Saturday, March 19, 2016

EVA’S OFFENSIVE: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds and Classroom Seats of NYC Charter Schools

By John Merrow, The Merrow Report |

March 18, 2016  ::  After many months of intense scrutiny and criticism, Dr. Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of Success Academies Charter School Network, has gone on the offensive.  In this effort, she has the help of an expensive PR firm, her traditional ally the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Club of New York, and–surprisingly–WNYC reporter Beth Fertig.

The recent criticism began last October, when the PBS NewsHour exposed her practice of multiple out of school suspensions of 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds. (My last piece for the NewsHour before I retired.)  Later in October Kate Taylor of the New York Times revealed that one of her schools had a ‘got to go’ list of students to be dropped. Moskowitz did not fire the principal.   In an electrifying report in February, Taylor wrote about a video of a Success Academy teacher humiliating a child.

Dr. Moskowitz has retained Mercury LLC, the same PR firm that is advising Michigan’s embattled Governor, Rick Snyder.   She emailed her staff accusing the New York Times of a ‘vendetta’ against her.  On Monday, March 14, the Wall Street Journal published her op-ed, “Orderliness in School: What a Concept”.  “Over the past year the Times’s principal education reporter has devoted 34% of the total word count for her education stories, including four of her seven longest articles, to unrelentingly negative coverage of Success,” Moskowitz wrote.

But her main point was that she and Success Academies represent the last line of defense against violent and disruptive behavior in our schools.  Did the PR firm suggest she tar her critics with the old reliable “commie-pinko” brush?   (Making it parenthetical was a nice touch.)

The unstated premise is that parents are susceptible to being duped because they are poor and unsophisticated. (Once upon a time, this view was known as “false consciousness”—the Marxist critique of how the proletariat could be misled by capitalist society.)”

The Harvard Club of New York is, perhaps inadvertently, also helping Moskowitz.  It has scheduled an evening presentation on Monday, March 29th , to be followed by a panel discussion.  The blurb describing the event makes no mention of any criticism.  Here’s a sample:

Eva Moskowitz founded Success Academy Charter Schools in 2006 with the dual mission of building world-class schools for New York City children and serving as a catalyst and a national model for education reform to help change public policies that prevent so many children from having access to opportunity. Firmly believing that inner-city students deserve the same high-quality education as their more affluent peers, and convinced that all children, regardless of zip code or socioeconomic background, can achieve at the highest levels, she opened the first  Success Academy in Harlem and today operates 34 schools in some of the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Success Academy continues to grow at a rapid pace and will be hiring more than 900 teachers and other personnel before the next academic year.

After Moskowitz’s presentation, a discussion will be moderated by a ‘Senior Reporter’ from The 74, which is not a journalistic organization but an advocacy group.  The panelists are James Merriman, President, New York City Charter School Center; Michael Petrilli, President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute; and Charles Sahm, Director, Education Policy, Manhattan Institute, all strong charter school advocates who have publicly supported Moskowitz and Success Academies.

What do you suppose they will ‘debate’?  How about this for a tough question: The New York Times: Threat or Menace?    

The event is open to Club members and their guests.  (I cannot attend because I will be out of the country.)

Moskowitz’s most surprising ally in her PR offensive is Beth Fertig of WNYC public radio here in New York. She and her colleague Jenny Ye reported on March 15 that NYC Charters Retain Students Better Than Traditional Schools.’   The lead sentence: “Citywide, across all grades, 10.6 percent of charter school students transferred out in 2013-14, compared to 13 percent of traditional public school students.”  They cite the KIPP charter network as having an especially low attrition rate, about 25% of the rate in neighboring traditional schools.

This is like comparing the kids who go to the playground to toss a ball around with the kids whose parents enroll them in the karate program at the Y, buy them uniforms and accompany them to practice and competitions.

Of course the departure rate from traditional urban public schools is higher. Families lose their homes and have to move. Parents change jobs and have to move.  The single parent gets sick and has to move in with relatives.  And generally the kids then move to the closest school.  I.E., they ‘transfer.’

On the other hand, getting into a charter school entails jumping through hoops, often a lot of them, and those parents–who have sought out what they hope to be better opportunities for their children–are not going to change schools just because of a job loss or an illness.   Some charter school students may ‘transfer’ because their school doesn’t provide the special education services they’re supposed to.  Some students may ‘transfer’ after being sent home multiple times for minor offenses.  That seems to happen quite often at Success Academies, which has a long laundry list of offenses that warrant out of school suspensions.

Therefore, comparing transfer rates is meaningless, a waste of the reporter’s time and public radio’s resources. Every well run charter school should have attrition rates as low as KIPP’s, or lower.

This silly and meaningless exercise in comparing unconnected numbers makes Success Academies look good.  Although SA had the second-worst attrition rate (57.4% of traditional schools), that’s not how WNYC presented it. Here’s what they wrote:

We found most of Success’s 18 schools in the 2013-14 school year had attrition rates that were lower than those of their local districts. The two schools that were slightly higher are in Bedford Stuyvesant and Cobble Hill (where the first grade teacher was caught on camera).Bed Stuy 2’s attrition rate was 13.4 percent versus 12.4 percent for traditional public schools in District 14. The Cobble Hill school’s attrition rate was 12.5 percent versus 10.8 percent in the regular District 15 schools.

“Our low attrition rates reflect what parents appreciate about our schools,” said Success founder Moskowitz. “That our classrooms are as joyful as they are rigorous.”

Allowing Success Academies to boast of a supposedly low attrition rate is beyond ironic, because the organization plays fast and loose with numbers.  The single most accurate way to calculate attrition is to list everyone who starts school on Day One and then count again 365 days later on the following Day One to determine who has left.  Then the school could figure out why students left and, where appropriate, make adjustments.  This is what KIPP does.  The resulting number is not necessarily flattering because it includes everyone who left: some families move out of town, some kids decide they don’t want to work that hard, other kids just want to be with their peers, and so on.  

A second way to count attrition would be from September 1 to June 25th or whenever school lets out. That leaves out summer loss, which actually is pretty significant.  Other charter networks I am aware of count attrition this way.

The third way produces the lowest and most impressive attrition number: That entails counting attrition from the official NYC attendance count day, known as  BEDS. That occurs fairly early in October.  So a school can count the number of students on October 10th and count again on June 25th.  Doing it this way means that whatever happens between the true opening of school (late August or early September) and BEDS does not show up on any records.  So if a charter network employs multiple out-of-school suspensions during that 6-week period, August-25-October 10, no one outside of the network would EVER know.

Approach #3 is the one taken by Success Academies, which is why Moskowitz boasts of low attrition.

The Eva Moskowitz mess is emblematic of a larger problem in charter world. Greg Richmond is the President and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.  I suggest everyone read his recent speech about the state of the charter movement. Three paragraphs seem particularly relevant to this discussion of Success Academies.

We have created schools that will not enroll students in upper grade levels. We have some schools that believe it is appropriate to counsel children out mid-year. Some charters believe it is appropriate to tell families of students with disabilities that their charter school cannot serve them.

In short, charters have relied on the district schools to be a safety net for students not served by charter schools. That’s not right. If we believe that charter schools can provide a better education for children, we need to include all children.

Charter schools have also chosen to fight against school districts even when it was in the public interest to work together.

Eva Moskowitz is fighting  hard to maintain her position as the face and voice of the charter school movement here in New York City–and perhaps beyond.  In my private conversations with leaders of other charter networks here, they have told me that they wish this weren’t so, but so far they have not been willing to stand up and be counted.

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