I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Moskowitz, Petrilli, and the Hard Truth About America's Schools

I'd be lying if I denied I haven't taken some measure of satisfaction in watching the perpetually self-impressed Eva Moskowitz implode this week. Now that we know for certain that her charter schools do, in fact, counsel out "disruptive" students, we can drop any pretense that she is some sort of a pedagogical genius.

The truth is her descriptions of how she has changed water into cartons of milk never held up to even the mildest of scrutinies. Earlier this year, she gave an interview on local public television where she bragged on how much "fun" learning is at Success Academies:
(1:48) But imagine if schools acted as if children had the freedom to choose whether or not to go to school. In fact, they had the freedom to walk out of the classroom at any moment -- now, they don't at our schools (interviewer chuckles), but imagine if they did. I would venture to argue that at most schools in America, they wouldn't come and if they came they would leave, because boredom, unfortunately, is one of the most common experiences of children. 
And what we do is, we engage children with rich, wonderful literature, with discovery-oriented science five days a week, with chess and debate and coding and art and music and sports, so that kids love being at school.
Uh-huh. Let's go back to this week's NY Times article, the one that caused all the fuss:
Some of the parents whose children were on the “Got to Go” list acknowledged that they did not agree with how the school managed behavior. But several also said that both before and after the list was created, they thought school and network employees were trying to push them out. 
Folake Wimbish said her son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was suspended 19 times last year, in first grade, and missed 26 days. Success said her son was intellectually gifted but struggled with behavior, “often hitting, kicking, biting and spitting at other children and adults.”

In early December, while Ms. Wimbish was pushing the school to evaluate her son for special education services, she was called to a meeting in Lower Manhattan with the network’s assistant general counsel and its associate special education manager, Julie Freese. She said Ms. Freese told her that, because of his suspensions, her son was missing out on his education, and she needed to think about his well-being.
“She said, ‘Why don’t you just put him in another school, because he’s suffering,’ ” Ms. Wimbish said. 
Ms. Wimbish withdrew her son at the end of the year, because with the suspensions and calls to pick him up, she said, “I started feeling like I was going to have a breakdown.” He now attends Public School 119 in Brooklyn, where Ms. Wimbish said he was very happy and had not been suspended once.
Sounds like Eva's magical book choices didn't work out so well that time, huh?

There have been uncorroborated reports about drilling-and-killing in Success Academy schools. Those reports seem to line up, however, with what we know about SA from the dog-and-pony shows they put on for the press:
Touring a first grade classroom on the immaculate third floor of a co-located building on 140th Street, visitors were, sure enough, shown displays of rigor intermingled with joy.
In one first grade classroom the children, who were looking at a passage from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and trying to create mental images of characters, sat with their hands folded in their laps, eyes tracking the teacher, and backs straight. 
Students who are not sitting correctly or who fidget are asked to change their posture in front of the class, and at least one student got a “check mark” for bad behavior for not keeping his hands folded in another classroom. (Three check marks result in a time-out, five in a written letter of apology, and so on.)
Students were often instructed to “sit like a professional.” A sign on one wall read “$cholar dollar fines” and noted the monetary charges for various misbehaviors: $1 for an untucked shirt, $5 for “not loud and proud,” and up to $10 for talking during a “zero” noise period. (Success students are called scholars.) 
The message for principals: Getting students under control creates the conditions for academic achievement. 
Students’ grammar was corrected on the spot, as were teachers’ missteps. Harlem Success 5 principal Khari Shabazz, a fixture at Success’ events, frequently gave feedback to teachers as they were teaching, asking the teacher to phrase a question in a different way, or to let a certain student talk more. 
Leaders at Success and other charters occasionally use walkie-talkies to instruct young or struggling teachers from the back of a classroom. In a third grade math class, students stood to read aloud word problems, or “number stories," a Success-specific phrase.
After a student correctly read a problem aloud, his classmates shouted, in unison, “His brain is on fire!” 
Students were particularly engaged in math classes, straining to be called on and enthusiastically creating models and pictures to complete division and multiplication word problems. 
“I think this problem is way past what you can do,” Shabazz said to one class of third graders, apparently challenging them to prove him wrong. In the back of the class, a fidgeting student raised his hand for help or attention. His teacher took him aside and said, “Look at me and get it done.” When the student raised his hand again, Shabazz simply pointed to his watch, indicating that there were only a few minutes left to solve the problem, as displayed on a timer projected onto the smartboard. The student looked distraught. [emphasis mine]
This is what Eva Moskowitz thinks children will choose if you let them. This is what she thinks is the antithesis of boredom. This is what she describes as "joyful."

As well as the reporter who wrote this, Eliza Shapiro. I suppose it's possible the "fidgeting" and "distraught" student was an anomaly... but then that's sort of the point, isn't it? If your child likes this sort of learning, terrific; if not...
Monique Jeffrey said her son, who was in kindergarten last year, was suspended so many times she “stopped counting.” In the middle of the year, Ms. Jeffrey said, the school’s education manager, Rebecca Fleischman, told her that her son had emotional and behavioral issues the school could not handle and that she should look for another school. Ms. Jeffrey withdrew him at the end of the year. 
Nicey Givens, the mother of another student on the list, said her son, also a kindergartner last year, was suspended many times, in some cases, the school told her, for fighting. Ms. Fleischman said in an email that a special education committee of the school district recommended that the boy be placed in a type of special education class the school did not offer in his grade. Ms. Givens recalled that Ms. Fleischman told her the school did not have the resources to serve her son and offered to help find him a placement in a regular public school. Her son now attends P.S. 287.
Eva Moskowitz has taken plenty of gratuitous swipes at America's schools, its teachers, and its colleges of education. She has pretended to have the answer: More chess! More feedback from principals! Rigor!

It all turns out to be a steaming pile of dung. But if you had been actually listening to the tripe she was spewing, and you were intellectually honest, you would have already known that. For example -- and to his great credit -- here's Michael Petrilli, one of the country's top reformsters:
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten is crowing about the allegations that Eva Moskowitz’ Success Academies charter schools regularly suspend or counsel out disruptive students. “Eva touts Success Academy’s ‘equity’ and record,” Weingarten tweeted, “while blasting public education. Now we learn her secret — pushing kids out.” 
What makes this sort of demagoguery more disappointing than usual is the nature of the issue at hand. As Weingarten’s own members know all too well, classroom disruption is a major problem. In a Public Agenda survey, 85% of public school teachers said that the experience of most students suffers because of a few chronic offenders. 
Addressing this challenge — enabling serious learners to learn, without denying serial disrupters opportunities to resume learning — takes smarts (finding better approaches to school discipline) and guts (making some hard choices). Unfortunately, today’s shrill debates are encouraging little of either. 
Everyone agrees that suspensions and expulsions should be rare. Kids who are repeatedly suspended or expelled are more likely to lag academically, drop out of school and end up in the criminal justice system. The direction of causation is hard to untangle, but, still, overly harsh discipline is worth curbing. 
But what the school-discipline reformers never talk about is the impact that disruptive behavior has on classmates. As common sense — and solid research — tells us, that impact is real and harsh. A study published in the journal Education Next found that “troubled students have a statistically significant negative effect on their peers’ reading and math test scores” and that “the addition of a troubled peer also significantly increases misbehavior of other students in the classroom.”
Again, to his credit, Petrilli has been remarkably consistent about this, even if he is reluctant to admit the corollary to his theory: the "high-performing" charters don't actually have a pedagogical secret sauce. Peer effects matter, and they explain at least part of "success" of these charters. Add in more resources, longer days/years, staffing structures that maximize efficiencies (but largely aren't replicable), and, in some cases attrition and selective enrollment policies... it would be remarkable if these schools didn't get better test-based outcomes.

The issue, however, is the price to be paid for what are largely marginal gains in test scores (especially when compared to the effects of socio-economic status on outcomes). Peter Greene, as usual, is quite perceptive in his answer:
Petrilli's point is not completely without merit, and as teachers often lack sufficient time and resources, many do perform a certain amount of educational triage by considering which students need us most. And every teacher knows the frustration of having a classroom tyrannized by one serial disrupter. But "prioritize" students? That sounds like a level of judgmental school administration that I'm not comfy with, and I suspect would provide an avenue for biases and concerns for compliance to run roughshod over actual care and concerns for the well-being of students. 
Look-- Success Academy is not nobly rescuing the top strivers from difficult situations. They are picking winners and losers based on the school's preferences and the school's convenience, based on Moskowitz's two guiding values-- compliance and test scores. When a six year old cracks under that sort of misguided pressure, that's not revealing some sort of character deficiency or lack of striverness. It's revealing an institutional incompetence in dealing with six year olds. 
But I appreciate Petrilli's willingness to just say it-- charters are only for the chosen few, those that the school finds deserving. What I'd really like to know next is how a system in which a school is the final arbiter of what level of education a child deserves fits together with the reformy ideals of school choice?
Amen -- but let me extend the thought a little further:

I've made clear in the past that I teach in an affluent, well-resourced school district. My own children attended public schools in a similar district. And I can tell you disruptive students are not an issue exclusive to urban schools serving large numbers of children in economic disadvantage.

Every teacher deals with children who don't listen to and follow directions, who are noisy, who distract their fellow students, who show disrespect (intentionally or otherwise), and who have a variety of personal characteristics that impede the smooth functioning of a classroom and a school. Sometimes these children have profound learning disabilities that impact not only their own learning but that of their classmates. Sometimes they clash with teachers or fellow students who may not work well with a particular sort of person. Sometimes their home lives are less than ideal, even if they are not disadvantaged.

Suburban schools, however, only counsel out these children as an absolute last resort. Only children with the most severe emotional or intellectual disabilities are placed out of district in the leafy 'burbs, and almost always after protracted attempts at accommodating them within the schools in their districts. And the kids who call out without raising their hands or who don't "track" their teachers are not considered threats to the learning of others; they are treated as children who teachers must patiently and persistently educate.

This is yet another example of why suburban "choice" looks nothing like charter school "choice." The expectation in affluent, highly resourced districts is that all children, regardless of their special education status or behavior in class, will be educated by the district. Yes, you will find tracking and gifted programs, but the children will all be in the same building with the same access to facilities and resources and extracurriculars. And if you ever tried to change that -- to put the "disruptors" into a separate building, away from their peers -- there would be hell to pay.

Petrilli believes that the disruption in urban schools has gotten so bad that we have no choice but to isolate the "strivers" from everyone else. Why they need to be in schools that are not state actors and therefore do not extend the same rights to students and parents, Petrilli doesn't say. All he knows is that it's not fair to keep those kids who can sit quietly with their hands in their laps in the same class with kids who call out.

What he never stops to ask, however, is:

1) Are urban kids, particularly students of color, really acting out that much more than kids in suburban schools?

2) If so, why?

First of all, we know for a fact that school punishments are distributed with a clear racial bias; on this there is no question. So before we start suggesting that urban schools are out of control, maybe we ought to question the prejudices too many of us bring to the discussion.

Second, as Jose Vilson has written about extensively, our schools still suffer from cultural incompetency and -- let's not mince words -- straight up racism. To be clear: this is not at all a problem confined to charter schools. But it is clear that we are nowhere close to where we should be when it comes to how we treat students of color. 

Which brings us to a third point: why would we ever be surprised that there is friction in our urban schools given the way we ignore the needs of their students? This nation purposefully segregated its citizens. It then refused to adequately fund its urban schools, even as it ignored the needs of children outside of their schools. It then installed into those schools a hidden curriculum of obedience, even as affluent suburban children benefitted from schools that served as engines of social replication.

All this, and then we're shocked -- shocked, I say! -- to find that students in urban schools think they're getting a raw deal. Most channel their frustration in positive ways; are we surprised that some do not?

Again: there's plenty of reason to believe the "problem" of disruptive children in urban schools is overstated. But even if we think it's only marginally worse than in suburban schools, don't we have an obligation to take a step back and examine what might be creating these problems? And if some charter schools are having a problem with discipline...

... maybe we ought to ask: is separating the "strivers" from the "disrupters" and putting them into schools that suspend them for the tiniest infraction really the best we can do for these beautiful and deserving kids?

These are hard questions. Asking them unmasks hard truths. Those truths leads to difficult conversations. But if we really care for the education of children in urban schools, we'd better start having these conversations, and stop swallowing the facile nonsense of Eva Moskowitz and others who have been shown, time and again, to be little more than self-promoting hucksters.

ADDING: More from Daniel Katz:
Moskowitz is losing total control of her situation.
Success Academy is run in a very particular way.  It has a dynamic, forceful, and very visible personality at the top of the organization.  The policies, tone, and demeanor of the organization flow entirely from that person who exerts an extraordinary level of control of the operation right down to the classroom.  There is a very narrow band of acceptable behaviors and attitudes.  Teachers who embody those behaviors and attitudes can rise very quickly with some becoming school principals in their mid-20s, and students who do similarly well are rewarded with toys and other goodies. Those who do not thrive are subjected to rigorous and frequent “corrections” that either mold them into proper form or convince them to leave. The network has an arguably paranoid attitude towards “outsiders,” frequently declaring to themselves that figures in the press and public are out to get them because they have cracked the code and are disruptors of the status quo.  Those who leave and speak out about the network’s inside information are viciously attacked.
But Success Academy has grown far too large to keep the lid on everything now.  Moskowitz enrolls 11,000 students in 34 schools.  She has around 1000 teachers and staff.  With such numbers and given their policies, there will likely be 1000s of former “scholars” and 100s of former teachers in short order, and all of them are not going to be intimidated into silence about what they saw while there.  The simple fact is that Moskowitz absolutely cannot keep total control over what people say and know anymore, and it is her own policies of driving away students she does not want and burning out teachers that has put her in this position.  So even if she fully recovers from this month, I think it is likely we will see many more months like this.
The next couple of years will be interesting.

ADDING MORE: If a guy from the reformy Fordham Institute can admit this, why can't everyone else?
“I see nothing wrong with charters functioning as a poor man’s private school. I see much that’s right about that,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. But he maintains that the schools should be more transparent about their competitive advantage. “What’s not right is to say, ‘We are just the same as any other public school,’ when you are not behaving the same way as a public school.” [emphasis mine]
Is this really so hard to admit? By the way:
Lindsay Kelly, a spokeswoman for KIPP DC, said that KIPP schools backfill when seats become available in all grades as a matter of principle. But they do it “in the least-disruptive way possible,” she said — enrolling them only at the beginning of the school year, a common practice in charter schools.
So you're not doing the same job as the public district schools, by your own admission. Good to know.


laMissy said...

Petrilli deserves credit for coming clean about charters being for the select strivers, I'll grant. But I want to know where he gets his belief that urban schools are such hot houses of disruption and disrespect. My 36 years in an urban system serving mostly poor black and brown kids, many of them immigrants, doesn't bear this out. Has Petrilli spent any time in one of these systems he knows so much about, either as a student or parent? I'm so tired of folks with lots of influence making policy based only on the pontification of their beliefs, not on reality.

Christine Langhoff

edlharris said...

If you go back to the PBS Merrow report on Success, you will hear Eva say that we(Success) select who replaces those that leave her schools.

Left of Center said...

You have nailed the problem on the head, but we have to go even further. Mr. Petrilli is really advocating a return to that bygone era when administrators-even in public schools-unilaterally decided which students were educable and which were not. Before P.L. 94-142 or what we presently call the Individual Disability Education Act, many disabled students were excluded from most public educational services in this country. If you take his ideas to their logical conclusion, even disruptive public school students should be denied the right to an education. His is the ethics of elitism and surely not of justice and equal opportunity. I wrote him to ask what is his plans for such children once they are completely excluded from educational services. He still has not answered, but obviously he would say they are entitled to special educational services. However, I sense he would want them segregated and isolated from those who deserve to learn. I guess he is denying a half century of peer reviewed special education research that shows that the best practices should mean that except for a small minority of students, integrated setting offer the best results. For most of my career, I have taught and engaged in the differential diagnosis of high need disabled students. For the most part, public school special education teachers do everything in their power to create positive yet structured learning environments for such children. I am presently retired and often sub in my old school which is very diverse--ethnically, socially, and economically. We have many disabled and ELL students. Rarely do I encounter a student that is so disruptive that it prevents a whole class from learning. In my letter him, I concluded that he too has a disability. He is ethically impaired.