Some interesting things I learned from Robert Pondiscio’s book about Success Academy

Success Academy was originally supposed to be a copycat of Robert Slavin’s Success for All program.

Rich person Joel Greenblatt got interested in Slavin, and gave him a call.

“I gave him a call and basically said, ‘I’ve looked at your results, and you’re getting forty or fifty percent of kids reading, but it’s not ‘success for all,'” Greenblatt recalled telling Slavin. “‘I’m just a guy with money. Is it money?'”

Yes, Slavin replied; its just money–if the money is spent in the right way. But it’s difficult to maintain tight control in most public schools. The two agreed to try to find a school they could convince to put “Success for All on steroids,” as Greenblatt put it.

They took over a public school, got a charter, recruited Moskowitz, one thing led to another, etc., here we are today.

Eva Moskowitz hates too much direct instruction.

More than most charter school leaders of her stature, Moskowitz consistently sees and talks about schooling through a child’s lens. Too much direct instruction–explaining the steps to solve a math problem, for example, rather than guiding kids as they struggle and strategize–sets her off. “If you see a teacher, ‘Blah, blah, blah, blah,'” she says, pantomiming extreme boredom. Her tone has been restrained, her deliver pedantic, even when discussing charged topics like race, cheating the Charlotte Dial video. But now she grows animated, even agitated. “Who has seen a kid when their teacher keeps them on the rug for twenty-five minutes? They’re five, for God’s sakes! You try sitting on that rug for twenty-five minutes listening. That is an educational crime!”

I should note that the book is basically Pondiscio’s account of a year he spent observing Bronx 1, a Success Academy elementary school. It is focused entirely on the elementary years, which is too bad. They operate a lot of middle schools (and a few struggling high schools) and you don’t leave the book with any sense of how they work. The direct instruction is one thing, but another is the ra-ra spirit (Ford-ham! Stand! Up!) which every middle schooler I have ever met would hate.

Math at Success Academy is…progressive? Progressive-ish?

Here is the Kindergarten teacher at Bronx 1 speaking to parents:

Writing “27 + 14” on the classroom smartboard, she warns parents to expect “a totally different world of learning math. We all learned math this way,” she says, doing the sum while narrating her work: “Seven plus four is eleven; put the one here and carry the one.” She stops and turns back to the room. “What does ‘carry the one’ mean? I love that you’re giggling, mom,” she says to one parent. “Before I came here, I had no idea why I carried that one. I knew I couldn’t put it here“– she writes “11” below the stacked “7” and “4.” “I did a procedure. No one ever taught me the real reason.”

For now, she begs parents not to teacher their children “procedures.”

This is not a lone teacher. (The book makes clear that there are no lone teachers at SA.)

It’s also reflected in their curriculum which (believe it or not) is built on TERC!

The math curriculum is cobbled together from different sources: an off-the-shelf curriculum called TERC; Contexts for Learning, a “conceptual math” approach pioneered by Catherine Fosnot, an education professor at City College of New York; and “a variety of things we found on the Internet,” according to Stacey Gershkovich, who oversees math at Success.

That’s pretty progressive stuff! Though Pondiscio emphasizes that they do drill facts a lot.

I will quote extensively, because I was surprised by this whole passage.

In the fourth-grade wing, Kerri Lynch is teaching fractions. Because of its test scores, it is commonly assumed that math lessons at Success Academy resemble a Chinese cram school’s, with instruction focused exclusively on “drill and kill” to prepare kids for high-stakes tests. However, Moskowitz, the daughter of a mathematician, is a proponent of a conceptual approach; she derides “direct instruction” and other standard explanatory pedagogies, where kids learn and practice algorithms and formulas, as “math by card tricks.”

Sure, sure you say. Show me the classrooms.

Lynch’s students sit on assigned spots on the rug. “One thing we’ve worked on is to be able to compare fractions to landmark fractions, such as one half or one whole,” she begins. “Today, when I put up the two fractions you’re comparing, I don’t want you to show any work. I only want you to write if it’s less than, greater than, or equal to. Just the symbol.” With those minimal instructions, Lynch writes 1/8 and 1/10 on the board and watches as her students bend silently over their whiteboards. “I’m seeing that some of us very quickly know it,” she observes. “Go ahead and turn and talk with your partner. What knowledge of fractions did you apply to solve this question?” The chatter rises as Lynch circulates, asking questions, drawing students out, and listening to their explanations, making mental notes about which students she will ask to “share out” with the class.

As the discussion goes on, the explanations gradually grow more economical and precise…Lynch raises the rigor. She writes 3/4 and 7/8 on the board. With no common denominator or numinator the answer is less obvious, but she offers a hint: “Matthew, what you said about ‘closer to one whole’ might be helpful. Turn and talk with your partner.” The room breaks into passionate arguments: “They’re equal!” “Seven-eighths is more!” “Only one piece is left to get it to one whole!” “No they are equal! They’re both only one pieces to a whole!” “But this one’s a smaller piece to a whole.”

Lynch’s ears perk up. “What did you just say? They’re both one away from a whole? How much further away from a whole? I want you to share that,” she says to Matthew.

Jo Boaler would be proud! (Steve Leinwand is.)

Eva Moskowitz is fond of saying that Success Academy is “Catholic School on the outside, Bank Street on the inside.” That is not true, because all the behavioral reinforcements and super-obsessive rules are very not Bank Street. But you can sort of see what she means.

Success Academy uses Fountas and Pinnell’s Leveled Reading System, and they generally spend a lot of time on reading skills (something researchy-types don’t care for)

Success Academy follows the “leveled reading’ system developed by reading researchers Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, which starts at Level A early in kindergarten and reaches Level Z, usually by the end of eighth grade.

They also use it in a way not recommended by Fountas and Pinnell, which is to give each kid a specific and highly publicized reading level. There’s a scene where a kid excitedly goes around telling teachers that she is “Level L” and again I wonder what their middle school looks like because this culture? Doesn’t work for older kids, right?

Systematically building background knowledge is not an explicit aim of Success Academy’s ELA curriculum. I had long assumed that its ELA curriculum played a significant role, even a dominant one, in the network’s standardized test results. But when the network made its curriculum available for free online in 2017, the response among experts who emphasize the importance of knowledge-rich curriculum was muted. “Kindergartners spend all but one of their seven units supposedly developing skills–like the ‘skill’ of reading nonfiction–and those at higher grade levels get only one or two more units per year that are content-based,” observed education journalist Natalie Wexler, who noted that the lessons posted on the website “sound very similar to the fruitless exercises that are found in classrooms across the country. Teachers jump from one topic to another, using content merely as a delivery mechanism for skills, and then students are sent off to ‘practice’ the skills on books they choose themselves.”

These are the most important quotes in the book.

There’s a meeting for parents who either won or were declared “likely” to gain an admissions spot for their kid. The meeting asks parents to consider whether Success is right for them.

Then, almost as an afterthought, Reeder mentions transportation. Success Academy does not offer buses. For some parents the logistics of getting a child to and from school present an even bigger challenge than complying with culture demands, reading logs and homework. Every Wednesday, children are dismissed at 12:30 so that staff can attend their professional development sessions. “That’s something else you gotta keep in mind, “Reeder adds. “‘Will I be able to pick up my child on time? Will I be able to have somebody to support me with that?’ School lets out at 3:45 but every Wednesday is “12:30 no matter what.” She hits “12” and “30” hard, hammering the point home. “And we do not have after-school, so you guys have to figure that out.”

The meeting lasts just under an hour, but it opens a portal into the model and culture that explain in no small part the network’s consistent results across its schools. Suddenly it all makes sense: The common criticism leveled at Moskowitz and her schools is that they cherry-pick students, attracting bright children and shedding the poorly behaved and hardest to teach. This misses the mark entirely. Success Academy is cherry-picking parents. Parents who are not put off by uniforms, homework, reading logs and constant demands on their time, but who view those things as evidence that here, at last, is a school that has its act together. Parents who are not upset by tight discipline and suspensions but who are grateful for them, viewing Success Academy as a safe haven from disorderly streets and schools. Charter schools cannot screen parents to ensure culture fit, but the last hour in the auditorium is a close proxy for such an effort, galvanizing disciplines and warning off the indifferent and uncommitted. A the same time, there is something undeniably exclusionary about it. If you don’t have the resources to get your child to school by 7:30 and pick her up at 3:45  — at 12:30 on Wednesdays — Success Academy is not for you. Literally.

Pondiscio makes much of research showing that parental factors make a big difference on the success of low-income students. Parental involvement, two-family homes, strong religious faith are all factors that help. The claim is that Success Academy is essentially selecting for these families in low-income neighborhoods.

Nobody likes talking about it in this book, but also nobody seems to deny it. It’s the unspoken but obvious, glaring fact about Success Academy. It’s a point neatly summed up towards the end of the book:

One former Success Academy school leader was philosophical about all this. “Is it really such a bad thing that this is basically an elite private school that admits by lottery?” he asked. “It’s the first time folks in the inner city have had that chance.”

So it’s not curriculum, not the teaching, not the teachers? Not even the test prep? It’s just selection effects?

Well, mostly selection effects. There are a few other things in the secret sauce. The thing that’s well-known is the intense and systematic behavior management. What I didn’t know about was the entirely sensible division of labor. Principals focus entirely on teachers and students — they have an “ops” person for administrative stuff. The curriculum may not have impressed Pondiscio, but its existence does impress him. The curriculum meets whatever minimal threshold it needs to be to free teachers up to focus on going over student work, calling parents and working with kids. That’s good, in general!

But, yeah, mostly selection effects.

Oh, and my school got a shout out.

The oft-heard refrain at Success to “put the lift on students” and to socialize learning, encouraging children to work collectively in pairs or small groups, is the kind of teaching one would expect to see at Bank Street, Saint Ann’s, or any of the progressive private schools beloved by affluent New Yorkers.

That doesn’t exactly nail the culture of Saint Ann’s but whatever! Not his point.

This is a good interview.

Check it out.

The book was a very good read and very much worth reading. Interesting, provocative, rooted in entirely realistic school observations, it’s definitely worth checking out.

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