Eva Moskowitz’s response to Michael Winerip’s hatchet job
STOP THE PRESSES! Eva Moskowitz's response to Michael Winerip's typically predictable hatchet job in yesterday NYT (see below) not only demolishes his article, but, more importantly, it rebuts the wrong-headed and disingenuous methods the unions, Ravitch, etc. use to attack reform: the assumption that disadvantaged kids can't learn and therefore that schools with a high percentage of such kids can't be expected to show high achievement; searching for evidence that reinforces one's point of view and, when found, no matter how unrepresentative, write a big story about it (what's called The Tyranny of the Anecdote), etc.
To be clear, Winerip raises a legitimate question: do charter schools get more motivated students and/or parents than nearby regular public schools, either due to how they're set up (a parent must apply) or due to deliberate actions (creaming kids on the way in and/or "counseling out" low-performing and/or difficult kids)? Let's be honest: there's probably a slight benefit regarding the former (but even normalizing for this, considering only students who entered a charter lottery and tracking those who got in vs. those who didn't, the best charter schools show enormous benefit for students – for example, see this study of KIPP: www.kipp.org/about-kipp/results/mathematica-study).
Regarding the latter (which is what Winerip is focused on), I regret to say that some charter schools DO engage in creaming on the way in and/or counsel out students they shouldn't. There are also LOTS of charter schools that don't provide a quality education. But these characteristics do NOT apply to the Success charter network, which is the real deal, which raises the puzzling question: why does Winerip try to tear down one of the BEST charter networks, that's achieving nothing short of miracles with nearly 100% low-income, minority children? To the extent he wants to make charter schools look bad, why doesn't he go after a crappy school that DOES cream and does NOT educate children well?
The answer, of course, is rooted in who fed Winerip the story – the union – combined with his massive bias (he's not a journalist, but rather a PR agent for the unions – how the NYT hasn't figured this out is beyond me). There are actually two factors at work here: the first applies only to the Success charter network, about which I wrote last year (http://edreform.blogspot.com/2010/01/blocking-schoolhouse-door.html):
For those of you not familiar with the history of Eva Moskowitz and Randi Weingarten, you might wonder why the union is targeting not only one of the best schools in Harlem, but one of the best in the entire country. You'd think they'd target a crappy charter school, right? (Sadly, there are more than a few, though in NY, there are fewer than in many other states that have weak charter laws/authorizers.) The reason is that Harlem Success is run by Eva. Randi has a long-standing, vicious, personal vendetta against Eva because when she was head of the Education Committee of the NY City Council, Eva courageously held hearings on the union contract (which, of course, highlighted the insanity of it and underscored how it screwed kids in countless ways). Ever since, Randi has done everything in her power to hurt Eva and anyone and anything she's associated with. It's thuggery, plain and simple. SHAME ON YOU, RANDI! This is Exhibit A on why I compare the teachers unions to the longshoreman's union. (Full disclosure: Eva is a good friend and one of my heroes -- not only for what she did as a City Councilor, but also for building four of the most kick-ass schools in the country.)
The second reason the union fed Winerip this story, rather than one about a lousy charter school, applies to all successful charter schools/networks: their success doesn't insulate them from attacks, but rather makes them targets. You see, crappy charter schools don't threaten the unions/status quo/blob, so they can be safely ignored. They likely won't grow, and don't disprove the union talking points that essentially boil down to:
"Hey, don't blame us for lousy schools filled with kids who can't read and are on the fast track to jail or welfare. Given "these" kids and "these" parents, you can't expect us to make a difference. In fact, you should pity and genuflect before us for the impossible, thankless job we have. So just shut up and shovel more money in our direction."
The fact that Success and other high-performing networks are disproving this story line so dramatically, with the same kids, the same parents, the same money (often less), sometimes in the same building, is a MASSIVE threat to the unions/status quo/blog – and therefore, they will stop at nothing to destroy successful alternative models. In short, the more successful you are in getting kids to learn and excel, the more the forces of the status quo will try to destroy you. Winerip's article is simply one manifestation of this…
The facts clearly show that Success Academies' educators are incredibly committed to serving children with special needs, we serve a high percentage, and do not push out children who don't "thrive." The Success Academies' special education population is equal to the citywide average of 12.5%. Our ELL population is 9.6%, and when you factor in children who we have successfully taught English (and are no longer ELL), we clearly educate the same children. As Winerip points out, our student attrition rate is significantly lower than our co-located schools and the citywide average.
As the paper trail examined by Winerip clearly indicates, no one pressured Ms. Sprowal to leave the school. Her son did not have an IEP until 3 years after he left the school. When the family left the school in 2008, Ms. Sprowal wrote effusive emails about how happy she was with how the school handled her situation. Three years later, after coaching from the United Federation of Teachers, his mother is now unhappy. The UFT spent five years hovering over our schools to find hordes of students who were unfairly "pushed" out, and the best they could find was a single story with a happy ending.
Most educators would agree that children are different and don't all excel in the same settings. That's why having choices is so important. Different schools are different in their approaches. Some are strict, some less strict, some have bigger class sizes, some smaller etc.. It is our obligation to advise a parent that there might be a better setting for their child.
Our schools are a work in progress, every day we try to do better for the largest number of children. While I don't believe that the school mishandled the situation, we are always working to improve how we serve children with all types of needs. For next year, we have added a 12:1:1 program at two of our schools and a Director of Special Education at the network-level who comes from the city's District 75.
What is most troubling about several of Winerip's recent columns is the suggestion that low-performing schools can't be expected to do any better. Winerip recently wrote that it wasn't Jamaica High School's fault that only 38% of its kids graduate with regents diplomas, because it gets more of the tough-to-serve kids (2% more homeless children, 6% more children with special needs). What school could possibly do better under those circumstances?
The theme is repeated in this story. 33% of 4th graders passed the state ELA test at PS 75, but public schools like PS 75 get more tough-to-serve children. (PS 75 does not, but schools like it do, he argues) When schools like ours have 86% of 4th graders passing the same test, it must be because we don't have the same kids, because schools can't possibly be expected to do that well.
Winerip also makes the argument that schools like PS 75 care about children and thus have low test scores while schools like Harlem Success Academy don't care about children and thus have high test scores.
Those are both false arguments that we must dispel if we're to improve the quality of public education. Schools with tough-to-serve children can do better and it's possible to care about children AND want them to perform well on tests.
At Success Academies, we want children to achieve at high levels AND we care deeply about their social and emotional development. We aim to create schools that are nurturing, joyful, and compelling AND that prepare children to excel in whatever their chosen field. I tell our principals, our true measure of success is whether children race through the door each morning and are disappointed to leave each day because school is just that compelling. Do we also want our children to score well on tests? Yes. High performance and joy are not mutually exclusive.
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