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Evaluating Success Academy Charter Schools

If Eva Moskowitz, founder of the Success Academy 46 charter-school chain, ever gets tired of battling her critics, she would be a phenomenon in public relations.  I've never seen anyone in education who has been as effective in getting media attention ("She Breaks Rules While Expecting Students to Follow Them," The New York Times, Dec. 10).  The downside is that it's very difficult to separate hype from facts for her schools.

I wonder if her personality is partly the reason.  I've never met Moskowitz, but she publicly comes across as abrasively self-righteous.  As a result, it's difficult to separate her admittedly impressive achievements with students from the frankly unfavorable personal impression she leaves.  That's unfortunate because shaking up the status quo is needed for too many students who have been denied a decent education.

Even though I've long supported traditional public schools, I've also been a strong advocate for parental choice.  What is clear is that Success Academy is not for all students.  Its strict emphasis on students following rules and teachers following its pedagogy would be a terrible fit for some students.  However, that is something only parents should be able to decide.  That's particularly the case for black and brown students whose overwhelming presence in charter schools give rise to the charge that the schools are guilty of segregation ("Do Black Students Need White Peers?" The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 13).  Let's not forget, either, that black parents constitute a large percentage of those on wait lists for admission.

That's why I don't think it's fair to demonize Moskowitz's charter schools.  They can be exactly what many students and their parents want ("The Charter-School Crusader," The Atlantic, January/February 2018).  Yes, Success Academy plays by a completely different set of rules than traditional public schools.  But so do other charter schools that have not performed nearly as well.  What makes Success Academy different?  Is it the incredibly tight ship that Moskowitz runs?  That's an important question given short thrift in the debate.

More to the point: If traditional public schools were able to operate under the same rules as Success Academy, would there be such a dramatic difference?  I doubt it. The fact is that traditional public schools are the schools of last resort.  By law, they must enroll all who show up at their door regardless of motivation or aptitude.  Students cannot be expelled except for the most egregious behavior.  Success Academy operates like a private school.  It sets its own rules. How fair is it, therefore, to compare the two?

As for Moskowitz's treatment of teachers, she can do almost anything she wants because of the absence of a union. I've taught under principals who abused their power.  It was only the union that stood in the way of totally destroying the morale of exemplary teachers.  I wonder how many Success teachers will spend their entire career in its classrooms. It appears that they must follow essentially scripted lesson plans or face the consequences. If that's the case, why not just hire any adult who can read and follow directions?  The irony is that Moskowitz may wind up her own worst enemy by not cutting her teachers and students some slack.

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