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

Friday, February 12, 2016


Looks like Eva Moskowitz has yet another p.r. disaster to contend with, courtesy of the New York Times: a one-minute video of a Success Academy teacher ripping into her first grade student because... well, honestly, I can't tell. Clearly, the girl in the video gets something wrong on her math problem -- but it's also clear this burst of anger from the teacher was a long time coming.

Of course, what Charlotte Dial does in this video is really horrible teaching; even she admits that. If Success Academy knew that she had behaved this way even once, they should have intervened and let her know in no uncertain terms how unacceptable what she did was. And if she did it again, she should have been removed from the classroom.

The fact that Dial is white and the student is black makes this especially troubling. I'm all for teachers being authoritative, but too many students of color are living a school experience where they are dehumanized by teachers of a different race. To be clear: I don't think this is confined just to "no excuses" charter schools; we've seen far too many examples of bad behavior against students of color in public district schools to pretend that it's only the charters that are guilty of perpetuating a hidden curriculum.

That said, I'm not about to say, on the basis of a one-minute video, that Dial should be fired immediately. If any teacher tells you that they've never said anything to a student that they later regretted, they're either lying, deluded, or a living saint.

Teaching is hard, frustrating work -- especially if you actually give a damn about your students. You have to make all sorts of snap decisions, and it's impossible to get them all perfectly right. And teachers are human beings who have personal worries and woes. You try to leave them at the door of the school, but you're only human, so sometimes something regrettable happens. That doesn't excuse it -- but it also doesn't make sense to me to immediately force out a good teacher who may have just had a really bad day.

Of course, if the Times had put out multiple videos of Dial yelling at students like this, I'd be saying something else. And the fact that the teaching assistant was concerned enough about Dial's behavior that she recorded this also bothers me. So I don't think we know enough about all this other than to say this was a really bad moment and a great example of what not to do in the classroom. Let's see how it all plays out.

All that said...

This is not the first time we've heard about problems with classroom management and discipline at Success Academies. And yet Eva Moskowitz has been held up by many on the reformy side as an educational genius, and she's been very happy to play along.

Is Success Academy really the model we want for the education of urban children of color, many living in economic disadvantage? "Got to go" lists? High suspension rates? Teachers who rip up their students' work (according to one teacher in the Times story, it happens regularly at SA)? Test score fetishism? Churning faculty, many of whom are young, white, and not adequately trained? Chanting in the classrooms and marching in the halls?

Moskowitz's approach is premised on the idea that urban students of color need extraordinarily harsh discipline codes; she says so herself:
Suspensions convey the critical message to students and parents that certain behavior is inconsistent with being a member of the school community. Pretend suspensions, in which a student is allowed to remain in the school community, do not convey that message. Many students actually feed off the attention they get for misbehaving. Keeping these students in school encourages that misbehavior.
Proponents of lax discipline claim it would benefit minority students, who are suspended at higher rates than their white peers. But minority students are also the most likely to suffer the adverse consequences of lax discipline—that is, their education is disrupted by a chaotic school environment or by violence. 
As Leo Casey points out, Moskowitz is bucking a national trend away from harsh discipline practices that are clearly racial biased. Is it any wonder, then, that one of her star teachers ripped up a first grade child's work in her face? Isn't this behavior exactly aligned with Moskowitz's philosophy? Why are we the slightest bit surprised that a teacher is harsh with her students in a school whose leader embraces a "no excuses" pedagogy?

I've said it time and again, and I'll keep on saying it: urban "choice" is not the same as suburban choice. Success Academies' practices would never be tolerated in Chatham's or Scarsdale's or Winnetka's pubic schools. If you told parents there the only way to get their child into a safe, clean, well-appointed school was to give up their democratic local control of the school board and accept a "no excuses" discipline plan, you'd have a riot (probably one with lots of tasty hors d'oeuvres). Why, then, is it OK to force this "choice" on to parents of color living in cities?

One more thing:

Today we learned that Marylin Zuniga -- the Orange, NJ third grade teacher who was fired for having her students write get-well letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal -- will have her day in court. I wrote about Zuniga previously, but the best piece you'll read about her plight is from (who else?) Jose Vilson.

Jose and I have different takes on the appropriateness of the assignment; what we don't disagree on is that Zuniga got a raw deal, and her punishment was way out of proportion to whatever transgression she committed (if, indeed, she transgressed at all). Zuniga was cynically used by a group of outsiders to score political points; the support she got from so many Orange parents is proof enough of that.

It just so happens that word of Zuniga's case comes on the same day as the Times report on Success Academies. I think the comparison between the two is instructive. Here's what I want to know:

Why does a white teacher who yelled at a six year old black girl and ripped up her work in a humiliating tantrum get to return to work after a week and a half as an exemplar within her school...

While a young teacher of color who gave an admittedly controversial assignment had to be fired immediately? Especially given that she didn't have tenure and her contract could have simply not been renewed at the end of the year?

When it comes to students of color, it seems that our priorities are very, very warped.

I'm shocked! Shocked to find a teacher yelling at a student in a "no excuses" school!

ADDING: Moskowitz goes into crisis mode:
On Friday, after the New York Times published a video showing a Success Academy teacher lashing out at a first grader, Success CEO Eva Moskowitz again sought to portray the behavior as an isolated incident. But she also mounted a forceful defense of the network’s teachers and its methods, while criticizing the Times’ reporting as biased. 
“I’m tired of apologizing,” Moskowitz said at a press conference. Calling the video “an unfortunate moment,” she said, “Frustration is a human emotion. When you care about your students so much … and you want them to go to college and graduate, it can be frustrating.”
I guess "no excuses" only applies to the kids, huh?
Moskowitz said that Dial had been suspended and received an extra week of training. On Friday, she said she would not “throw Charlotte Dial under the bus.”
“She has helped hundreds of children thrive and be successful,” Moskowitz said, flanked by more than 150 Success teachers, administrators, and parents.
If what happened on the video was the only incident Moskowitz knew of, then OK -- I think this makes sense (although I have to wonder about what kind of "training" Dial got). But the NY Times metro editor who oversaw the story makes a good point:
Wendell Jamieson, the New York Times’s Metro editor, isn’t in a ground-yielding mood. “I reject Eva Moskowitz’s criticism of our coverage,” he says in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. In October, Taylor stung Success with a story about a “Got to Go” list of students one of the schools. According to the story, “school leaders and network staff members explicitly talked about suspending students or calling parents into frequent meetings as ways to force parents to fall in line or prompt them to withdraw their children.”
Nor does the school’s talk of anomalies and bad days impress Jamieson. “It seems impossible to me that the one time she did it there was a video camera there,” he says. Speaking of the students assembled in the classroom, Jamieson continued, “You can see a sort of in their body language an accepting that this is the way they are treated.” Even if it is an exception: “These are first graders. You can’t have a bad day like that with a 1st grader — I don’t care,” says the Metro editor. As the father of an elementary school girl, the Erik Wemple Blog endorses the no-abusive-eruptions-ever school of pedagogy. [emphasis mine]
Well, look -- it was shot on a phone (wasn't it?), so it's not like it's a surprise the assistant had a camera with her.

Still, it is awfully hard to think this happened only once; of course, having proof of that is another matter. As to never having a bad day: I agree it should never happen -- but it does happen. Getting teachers help first, however, seems to me to be a more appropriate response than mandatory firing. It is well within the realm of possibility that a teacher can get past a bad incident and still be productive. Of course, some things ought to get you fired immediately. This one comes right up to the line for me... your mileage may vary.

But that doesn't address the larger question: was Dial's behavior really that out of line with Success's practices? If not, then we're looking at a systemic problem, and not solely an individual one.

In a way, by treating Dial's actions as an outlier, Moskowitz is throwing her under a bus. She's refusing to take responsibility for what happened, just like the "got-to-go" list. She's refusing to look at her own possible culpability in the matter. Doesn't she feel any obligation to do so? Or is protecting the Success brand ultimately more important to her?

ADDING MORE: Also from the SA presser:
Natasha Shannon, the parent of three students in Success schools who attended, said she believes in Success’ mission, including the disciplinary policies.
“I think [discipline] is necessary,” she said. “People who don’t like it, they don’t have to send their children there.” [emphasis mine]
No, they just have to send their child to an underfunded, crumbling, large class-sized, segregated public school.

If SA works for Ms. Shannon, I'm happy for her. I've never criticized a parent for sending their child to a school like SA, and I never will. But her menu of "choices" would never be tolerated in a white, suburban public school district.

Isn't this a serious problem?

AND MORE: Professor Katz opines:
As is typical for Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy leader lashed out at The New York Times in an email circulated to all of her employees where she claimed the newspaper has a “vendetta” against her and called her critics “haters” who are trying to “bully” the network.  While it may be desirable, even necessary, to deflate the self aggrandizing mythology of Success Academy by documenting reality, it is also important to remember that the charter network is not actually the illness.  It is merely an extreme rash that has broken on the surface.  Looking deeper, it is evident that much of our schooling today suffers from “Successification”.  Whether it is black and brown children subjected to zero tolerance policies that send them on a collision course with the criminal justice system or it is students terrified of making errors because their education has no time for learning from mistakes and genuine discovery, we are slowly building a school system where the worst priorities are granted full control.
It is time for a good, long, hard look in the mirror to see if Eva Moskowitz is staring back at us.


Unknown said...

Ha ha ha. Jose and I crossed paths the other night on Facebook where he was pretending he wanted to talk about Cam Newton or the Super Bowl or something. I suspected I knew what he was really up to and signed off to busy myself with other tasks. When I checked back a bit later, sure enough he was lecturing white people about the judgmental comments they made against poor Cam. I love how this guy is treated like the greatest mind of the edu blogoverse by so many people yet I spotted his race baiting nonsense a mile away. We won't have any more chance encounters as I exercise the block feature with great regularity.

Michael Fiorillo said...

Jose Vilson, Sean?

Oh, sorry, you must be referring to The Jose Vilson, who is so important that he refers to himself, as presumably we should, in the Third Person Monumental . Except of course in his posts, whose word counts have an extraordinary and highly revealing percentage of first person singular pronouns. No matter the ostensible topic - usually a facile/muddled racial and political analysis that bedazzles far too many people who should know better - the real topic is almost always "I, me, my." Do a word count/analysis if you doubt this. As for race baiting, I don't see that as much as I see racial entrepreneurialism/career building.

Also, for a poet, he is an exceptionally poor writer, though clever enough to make his verbal and policy nullities appear profound to lazy readers.

For now, the man is still in the classroom, unlike most so-called reformers who also play the identity politics market, and deserves respect and admiration for that. His blog posts, however, have a very low signal-to-noise ratio.

Dienne said...

But I don't think we can pretend this video represents a single instance of a teacher losing her sh-- on a bad day. First, why would the TA have her phone out and ready if this was a one-shot thing? Second, and more importantly, the reactions (or lack thereof) from the other students tells us all we need to know. This is business as usual for this teacher. Her students aren't the least bit surprised. All they do is try to "behave" so that they're not the next one in the "calm down chair".

Duke said...

Folks, I try to keep this comment area as free from censoring as possible. But I'm not really into using it as a place to slap down another teacher-blogger.

I understand people may have a problem with Jose, and that's fine: he can handle whatever criticisms come his way as a public figure (something I'm learning more about every day). FWIW, I liked his book enormously, and I think he provides a valuable service in making people uncomfortable with things they should be uncomfortable about.

I quoted Jose here because he's had some very valuable things to say about Marylin Zuniga, a case that has not been discussed nearly as much as it should be. He made me see a few things I didn't see, and I'm grateful for that.

I don't agree with everything Jose says; I don't agree with everything ANYONE says (and yes, that even includes Bruce Baker). But I don't think it's fair to drop bombs on him here -- particularly complaints about his sincerity. I'm certainly not interested in moderating a forum about that. So let's move on.

Thank you all for reading.

Duke said...

Dienne, I'm inclined to agree with you... but I am very, very leery of trying and convicting a teacher on the basis of a one-minute video. Like I said: every teacher has had a moment they wish they could take back. Maybe not as extreme as this, but it does happen. It seems to me that a week's suspension with appropriate training is a reasonable response to this... but if this wasn't an isolated incident, the teacher needs to go.

The larger question, however, is whether this sort of moment is the logical consequence of a "no excuses" pedagogy.

Thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

I just want to comment about the irony that Success Academy's banner ad is running on my browser window right at the bottom of these comments.