The leader of New York City’s largest charter school network was in Denver Tuesday for a conversation with Chalkbeat’s editor-in-chief that touched on school culture, education funding, and why “no-excuses” is a label Eva Moskowitz doesn’t want attached to her schools.
The event was hosted by The Colorado Forum, a civic group concerned with education.
Moskowitz founded her first Success Academy charter school in Harlem in 2006. The one school has since grown into a network of 46 that serve 15,500 students across New York City. Success Academy charters are known for their academic rigor and high test scores – and have come in for criticism for their rigid discipline and intense test prep. Moskowitz has said her goal is to expand the network to 100 schools in the next decade. In a recent article, Chalkbeat editor and CEO Elizabeth Green asked what this approach means for the future of public education.
Moskowitz sat down with Green and members of The Colorado Forum, as well as some Chalkbeat readers, for an hour-and-a-half question-and-answer session. We’ve excerpted some of the conversation below.
Teacher training is paramount to the Success Academy model, Moskowitz said.
“Our teachers come four to five weeks before the children come. And they go through a series of training including a very in-depth content institute.
“If they’re teaching kids in the older grades, we also look at the data and the student work of the previous year. So if you’re a second-grade teacher, we really want you to study the data of the first graders from the year before. We want you to look at samples of student work. And we want you to understand all of those things related to the pedagogy, not to mention how you handle challenging students or the expectations around positive phone calls to parents.”
She said students need to be trained, too.
“Depending on the age level, we do invest time in teaching the basic routines. It may seem obvious to you that a 5-year-old would know how to hang up their coat, and where to put their coat, and what to do with the boots and everything else, but actually you have to teach kids that.
“I remember when I opened Success Academy, the first one, and I really did not know what I was doing, I experienced the lack-of-two-hands-on-the-lunch-tray problem, where the milk slides over, and I had the contents of 200 trays on the ground. And I didn’t understand…how many times you would have to tell 5- and 6-year-olds to keep two hands on the tray.
“That stuff sounds terribly boring and unimportant compared to poetry, but if you don’t take the time to really learn the routines and practice the routines, you can’t hit the ground running.”
Success Academy has been criticized for treating students harshly, especially after the New York Times published a video of a teacher ripping up a student’s work. But Moskowitz said that video isn’t representative of the network’s culture.
“Our view is that schools should be a place where children are loved and feel loved, and that one can do very rigorous learning and be a place of joy and love.
“I think you can see kids in uniform and say, ‘Oh, you’re a no-excuses school.’ But we’re not. We’re a school that does project-based learning, that does block play in kindergarten and first grade. We are tremendous believers in games. We play games for 90 minutes every Wednesday. … My favorite is Monopoly in second (grade).
“All of our schools have art, music, dance. We have science five days a week. I don’t think any journalist who comes to our schools with an open mind is going to see anything other than exuberance – incredible exuberance – about school.
“The notion that somehow all these parents are hoodwinked by this joyous paramilitary environment – you know, they’re savvy consumers, they love their kids, they want their kids in a happy environment. It just seems implausible that somehow everyone would get snookered simply because I put a pamphlet under their door saying, ‘Hey, come to Success Academy.’”
In order to offer electives, Moskowitz said she has to make certain budgetary decisions. That includes having bigger class sizes, such as 32 students in kindergarten.
“It’s not that I like big class sizes. And as a teacher, you’d much rather have a smaller group of students. And as a parent, I’d much rather have 15 kids in my kid’s class than 32.
“It’s really about the economics. If I have 32 kids in a class, then I can pay for the art, the music, the dance, the dedicated science teacher, the chess teacher. So I have to make choices about what I value the most. If I could value everything equally, I would have small class sizes and the chess teacher. But I can’t do that. So I have to make the model work.”
This year, Success Academy will graduate its first class of high school seniors. The class of 17 seniors started off as a group of 73 kindergarteners, Moskowitz said. She explained that while Success has a lower than average student attrition rate, the network does not accept new students – or “backfill,” in education-speak – after fourth grade.
“I think reasonable people can differ on, ‘Is it more virtuous to backfill or to open schools faster?’ And I have chosen to open schools with lightning speed. But to start at the beginning, I really believe that teaching children to read is of the utmost important, and so I want to get that right.
“But also, there are practical reasons. If you admit a kid in ninth grade, then it’s going to be very hard to teach ninth grade physics because the ninth grade physics is dependent on kids who’ve had science five days a week, K to 8. If you really build backwards from calculus, you’re doing things mathematically in kindergarten that are foreshadowing that.
“We find that even in fourth grade, kids are three years behind.”
Moskowitz talked about rallying parents to lobby New York state lawmakers for more per-pupil funding for charter schools. In the beginning, Success Academy got $10,579 per student, she said. Now that amount has increased to $14,501. Colorado schools get about half as much: $7,662 per student this year. Asked about teacher recruitment, Moskowitz said being able to offer teachers a good salary and benefits helps.
“I don’t know that much at all about Denver, Colorado. But from the little I know, you have a per-pupil problem. It’s going to be very hard to attract talent, no matter if you’re district or charter, unless you get that per-pupil up.
“I’m not suggesting that money is everything. But it’s a very important something.
“You can’t educate kids well on what you guys are dealing with.”
Moskowitz, a Democrat, also talked about her much-publicized meeting with President Donald Trump shortly after he was elected. She said she was at one of her schools when he called. She didn’t answer at first because she thought it was a prank.
“I did make the decision, and maybe it was a poor one, that when the president-elect calls you, that you should meet with them. I wasn’t tainting anything by responding to the president-elect’s call.
“But I am a Democrat, and I found the campaign very troubling, and that was before everything that happened. I am far more troubled even now than I was. I didn’t think I could be more troubled. But I am more troubled now.…The notion teachers should carry guns in school just astounds me as an answer to the tragedy in Florida. I can’t think of a worse idea.
“I’m not going to talk about a private conversation. But I was really focused on improving Success schools and trying to get to 100 and break the scaling code, etcetera, so that’s what I’m doing.
“He did ask me about Common Core. I kept trying to disclose, ‘I’m a Hillary supporter. I’m a liberal Democrat.’ And I said, ‘Oh, and I believe in Common Core,’ because I thought that would lead me to the door. And he said he said, ‘I believe in Common Core.’ And I said, ‘No, you don’t.’ On that level, it was very strange.”