Richard Whitmire: Why I Put Myself On A Success Academy Writing Diet

By Richard Whitmire

I totally get the outsized coverage we’re seeing of Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy charter schools in New York. In years past, I’ve been guilty of the same. But there’s a reason I pulled back.

First, let’s discuss Eva’s appeal, which is hard to resist. Moskowitz is one of those rare, swashbuckling figures carving out an “empire” of charter schools in New York City, confounding and infuriating her ‘dastardly’ critics by turning low-income minority students into top scholars.

Her message to the mayor, teachers unions and other detractors (who accuse her of manipulating the system to get those results) is blunt: If I can do this, why aren’t you doing the same! Oooh…that really gets them riled up.

We haven’t seen that kind of in-your-face rhetoric since Michelle Rhee took over as chancellor of the schools in Washington DC. (oops, guilty there as well. Wrote an entire book, The Bee Eater, about Rhee.)

The latest Moskowitz article, by Elizabeth Green in The Atlantic, drew the headline: The Charter-School Empire of the Future. That came on the heels of a New Yorker piece, where the headline described Success charters as a “radical educational experiment.” Both are great pieces; Green comes away impressed, while raising some concerns about the downside of successful charter networks; Mead calmly analyzes classroom practices.

And if that’s not enough coverage, Moskowitz herself just published a new book about her radical experiment, The Education of Eva Moskowitz.

The Success Academy book I’m eagerly awaiting will come from education writer/practitioner Robert Pondiscio, who has burrowed into Success classrooms to determine exactly what goes on there (watch for it, fall of 2018).

The journalistic attempts to take down Eva Moskowitz are too numerous to cite here, but the most notable was a New York Times investigative piece that breathlessly “exposed” her strict discipline policies.

I stepped into the charter world several years ago to write a book about Rocketship charters, at the time an aggressive, fledgling charter network out of San Jose that vowed to build a national network of high performing charters that would eliminate learning gaps. (One of the cofounders was every bit as brash as Eva). Today, Rocketship runs many good schools, but no national network. This stuff is not easy.

Along my research path for that book I ran across a lot of great charters, and I’ve hewed to that topic ever since, with another book, The Founders, which lays out the history behind the top performing charter networks.

So here’s what makes me uneasy about all the attention paid to Success Academies: Eva Moskowitz undeniably makes sexy copy, but she’s also a unicorn. If you look around the country at the big charter networks, none are take-no-prisoners empire builders.

The closest might be IDEA Public Charters in Texas, which is on an expansion tear that mirrors Success. IDEA has a goal of running 173 schools by the year 2022, enrolling 100,000 students. But the IDEA schools are spread over Texas, a very large state, with a single school foray into Louisiana. Moskowitz’s schools are in a single city.

The most interesting charter expansions don’t even involve opening new schools. California-based Summit Public Schools offers up its digitized learning program to all schools, mostly traditional public schools, and is now in 23 states. That’s huge news, the biggest charter/district collaboration in the country, but news that rarely gets out with the focus on Success.

And Moskowitz’s go-for-the-jugular style is definitely unicornish. Most leaders strive to keep a low profile, looking for ways to cooperate with districts. Everyone knows about Moskowitz’s diatribes. How many know that a quiet college success collaboration between KIPP and San Antonio Independent School District brought immediate positive results and a shower of corporate money into the traditional district?

As good as the test scores may look at Success, the network has yet to prove itself. Test scores mean nothing if you don’t infuse your graduates with the array of qualities that allow some first-generation college goers to succeed, while so many others drop out with no degrees.

Let’s dip into just one example here: Will Success ever be as good as Uncommon Schools, also based in New York? Uncommon is the Ginger to the Success Fred Astaire; it dazzles while backfilling its classes through 9th grade (Success cuts off new admissions after fourth grade).

Uncommon’s alumni earn bachelor’s degree at a rate of 50 percent, a rate that in a few years is projected to climb to 70 percent, the same rate experienced by students from wealthy families. Will Success ever be that good? Hard to say; its first graduating class, with just 17 students, is about to head off to college.

You’ll never see Uncommon’s leader, Brett Peiser, bashing unions and politicians. Maybe that’s why the school chancellors in both New York and Newark reached out to Uncommon and asked them to run professional development programs. This is big stuff; rarely written about.

So that’s why I put myself on a Success Academy writing diet. Moskowitz runs some amazing schools, but she’s a unicorn, and all that unicorn coverage distorts what’s really going on with charters around the country.

Education writer Richard Whitmire is an accomplished paddler and fisherman and the author of several books.

Posted on Dec 11, 2017 @ 12:18pm

One thought on “Richard Whitmire: Why I Put Myself On A Success Academy Writing Diet

  1. mike g

    Very thoughtful.

    Would extend that argument a bit. Eva is unicorn not just uncompromising style and sense of urgency, but even separate from that, just unusually good at the whole “stack” of ed leadership: curriculum, org behavior, hiring/firing, decision-making, etc.

    I’m not sure if she’s a unicorn per se on that whole stack, or “just” top 1%, but that’s part of the story too.

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