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Education's Nixon: The Success Academy Debacle

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In a post he titled "Who Will Be Public Education's Nixon?," the esteemed and estimable John Merrow played around with an interesting idea: what if someone took public education by storm and renounced a previously deep-seated affinity for standardized testing, like Richard Nixon did when he normalized diplomatic relations with China in the 1970s? As Merrow points out, Nixon, well known for his paranoia and for using his office to intimidate his political opponents, bucked conventional wisdom and took the risk of looking "soft on communism" when he visited China in 1972, but did it as one of the most well known anti-communist politicians in America. (That he could have been lionized for this while he was also, at approximately the same time, plotting to steal a presidential election to maintain his hold on power is delicious irony, but we'll just put that right there and let it sit for awhile.)

Merrow's analogy depends on the idea that someone who really, truly believes in the power of standardized testing will suddenly see the error of his or her ways and understand that the arts and humanities matter too, and that everything can't be tested. This person will then lead us to a new promised land where tests are used appropriately to measure real student learning. Merrow even says he once thought he knew who this person would be: it was Eva Moskowitz, the founder and "CEO" of Success Academies, a network of 34 charter schools serving some 11,000 students in New York City. But then he, himself, saw the light.

Very much to his credit (this is an example of the kind of thing that makes Merrow so estimable), Merrow realized that Moskowitz would not be the "Nixon of Public Education" after he conducted his own investigation of the way Moskowitz's schools are run. He found, as many of us now know, that Success Academy Charter Schools have been the site of a couple of wince-inducing "scandals" recently. In one, a principal was found to have created a "Got to Go" list of students he wanted to get off his school's rolls and exile to the island of misfit toys. The other one came to light recently when the New York Times shared a video showing a teacher reacting with disappointment when a student failed to give the answer she wanted to hear. Go ahead; watch the video yourself if you haven't already.

"There's nothing that infuriates me more than when you don't do what's on your paper," the teacher, Charlotte Dial, exclaims after banishing the student to something called the Calm Down Chair. In addition to being a ridiculous example of hyperbole—many, many things infuriated me more as a classroom teacher than students not doing what was on their paper—Dial's response, which has been widely excoriated, is embarrassingly incongruous. The Calm Down Chair? The student looks awfully calm to me. It's the teacher in this video who looks petulant, impatient, and immature. Frankly she comes off like a bully, not a teacher. Maybe Ms. Dial should spend some time in the Calm Down Chair.

But we all lose our cool, and we all hope the camera isn't rolling when we do. That's understandable. What's damning about the video, to me, is not just that the teacher behaved the way she did but that her bosses seem to have created a culture that supports and even encourages teachers to respond the way she did.

What we see in the video is a strategy that is, apparently, employed widely in the Success Academy schools—it's called "rip and redo." If you read the Times story, though, you see several excuses being made for the teacher's behavior and blatant attempts to present the video as an anomaly. This video is several months old, we're told, as if somehow that diminishes what happened in it. The behavior of the teacher is an abnormality, totally atypical. "This video proves utterly nothing but that a teacher in one of our 700 classrooms, on a day more than a year ago, got frustrated and spoke harshly to her students," Moskowitz says as dismissively as possible. And what's wrong with a little crying? "Olympic athletes, when they don't do well, they sometimes cry," she told an audience in January. "It's not the end of the world." She might as well have had Donald Trump call a press conference to denounce the politically correct crowd for insisting that children not be belittled and demeaned at school for failure to answer a question correctly. Cry babies. 

But school is not Olympic competition—or at least it wasn't until a new generation of "no excuses" reformers came along to liberate us all from our soft, child-centered approaches to educating young people. These tactics may work for some students but it's worth asking if the people who defend them would subject themselves, or their own children, to the same "educational" approach if given the option. (I think we all know the answer typically is no.) There's an underlying assumption here that high test scores justify anything that has to be done to get them, but that's the same kind of thinking that leads police investigators and district attorneys to conflate earning a conviction with finding the truth. It's also the same kind of thinking that led to a thousand cheating scandals. Beverly Hall didn't tell anyone to cheat, right? She just reserved a few seats at the tippy top of the Georgia Dome for the terrible teachers who failed to get their kids' test scores up.

In this sense, Merrow could not have been more wrong about Moskowitz when he was pining for her to be the "Nixon of Public Education." He should have understood that her "no excuses" philosophy depends entirely on standardized tests for validation. The tests provide the only frame of reference for "no excuses" reformers who would rather oversimplify the act of teaching in pursuit of a single-minded goal than actually address the enormously complex political, social, and cultural challenges of teaching. If they acknowledged this complexity they'd have to admit that the system they oppose isn't as corrupt as they want to believe it is—they'd have to concede that just maybe there are good people working in our schools who want what's best for kids too but realize that it's not as easy to accomplish that as they'd like it to be. And so they struggle. That's not an excuse, it's an explanation.

Expect more of this, America. As long as we keep trying to make heroes out of people who repackage intimidation and arrogance as innovation we'll continue to read stories like these. Reformers like Eva Moskowitz fancy themselves as truth-telling crusaders for kids, in much the same way Michelle Rhee used to. They see themselves standing up to entrenched bureaucracies and ineffectual parents and teachers who want to coddle kids instead of helping them (forcing them?) to meet their potential. They may have a point, but having a point doesn't justify creating a culture that, as one former Success Academy teacher put it, sends the message that "If you've made them cry you've succeeded in getting your point across."

Actually, now that I think of it, maybe Merrow was right. Threats, intimidation, arrogance—maybe Moskowitz is the new Nixon after all. 

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