Charter Schools May Be the Answer, But What’s the Question?

Sep 07, 2019

Charter schools educate six percent of America’s children, but get an outsized amount of attention, pro and con. Partly because charter schools represent change: Charter schools have grown more than sevenfold in the last twenty years. Partly because charter schools educate an outsized, and concentrated, percentage of Black and Latinx students, and groups of Black and Latinx kids always draw a spotlight. But also because charter schools are concentrated where the media are. In Washington, D.C., home to the policy-industrial complex, almost half of the city’s students attend charter schools. If you’re an education wonk, you have an object of study in your own backyard.

The Success Academy network in New York City is among the most controversial, and attention-getting, charters. Already the subject of media coverage including a podcast series, a New Yorker profile, a memoir by its founder and a New York Times exposé, it now gets book-length a-year-in-the-life treatment from a former classroom teacher, school choice advocate and certified wonk. Robert Pondiscio’s “How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice” addresses the controversies, with clear explanations of New York’s charter school politics. But the book’s great value, and the pleasure in reading it, is in its careful, loving description of the daily life of an urban charter school. And it’s the small stuff of classrooms that raise the biggest questions: what we want schools to accomplish, and for which kids.

Pondiscio embedded in a South Bronx Success Academy elementary school for a year of close observation; as he says, for all the controversy, his main question was, “What do the kids do all day?” He notes their vocabulary lessons and emotional meltdowns, as well as the less-observed stuff of school life, like how hallways get cleaned and teachers get each other through their own meltdowns. Thanks to his storytelling, we come to care for the principal, for individual teachers and students, for the ups and downs of a day he describes as “Success Academy in microcosm: a gaudily expensive pep rally, angry tweets, a teacher’s faith in his students, test prep, joy, and vomit.”

Every classroom is an intense place for the people who spend most of their days there. That’s what happens when thirty small humans, and one or two big ones, are stuck in a room together trying to teach and learn. The intensity is heightened, at this school, by its signature behaviorist approach. “Success Academy is not merely a no-excuses school,” Pondiscio writes, “it is the most no excuses school.” We see a child turned away on the first day of school “for wearing the wrong color socks.” We see how the adults are trained to monitor and either praise or correct every student’s smallest actions, every single time. The priority on microscopically correct order is one of the two most striking things about Success Academy; both Pondiscio and the school argue for that priority’s direct relationship with the other most striking thing, which is the outstanding academic outcomes. Success Academy, with forty-five schools, performs higher than any school district in New York State; the next four highest all have average household incomes three to six times higher than Success’s students’. With its disciplinary intensity, Success Academy is creating the focused conditions for teaching and learning to thrive.

At least, as Pondiscio details, for some people’s children. As a parent, I like a disciplinary approach that makes space for teaching and learning. But I can’t imagine being told what socks my white, upper-middle-class son may wear to school. The parents at Success Academy know what they signed up for, and Pondiscio calls out more-privileged, self-proclaimed progressive critics of Success Academy’s behaviorism: “Those with resources who value safe and orderly schools and a culture of academic achievement have largely unfettered access to it. Those with the same priorities and values but without resources struggle to gain admittance.” These parents self-select into Success Academy, making it past the hurdles (from strict dress codes to many mandatory meetings) by which the school ensures parental matches for the “poor man’s private school,” as Pondiscio calls it. But of course, it isn’t a private school. My own white, upper-middle-class parents sent me to Bank Street School for Children, a private New York City elementary school that Success Academy’s founder has cited as a pedagogical model. We could wear whatever socks, along with whatever shirts, pants or (every day, for one of my kindergarten classmates) Superman capes we wanted.

The kind of inequality that animates Pondiscio is unequal access to choice. Rich parents, or parents rich enough to live in a district with schools they like, already have school choice. Charters offer choice to parents who can’t afford it otherwise. But that’s where their egalitarianism stops. Success Academy doesn’t work for all children or families, and it doesn’t pretend to. To his credit, Pondiscio doesn’t pretend either; he makes clear that his concern is for “receptive and motivated students,” and he wants parents who display receptivity and motivation to have a school made for them. He spends time on the story of Adama, a second-grade boy who struggled at Success and eventually is pushed out by, or pulled from, the school. He’s honest that Success Academy doesn’t work for everyone, and his seeming answer is more choice, rather than any more-systemic critique.

That’s the downside of sticking so closely to one school. He doesn’t analyze what makes one child seem “receptive and motivated” and another contrarian, just like he doesn’t seriously address why Success Academy feels it needs sock patrol and Bank Street allows capes. He doesn’t address what it means that a school network with 93 percent Black and Hispanic students has fewer than 40 percent faculty of color. A few years ago, Pondiscio wrote a provocative, widely shared blog post criticizing the increasing leftism of the education reform movement: “There is an unmistakable and increasingly aggressive orthodoxy in mainstream education reform thought regarding issues of race, class, and gender.” Pondiscio departs from this orthodoxy through ceaseless individualism: His question is how to help the chosen few overcome the odds, not how to change the odds themselves.

He also doesn’t address what it means for Success Academy to succeed. A couple of paragraphs ago, I referred to Success Academy as performing higher than any school district in New York State. That’s by test scores, of course, in English and math. It’s not college attendance or completion; it’s not future earned income; it’s not a measure of children’s happiness in the moment or flourishing long-term. We don’t yet know these outcomes for Success Academy, but when its mission is to “prove children from all backgrounds can succeed in college and life,” surely the performance can only be judged in the long term. One recent study of Boston charter schools found that they led to higher college attendance for their students, but not to higher college completion. What if the students who don't graduate from college are worse off for having attended—that is, for instance, they have higher student loan debt because they were in a college-for-all culture, but no degree to show for it? What if they have lower self-esteem or community connections? What would make all the stress and upheaval of Success Academy worthwhile?

With skillful writing and warts-and-all honesty, Pondiscio shows the implications of parental choice in charter schools, and how much a unified cultural vision among parents and a school can drive student performance. But by defining student performance in test-driven terms, and focusing so heavily on the limited student population who make it in this school, Pondiscio raises questions we, as a society, haven’t answered about the purpose of public schooling. Is it to produce students who do well on tests? To open opportunity so that motivated students with hardcore parents can succeed? To model and mold healthy democratic citizenship? To leave no child behind and help them all achieve?

Which of these you think most important will determine whether you think Success Academy succeeds. As you judge this charter school, though, consider how any school, public or private, would do with the same scrutiny.


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