In the POLITICO feature “Paul Ryan’s Favorite Charter School,” education writer Kyle Spencer profiles Eva Moskowitz, the controversial founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools. Moskowitz, who voted for Hillary Clinton, also works frequently with conservatives in achieving her goals. Success Academy schools have drawn praise for their promising educational outcomes, but have also been subject to intense scrutiny regarding disciplinary practices and handling of difficult students. In his piece, Spencer offers an inside look at this polarizing model of education and the woman behind it.
As part of our first HPR Chat, we discussed Spencer’s feature and broke down charter schools’ impact on students and surrounding communities.
Katherine Ho: So what were everyone’s initial reactions to the POLITICO article?
Akash Wasil: Initial reaction: wow, these “No Excuses” charter schools sound awful. I wouldn’t want to go to them. But wow, their scores are great.
Katherine: Akash, do you mean that in a tongue-in-cheek way?
Akshaya Annapragada: Initial reaction: Issues with charter schools aside, this illustrates the idea that education reform need not be a divisive, partisan issue. There are certainly differing views on how to accomplish reform, but educating students equally should be a broad issue, and everyone should want to see stronger educational systems. I’m intrigued by Moskowitz’s idea of working on both sides of the aisle and incorporating diverse philosophies.
Akash: No, quite seriously! Their scores are impressive and giving a lot of opportunity to kids and families who need them. Just like, yikes, the methods are somewhat harsh and I do worry about psychological wellbeing, mental health, and other wishy washy psych stuff.
Chad Borgman: Akshaya, but as much as towing the line has allowed her to attract liberals and conservatives alike, her rejection of ideals on both sides has drawn deserved critique. Akash, agreed. I question what kinds of kids these charter schools are actually helping.
Akshaya: It seems like what Moskowitz gets right is resources—she’s taking the affluence and attention that upper-class students have access to, and bringing it to marginalized students. What I’m not sure she gets right is the focus on discipline and removing under-performing students.
Katherine: Chad when you refer to “deserved critique” are you talking about the “wishy washy psych” stuff that Akash mentions?
Akash: Loving how “wishy washy psych stuff” has become the official term…
Chad: Precisely. The almost outright rejection of a community, family-based education looks good on test scores, but I question whether that’s helping the families in need. For example, these schools seem to be attracting lots of low-income students who respond positively (in terms of results) to a high discipline setting. For the mission of uplifting these kids, Moskowitz’ schools are excelling. I worry about the kids who don’t fit into her mold. Who may have familial struggles at home that remain unaddressed no matter the outcomes the school might help them achieve.
Akash: Chad, very valid! There’s definitely a problem of self-selection.
Katherine: I almost feel that there were two different conceptions of the role of a school in this article, which contributed to why there was disagreement over whether Moskowitz’s schools were positive or negative. The author describes how progressives tend to see schools as community hubs, while Republicans “tend to see school reform in more economic terms—as a way to get families out of poverty.”
Akash: Katherine, yes! We get into a “what is the purpose of education” conversation very quickly—cue Dean Khurana voices.
Akshaya: I see the importance of other services, but I also think the idea of just providing high quality academics is very real service, that we shouldn’t underestimate. For students with parents who don’t have advanced educational backgrounds, and are working long hours at low-wage jobs, just to provide food and shelter, it can be near impossible for family members to provide educational support. Schools like Moskowitz’ let families prioritize education for their children without having large financial assets or spare time to organize academic enrichment.
Akash: The kids who won’t benefit from these schools often (1) don’t enroll, or (2) aren’t allowed to stay. However, it is remarkable that these schools are helping* even a bit of this quite vulnerable population (*in terms of scores/economic opportunity).
Katherine: I think Akshaya’s point is similar to the counter argument offered by the author in the piece, which puts a strong emphasis on the economic value and social mobility benefit offered by giving students a chance to rise up through hard work.
Quinn Mulholland: I realize I’m kinda late to the party here but … I think it’s worth questioning if these schools are *actually* providing that much economic opportunity to students. That is to say, I don’t think it’s fair to equate scores to economic opportunity.
Akshaya: Well, one example of economic opportunity comes up in the part about transporting students to more “affluent activities” given the segregated reality of life in New York—where children have drastically different access to opportunity depending on where they live—it makes a lot of sense to use transportation to bring those opportunities to poor children. We should solve the segregation issue, and work to provide equal opportunity, but in the meantime it seems like this is an equalizer.
Chad: Quinn, I’d argue they do in many circumstances. Lots of low-income students simply won’t take standardized tests necessary to achieve higher ed without the discipline or requirement of schools like these.
Akshaya: And it gives students access to activities/extracurriculars that they may not be able to otherwise afford/have access to—like the science/chess/debate/soccer examples mentioned.
Katherine: Quinn, that’s really interesting. In what cases do you think high test scores do not translate necessarily to better economic outcomes? Or why?
Quinn: In the specific case of Success, I don’t think it’s been around long enough to see long-term results. But more generally, I don’t think the skills required to ace standardized tests (i.e., rote memorization, process of elimination) necessarily translate to economic success in the real world.
Akshaya: That’s totally true, but I feel like it’s necessary to help students work within a system that was not built for them. Since standardized tests, which are a gatekeeper to higher education and even employment opportunities, tend to favor affluent students because they have more resources for preparation, Moskowitz’ curriculum is positive in that respect.
Chad: But they do translate to successful outcomes in college education. I think you could argue that translates to economic success, especially if it’s the difference between no college and a degree. This New York Times piece from U of M Economics Professor Susan Dynarski dives into this: “Michigan began requiring public school juniors to take the ACT in 2007, and the share of high school graduates taking a college entrance exam rose immediately to nearly 99 percent from 54 percent. That growth was even sharper among low-income students; only 35 percent had been taking the test. … For every 1,000 students who took a college exam when it was optional, and scored high enough to attend a selective college, another 230 high scorers appeared once the test was mandatory. For low-income students, the effect was larger: For every 1,000 students who scored well on the optional test, an additional 480 did so on the mandatory test.”
Akash: Quinn, that makes sense—we probably don’t have great empirical answers to this question (yet). It would be fairly surprising if test scores (and extracurricular opportunity, like Akshaya mentioned, and presumably better teaching/mentoring) had no effect on where these kids go to college, if these kids graduate from college, what jobs they get, etc.
Akshaya: Chad, I think your research article is especially pertinent: Currently, high test scores are seen as a prerequisite for success, so making sure that more students have a fair chance to score well probably does improve economic outcomes, or at the very least advancement opportunities. And I also think that it opens doors for students that might not have been there without the schools.
Katherine: I feel like we’ve been talking about whether the strong discipline and adherence to test-prep emphasized in Moskowitz’s schools is effective, and whether it’s good for low-income kids (feel free to correct me if you guys think there is an additional dimension to this). It seems like the counterargument posed in the article to that type of claim (that this environment is bad and ineffective for low-income students) is kind of that it’s somewhat paternalistic for often white progressives to tell low-income people what to look for in their schools. E.g., “It is racist for people to claim that African American and Latino families are sending their children to our schools because they don’t know or care about ‘harsh discipline’ or are somehow ignorant about what good education looks like.” “Many conservatives and pro-reform liberals would seem to agree. They insist that robust discipline is a necessary price to pay for entry into the American middle class, and many parents know that.”
Akshaya: There’s a difference between ‘orderly’ classrooms, and abusive discipline and I think this article and many of the quotes don’t really get at that issue. Like I wish I had more descriptives on exactly what the harsh discipline consists of?
Katherine: But I also agree the article didn’t fully flesh out people’s objections re:discipline.
Quinn: The New York Times had a great series on exactly that. “Success has stringent rules about behavior, down to how students are supposed to sit in the classroom: their backs straight, and their feet on the floor if they are in a chair or legs crossed if they are sitting on the floor. The rationale is that good posture and not fidgeting make it easier to pay attention.”
Akash: Let’s assume that we lived in a world in which these harsh discipline practices—even abusive ones (use your own definition of abusive for now) actually did improve academic/economic outcomes. If this were the case, would you categorically oppose these tactics or would we have to do some weighing of like “How bad are these tactics vs. How bad is living in poverty”?
Chad: I don’t think it’s that stark of a difference though.
Akshaya: I think that telling kids to sit up straight is probably not a bad thing, and is something (at least through my own anecdotal evidence) that white/rich kids are also told.
Chad: If these kids are responding well to such strict discipline, is it not fair to assume they would do well in most school settings?
Akshaya: Sure! But I don’t think these students often have access to good school settings many of them are from highly segregated neighborhoods, with really low-quality, and even dangerous public schools.
Chad: Akash, that’s fair. I suppose it would depend on what other options they would have. And if that’s the difference, it’s fair to assume worse outcomes are likely to follow.
Katherine: So I think my view tends to be that like Akshaya says, a lot of these kids live in places where they would have a fairly slim chance of having a super bright future or getting a good education. If charter schools offer disadvantaged kids who are bright and able to work hard and respond well to discipline a chance for better economic outcomes, we should leave it up to the parents to decide if that type of environment is worth a shot at a brighter future for their kids.
Akash: Chad, discipline norms also tend to affect the whole classroom. So if Bob is really well-behaved, but James is a total wreck in the classroom, James brings Bob down in a public school whereas Bob gets to learn in a charter school (very simplified example, but might explain part of the effect)
Chad: So do we just toss James to the curb? I shouldn’t put it so bluntly, but I think that’s the tough question here: We seem to be uplifting students, but what about those these schools are leaving behind?
Akshaya: And I do think the discipline/order component helps compensate for a lack of educational enrichment in other parts of daily lives. At the end of the day, if kids are quiet and sitting still at all times, there’s more time for content delivery. That might have other negative effects, but it does help with the academics.
Akash: Chad, hopefully we find some solutions for James, but I’d certainly prefer a world in which Bob gets opportunities and James is ‘left to the curb’ than a world in which both get ‘left to the curb.’ It’s probably not reasonable to expect any one school or any one problem to work across the board for every student.
Akshaya: Akash, yes. I also think that for those students who it doesn’t work for, the problem might not be that Moskowitz is too harsh, but rather it’s not right for every student.
Editors’ Note: This transcript has been edited for concision and clarity.
Image Source: Wikimedia/Farragutful