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.

Discovery learning vs. not discovery learning


I think at this point, if you’re reading a math blog, you probably have an opinion about the place of discovery (or inquiry or guided inquiry or problem solving or whatever) versus fully guided instruction (or direct instruction or Direct Instruction or explicit instruction or Explicit Direct Instruction).

(By the way, Ed Realist does a nice job trying to clarify the terminological situation here.)

But the thing is that it is difficult to talk about this in a way that is clear and accessible. I was thinking about this while reading Jasmine’s latest post, which lays out what cognitive science researchers say on the matter. Jasmine and I are on the same page, and she is faithful to the researchers, but I felt myself inclined to express these views in a slightly different way. Not necessarily even better; just different.

(By the way, Jasmine is a first-year teacher and new blogger. She’s on the blogroll.)

So here is how I would put it:

Every mathematician and scientist, as far as I can tell, is clear about just how messy their research is. I am very fond of this account from mathematician Andrew Wiles:

Perhaps I could best describe my experience of doing mathematics in terms of entering a dark mansion. You go into the first room and it’s dark, completely dark. You stumble around, bumping into the furniture. Gradually, you learn where each piece of furniture is. And finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch and turn it on. Suddenly, it’s all illuminated and you can see exactly where you were. Then you enter the next dark room…

You think it’s true…then it’s not…then you waste a morning trying to prove something that in fact is not true and not strictly necessary for proving the thing you actually care about. Then you feel despair, so you take a break and do something else. A week later you come back and you feel stupid — the thing is now obviously true, and you know why — and that feels good! But that’s just Part 1. So on to Part 2…

Here’s the question, and it’s a fundamental one: do you think it’s a good idea to put your students in this situation, or not?

If you say “yeah! kids need to learn how to do this sort of thing” then you will be a fan of discovery and inquiry and problem solving and etc. If you say “wait, no, this doesn’t sound like a good way to make kids feel” then you will strongly dislike discovery and inquiry.

I feel as if that’s almost all there is to say. It pretty much comes down to that.


There is of course a bit more, though. It’s probably easiest to present it in terms of a dialogue. Basically, cognitive science has a bunch of counter-arguments to arguments in support of the “yeah!” view above. Here’s how the dialogue goes.

Q: You don’t like discovery/inquiry/asking students to do math the way research mathematicians and scientists do?

A: That is right, I do not.

Q: But how will students learn to do research-y things if you don’t teach them?

A: “Do research-y things” is not really a skill. Neither is “creatively problem solve” or “think mathematically.” We don’t have evidence that any of these things can be taught to students, except alongside particular mathematical or scientific content. The things you really need to do research-y things that can be taught is a tremendous store of flexible, sturdy knowledge. That’s the best thing you can do to give your kids a leg up.

Q: But that’s demotivating! It’s boring to learn a discipline that way, and the genuine ways of learning are more motivating.

A: Bad teaching will always be demotivating, but there are lots of examples of the “boring” approaches being highly motivating. One way you see this is when an intervention measures affect, i.e. how kids feel about a thing.

But honestly if kids aren’t motivated, they won’t learn, and we have evidence that the more explicit approaches help kids learn. Shrug.

Q: So you think that kids never need a chance to apply their knowledge?

A: Yo, I did not say that.

Q: Yeah you did.

A: No, I did not. Here’s what I think. There’s evidence that when a student has less experience with something, they need a lot of explicit instruction about how to do that thing. Worked examples are a really, really sturdy format for people with little experience in a thing. If a student has never learned how to factor quadratic functions, a good way to start can be to show them examples of factoring quadratic functions. Then, ask them to use the example to solve a problem. And then show another example, and then give them some more practice. And then mix-up the practice, or ask them to apply what they’ve learned in a new context.

And then, the next day, do more stuff like that.

And then on the third day, maybe ask them to solve some problems on their own, and see how that goes.

And if it’s going well, who knows! In a week or so, maybe they’ll be ready to apply these skills to a challenging problem in class. Or maybe it’ll take a few weeks. The point is that as kids get more experienced with a set of skills, they are more ready to take on challenges.

Q: Thank you for saying “challenges,” I like challenges.

A: No problem. The point is where you start. And that’s genuinely controversial! But we believe (see: evidence) that starting with fully explicit instructions like worked examples gives newbies the help that they need. Starting a unit with a vague activity that students aren’t sure how to handle isn’t giving them the help they need.

Q: Does this take into account motivation?

A: No and yes.

No, it doesn’t take into account motivation. Do you have some amazing, super-motivating activity that kids love and that will super-charge a unit of study? Do you start a unit on quadratics with this amazing activity that helps the whole thing get started on a great note? No, the evidence does not take this into consideration. It just notes that it’s hard to find clear evidence of a learning benefit of this sort of thing.

But, yes, this does take into account motivation, because in the long-run there isn’t really any evidence that motivation is easily separable from achievement. So ultimately something like a worked example does a lot of good for motivation, because it helps struggling students understand the material and participate as an equal in your classroom.

Michael Pershan: Can I step in here for a second?

Q: Sure.

MP: I would only add that though there is no evidence for this, I do think a certain amount of variety is healthy in a classroom. Like, kids do get bored if you do the same thing day after day. But, two things. First, if you’re starting with something like fully worked examples and moving to interesting, challenging practice, your kids are getting variety. Second, go ahead, take a day and do something interesting and different. Variety is good! There are lots of interesting practice formats, though we don’t talk enough about that.

That’s all I want to add here.

Q: OK, but here’s the thing. I just want kids to be able to think like mathematicians/scientists in school. That’s the goal I care about. That’s what I think is most valuable. And I don’t even necessarily care if it is helping them do that stuff in the future. You tell me that these skills can’t be taught — OK! You also tell me that there is no real benefit to their skills from these kinds of experiences — that’s OK too! All that I want is for kids to be doing something meaningful in school. Yes, I want to make sure their test scores are OK and they can get into college, but beyond that I want kids to do something they care about. 

There are two answers to this last question, which is what I think this discussion sometimes comes down to.

  1. There comes a point where people just disagree on what they value. It’s hard to know what to say by the time someone gets to this point of clarity about what they care about.
  2. It’s a mistake to assume that regular, “boring” school is not meaningful. And it’s also a mistake to assume that regular, “boring” learning is not meaningful. As I’ve written in the past, mathematicians ask for help all the time, and a lot of cutting edge work is simply focused on understanding things, not on solving a particular problem.

But I guess I’d point out that there are three things going on.

There’s a certain picture of what research mathematicians and scientists do and what their culture is like.

There’s a view about what is most effective for learning and motivation.

And then there is a view about whether it sounds like a good idea to put kids under the conditions of researchers in class.

And cognitive science research is relevant for the second, the efficacy question. And there is a value question, about what you think is worth doing in school.

But for me the decisive point is that the work of learning skills and knowledge is meaningful, and you can see this also in the culture of mathematicians and scientists. It’s just not right that learning skills isn’t meaningful to students.

Sure, education is weird. But it’s not THAT weird.

(What follows is a rant. I have moderate confidence about my impressions, but I have made no attempt to test or challenge them. I mostly wrote it because it was fun to write, and I think it’s true.)

There are a lot of people who will tell you that education has a particularly awful culture, but to prove it they’ll point to things that are totally common in other industries. This amounts to a weird kind of exceptionalism about education — a belief that our culture is uniquely troubled.

An example is those godawful edu-celebrities. They get these enormous (and enormously lucrative) platforms and use them to spout a mix of meaningless platitudes and outright lies: Message of the day — Good teachers enter the classroom; Great teachers leave it. (I’m no good at making these up, but @EduCelebrity is fantastic at it.)

The thought goes like this: isn’t this a sign of the particularly awful culture of education? Isn’t the ascent of these blablas only possible because…and now you get to pick whatever it is you feel is uniquely wrong with education. We would never treat (and now pick some other job)(probably doctors or lawyers) like that!

But this misses the point entirely which is that these bozos are coming from the business world into education.

This would be a particularly good moment for me to pivot to stories from my time working in industry buuuuut my only grownup work experience is in teaching. So let me speak as a studious observer of the “Best Seller” table in bookstores and say that all this leadership and self-improvement stuff is coming to us directly from business and management. Edu leadership-speak is derivative of business-speak.

(If I have had no direct encounters with business culture, I have even less experience with the self-help world. As a NYC Jew let me say that it sure seems like the self-help world is rooted in evangelical church culture. That is an observation worth very little, obviously.)

But what about the garbage tech that suffuses education? I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the rest of the world is not exactly untouched by garbage tech.

OK, OK, but what about our particularly dysfunctional relationship between research and teaching? Can you imagine a group of doctors who routinely rejected medical research? That would be malpractice!

Two responses. First, yes, teachers ignore research. This is a whole thing, and it does seem possible to me that the research/practice gap is particularly wide in teaching. (For a lot of reasons.)

But also, the idea that medicine has a particularly simple relationship between research and practice ignores the gap between medical researchers and medical practitioners. And there is such a gap! I’m not saying that it’s as significant as the research gap in education — it’s not — but it’s there, and for many of the familiar reasons: not all research is relevant to practice, practitioners have values that are sometimes in tension with research, the profit motive pollutes the information environment, institutions have needs that aren’t identical to those of individuals.

Why should you believe me about this? Again, this would be a useful time to point to some particular expertise I have with medicine but, again, no. Although I’m not entirely making things up. First, there are many pieces one can read about the gap between evidence-based medicine and what happens in practice (such as this).

Second, I’ve asked doctor friends about this. In particular, I asked doctor friends how widespread anxiety about the research/practice gap is in medicine. And the answer I got was that it’s not nearly as pervasive as it is in education — not at all — but it’s there. Probably it depends on the specialty.

This weakens my point a bit. There clearly is a difference between education and other fields. But it’s not that different.

I understand that this is the loosest category of argument. I’m making an argument pertaining to quantity; but that’s just what I’m doing. Education is not SO special, it’s not THAT different, it’s LESS plagued by a uniquely bad culture than many people inside education think it is.

So, why is it that people frequently lament education’s particularly awful culture?

It would be tempting to play the exact same game I just finishing critiquing. In no other field do people say their field’s problems are unique! Education is the only profession that laments how unusually problematic it is! Do DOCTORS spend all day talking about how flawed their profession is?

But you know what? Everybody spends time complaining about their work. It’s your god-given right. Go ahead, exercise it! But in moderation.