As you very well know, Dropout Nation has had plenty to write about the saga of Success Academy Founder Eva Moskowitz’s battle with John Merrow over his report on the charter school operator’s overuse of harsh traditional school discipline. But as you would expect, more has been happening since. And instead of responding to the questions raised about Success Academy’s approach with critical self-examination, Moskowitz has tried to spin a new narrative that ignores the reality of the damage done through traditional discipline to the futures of children.
Two weeks ago, after Moskowitz went on her crisis management campaign against Merrow’s report — an effort that included violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act by releasing the school discipline record of the child of Faida Geidi — the effort fell apart when the New York Times reported that a Success school in the Fort Greene section of New York City’s Brooklyn had kept a list of 16 kids who it deemed had “got to go”. Those students, by the way, were suspended multiple times by the school over the year. Nine of those children ultimately left the school.
Those revelations, along with testimony from former Success Academy staffers that leaders in its other schools engaged in similar push-out efforts, forced Moskowitz into damage control (and stopped her from aggressively warding off reporters and critics, be they traditionalist or reformer). By Halloween Eve, she claimed that the Got to Go list was an “anomaly” and that the school leader who put together the list, Candido Brown, was disciplined for being so indiscreet as to keep the push-out effort on paper. [Brown remains principal of the Fort Greene school, at least for now.] The fact that Success Academy had been previously accused of engaging in push-outs on the pages of the Old Gray Lady didn’t seem to make it into the conversation.
The Times‘ revelation, along with the news earlier that week about the assault of a 16-year-old student at South Carolina’s Spring Valley High School by a school cop, also gave traditionalists, including the American Federation of Teachers, the opportunity to put themselves on the moral high ground and call out overuse of harsh school discipline. AFT President Randi Weingarten took to the pages of the Daily News to issue her own mea culpa for supporting (and being silent about overuse of) such practices. The union then recruited its vassals, including Alliance for Quality Education, the New York State branch of the National Alliance for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Black Institute, to issue a letter demanding that Success Academy’s authorizer, State University of New York, open up an investigation into its activities. Meanwhile once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch ran several pieces from her cadre of fellow-travelers on her eponymous site taking aim at both Moskowitz and the Spring Valley High incident.
Certainly AFT and other traditionalists have other self-interested reasons beyond children to be concerned about Success Academy’s oversuspensions. All that said, legitimate questions have been raised as a result of the Moskowitz-Merrow fracas about Success Academy’s practices, especially in light of incidents of violence by cops in schools resulting from those very practices (and the goal of pursuing school safety and order at any cost). But instead of considering legitimate criticism, especially from fellow reformers raising the tocsin about these practices, Moskowitz, with help from her allies, are now campaigning to turn attention away from the questions about Success Academy’s discipline practices (as well as from the issues of law raised by the release of Geidi’s son’s school discipline records). The narrative: That critics are working, either explicitly or by implication, to kibosh the expansion of Parent Power and school choice.
The narrative, as advanced by Moskowitz and reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is superficially seductive. Criticizing Success Academy’s discipline practices somehow harms poor and minority children because it is essentially advocating for denying “strivers” and their families the choice of safe and orderly schools in which they can learn. Particularly, from where Petrilli sits, Success Academy and other schools that overuse suspensions should be allowed to push out children (or “disrupters”) teachers and school leaders in those institutions deem unworthy of high-quality education. Reformers who critique Moskowitz’s practices (or criticize her for releasing Geidi’s son’s discipline record) are therefore no different and, in some ways, worse, than traditionalists who raise the issues as a way to oppose any expansion of choice.
This spin seems to justify Moskowitz’s practices — until you look at the facts. Decades of evidence shows that the traditional harsh discipline practices Moskowitz’s uses in Success — and that traditional districts and other charters implement throughout the rest of American public education — damage children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds. And as Sarah Yatsko of the Center for Reinventing Public Education points out today in her piece in RealClearEducation, defending Moskowitz’s practices (along with ignoring the overuse of harsh discipline by traditional districts) is a “disservice” to the very children for which we all proclaim concern.
As Dropout Nation has noted again and again, evidence gathered by researchers such as Russell Skiba of Indiana University, University of South Florida’s Linda Raffaele Mendez, John Wallace of the University of Pittsburgh, and the American Psychological Association consistently demonstrate these realities that overuse of suspensions and other traditional discipline (especially those occurring as a result of zero tolerance policies) doesn’t improve school cultures, make schools safer for children, or improve student achievement. This isn’t shocking. As data from states such as Maryland and Indiana, along with research by Raffaele Mendez and Howard Knoff, have shown, most suspensions kids are meted out for the arbitrary category of disruptive behavior (which is based on what teachers and school leaders, through disciplinary codes and their own mind, think are bad behavior), along with tardiness to class, and truancy. Suspensions are rarely meted out as a result of addressing academic issues or improving school safety.
Meanwhile there is the fact suspensions are an ineffective way of dealing with the illiteracy and other learning issues that are often at the heart of most student misbehavior. Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles, along with Chuang Wang and Bob Algozzine of University of North Carolina at Charlotte, demonstrated this in their research on the connections between literacy and behavior. As Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz has also demonstrated (including in his 2007 study with colleague Douglas MacIver and Lisa Herzog of the Philadelphia Education Fund) sixth-graders who have been suspended at least once have just a one-in-five chance of graduating six years later. By suspending children multiple times, adults in schools are using a form of easy button, ridding their classrooms of children they deem unworthy of nurturing and education instead of doing the hard work of helping them succeed.
Success’s own discipline practices bear out their failures in improving behavior and school cultures. One Success Academy school (with 203 children enrolled) meted out 44 suspensions to just 11 kindergartners and first-graders; essentially each child was suspended at least four times during the school year. At another Success Academy school, with 132 children enrolled, 101 suspensions were meted out to 32 students; this includes one kid who was suspended 12 times during the school year. On average, that Success Academy school suspended each of those children three times during the school year. That Success Academy had to suspend each child multiple times over a school year evidences that its approach to discipline isn’t changing the behavior of children for the better. But again, this isn’t surprising. As with so many traditional districts and a good number of charters, Success Academy’s school discipline code is so arbitrary that a child could be suspended for any reason.
For all of Moskowitz’s posturing, the reality remains that Success Academy’s overuse of suspensions isn’t effective. By continuing to embrace traditional school discipline, by ignoring evidence about the ineffectiveness of her approaches, and in dismissing approaches such as restorative justice and Behavior Instruction in the Total School developed by Wang and Algozzine, Moskowitz is also failing to take up better approaches that can improve school cultures and address the underlying academic causes of school misbehavior. Other traditional districts and charter operators in cities such as New Orleans are effectively reducing overuse of suspensions and improving student achievement as well as school cultures. There’s no reason why Moskowitz couldn’t do so, either. Put simply, Moskowitz is failing to embrace the mantle of innovation that she proclaims to embrace as a school reformer and education leader. She, along with those school leaders in traditional districts overusing suspensions, is perpetuating educational abuse.
By overusing suspensions, Moskowitz is also giving credence to the racialist beliefs of many that poor and minority children are undeserving of high-quality education. After all, as your editor continually notes (and as Yatsko points out), black children (along with those from American Indian, Alaska Native, and Latino backgrounds) are the ones who are subjected the most to harsh traditional school discipline. Daniel Losen and his team at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA showed earlier this year that the out-of-school suspension rate of 23.2 percent for black middle- and high schoolers in 2013-2014 (based on data released by the U.S. Department of Education) is three times the 6.4 percent out-of-school suspension rate for white peers. Wallace demonstrated in a 2008 study on referrals to dean’s offices that young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be sent to dean’s offices for punishment than their white male peers — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended afterwards than white counterparts. But again, not shocking. Skiba and the American Psychological Association have demonstrated that young black men are also viewed by teachers and school leaders as being older, less-innocent, and greater troublemakers than white counterparts. Black children are also denigrated by the soft bigotry of low expectations for them. A school leader can’t argue that she wants brighter futures for black children while engaging in practices that run counter to that mission.
In defending Success Academy’s practices under the guise of school choice, Moskowitz essentially perpetuates ends-justify-the means thinking, one in which it is okay to damage the futures of some children (who they deem undeserving) in order to help others. As both the Bible and moral philosophers have pointed out since the beginning of time, you can never use the right results to justify wrongful actions. At the same time, by implicitly embracing this thinking, Moskowitz (along with her allies) are also justifying the racialist thinking of earlier generations that have led to the educational traditionalism (from the comprehensive high school model, to restrictions on school choice, to denying minority children access to college-preparatory classes) that the school reform movement has rightfully opposed. For black parents and others from poor and minority backgrounds, it is hard to view reformers as their allies and defenders of the high ground for their children when they are defending practices that traditionalists are loudly opposing.
Success Academy’s overuse of harsh school discipline deserves to be criticized. Moskowitz should be willing to address legitimate criticism with self-reflection and a commitment to using alternatives that can help children improve behavior without keeping them from receiving the high-quality education they need as well as deserve. Her allies should also do the same.