Success Academy is in the news again and, as usual, it’s not for reasons that are particularly flattering. I worked at Success Academy for four and a half years. I have been away from the network for almost a year now and, with some perspective, have some thoughts, some regrets, some questions and, yes, some positive experiences that I can relay.
Let me begin by saying that I do think Eva Moskowitz should step down as CEO of Success Academy. It will become more apparent as this post goes on as to why I feel this way. I started at SA in 2015. I had applied to the school after a recommendation from an acquaintance I hadn’t heard from in years (I later found out about the referral program that rewards employees with $2,500 bonuses if their hire lasts a few months on the job). I applied to be a middle school English teacher – a position that reflected my undergraduate degree. I was placed, after one school visit, at an elementary school in the South Bronx in February of 2015 as an assistant teacher in a 2nd grade classroom. After a couple months I was moved to a kindergarten classroom. This constant juggling of staff is very common at SA, as inexperienced leaders are often required to compensate for terrible teacher retention. Less than a month into my time in the kindergarten classroom my “Lead Teacher” went on Spring Break with the 3rd and 4th grade students and teachers (because she skipped her scheduled Spring Break to help with state test prep – more on that later). I was left alone in a classroom of 30 students whom I had just met weeks prior with little to no support. One leader checked in on me one time over the course of the entire week. This was my first of many forays into the warped priorities and rampant malpractice that is commonplace at SA.
I want to balance this out by saying that there are SA practices that I think are positive and forward-thinking – policies that I do think public education in general could adapt in some form or another. As with most institutions it’s not all black and white. I think removing the barrier of the insane and expensive certification process and getting young, passionate people into the classroom to learn is a good practice that could and should be adapted in the public model, and that the teacher certification process in general needs reform; however, you definitely shouldn’t leave those young teachers alone in a classroom of students they barely know for a week without support.
After finishing out the school year as an assistant kindergarten teacher in the Bronx I requested a transfer to a middle school in Brooklyn, where I was living at the time. From February to June I was working 12 hour days with hour long subway rides to and from work. I was working on my masters degree (that Success was paying for) at the same time. I wasn’t eating or sleeping properly. At work my direct manager was emotionally abusive, bitter and completely unhelpful. I thought a change of scenery, and a grade switch closer to where I first imagined myself, would at least help me continue to work in education.
The year of reflection that I’ve had is important, because one thing that has become abundantly clear is that the structure of Success Academy is cult-like in nature, and at that point in 2015 I was fully bought in. They use the state test scores of colocated public schools – schools that are often home to the siblings and neighbors of the students they serve – to illustrate how much “better” or “more effective” SA is than their public school counterparts. If the numbers are so much better here, we must be succeeding, and they must be failing kids. Mayor DeBlasio was withholding school space from SA because he was in the pocket of the teacher’s union and had an agenda, and on and on. They feed a white savior complex on a silver platter to new professionals with little restraint. I didn’t know any better at the time.
So, naturally, when I got a call from my would-be principle in early July of 2015 telling me that there was another principal in Harlem that wanted to make me a lead 4th grade ICT teacher in a co-taught classroom, I figured I had been chosen to carry out the mission. Keep in mind I had hardly been an assistant teacher for four months at the time. Despite concern from family and friends I took the position. I had a month and a half to prepare to teach a class full of 4th grade students with another inexperienced teacher whom I hadn’t met, and wouldn’t meet, until a few weeks before the start of the school year.
Another disclaimer, as I don’t want this to feel excessively negative or one-sided: I met and worked with some absolutely incredible people in my time at SA. The principal at the school in Harlem became a mentor. My co-teacher is a close friend to this day. Both people, and dozens of others from the rest of my time at SA, I highly respect and admire. I think it’s important to highlight that, though Success Academy has glaring and, in some cases, extremely problematic flaws, there are many people that do really wonderful things for their students who work in Success Academy schools.
I began the 2015-2016 school year still fully bought into the “mission”, and a little full of myself as well. Reality set in hard. Here I was, on a team of all white teachers, in charge of a classroom that was completely composed of black and brown children who had gone through four years of schooling without ever seeing my face. My co-teacher had more experience than me and had spent the previous year at the school. Whenever she left the room the kids reminded me just how unprepared I was for the job. I had no business being their teacher. They knew it. I knew it. But SA builds in a classroom management structure called “no nonsense nurturing” that is heavily rooted in pavlovian practices and blind acceptance of and adherence to authority. Within a few months the students stopped messing around when I was alone in the room. The optics of this style of management in hindsight are sickening and deeply rooted in white supremacy. This is the first and most prominent reason why I believe Eva Moskowitz needs to step down as CEO of Success Academy.
No one I worked with was outwardly bigoted. In fact, many of the staff thought of themselves as liberal and accepting, etc. Call it neoliberalism, or blame the cult-like culture, but we didn’t see how or why our style of discipline was problematic. Students were disciplined for things as small as fidgeting with their hands during a class discourse. One too many fidgets and a student could be withheld from recess. We were told these high expectations were necessary to help “close the achievement gap” and that, in order to truly care about these students we had to push them to their limit. And again, some of this may have a sliver of truth to it. Teachers need to be demanding to a certain extent to bring the best out of their students – but what we practiced at SA was that idea on steroids. It was in the Spring of 2016 that the facade of the SA brand began to fade away for me, and the real reasons for this strict discipline and these insane expectations began to make themselves abundantly clear.
New York State Standardized Testing. It might as well have been the Bible at SA. From January to June 70-80% of our academic day was spent in preparation for the state ELA, math and science exams. They told us, whether we liked it or not, that our students would be judged by their numerical scores for the rest of their lives. We were just getting them prepared to close the achievement gap. We were opening opportunities for them. What they didn’t tell us, at least not explicitly, was that SA leaders got bonuses directly tied to the state test scores of the students in their schools. What they didn’t tell us is that union-busting millionaire and billionaires in New York were using Success Academy test scores as “proof” that the public school system was broken, and that the only solution was to reduce the power of the teacher’s union in New York City (a union that Ms. Moskowitz has long had issues with, which is expertly detailed in the podcast series “StartUp”, which you can find here). Many of our colleagues figured this out eventually. But before we figured it out, we went through the absolute circus that is state test prep at Success Academy.
The practice of state test prep at SA has been detailed a few times before, so I won’t dwell on it too long. I will highlight some of the practices that I found most egregiously awful. The first is public humiliation. Teachers were encouraged (and I am extremely ashamed to say that I was guilty of this) to publicly post student’s test scores for the whole class to see. Students who did well were praised, and offered material prizes, while students who did poorly would often be left in tears in front of all of their peers. Material prizes, I must say again, were dangled in front of students as things they could earn if they scored a certain grade or made a certain metric of “growth”. Students sat at desks, in rows, for hours and hours at a time in front of practice test booklets. Teachers were tasked with creating pump up speeches on testing days and creative ways to motivate their students to prevent burnout. We were told specific ways to proctor exams that included techniques like “perching and swooping”, which is essentially an intimidation tactic. It was an exhausting process for students, teachers and families that often left the most vulnerable students, those with IEPs, those who lived in extreme poverty, behind.
This brings us to the second reason why I believe Eva Moskowitz should step down as CEO of Success Academy. SA actively pushes out students and families from their schools. Again, this is well documented, and legal actions have been taken by families on multiple occasions. They do it in a few different ways that aren’t quite as obvious as “got-to-go” lists, and one of the main avenues is through testing in general. SA uses test scores from internal assessments as a reason for students to be held back. Sometimes a student was held back because of one single data point alone. These tests were designed by people with little experience and questionable credentials (I am using the past tense here simply because I no longer work there – I don’t doubt that many of these conditions remain unchanged). This often correlated to how cooperative and “bought in” a family was to the school and the network. There were also network mandates for how many students in a given school were skipped and held back. Special education services were haphazardly provided, at best, and a premium was put on “school culture”, or a total number of absences and tardies a student accumulates. These school culture numbers were used as a reason to hold “re-enrollment meetings”. If a parent missed a meeting it could be used as grounds for their child to be removed from the school.
Again, and I feel obnoxious at this point saying it over and over, not all of these things are bad in a vacuum. Schools should have some ways to hold families accountable for getting their kids to school. Students shouldn’t be arbitrarily pushed up through grade levels based on their age and not their present level of performance. But how do you think this systematic removal of “difficult” students affected test scores? And what does Success Academy, and any charter school in general, have that public schools don’t? If a student is removed from a charter school they have a local public option – a safety net. You can’t remove a student from a public school. All of that brainwashing that revolved around the discrepancy between public and SA test scores is a false equivalency. Should that be the basis by which we decide our public policy in relation to teaching, school design and union membership? Absolutely not.
I worked another year in the same classroom with the same co-teacher for the 2016-2017 school year. We were able to create a nurturing and supportive environment in our classroom, largely by keeping the door closed and making executive decisions about curriculum and time management that we kept to ourselves. Here we come to the third reason why I believe Eva Moskowitz should step down as CEO of Success Academy. The curriculum we were asked to teach was culturally insensitive and completely white-washed. I could give dozens of examples, but one that sticks out to me to this day is our unit on “Westward Expansion”. This unit detailed the process of American genocide, slavery and manifest destiny, only we weren’t meant to talk about those topics in earnest. The main idea of most texts, apart from a single nonfiction piece about slavery, that were provided to us went something like, “gee, pioneers sure were brave!”. I’m not advocating for 4th grade students to be saddled with the entire burden of the atrocities committed by the American government and American people in the 19th century, but perpetuating the idea that white settlers were brave, and nothing else, is malpractice. My co-teacher and I threw most of these lessons out and tried our best to deliver lessons that were culturally appropriate with varying degrees of success. But this problem persisted throughout all of the history, reading and writing curriculum (though we very rarely actually got around to teaching history – there isn’t a state test on the subject…). Anyone who is in charge of schools that serve predominantly black and brown communities should have to answer for these clear errors in curriculum design and intellectual resource distribution.
Some time in 2017 I was brought to the network office in downtown Manhattan for a press conference. I can’t remember what it was about, but it mainly consisted of SA employees standing around a microphone while various speakers preached the SA gospel. When I left the office there was a small group of protestors with signs reading, “Eva Moskowitz is Racist”. They followed me up the block yelling indiscernible messages. I should have listened more closely. Whether or not Eva is outwardly or purposefully racist is irrelevant – her practice of using black and brown children as props for political and monetary gain is in and of itself a racist act.
In February of 2017, when the full weight of a Donald Trump presidency was beginning to fall on all of us, Eva Moskowitz publicly supported Trump’s appointment of Betsy Devos for Secretary of Education (she herself had interviewed for the position), citing their friendship, and refused to make a strong statement against President Trump’s inhumane immigration policies (sound familiar?). I helped compose a letter to Eva at the time, with the support of my peers and principal, pleading for her to retract her support of Devos for our LGBTQ+ community and condemn the President’s immigration policies for our Latinx community. She refused, in so many words. The letter leaked and Politico picked up the story. You can read about it here.
At the end of the school year I was slated to move to teach music in my building. I had an agreement with the principal after our music teacher was let go the previous school year. If I taught one more year in 4th grade, I could teach music the following year. The students in our class, a special education inclusion classroom, got good test scores. They didn’t want to let that go – so much so that they offered me significantly more money to remain a 4th grade teacher. They refused to purchase supplies for my music classroom that were supposed to be mandatory for new programs. I helped train a couple new 4th grade teachers at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year. As I was demonstrating a math mini lesson, a tour group of SA leaders came into the room. One leader, surprised at the level of instruction, asked who I was. My principal laughed, explaining that I was actually the music teacher. The priorities of the school and the network were abundantly clear: you only mean as much to us as the test scores you can produce.
I taught K-4 music at the same school for two years. It was an amazing experience. I had the opportunity to collaborate with incredible arts teachers who had previous teaching experience, I was given full autonomy of my classroom and curriculum, I was supported by a small group of fellow music teachers in the network (and I mean small – when I left there were less than a dozen music teachers in the entire network), and I had the most incredible students. In those two years, I was observed a single time by leadership. The feedback? “They’re eating out of the palm of your hand. Keep it up! You’re doing great”. When I taught fourth grade I had leadership in my room daily providing harsh, critical feedback on my instruction, preparation, engagement – every aspect of my teaching practice. I was lucky enough to be left very much alone as a music teacher. Other fellow music teachers weren’t so lucky. They got pulled to provide reading instruction, help proctor exams, assist with operational tasks, you name it, despite having their salaries capped at $10,000 less annually than homeroom, core subject teachers. The message was abundantly clear: we only value you as much as you can provide good test scores OR good PR for our network.
In 2018 our dance teacher arranged for Jean-Baptiste to come to our school. I forget the exact circumstances, but it was a big deal. Jean-Baptiste needed a piano, so they decided to use my classroom to film his visit, even though he was there to interact with the dance students. A network film and production crew came in, consisting of half a dozen people or so, and they started rearranging my classroom. “Don’t worry”, I was told, “I know exactly where everything goes. It’ll be put back just like you had it”. I was ordered to leave my room and be silent so they could get the shot of Jean-Baptise walking into the school. He ended up singing with the students, many of which I had in my music classes. I wasn’t allowed in the room. I left to go work in another part of the building to prepare for my after school club. When I returned to my classroom not only was none of my furniture or any of my instruments returned to their proper place, but trash was left all over. I had no time. My after school club arrived and, together, we had to clean up trash and rearrange my classroom instead of singing that day. The kids knew something was wrong. I was almost in tears. I took pictures of the trashed room and requested an apology from the network that never came. I knew then that I had to leave. The blatant tokenism of the whole ordeal was symbolic of my entire experience at Success Academy. The network only cared for the students as far as they could be used to sell their brand.
In the Spring of 2019 I applied to be the Director of Performing Arts at Success Academy, hoping that I would be able to advocate for the students and families who were being denied a complete, whole child education. I interviewed half a dozen times with various network employees. They liked my ideas. They never hired for the position and it remains vacant to this day.
I could write a short novel of anecdotal evidence detailing the flaws and borderline atrocities that have come to pass at Success Academy. I know of multiple people who have had to be hospitalized for the stress caused by the job, and others who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt upon leaving the network. Eva’s obsession with expanding her network of schools and insistence on maintaining a suffocating grip of control over them has left thousands of students and families at her mercy, with the network now in economic turmoil and back in the news again for problematic responses to race related incidents. Eva will pull in about $890,000 this year in salary alone. For context, she was rewarding herself with a salary of approximately $450,000 when I first started at Success Academy. The Chancellor of NYC Schools makes approximately $345,000 a year, less than half of what Eva is currently making, to run the entire New York City Department of Education. This is the final reason I believe Eva Moskowitz should step down as CEO of Success Academy. No one should be profiting off of the exploitation of black and brown children who are already at the mercy of every systemic failure in our society.
I don’t doubt that there are flaws in my critiques that I’ve listed here. I don’t profess to have the answers to the massive, systemic problems that are facing our institutions of public education all across this country. I do think that charter schools should get back to what they were meant to be upon their inception – a way for public education to experiment and find new ideas that can be implemented across all schools – not as an alternative to public education. Charter school leaders and politicians need to grow up and stop playing politics with the lives of vulnerable children and families across the country. There are real problems we have to solve, none more pressing than the issues of police violence and systematized racism that permeate all of our societal structures and systems.
I’ll end on a positive note. I am thankful for my time at SA. I keep in touch with students, families and teachers from my time there. I learned more than I thought possible in a very short time (both through examples and non examples…) and had the privilege of learning from some truly incredible educators (most of them women of color, for what it’s worth). There are lessons to be learned from the Success Academy experiment, and if anyone is interested in listening I’d be happy to share my thoughts. More than anything, my time at SA exposed me, a white guy from the Orange County suburbs, to people, communities and cultures that I would have never otherwise fully understood. It is why I can say unequivocally, from the chest, that Black Lives Matter, and that I will never stop fighting for that ideal.
If you have read this far, thank you. Please share and join me in calling for the resignation of Eva Moskowitz and the immediate review of all policies and procedures at Success Academy.
UPDATE (6.11.20): A petition is being circulated to call for Ms. Moskowitz’s resignation and accountability for SA leadership in general. Please take a minute to sign it and state your reasoning – every voice matters here!