I recently met a Success Academy success story, and he revealed to me a critical truth about the controversial New York charter school chain, and about American public education.
I was shooting hoops at my local court on the edge of Harlem when I was joined by a teenager in an “SA” pullover. I recognized the logo.
“Success Academy?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
“Do you know where you’re going next year?” I asked him.
He gave me the name of a top Ivy League school. I congratulated him.
I’ve always been deeply skeptical of Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz’s boasts of educational superiority based on scores on state standardized tests of children, which is an invalid and irrelevant measurement of school quality.
My skepticism was confirmed when I heard that 100% of her first high school graduating class was accepted to college — but that the chain managed over the years to lose, and not replace, more than 70% of the cohort it started with a dozen years earlier, defeating the logic of any test-data comparison to authentic public schools.
But here before me was one of the 17 out of 73 young people who made it all the way through the alleged Success Academy meat grinder. I asked the young man about his experience.
In short, he loved his 12 years at Success Academy. “There is a real sense of teamwork. The teachers really try to help you. You get the feeling you can talk to them anytime and they’ll do whatever they can to help you.”
He remembered a rich curriculum at the school, and said — contrary to stereotype — there was lots of recess and play, especially after testing days, when he said his teachers and classmates ran around outside for what felt like “a well-deserved five hours.”
When he got the news of his Ivy League acceptance, he reported, he cried tears of joy. His mother was dancing in the street. “It was an emotional moment for Ms. Moskowitz, too,” he added, speaking of a woman he clearly holds in great respect.
“Is there anything you’d change about the school?” I asked, “something you’d do better if you were in charge?”
He considered the question thoughtfully, and identified a flaw that is not unique to Success Academy but universal to American public education in the Bush-Obama-Trump eras: school management governed by the universal standardized testing of children, tests forced on children by politicians and bureaucrats who think that such data is a valid measurement of educational quality.
He answered, “There’s too much testing and test prep, especially in the younger grades. I would have much less testing. The state tests measured nothing important to my education.”
The tests, he explained, are good for mainly one thing — to enable Moskowitz to create numbers to show to donors to keep money flowing to her schools.
I told him I agreed with his point of view, which is why I exercise my right to refuse to allow my child to take the state tests, like over 70% of the parents in our public elementary school in the East Village, which has a majority of economically disadvantaged students.
I want high-quality assessments designed by my child’s classroom teachers, not a machine-scored bubble test that’s used to punish schools, bust unions and shut down schools in poor neighborhoods, and is of little use to my child or his teachers.
“Really?” marveled my basketball companion. “70% opt out? That’s great! Wow, I wish our school did that.”
Of course, if Success Academy opted out, then much of what it uses to distinguish itself from other schools, high test scores, would go right out the window.
But once schools opt out of standardized testing, they can opt in to what really helps children learn: like professionalized teachers, high-quality assessment, collaboration between schools rather than cutthroat competition, correct class sizes, play, physical activity and equitable funding.
They can opt in to things that standardized tests can’t deliver — helping children unlock their passions and talents; become healthy, compassionate and productive citizens; and develop skills that the world’s employers most want, including complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, people skills and teamwork, emotional intelligence, judgment and decision-making, negotiation skills and cognitive flexibility.
I found myself thinking that if Moskowitz had anything to do with the education of such a thoughtful and eloquent Ivy-League-bound young man’s education, she should be proud of herself.
“If it weren’t for Success Academy,” he told me, clearly thrilled at the prospect of entering one of the greatest universities in the world in a few months, “I wouldn’t be going where I’m going.”
I, a longtime doubter of Success Academy, learned something from this young man. I wonder whether Eva Moskowitz can, too.
Doyle is a public school father, writer and TV producer, and a scholar in residence and lecturer at the University of Eastern Finland.