Embracing Success, Striving for Excellence

Anthony Hennen

Low-income families have been trapped in local public schools for decades, but charter schools have started to give them a way out. In How the Other Half Learns, Robert Pondiscio writes about what he learned from shadowing teachers for a year in a Success Academy K-4 charter school in the Bronx. Though he expected Success Academy’s achievement to come from its curriculum and instructional approach, driven by teachers and school leaders, his answer was the “third rail in education:” school culture.

Success Academy is a network of charter schools despised by anti-school choice types with a passion. The first school opened in 2006 with 157 students, and the network has grown to 47 schools serving 17,000 students. Founder Eva Moskowitz has been shockingly successful in creating schools for low-income students in New York City whose test scores rival, and routinely beat, high-income public school districts and private schools across the state.

What Success Academy has done is bring school choice to low-income families who would otherwise be trapped in a public school that was apathetic at best and unsafe at worst. Above all else, parents came to Success Academy looking for a safe learning environment among students with like-minded parents.

The lengths those parents will go to get their child out of a bad public school is the best endorsement for school choice. Pondiscio meets a couple, one of them a New York City public school teacher, who applied to forty-seven charter schools—to get their son into kindergarten. That effort is extreme, but it’s not exactly uncommon for Success Academy. The selection process is by lottery and, though they don’t screen out students, they demand a level of parental engagement (such as keeping nightly reading logs) that many parents resent and which acts as de facto screening.

Daily phone calls and emails, strict dress codes, pressure to campaign for charter expansions, and an intensely hands-on approach is required by Success Academy. The parent-school relationship is referred to as a “marriage” by its staff. The result is a school with highly engaged teachers and parents, the majority of students coming from two-parent households.

While that is an undeniable boon for those children at a crucial age for learning, the school’s standards will leave out equally bright students whose parents do not have the work flexibility to be so engaged in their child’s school. It can do the same for children with only one parent involved in their lives. That is not enough of a drawback to disqualify Success Academy as an education alternative: students who attend would be worse off if they were herded back into public schools. It is merely to point out that the model is not exactly scalable. The qualifying families for what Pondiscio calls “the poor man’s private school” are a specific type. But for that type of family, Success Academy is a lifeline to a good education.

Pondiscio is careful to note that Success Academy is not a charter school for everyone. He also appears to confirm some of the criticisms against the network as far as self-selecting students (more accurately, by filtering out parents), sub-par special education services, and too much focus on test prep. The criticism of the network’s test prep might, if anything, be too kind. “If it’s inaccurate to characterize Success Academy’s Think Season as ‘drop everything and test-prep,’” he wrote, “that’s because there is an overtone of test prep to the curriculum throughout the entire year.” The “teach to the test” approach gets flashy results on state exams, but the short-term vindication might hide a long-term problem.

When Success Academy launched a high school in 2014, it was “a disaster.” For all the excellent test scores, the students “didn’t know how to study independently without teachers hovering near them,” Marc Meyer, the principal of that high school, told Pondiscio. Student behavior was also a problem. “Freed from the tight classroom management and routines they’d grown accustomed to [at Success Academy], and in the throes of adolescence, they ran wild,” Pondiscio wrote.

Some misbehavior when students move to high school is to be expected, but a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation points to failures in preparing students to be independent. Overinvolvement in a child’s development isn’t always a blessing. The network’s schools are undoubtedly safer and much more impressive than the status quo in New York, but a paternalistic school can encourage learned helplessness that does children no favors. It could set them up for flaming out spectacularly.

From its initial class of seventy-three students, only sixteen graduated from Success Academy’s high school. Those students did well: they had SAT scores well above the average for white and non-white New York City students and enrolled in several elite colleges. For a school network that expects its students to earn a college degree, though, those results are a disappointment. Students, from the early grades, are referred to as “Class of 20XX,” according to when they would finish a bachelor’s degree. If Success Academy can’t get a majority of its students through high school, or at least outpace comparable public schools, something isn’t working. Other factors could be at play that Success Academy can’t overcome—low-income students struggle more than others—but high school completion is a glaring problem.

Oddly, Pondiscio doesn’t much dwell on the high school debacle. Perhaps he thought it would distract from the main focus of the book, but the disconnect between a high-achieving elementary school and a low-achieving high school in a charter network deserves more prodding.

The struggle (or failure, depending on one’s opinion) of Success Academy is made worse by the “college for all” attitude. That attitude is so deeply rooted that, by middle school, students already have their dream colleges picked out. Inculcating a “college or bust” attitude trains students to define success by degree and closes off alternative choices for their lives. The laser-like focus of ushering kids through school to prepare them for college seems an unnecessary burden when Success Academy has yet to prove it can meet its own high expectations.

Much of the book focuses on setting high expectations for students by school officials and tightly managing classrooms. But Pondiscio’s biggest takeaway is on culture and what policy can’t do. “School culture is freighted, hard to define, harder to impose, and nearly impossible to shape through public policy,” he noted. A page later, he points to the limits of the education system: “Perhaps the hurdles to overcome generational poverty are so complex and daunting . . . that only the rarest and most precise blend of conditions under a demanding and visionary leader is sufficient.” Moskowitz’s success is hard to deny when looking at test scores and how engaged Success Academy’s staff are in their students’ lives. But supporters and critics need to recognize a limit to what change is possible.

What Pondiscio seems to be getting at is that changes to the curriculum and instructional style might improve a lackluster school, and even boost some students’ mastery of class content; but for sweeping changes, culture matters most. Culture is fundamental; it’s the soil in which curriculum and instruction grow to create a good school.

If policy wonks avoid that conclusion, parents embrace it. Many of the families Pondiscio spoke to liked the high test scores, but their main concern was safety. Finding a school where officials enforce their behavioral and academic expectations, with other parents who supported the school, was a big draw. Parents understand that “school culture” isn’t a dog-whistle. Letting families choose schools whose vision and commitments align with theirs has the potential for big gains, Pondiscio emphasizes. School culture affects students’ behavior, outcomes, and future. Furthermore, he argues that letting parents pick their schools is a moral imperative because wealthy families already have the option. “If you demand that engaged and committed parents send their children to school with the children of disengaged and uncommitted parents, then you are obligated to explain why this standard applies to low-income black and brown parents—and only to them” [emphasis in original].

After decades of local, state, and federal policy dictating more funding for public schools, the promised improvements never came. Opposing school choice has had the effect of locking poor kids into failing schools. Success Academy gives at least some of them an out. Pondiscio argues that it’s time to rethink the “egalitarian impulses that undergird the education reform movement’s lofty ideals and much current policy and practice.”

Introducing Moskowitz, Pondiscio writes that, to education reformers and public school boosters, “She is an existential threat, a rebuke, or a humiliation to nearly all of them.” She has been an exceptional leader with great management skills who has done what other school leaders have not. But she’s also been an entrepreneur, finding a niche audience to serve and attracting talent to teach and manage. The parents married to her school network are not the norm, which makes cloning her model on a state-wide scale potentially difficult, though she has been able to expand to 47 schools already. Whether the future for Success Academy is in expanding or simply nurturing its current network, it’s a notable improvement over the status quo that empowers low-income families in ways that their local governments have failed to do.

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