Over the summer, New York officials revealed that an entire class of eighth graders at Success Academy Bronx 2 aced the Algebra I Regents exam. In a school where 90% of students qualify for free lunch, such results are unheard of. But for anyone who has followed the trajectory of Success Academy, the largest charter school network in New York City with over 40 schools and 14,000 students, these scores will not come as a surprise. The network’s test scores continue to surpass those of the wealthiest districts in the state.
For Pondiscio, the question is, “How does she do it?” With unfettered access to Bronx 1, an elementary school down the block from the one he used to teach at, he is able to answer the question. Success classrooms look and sound different from other classrooms. Teachers, who are managing classes of more than 30 students, are constantly scanning the room and narrating what they see. “William’s eyes are on me. Joshua’s eyes are on me. Aleister, first warning, keep your eyes here.” Transitions between classes and classroom activities are rehearsed over and over until they are done silently and quickly. Rewards are given out constantly for meeting behavioral expectations and achieving academically.
The level of attention — some might call it micromanagement — at Success is mind-boggling. Every morning, the principal and her team of assistant principals and other administrators visit every single classroom in the school and observe. When they leave, they discuss what the teachers could do better and which students are creating problems. They call parents on the spot requesting meetings to discuss students who are struggling, academically or behaviorally.
Success takes professional development seriously. Every Wednesday, students are dismissed at 12:30 p.m. so the staff can work on it. Problems are not allowed to fester, and teachers who are not cutting it are let go. But learning how to be a better teacher is not just another responsibility at Success. There are a number of things that teachers at Success are not responsible for in order to make room for better teaching. Teachers do not develop their own material or curricula, something that Pondiscio says teachers nationally spend an average of 12 hours a week doing. They also don’t spend any time decorating their classrooms or supervising extracurricular activities.
There are facilities managers who fix anything within 24 hours. The classrooms for each grade are set up exactly the same for the whole network. And the curriculum is uniform. Teachers have only one job: to teach. They will teach math and reading and science and dance and chess and art, but their only job is to teach.
All of this is part of what makes Success “scalable.” The teachers are not generally from elite colleges. They are reasonably intelligent people who can be taught. And they are not taught simply classroom management. They also spend a lot of time learning the actual material they teach. They discuss the novels they are teaching with the other teachers in their grade until they know them inside and out. Pondiscio speculates that one of the reasons that Success does so well on the exams is not that they are learning testing strategies, but that they are learning an enormous amount of content at a high level.
But what about criticisms of Success? Charter schools operate on a lottery system, and Success is not doing anything to alter that. But once students are admitted, the school asks for a serious commitment from parents, more than other charters. Not only do they have to drop off and pick up their children every day (there’s no bus offered), but they have to read with them every night. If there is a problem at school, the parents must show up for meetings immediately. What Pondiscio finds is that the parents who sign up for the demands of Success are more likely to be married and more likely to be religious. The cultural attitudes of the families toward education and their ability to support their child’s academic efforts at home make a big difference for students and the atmosphere of the school generally.
Critics will ask whether it’s fair that the most motivated parents (among the subset of those who live in poor neighborhoods and can’t afford private schools) will leave their district schools. Critics of charter schools and school choice more generally would say that these motivated families are a resource that should be evenly sprinkled among schools all over the city. But, as Pondiscio notes, “Most parents are uncomfortable thinking of their child as a public resource. No affluent parent is asked to view her child that way.”
If, as the research suggests, “children seek to assimilate into social groups and their concomitant achievement level,” Pondiscio writes, “this suggests not merely acceptance of a vicious circle, but insistence upon it, deepening poverty and despair, limiting access to good schools and school cultures — all in the name of equity and fairness.”
How the Other Half Learns is not only an explanation of how one of the most successful one works. It is also a deeply articulate, evenhanded, and well-researched argument that every honest charter school skeptic should add to their reading list.