly criticize the actions of an institution even as they advance the much-needed expansion of high-quality school choice? Why do they seem willing to forget the goal of nurturing the genius and potential of our children, especially those black and brown who are harmed the most by these practices, that is at the heart of the movement’s mission? And how can the movement sustain systemic reform when it alienates the very families from which they need vital political support?
By continuing to defend Success Academy’s practices, these reformers are demonstrating to families black and brown that they cannot be trusted with building brighter futures for children. Even worse, their concerns for defending an institution over the life of the child at the heart of Success’ latest controversy serves as propaganda material for the very traditionalists they rightfully call out for their justifications of the indefensible. No matter how you look at it, this is not a good moment for reformers defending Success Academy’s practices. Not at all.