FOCUS DC News Wire 4/7/2015

Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) is now the DC Charter School Alliance!

Please visit to learn about our new organization and to see the latest news and information related to DC charter schools.

The FOCUS DC website is online to see historic information, but is not actively updated.



Debating DC Charter Market Share: Quality Schools for All Kids Should Be Primary Goal [Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS and Two Rivers PCS mentioned]
By Sara Mead
April 1, 2015

I’m deeply perplexed with my colleague Andy Smarick’s recent Education Gadfly post (link is external)responding to my PCSB colleagues Scott Pearson and Skip McKoy’s op-ed (link is external) on the roles of charter schools and DPCS in the D.C. education landscape. Andy appears to read things into Scott’s and Skip’s piece (link is external) that are not what they actually wrote, nor what I know them to believe. As a result, he draws some strange conclusions.

The irony here is that what Scott and Skip are calling for is basically what Andy previously called for in The Urban School System of the Future (link is external): A new approach to organizing public education in which traditional districts continue to operate, but as one of a variety of providers, competing with charters to serve students and held accountable for their quality. To a large extent, that’s already happening in D.C.: DCPS still serves the majority (link is external) of the District’s children, but it’s no longer assumed to be the default provider of public education. Nor are charters viewed as a marginal alternative. Rather, policymakers and stakeholders in the District recognize that we have a diverse delivery system—in which parents choose among a variety of charter and DCPS options, and DCPS is the largest, but no longer the dominant, education provider.

Andy’s call for a new authorizer is particularly confusing. Authorizers have a very constrained role: To review applications for charter schools, to approve those with high-quality educational and business plans and capacity to implement them, to monitor the performance of schools once approved, and to hold those schools accountable for performance—including closing low-performing schools when necessary. Ultimately, these decisions should be based on the quality of individual applicants and schools—not an overarching “vision” for the share of a city’s schools that should be run by charters.

To be sure, there are things that authorizers can do to attract high-quality applicants or encourage growth of high performing schools. And the PCSB has done these things. A few years ago, we created a new “Experienced Operator” application process to encourage more high-performing, national CMOs to apply for charters in D.C. We’ve also encouraged the highest performing home-grown schools in our portfolio to replicate—and recently approved two excellent schools, Thurgood Marshall Academy and Two Rivers PCS, to open additional campuses next year.

These are not the actions of an authorizer trying to slow the growth of charters—which is what Andy seems to fear. His post refers to a “pausing of D.C. chartering.” But no such pause exists. In a few weeks, we will hold hearings on a new cycle of charter applicants. If these applicants can demonstrate that they offer well-designed models and strong operational plans, then the board will approve them. If they do not, then we should not. It’s hard for me to see what a new, quality authorizer would do differently.

The implication of Scott’s and Skip’s argument is not that D.C. should slow the pace of charter growth, nor that the city should aim for a specific percentage “balance” between DCPS and charters. Rather, it’s that D.C. leaders, in creating the infrastructure to help families navigate D.C.’s choice-based system, should build an infrastructure that supports parent choice across both DCPS and charters. The MySchoolDC Lottery system, for example, enables parents apply at one time for both charter and DCPS out-of-boundary, high school, and preschool seats. PCSB has also worked with DCPS and OSSE to create School Equity Reports that help parents, policymakers, and other stakeholders understand the whether and how DCPS and charter schools are truly serving allstudents. Ultimately, parents don’t care whether a school is run by a charter or DCPS, as long as it serves their kids well.

Unlike Andy and our friend Neerav Kingsland (link is external), I don’t claim to know the “right” combination of charter and DCPS options for D.C. The “right” combination of charter and DCPS schools is whatever combination exists on the day that every single child in D.C. is able to attend a high-quality school his parents are happy to send him to. And I don’t presume to have the prescience to know what that will be.

But given how far we remain from that day, I’m loathe to write off any potential operator of quality schools. DCPS currently operates a number of successful, highly sought after schools—like Janney, Brent, and Banneker—that parents clear see value in and that offer options the city’s charter sector can’t currently provide. Whether or not it’s desirable for charter schools—or any school—to have neighborhood preferences or selective admissions is a conversation worth having—not sweeping under the rug. I, at least, have real concern about the potential consequences of such policies—not just for the thousands of DC students who travel to different Wards every day to attend better schools, but for the charter movement writ large.

The irony is that Andy and Neerav, proponents of relinquishment, actually seem to want a more centrally managed approach to improving education in D.C. than my colleagues and I do. They seem to believe that charter leaders should set a vision for a city’s charter market share and then work toward that vision. But the charter movement has historically been based on a more bottom-up approach: limit barriers to the creation of new charter schools; foster the supply of charter applicants; allow only those of strong quality to open; hold charter schools accountable for performance; close the bad ones; encourage good ones to grow. Within the parameters of accountability, providers and parent preferences—not planners—drive the pace of charter growth. This approach reflects a degree of humility about the extent to which we can predict what will produce the best results for kids. As I ponder the challenges that continue to face public education in the District of Columbia—even given the growth of quality options in both DCPS and charters—I think a high degree of humility is in order.

Exclusive interview with Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, deputy director DC PCSB [FOCUS, Dorothy I. Height Community Academy PCS, IDEA PCS, Potomac Preparatory PCS, Friendship PCS, and DC International PCS mentioned]
The Examiner
By Mark Lerner
April 7, 2015

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting recently with Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, the deputy director of the DC Public Charter School Board. Ms. DeVeaux came to PCSB in 2012 when Scott Pearson assumed the position of director. She was a natural compliment to Mr. Pearson in his new role as he was well acquainted with the national charter school movement but was not as familiar with the nation’s capital. Ms. DeVeaux had been the deputy director and director of school quality for six years at Friends of Choice in Urban Schools after a career as an educator going back almost two decades.

Ms. DeVeaux explained that she and Mr. Pearson were aligned right from the beginning of their working relationship in what needed to be accomplished at their organization. “The movement had been emphasizing growth,” the PCSB deputy director related. “We understood that charters did not need to control the entire public education marketplace. There was room for both us and traditional schools. We wanted to concentrate on quality and autonomy while making sure we did not create a new bureaucracy of our own.”

“One area that we wanted to improve upon,” Ms. DeVeaux continued, “was in the area of the Program Development Reviews. We adopted a new approach to completing these evaluations. Schools complained that they were being marked down for philosophical differences in the manner in which students were being educated even if the outcomes were good. It became harder to change the curriculum of a charter school than it was for a facility that was part of DCPS. We tried to focus more narrowly on what it meant to be a good school. Our emphasis was on reading, writing, and math. We wanted to be responsible for a small part of the program. The main question we wanted answered is ‘are pupils going from point A to point B?’ We look at our role like being a Department of Motor Vehicles, but not of course, from the customer service perspective. We believe an accurate analogy to the way we work would be a DMV’s oversight of a car operating on the road. Regulators should make sure that the brakes are operational and the tail lights turn on appropriately. It is up to the driver if the scenic route is taken or if he or she wants to buy a Porsche. We are the same way about schools. If you are going to run a charter then learning should be taking place. The school’s board of directors gets to design the charter’s mission. We found that in the past some schools felt we were becoming more like a central office which is not what we wanted to do.”

I then asked Ms. DeVeaux if schools get warnings from the PCSB that there are signs that things at a particular charter are not going in a positive direction. “Yes,” answered the PCSB deputy director, “our board will frequently have informal meetings with charter school boards to give them a heads up. We probably have 15 of these kinds of sessions a year. We met with Dorothy I. Height Community Academy in this manner.”

I wanted to know from the Deputy Director what makes PCSB different from other authorizers? It was clear Ms. DeVeaux was ready for my question. “PCSB is run by an independent seven member volunteer board,” she replied. “In many states, the charter school authorizer is embedded in the State Education Agency (SEA) or within a School District. Unlike in other states, PCSB is solely responsible for the quality of public charter schools. This allows the board and staff to address issues beyond student academic performance but also equity and choice. We use the citywide Equity Reports, our Performance Management Frameworks (PMF), Financial Accountability Reports (FAR), and Qualitative Site Reviews (QSR) to fairly assess each school.”

The deputy PCSB director enlightened me about some of the positive accomplishments that have occurred during her tenure at the PCSB. “The Performance Management Framework had come out and we have strengthened the quality of this tool,” Ms. DeVeaux stated. “The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools named Washington D.C. the state with the healthiest charter movement. The D.C. International School solved a real problem for many families committed to bilingual education. We are learning more and more about school takeovers, which offer the promise of closing a low-performing school with less disruption for families. And we have made it much easier for a Tier 1 school to replicate and expand. All it takes now is a charter amendment for a student body ceiling increase.

“We have also improved the Qualitative Site Visits by aligning them with a widely accepted framework for effective teaching. We concentrate on determining whether students are learning and instruction is going on in the classroom. This upgrade is important because the results of the QSRs add real insight into the school’s quality that goes beyond the data. While in general there is a strong correlation between a low PMF and poor instruction this is not always the case. A good example of this was IDEA PCS which proved to us through the QSR that the management and pedagogy at the charter had been turned around in a highly positive way. Another instance of this was Potomac Preparatory PCS once they separated from Lighthouse Academies.”

“A school can meet with us at anytime,” Ms. DeVeaux informed me. “We have a great working environment over at the PCSB. I have been super-fortunate to work under Chairman Brian Jones, John “Skip” McKoy, and now Darren Woodruff. I feel supported by the board and we have some real experts as board members, for example in the area of early childhood education we have Sara Mead and Skip with his experience from Fight for Children. There is a ton of mutual respect between the board and the staff.”

Based upon this information I wondered where PCSB was headed strategically. Ms. DeVeaux fulfilled my curiosity. According to the Deputy Director there are three priorities.

“First PCSB continues to focus on improving school quality. To do this, we focus not only on quantitative data found in the Performance Management Frameworks, but also the qualitative data collected through our Qualitative Site Reviews. QSR provide descriptions of teaching, student learning and school culture that give a glimpse of a school’s climate and performance. As part of our quality focus, we want to make sure our PMF accurately captures school performance so we have started to fine-tune the tool. We’ve begun working with school leaders to create a pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade PMF, that will combine the early childhood PMF and elementary/middle school PMF. This exciting direction will lead to one PMF score versus multiple PMF scores for one schools. So instead of Friendship PCS-Chamberlain Elementary (PK3-3) getting a PMF, and Friendship PCS-Chamberlain Middle (4-8) getting a Tier 1 score, the school will get one result.

“Second is a focus on equity issues. For example we will continue to monitor school discipline outcomes in the hopes we can facilitate conversations around alternatives to exclusionary discipline practices. Over the last couple years, we’ve seen discipline and explosions rates decrease as we’ve focused on the issues and started making the number publicly available.”

“Finally, we are dedicated to protecting the autonomy and flexibility of public charter schools so the sector continues to flourish and quality schools across the city that help students learn and grow. We do this even as we engage the city more and more on ways to collaborate.”

I concluded our time together by asking Ms. DeVeaux about the relationship between the charters and the traditional schools. She replied without hesitation. “It is going extremely well. We are always trying to improve communication between the two sectors. Mr. Pearson and Chancellor Henderson talk regularly. Ms. Henderson now reports to Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles. She meets with Ms. Niles weekly and so do we. So if there are issues that cross between the traditional schools and charters they will be discussed openly. I believe these relationships will only strengthen going forward.”

DC's attorney general has okayed DCPS's plan to help males of color. But that may not be the end of the story.
Greater Greater Washington
By Natalie Wexler
April 6, 2015

DC's attorney general has decided that a District initiative to help boys and young men "of color" doesn't violate laws against sex discrimination. But there are large holes in his argument.

In January, Mayor Muriel Bowser and DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson unveiled a $20 million initiative called Empowering Males of Color (EMOC). The plan calls for establishing an all-boys college prep high school, recruiting 500 volunteer tutors, and awarding individual schools grants for proposals focused on helping black and Latino male students.

But some weeks later, DC Councilmember Mary Cheh asked DC's attorney general to issue an opinion on the legality of the plan. She said EMOC raised serious questions under the US Constitution and federal and local anti-discrimination statutes, because it seemed to offer educational benefits to boys that wouldn't be available to girls.

Last week, Attorney General Karl Racine said he believes the plan is legal. The Washington Post editorial board and others have applauded that conclusion, and even Cheh seemed to indicate she was content with the result. But that may not be the end of the story.

In an interview, Cheh, who teaches constitutional law at George Washington University Law School, pointed to some major flaws in Racine's analysis. Given my own legal training, I can see some others myself. That doesn't mean Cheh and I are opposed to helping black and Hispanic boys.

In my case, that concern isn't just abstract. As a volunteer tutor in high-poverty DCPS schools, I've gotten to know and become fond of a couple of African-American boys, and my heart aches when I think about what the statistics predict about their future.

But there are girls of color in DC who face risks that are just as severe. There may not be as many of them, it's true. But my conscience—and, perhaps, the law—say that we can't exclude any individual girl from an effort to help the neediest kids.

Under the Constitution, the government can't just say it wants to help boys as opposed to girls. It has to have a really good reason, and it has to show that what it's doing to help boys actually attacks the problem it's trying to solve.

Let's examine Racine's arguments one by one:

Racine says there's an important reason for the discrimination

When deciding whether gender discrimination violates the Constitution's Equal Protection clause, the Supreme Court requires "an exceedingly persuasive justification." Here, Racine cites statistics showing that black and Hispanic males are generally at the bottom of the heap on measures like test scores and graduation rates.

By contrast, black and Hispanic girls are doing better. They're overrepresented at DCPS's selective academic high schools, like Banneker and School Without Walls. And while their overall test scores and graduation rates aren't great, they're not as bad as those of their male counterparts.

(Racine didn't address discrimination against white males because DC has apparently redefined "color" to include white, at least for one aspect of the EMOC initiative. In a letter to Racine, Henderson said the high school will admit male students "regardless of race.")

But, as Cheh points out, Racine isn't comparing the right groups. He's comparing all boys of color to all girls of color. But DC's argument is that it's trying to help at-risk kids, and targeting boys is a good way of doing that because they're more at-risk than their female counterparts. But in that case, Racine should be comparing at-risk boys to at-risk girls. If he did that, Cheh says, "all the differences would fall away."

In that case, there would be no justification for identifying the problem as the low achievement of males of color. DC would need to frame the problem as raising the achievement of all at-risk students, regardless of gender.

Racine says EMOC is "substantially related" to the objective of closing the achievement gap between males of color and other groups

To justify gender discrimination, you also have to prove that the method you're using is likely to help solve the important problem you're attacking. In this case, DC has to show that excluding girls from EMOC is somehow related to raising the achievement of boys.

On the high school, Racine points to the track record of the outside operator DCPS is bringing in to run the school, Urban Prep Academy. Urban Prep operates three all-male charter high schools in Chicago, and it's had a 100% college acceptance rate for its graduates over the past five years. He says it's "reasonable to conclude that Urban Prep's success" is at least partly due to its single-gender model.

Leaving aside questions about whether Urban Prep really has been all that successful, Racine doesn't point to any evidence that its success is due to its exclusion of girls. He just says it's "reasonable" to think that. He doesn't cite any research on the benefits of single-sex education, perhaps because it's been inconclusive.

Even Robert Simmons, the DCPS official in charge of the EMOC initiative, isn't making any claims for the benefits of single-sex education. "The jury's still out," he told the Atlantic. "But the jury currently says it doesn't do any harm."

Racine says the other two prongs of the initiative—tutoring and the grants to schools—"present a closer question," because they could be expanded to include girls "without sacrificing their character or effectiveness." But, he continues, they're "substantially related" to DC's goal because "the problem is severe enough to warrant deploying scarce resources to target with laser-like focus the District's least successful cohort."

But saying the problem is really severe doesn't prove anything about whether DC's policy of excluding girls from the effort will be necessary or even helpful in solving it. Of course, if you see the problem as just raising the achievement of boys of color, it will be, because you're targeting resources to boys. But as I pointed out earlier, it may not be constitutional to frame the problem that way.

Racine says there are "substantially equal" alternatives for girls

Under Title IX and the regulations the Department of Education has crafted to implement it, public schools can be single-sex as long as the excluded gender has an educational option that's pretty much the same, whether coed or single-sex. So DC doesn't have to establish a parallel girls' school, but it has to show there's something open to girls that provides a similar experience to Urban Prep.

Racine says DC meets the "substantially equal requirement" for two reasons. First, he says, DCPS has other application-only, college prep high schools that are open to both girls and boys. Second, he says that all DCPS high schools offer things like AP classes, tutoring, and extended day options.

DCPS hasn't provided specifics about how Urban Prep will choose students, but it's safe to say the criteria won't be the same as those at the highly selective School Without Walls or Banneker high schools. To get in there, students need top grades and test scores. At the event announcing EMOC, Henderson said Urban Prep has achieved its results not with students who were already high-achieving, but with "the knuckleheads."

Will female knuckleheads have a school like Urban Prep open to them? I don't think so. And clearly, Henderson and Bowser don't think AP classes and tutoring in a low-performing neighborhood school provide a "substantially equal" experience to Urban Prep. If they did, they wouldn't go to the trouble and expense of creating a new school.

Racine also points to the New Heights Program for Expectant and Parenting Students, which operates at six DCPS high schools, as an alternative option for girls. But that program isn't restricted to girls by its terms, although 80% of the students enrolled are female. It's also much smaller in scale than Urban Prep, costing $1.3 million a year. And its prime focus is helping students both raise a child and get through high school, not ensuring they get to college.

Throughout the letter, Racine refers to EMOC as a "pilot," and suggests that it's okay for DC to try attacking the problem of the achievement gap one step at a time. But most pilot programs don't involve building a new building and cost $20 million. And courts don't buy the one-step-at-a-time argument when the government is making distinctions on the basis of constitutionally sensitive characteristics like race or gender.

One part of EMOC Racine didn't address, because Bowser announced it after Cheh requested the opinion, is an internship program for 100 young men. Each intern will not only get a year-long paid job, he'll also be paired with a mentor who will "provide guidance on career, school, and life choices."

Perhaps there's a convincing argument to be made for EMOC, but Racine hasn't made it. And I'm not sure I'd want to try making even a more convincing argument to a "knucklehead" female of color who wants a chance to go to Urban Prep.

The ACLU of the National Capital Area, which also raised questions about EMOC, is still considering its response to Racine's opinion. The ACLU has challenged single-sex education in other parts of the country, and all it might need to sue DC is a girl who wants to go to Urban Prep. Or, perhaps, a white male or female who wants a tutor or a paid internship.

Racine said in his opinion that his office is "fully prepared to defend the initiative" if it's challenged in court. He may get his chance. But he might want to do a little more preparation before he launches his defense.

At Success Academy Charter Schools, Polarizing Methods and Superior Results
The New York Times
By Kate Taylor
April 6, 2015

At most schools, if a child is flailing academically, it is treated as a private matter.

But at Success Academy Harlem 4, one boy’s struggles were there for all to see: On two colored charts in the hallway, where the students’ performance on weekly spelling and math quizzes was tracked, his name was at the bottom, in a red zone denoting that he was below grade level.

The boy, a fourth grader, had been in the red zone for months. His teacher, Kristin Jones, 23, had held meetings with his mother, where the teacher spread out all the weekly class newsletters from the year, in which the charts were reproduced. If he studied, he could pass the spelling quizzes, Ms. Jones said — he just was not trying. But the boy got increasingly frustrated, and some weeks Ms. Jones had to stop herself from looking over his shoulder during the quizzes so she would not become upset by his continued mistakes.

Then, one Friday in December, she peeked at his paper, and a smile spread over her face. After he handed in his quiz, she announced to the class that he had gotten a 90. “I might start crying right now,” she said, only half-joking. “I’ve got to call your mom.”

In its devotion to accountability, Success Academy, New York City’s polarizing charter school network, may have no peer.

Though it serves primarily poor, mostly black and Hispanic students, Success is a testing dynamo, outscoring schools in many wealthy suburbs, let alone their urban counterparts. In New York City last year, 29 percent of public school students passed the state reading tests, and 35 percent passed the math tests. At Success schools, the corresponding percentages were 64 and 94 percent.

Those kinds of numbers have helped Success, led by Eva S. Moskowitz, expand to become the city’s largest network of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. By next year Ms. Moskowitz, known for her attention-grabbing rallies and skirmishes with the teachers’ union and Mayor Bill de Blasio, will have 43 schools; a proposal by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo could bring her closer to her goal of 100. That would give Success more schools than Buffalo, the state’s second-largest district.

In a rare look inside the network, including visits to several schools and interviews with dozens of current and former employees, The New York Times chronicled a system driven by the relentless pursuit of better results, one that can be exhilarating for teachers and students who keep up with its demands and agonizing for those who do not.

Rules are explicit and expectations precise. Students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker; reading passages must be neatly annotated with a main idea.

Incentives are offered, such as candy for good behavior, and Nerf guns and basketballs for high scores on practice tests. For those deemed not trying hard enough, there is “effort academy,” which is part detention, part study hall.

For teachers, who are not unionized and usually just out of college, 11-hour days are the norm, and each one is under constant monitoring, by principals who make frequent visits, and by databases that record quiz scores. Teachers who do well can expect quick promotions, with some becoming principals while still in their 20s. Teachers who struggle can expect coaching or, if that does not help, possible demotion.

Continue reading the main story
Rachel Tuchman, 25, said that during her three years as a teacher at Success, she had friends who worked in the fields of finance and consulting, and she went to work earlier and stayed later than they did.

“You’re being treated like you’re on the trading floor at Goldman while you’re teaching in Harlem,” said Ms. Tuchman, who is now in her first year at Yale Law School.

She also said that she thought the workload was necessary to achieve the results that Success has, adding, “It takes a very specific type of person who can handle the pressure.”

One consequence of the competitive environment is a high rate of teacher turnover. Some teachers who left said that the job was too stressful. Others said they left because they disagreed with the network’s approach, particularly when they believed it was taken to extremes. In an internal email that some former teachers said typified the attitude at some schools, one school leader said that students who were lagging should be made to feel “misery.” Suspension rates at Success schools, compared with public schools, are higher.

Former staff members described students in third grade and above wetting themselves during practice tests, either because teachers did not allow them to go to the restroom, which Ms. Moskowitz disputed, or because the students themselves felt so much pressure that they did not want to lose time on the test.

Jasmine Araujo, 25, who joined Success through the Teach for America program, quit after half a year as a special-education teacher at Success Academy Harlem 3. She now teaches at a charter school in New Orleans. “I would cry almost every night thinking about the way I was treating these kids, and thinking that that’s not the kind of teacher I wanted to be,” Ms. Araujo said.

By the Numbers

Ms. Moskowitz and a number of her teachers saw the network’s exacting approach in a different way: as putting their students on the same college track as children in wealthier neighborhoods who had better schools and money for extra help. Success students are generally barred from the city’s best elementary schools because they do not live in those schools’ zones.

“For affluent parents who are concerned about the test scores, they have an exit strategy — their exit strategy is to hire a private tutor,” Ms. Moskowitz said.

No one criticizes those parents, but “when we support our students, we get criticized,” she said.

“And I would argue that it’s not fair that only the kids who can hire private tutors should do well.”

At Success, everyone is measured by whether their students are doing well.

After every networkwide quiz, students’ scores are entered into the Success computer system, which then ranks each teacher. The purpose of this, teachers and principals said, is to identify high performers and to see what practices they are using, and conversely, to determine which teachers might need better practices.

“We’ve never had a conversation where, like, ‘You are 32nd in the network,’ ” said Lisa Sun, the 26-year-old principal at Success Academy Harlem North Central, a middle school. Rather, she said, she discusses with the teacher which skills the students are lacking, as reflected by the data. “ ‘And it’s not because of them, it’s because of you. We have to talk about what you need to fix to make it better.’ ”

A teacher whose students are performing poorly on assessments, or who cannot maintain discipline, might be moved midyear to another grade, an assistant teacher’s position or tutoring outside the classroom. At the beginning of the year, each class is named after the college that its lead teacher graduated from and the students’ expected year of college graduation. Dana Adnopoz’s homeroom at Success Academy Harlem North Central is Dartmouth 2026. Ms. Jones and her co-teacher have Hunter-Siena 2027.

But because teachers frequently leave or move, one teacher who taught at Success Academy Harlem 3 from 2010 to 2012 and left because she viewed it as overly strict recalled that in the spring of her second year, only a few of the classes in the school were still being led by the teacher whose college they were named after.

This teacher, like some other former Success teachers, did not want to be named criticizing the network. These former teachers said they feared hurting their future job prospects by disparaging a former employer or by being identified as critics of charter schools.

Dawn to Dusk

Each school day, Kristin Jones takes a 5:30 a.m. ferry from Staten Island, where she lives with her mother and two younger siblings, to Manhattan. In the winter, the sun is not yet up when she walks into school at 6:40 a.m.

Growing up, Ms. Jones always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She would tape loose-leaf paper to the mirror on her dresser to turn it into a makeshift blackboard and have her cousin and younger brother pretend to be her students.

Beginning teachers at Success are paid comparably with those in city public schools though instead of a pension, they receive contributions to a retirement account. Unlike public-school teachers, who often have to use their own money for basics like photocopies, Ms. Jones and her colleagues do not worry about supplies. The closets teem with notebooks, folders, pencils and pens. Each middle school student receives an iPad. Success Academy schools are also rich in the kind of extracurricular activities that have increasingly been cut from public schools, such as art, music, chess, theater, dance, basketball and swimming.

Success Academy supplements the public money it receives with money raised from private donors. In its 2013 fiscal year, the most recent for which fund-raising figures are publicly available, it received nearly $72 million in public funds and $22 million in donations.

Because so many administrative functions at Success schools are handled by the organization, principals have a lot of time to observe teachers. When William Loskoch, Ms. Jones’s principal, visited her classroom one day in December, he frequently stopped her co-teacher, Sarah Vistocco, 24, who had started at the network in May, to redirect a discussion or ask her to reinforce the rules.

When a student was struggling to come up with an adjective to describe the protagonists of two myths the class had read and Ms. Vistocco moved on, Mr. Loskoch, 34, stopped her and went back to the girl to try to draw her out.

When the students were sitting on the floor and he noticed that they were not sitting properly, he interrupted the lesson and said, “Ms. Vistocco, can you reset your carpet expectations?”

Success has stringent rules about behavior, down to how students are supposed to sit in the classroom: their backs straight, and their feet on the floor if they are in a chair or legs crossed if they are sitting on the floor. The rationale is that good posture and not fidgeting make it easier to pay attention. Some teachers who had orderly classrooms and a record of good student performance said, after their first year, their school leaders allowed them to bend the rules somewhat, such as not requiring students to clasp their hands as long as their hands were still.

“We believe that structure and consistency leads to better outcomes,” Ms. Moskowitz said. The network’s rules, she said, were consistent with expectations of students throughout most of the history of American education.

“Maybe some people prefer chaos,” she added. “We don’t.”

Indeed, watching the students at Success Academy Harlem 4 walk to lunch, the scene was anything but chaotic. In their blue and orange uniforms — the girls wear jumpers, and the boys shirts and ties — they walked silently in two lines, starting and stopping at the teacher’s command. If so many children walking in formation was reminiscent of the von Trapp children at the beginning of “The Sound of Music,” the orderliness also meant that no time was wasted.

Likewise, inside Ms. Jones’s classroom, the atmosphere was calm, and she was demanding.

When the students were writing summaries of myths, she scolded the class: “I don’t want to continue seeing names of characters that start with lowercase letters. It’s an indicator of low effort.”

But when she was pleased with a student — as when the boy scored well on his spelling quiz — she radiated pride.

Asked whether she thought the students who were in the red zone would be demoralized, Ms. Jones said, “I’m sure they’re not happy about it.”

“But they’re very resilient,” she added. “And then, as soon as they get a great grade, they’re praised for it,” and, she said, they can see the difference that their increased effort made.

“They don’t want to stay there,” she said. “They want to improve.”

Carrots and Sticks

In 2005, Ms. Moskowitz, then a city councilwoman, ran for Manhattan borough president and lost — in part because of opposition from the teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, which was enraged by a series of hearings she held in the City Council that were critical of work rules embedded in the union’s contract.

After the election, she was recruited by a pair of hedge fund managers who were interested in setting up a charter school, and she opened the network’s first, the Harlem Success Academy, in 2006. In subsequent years she opened more schools, first in Harlem and then in other neighborhoods in the city, and now has a total of 9,000 students in schools in every borough but Staten Island.

The Bloomberg administration gave her free space in public schools, often angering parents and teachers in the schools that had to share buildings with Success. Last year, after Mr. de Blasio briefly blocked three Success schools from public space and threatened to charge the network rent, Mr. Cuomo pushed through a law guaranteeing all new or expanding charter schools in the city free space or money to find their own.

Ms. Moskowitz has used her high test scores to argue that she should be allowed to open more schools, and an effort by Mr. Cuomo to raise the limit on the number of charter schools in the state could make it easier for her to do so.

At any given time, multiple carrots and sticks are used in the quest to make sure every student does well on the standardized tests. This system goes into overdrive in late January, as the annual exams, which begin this year on April 14, approach.

Success did not allow a reporter to observe test preparations, but teachers and students described a regimen that can sometimes be grueling.

To prepare for the reading tests, students spend up to 90 minutes each day working on “Close Reading Mastery” exercises, consisting of passages followed by multiple-choice questions. The last two Saturdays before the exams, students are required to go to school for practice tests.

Students who do well on practice tests can win prizes, such as remote-controlled cars, arts and crafts kits, and board games. Former teachers said that they were instructed to keep the prizes displayed in the front of their classroom to keep students motivated.

Students who are judged to not be trying hard enough are assigned to “effort academy.” While they redo their work, their classmates are getting a reward — like playing dodge ball against the teachers, throwing pies in the face of the principal or running through the hallways while the students in the lower grades cheer.

On the Friday before test preparations began, a calendar counting down the days to the test hung on the wall in Yale 2025, a sixth-grade classroom at Success Academy Harlem North West. The page for Monday was already displayed; in large type, it said: “53 days left.”

Carolyn Farnham, 24, the teacher, asked her students how they felt about the start of test preparations.

“It has the potential to be both really, really dull and really, really stressful,” she said to her students, adding, “That’s certainly not what I want.”

Some students responded that they did not mind because they had done well on the tests in the past. But several said they disliked it.

“I know that it’s here to help us,” one girl, Maliha, said. “But sometimes when people don’t get the best score, they seem to feel, like, really down on themselves. And when effort academy and detention and stuff like that is introduced,” she said, “one gets — me personally — really angry and upset.”

A boy raised his hand.

“I always get a high three or a low three or sometimes a four,” said the boy, Erick. (A three is considered passing, and a four is the highest score.) “What I don’t like is I have to go to school on Saturdays, so I feel like I don’t get rest, and I get a lot of stress in my neck because I got to go like this all the time,” he said, hunching forward like he was looking at a test paper.

Another girl, Ruqayyah, agreed that test preparations caused anxiety. But “on the other hand, there’s prizes,” she said, “which are really cool and motivate us to do our best.”

“I hope also you want to do your best for you,” Ms. Farnham said, “not just for prizes.”

The network’s critics — including the teachers’ union, which sees Success as taking money and space from public schools — say the network’s high scores are a mirage created, in part, by inordinate test preparation.

The network’s oldest students are still in high school, so it is difficult to gauge the long-term benefits of their education. Halley Potter, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive policy organization, and the co-author of two books about charter schools, said that network’s test scores were impressive, but that the conclusions that could be drawn from them were limited.

“Success Academy’s strong test scores tell us that they have a strong model for producing good test scores,” Ms. Potter said, adding that there could be lessons in Success’s practices for schools that are trying to improve their scores.

She noted that Success schools tend to have fewer nonnative English speakers and special-education students than public schools; those groups tend to score lower on tests. Ms. Potter also said that the network has made trade-offs, including not offering foreign languages until eighth grade, in order to devote more time to math, English and science, the only subjects in which all elementary and middle school students take state tests.

Teachers and principals at Success said that they prepare their students so intensely for the tests because of the opportunities that high scores can present, such as invitations to top public middle or high schools, or scholarships for private schools.

Two documentaries, “Waiting for Superman” and “The Lottery,” have captured the desperation of parents trying to get their children into Success through the annual lotteries it holds; this year, the network said, it received more than 22,000 applications for 2,688 seats.

Shakeya Matthew’s sons attended Public School 165, on West 109th Street, before getting into Success Academy Harlem 4 this year. Ms. Matthew, 33, said that her younger son had struggled last year in kindergarten and that his teacher seemed overwhelmed. Now, as a Success first grader, he is reading at a second-grade level. She said that she is in more frequent contact with her sons’ teachers now than when her sons were in the public school. Success teachers will call or send her a text during the day or in the evening with news about how one of her sons did on a test or with other updates.

“It seems like they definitely put forth more effort and go an extra mile,” Ms. Matthew said.

Walking Away
The high-pressure atmosphere at Success leads to substantial teacher turnover, though the precise rate is unclear. According to the latest school report cards, in 2013-14 three Success schools had turnover rates above 50 percent, meaning more than half the teachers from the previous year did not stay.

But Success officials said that these figures were inflated by the number of teachers who move from one Success school to another, or to nonteaching positions within the network. According to its own numbers, attrition from the network from June 2013 to June 2014 was 17 percent. By comparison, attrition from the city’s public school system in 2013-14 was 6.1 percent, according to the Education Department.

Still, current and former employees said departures were common.

Ariadna Phillips-Santos, 34, taught kindergarten and first and second grades at Success Academy Harlem 5 from 2010 until 2012. Having worked in public schools, she was impressed by the academic rigor and the plentiful supplies. But she was raising a young son on her own, and juggling his care with her long work hours was almost impossible, she said. Ms. Phillips-Santos, who is now a dean at a public elementary and middle school in the Bronx, said she recalled asking her Success principal one day if she could leave at 4:55 p.m. — after the students had been dismissed — because her son’s day care had called saying that he had a fever and was vomiting, and being told, “It’s not 5 o’clock yet.”

Ms. Moskowitz said that Success was accommodating to working parents. She said that Success allowed some teachers and even some principals to work part time and that the network offers a month of paid maternity and paternity leave.

Most of the former teachers interviewed, however, said that they left not because of the workload, but because they disagreed with Success’s approach, which they found punitive.

One teacher complained that she was expected to announce all of her students’ scores on practice tests, by asking those who had scored a four to stand up, followed by those with a three and then those with a two. The teacher and her colleagues persuaded their supervisors not to make students with a score of one stand up, but those students were still left conspicuously sitting down, she said.

At one point, her leadership resident — what the network calls assistant principals — criticized her for not responding strongly enough when a student made a mistake. The leadership resident told her that she should have taken the student’s paper and ripped it up in front of her. Students were not supposed to go to the restroom during practice tests, she said, and she heard a leader from another school praise the dedication of a child who had wet his pants rather than take a break.

“I dreaded going into work,” the teacher, who now teaches in a public school, said.

Other former staff members also described students having wet themselves, in some cases during practice tests. Two former staff members who worked at Success Academy Harlem West, a middle school, in the 2013-14 school year, said that they recalled having to go to the supply closet to get extra underwear and sweatpants, which were always on hand, for students who had wet themselves.

Ms. Moskowitz said that, to mimic the environment of the actual test, when students are not supposed to go to the restroom except for an emergency, Success has all students go to the restroom immediately before practice tests. But students are still allowed to go during tests, she said. She acknowledged that there were sometimes accidents, but attributed them to the challenges of sharing space in public school buildings, which meant the restrooms were sometimes several floors away.

“We have plenty of kids who don’t always prepare adequately,” Ms. Moskowitz said, adding that “very occasionally there are accidents, and we get that it’s uncomfortable for the student.”

“It’s very emotional,” she said. “Teachers get emotional about it.”

Suspension Rates

Several former teachers and staff members said that they had also been uncomfortable with Success’s suspension rates.

At Success Academy Harlem 1, as the original school is now called, 23 percent of the 896 students were suspended for at least one day in 2012-13, the last year for which the state has data. At Public School 149, a school in the same building, 3 percent of students were suspended during that same period. Statewide, the average suspension rate is 4 percent. (A spokeswoman for Success said that the suspension rate at Success Academy Harlem 1 has since declined to 14 percent, and that several of the newer schools had rates below 10 percent.)

Students who frequently got in trouble sometimes left the network, former staff members said, because their parents got frustrated with the repeated suspensions or with being called in constantly to sit with their children at school.

Ms. Moskowitz said that the question of what was an appropriate number of suspensions was a complicated one, but that the suspension rate in public schools should not be regarded as “the gold standard.” She said that even very young children could do things that required an intervention, such as bringing razor blades to school or cursing at teachers.

“Often the suspensions are really to get the parents and the school to be on the same team, that there’s a serious issue,” she said. “If we don’t intervene, when they’re 13, that’s going to be a bigger problem,” she said.

The network’s critics say that its performance is skewed by the departure of its most difficult students. In a visit last month to a public school where 4 percent of students passed last year’s math tests, and that shares a building with a Success school where 96 percent of the students passed, the city’s schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, said, “We would like to be at that percentage, but we keep all our kids from the day they walk into the building.”

Success students who leave after fourth grade are not replaced because, Ms. Moskowitz said, new students entering at that point would be too far behind their classmates. But even if all those students stayed and continued to do poorly, Success schools would still significantly outperform their neighboring schools on tests.

Dahlia Graham, a teacher who came to Success Academy Harlem 1 in 2009, said that in the public school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where she previously taught, there was no clear discipline system. If a student hit another student, he might be removed from class briefly, but then would return, still angry, and disrupt the class again. She said it was a relief when she got to Success, where she said hitting resulted in suspension.

“It made my life so much easier,” Ms. Graham said.

As for the teachers who said they did not like the environment, Ms. Moskowitz said: “Most of the people who leave are a little angry, like they don’t like their work and they don’t seem happy teaching, and we really can’t have people who don’t love it.”

A Demanding Culture

On April 1, 2012, a leadership resident at Success Academy Harlem 2, Lauren Jonas, sent an email to her fourth-grade teachers.

The email, provided by a former staff member, said that the results on a recent, three-day practice test were “not what we had hoped for.”

“You must demand every single minute,” Ms. Jonas wrote. “You must have higher behavioral and academic expectations than ever before.” Every letter was capitalized.

Nine to 12 students had failed to use the test-taking strategies they had been taught, known as the “plan of attack,” Ms. Jonas wrote.

“We can NOT let up on them,” she continued. “Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack will go to effort academy, have their parent called, and will miss electives. This is serious business, and there has to be misery felt for the kids who are not doing what is expected of them.”

At Ms. Jonas’s school, 64 percent of the teachers the year she wrote that email were not teaching there the next year, according to state figures. Researchers have linked high teacher turnover to lower performance by students on tests, but that is not the case at Success. At Success Academy Harlem 2 last year, 91 percent of students passed the state math tests, up from 76 percent the previous year. At Public School 30, which shares the building with Success Academy Harlem 2, 16 percent of students passed.

Ms. Jonas is now principal of one of the network’s newest schools, Success Academy Harlem North West, a middle school.

When the 2012 email was read to her recently, Ms. Jonas cringed and said that she did not remember writing it. She said that she did not want students to be miserable and described her words as “poorly chosen.”

“I should be certainly more careful in how I’m communicating and how others might misinterpret the meaning behind it,” she said.

But Ms. Moskowitz defended the wording of Ms. Jonas’s email, saying that a reporter was reading too much into it.

“We use that terminology sometimes, meaning, you know, ‘Kids, you got to get it right the first time, and we’re not playing,’ ” she said.

“That is part of our culture — not having kids getting away with just not trying,” she continued. “Everybody’s working too hard. Parents are sacrificing to get up early. Teachers are working really hard. Simply not trying is not part of our culture.”

Nation’s largest teachers union launches ad campaign as Congress debates No Child Left Behind
The Washington Post
By Emma Brown
April 6, 2015

As Congress debates how to rewrite No Child Left Behind, the nation’s largest teachers union is launching a $500,000 ad campaign urging lawmakers to reach a deal that reduces the focus on standardized testing.

The National Education Association says its 3 million members instead want to see lawmakers find ways to highlight and address disparities in resources among schools.

“Testing cannot close the gap between wealthy schools and poor schools,” a teacher’s aide says in the ad.

“We need to lower the class sizes so that each student can get that one-on-one attention that they need,” says a second-grade teacher.

“They need access to art and to music, they need to be in P.E. classes,” says a high school physics teacher.

The advertisement is slated to run on television and online in 13 states that are home to members of the Senate education committee, which will play a key role in determining whether and how Congress is able to reach a deal.

The ad campaign comes 50 years after the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now better known as No Child Left Behind. The 1965 law, part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, aimed to improve education across the nation and especially in poor school districts, which received additional federal dollars under ESEA to serve needy children.

The law still funnels billions of federal dollars to schools with high concentrations of poor children. But since 2002, it has also required annual standardized tests and sanctions at schools that failed to meet performance target.

The aim was to shine a light on schools that persistently failed to serve their neediest children, but the law has come under fire for being unrealistic and overly punitive, and for causing schools to narrow their lessons in order to prepare for math and reading tests.

The NEA wants to do away with annual testing and require schools and school districts to publish information about the academic and extracurricular opportunities that they offer their students.

“Under No Child Left Behind, the focus has shifted away from helping those most in need and moved towards testing, labeling and punishing schools, with no significant closure of achievement or opportunity gaps,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement.

“Today, we call on all Americans to join us and take action, to speak up, to raise their hands, to reaffirm President Johnson’s ‘fierce commitment to the ideal of education for everyone.’ ”

A coalition of major civil rights groups is lobbying to retain annual testing as well as the federal government’s role in determining what should happen to schools where scores are persistently low.

The fate of the effort to rewrite the law now lies largely with the Senate education committee. Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) have been working for weeks to hammer out a bipartisan deal that they expect to unveil next week.

The union’s ads will run in Alexander’s and Murray’s home states, as well as in:

Alaska (home to Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski)
Colorado (Sen. Michael Bennet, D)
Connecticut (Sen. Christopher Murphy, D)
Georgia (Sen. Johnny Isakson, R)
Illinois (Sen. Mark Kirk, R)
Massachusetts (Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D)
Maine (Sen. Susan Collins, R)
Maryland (Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D)
Minnesota (Sen. Al Franken, D)
North Carolina (Sen. Richard Burr, R)
Pennsylvania (Sen. Bob Casey, D)



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