There is a difference between an anomaly — or a rare event or incident within a system or institution that will almost never happen again — and what is normal or tends to be the established practice within that very organization. Based on the responses to the latest revelation about the practices of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of charter schools, this is something that the school reform movement must learn, especially if it is to remain a moral movement that builds brighter futures for all children.
As some of you already know, the charter school operator once again went on the defensive last week after the New York Times released a video showing Charlotte Dial berating one of her first-grade students for failing to properly show how she answered a math problem. After the six-year-old, confused by the question, began to count, Dial snatched a paper the young girl had did the work on, ripped in half, then screamed at the girl and told her to go to a chair and sit. Dial then ranted that “there’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper.”
Was there anything that the young girl did that merited Dial’s response? Not according to the video. She didn’t misbehave. In fact, she said nothing. As Dial screamed at her and engaged in her own tolerated brand of misbehavior, the child meekly walked over to the chair and sat. Put simply, Dial’s behavior was educational malpractice, abusive, intolerable, and just plain unacceptable.
But as bad as Dial’s behavior was, Success’ response was even worse. After New York Times reporter Kate Taylor, who obtained the video from a former teacher’s aide, brought it to the attention of the operator, it didn’t dismiss her or even put her on a long-term suspension. Instead, Success Academy took her off the job for a week, then put her back into the classroom. After the Times ran the story this past Thursday, Moskowitz and her crisis management flunkies hastily put together a press conference in which they accused Taylor and the newspaper of teacher-bashing. [Success also put together a hashtag on Twitter, #StopBashingTeachers, that was quickly hijacked by traditionalists who have long considered Success a bete noire.]
As far as Moskowitz was concerned, Dial’s misbehavior was just another “anomaly” that didn’t represent how Success conducts its business. If anything, as far as Moskowitz was concerned, Dial was still a “model teacher” deserving of being considered an example of high-quality instruction for her colleagues. Save for a few reformers, most-notably Valentina Korkes of the otherwise reliably pro-Moskowitz Education Post, most reformers lined up behind Moskowitz’ party line. This included former CNN anchor-turned-reform advocate Campbell Brown, who sits on Success Academy’s board and runs reform-oriented media outlet 74. Despite the piece quoting one parent supportive of Dial and Success Academy, Brown accused Taylor and the Times of failing to balance the piece with even more quotes from supporters. [The Times editor overseeing Taylor’s coverage, Amy Virshup, took apart Brown’s logic.]
One would believe that Dial’s misbehavior was an anomaly — until you review the long and well-reported record of Success Academy’s bad practices.
As Jessica Reid Sliwerski, a former teacher and school leader-turned-education technologist, confirmed to the Times, ripping up student papers and embarrassing them has always been a common practice within the operator’s schools. Sliwerski should know. After all, she was one of Success’ golden children. Her work as a teacher and school leader at one of Success’ Harlem schools was profiled four years ago by Steve Brill in Class Struggle, his considerable tome on the battles over transforming American public education, as well as a companion piece in the Wall Street Journal. Sliwerski notes that ripping student papers was taught to teachers by the professional development Success runs with Touro College, while making children cry was considered within a key to having them learn. [Your editor moderated a panel featuring Sliwerski last year at SXSWEdu.]
Another sign that Dial’s action was no anomaly lies in the Times revelation last November that 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. [Since the Times revelations, several families have filed suit against Success over the effort to push their children.] As she did last week amid the revelation of Dial’s misdeed, Moskowitz claimed that the “got to go” list was just an “anomaly”, even as the chain kept the principal who oversaw the effort, Candido Brown, on the job, albeit in a teaching role.
But as the families of 13 children who attended Success’ schools have detailed in a complaint filed last month with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, efforts to push out children weren’t limited to the operator’s Fort Greene locale. The parent of A, for example, noted that the principal of Success’ Harlem 4 “urged her” to pull her now-12-year-old son out of the school. Another parent, whose six-year-old attended the Harlem 3 school, was asked numerous times to withdraw the kid from the school (and wasn’t even given a re-enrollment notice). And as documented four years ago by now-former New York Times columnist Michael Winerip, Success seems to thrive on pushing out struggling and supposedly troublesome children.
Then there is Success Academy’s long-documented overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline. A year ago, the New York City branch of education news chain Chalkbeat reported that Moskowitz’s charters suspended 17 percent of its students in 2011-2012, the sixth-highest among the 12 charter operators surveyed in the outlet’s analysis of data supplied to the Big Apple’s traditional district; the 27 percent suspension rate for the outfit’s Harlem 1 school is higher than all but 13 charters surveyed. As former PBS NewsHour correspondent John Merrow noted in his controversial report on the operator last October, 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.
Particularly damning is the case of a kindergartner at Success’ Crown Heights school who had issues using the bathroom. Her family is among the 13 who filed last month’s civil rights complaint against the operator. Because of her issues and Success’ unwillingness to provide the child with an aide as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the young girls was often marked as being a discipline case for not following school rules. That it would be hard to follow school rules when you have a disability didn’t seem to occur to Success’ teachers and school leaders.
As saddening as these incidents are, they aren’t shocking. Why? Because Success has long-embraced overusing harsh discipline as a component of instruction and building its school culture. The operator’s own school discipline code gives teachers and school leaders wide leeway to suspend and expel children. Even worse, it is so arbitrary that a child can be suspended for any reason. This includes failing to sit in the “Ready to Succeed” position, “Being off-task”, or forgetting to bring a pencil to school. Despite the overwhelming evidence that overuse of harsh school discipline does little to improve student achievement, Moskowitz, with help of allies within the school reform movement such as Michael Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has strongly defended these practices and implicitly argue that Success cannot improve student achievement without them.
The most-damning evidence that Dial’s misbehavior is no anomaly became clear last October when Moskowitz released the school discipline record of one of the operators former students, the son of Fatima Geidi, a parent interviewed by Merrow for his report on Success, as part of the operator’s crisis management campaign against the piece. By doing this, Moskowitz likely violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal law that governs the privacy of student records, which bars Success from releasing discipline records without the permission of families. Even worse, by citing the discipline record of Geidi’s son, Moskowitz betrayed the school reform movement’s mission of nurturing and protecting the lives and futures of children. She used the life of a child who may be in need of real help as ammunition against a negative media report.
But again, this is nothing new. Over the past five months, Moskowitz has shown that she will always choose to preserve the institution she founded over being a champion for children and their families. In that time, she has shown that she is more-willing to protect the teachers and school leaders that work for Success than be defenders of the young lives who sit in its classrooms. And over and over again, like a traditionalist superintendent in a failing district, Moskowitz has demonstrated that she will explain away any incident as an “anomaly” instead of acknowledging that there may be some deep-seated issues within the institution and its model of educational practice.
At a certain point, either Moskowitz or Success Academy’s star-studded board, must acknowledge that when the institution has several incidents of educational malpractice, they are no longer anomalies. They represent the norm for the institution itself. Success Academy no longer merits a defense, especially from school reformers who, like Born-Again Christians, know better and should no longer tolerate its malpractice.
Featured photo courtesy of Chalkbeat New York.