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.