Big Ideas: “How The Other Half Learns” with Robert Pondiscio
In his new book, Pondiscio breaks down school culture of one the nation's largest charter school networks
Robert Pondiscio, vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, unpacks ideas in his newest book, How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice. His book focuses on Success Academy, the largest charter school network in New York City. He spent time at Bronx 1—a school he chose deliberately because it was just down the street from the low-performing school he did his teaching.
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Our Podcast Transcribed
Jason Bedrick: Welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m your host Jason Bedrick, director of policy here at EdChoice and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. I’m delighted to be joined today by Robert Pondiscio, a good friend and senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He’s also a senior advisor to Democracy Prep, where he teaches 12th grade civics, and he is the author of a new book, How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice, which is the topic of our discussion today. Robert, welcome to the podcast.
Robert Pondiscio: Hey, thanks for having me.
Jason Bedrick: Now, you open and close your book talking about a student back when you were a 5th grade teacher in the Bronx in a very low-performing school, public school that catered to a very low-income community. You talk about this student, Tiffany and the Tiffany Test.
Robert Pondiscio: Mm-hmm. Yes.
Jason Bedrick: So, I’m going to read you a short quote from the book, because Tiffany is a student that went on to graduate from college, and she seemed to be a success story, but you said, “I’m haunted to this day by what I know the data cannot show. Tiffany was neglected by me, by other teachers, and by the systems we have created to ostensibly benefit children like her. And that neglect was not an accident, it was a policy.”
So, who was Tiffany, and how could it have been policy to neglect her?
Robert Pondiscio: Sure. Some context for that, in 2002, I left my nice, comfortable life in the publishing industry to join the New York City Teaching Fellows, which is an alternative certification for mid-career professionals, to help staff inner-city schools. I’d been involved in not-for-profit work in the South Bronx, so I wanted to teach in the South Bronx, and I ended up teaching at P.S. 277. The context here matters. In New York City, the South Bronx is Community School District 7. District 7 is, was, still is I believe, the lowest-scoring district in New York City. P.S. 277, my school, was the lowest-scoring school in District 7. So, I was literally teaching in the worst of the worst, or the lowest of the low based on test scores.
Tiffany was a kid in my second year of teaching who was, as we would have said back then, a double 3, meaning she got a 3 on her ELA and math tests, meaning she was on grade level in a school where almost nobody was on grade level in both subjects. She is what I kind of archly called a not-your-problem child, and I came up with that name because when I pointed out to my special ed supervisor that, “Hey, I’ve got this diligent, dutiful, always prepared, always focused kid sitting in my class, and I’m not doing anything for her.”
My special ed supervisor said, “She’s not your problem,” somewhat pointedly, Jason, and what she meant by that was that, “Look, you’ve got all of these kids who are not getting 3s on their state tests, they’re getting 1s and 2s. Why are you worried about this kid who is getting us the results that we need?” That’s what I mean by a matter of policy. She’s where we need her to be, get the other kids in the game, as it were. When I tell you it was a matter of policy, my interpretation of that “she’s not your problem” advice is that I was functionally ordered to disregard this kid, to ignore her. She was delivering the results that we needed.
So, if you think about what that means, now put yourself in the shoes of Tiffany, who, as I describe her in the book, she was, again, this kind of diligent, dutiful kid who was clearly bought in to the promise of education, very focused kid of a single mom in the South Bronx. It wasn’t because of anything that I or anybody else was doing. She was just delivering solid scores on her standardized tests, which, in the era of testing and accountability, that’s the coin of the realm.
So yeah, she ended up graduating some years later from a state university in Pennsylvania. Her mom moved her to Pennsylvania in middle school. But if you think about that, go back to the data, right? So, in other words, what are the chances that a Hispanic kid of a single mom in a place like the South Bronx is someday going to be a college graduate? Probably 6, 8, 10% percent. So, she graduated, and then we can praise ourselves and congratulate ourselves that we did right by her.
But wait a minute, remember what I said about my 5th grade special ed supervisor? I was told to ignore that kid. So, what did we do for her? Nothing, in a sense. And I cannot help but feel that if she had gone to my daughter’s school on the upper East Side, two subway stops away, she would not have gone to a state university in Pennsylvania. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. She could have gone to where my daughter’s classmates were going, to Harvard, to Yale, to Stanford, etc. And then we would have, as I say in the book, we’d all be working, or your kids would be working for Tiffany right now.
So, I apply what I call the Tiffany Test, meaning does this reform, whatever it is, give kids like Tiffany what they need to get those kinds of outcomes? The answer almost never comes back as yes. But to fast forward to Success Academy nearly 20 years later, when I describe Tiffany as this kid who comes to school every day in her uniform with her homework done, diligent, bought in, dialed in, all about education, what did I see at Bronx 1 about a mile away from P.S. 277? Well, I saw Tiffany Lopez in every single seat, was the kid just like that. Now, the open question is, does Eva Moskowitz and Success, do they cultivate kids like that? Do they attract them? Do they create them? I think it’s a combination, but there’s a culture there where the Tiffanys … Where Tiffany was an outlier in my school, she would personify the culture at a place like Success Academy.
Jason Bedrick: So, let’s talk a little bit about Success Academy, which is the subject of your book. You spent a little more than a year embedded as a journalist … When I say that term, it sounds like someone who’s embedded in a platoon in Iraq or something. But you were embedded in Success Academy, which is a charter school that was founded by Eva Moskowitz … Really founded by some philanthropists, but she was the first one to be running the school system. Eva Moskowitz was a controversial politician, she’s a real fire brand, but somebody who is very passionate about providing children with an excellent education.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah.
Jason Bedrick: So, she has this system of schools that is just knocking the socks off of everybody else when it comes to the state exam. They’re getting the highest test scores in the state—82 percent passed English Language Arts a few years ago, you mention at the beginning of your book, earning at least a level 3, which is, as you mentioned, grade level proficiency. Twenty-nine percent earn level 4, which is the highest possible score. Two of the top five schools in the state are Success Academy Schools in Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy. Now, I lived in Crown Heights for a while, that’s a tough neighborhood.
Robert Pondiscio: Sure.
Jason Bedrick: And so is Bed-Stuy. Really, just doing amazing things and yet, they’re usually located in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods and are attracting primarily African-American and Hispanic, low-income students, and yet achieving test scores that are higher than the state average for whites and Asians.
So, it seems on the outside to be living up to its name, Success Academy. Why did you decide to take on this project, and going into the school, what did you expect that you were going to find?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. That’s a lot of question, let me try to break it down.
Well, I mean, again, Success Academy did not exist when I was teaching at P.S. 277 in the South Bronx. It was still a few years away from being created. Came along, as you would suggest, very controversial, and then something happened which was rather remarkable. It kept getting bigger, and it kept getting better. I don’t think I’m wrong to say, Jason, that there is no other charter network in America, at least that I’m aware of, that is of a similar size … Success Academy has about 50 schools right now … Without at least some outliers, negative outliers. In other words, there are a couple of hundred KIPP schools, and there are some bad KIPP schools. You know, same thing with Achievement First, Uncommon. The idea that you can grow to fit these schools without a single weak sister is remarkable.
And as you suggest, as I say in the book, they have been quite controversial. I occupy this kind of strange space in the ed reform world. I’m all about choice and charters and teacher quality and data. That stuff is all great, but when we talk about that in conversations like this, I tend to be the guy that says, “Hold on a second. Can we talk about what the kids do all day?” In other words, I tend to focus in my writing on curriculum, on pedagogy, teaching and learning, as it were, as opposed to the external mechanisms around school. So for a decade’s worth of controversy about Success Academy, I felt like I didn’t have any sense at all about what the kids do all day. I wanted very much to know, what do the kids do all day? If you’ve got this network of schools that has grown to several dozen, and seemingly without one single bad school, you must have figured something out that the rest of us could learn from. So, what is that?
So, it took some doing, but I persuaded Eva Moskowitz to let me spend time at Bronx 1, and that school was chosen deliberately. It was literally, is literally across the street from where I did my student teaching, and a few blocks away from where I was teaching. So, in other words, I’d failed. We’d all failed in that neighborhood, and here she was running one of the most successful schools in the Bronx, in the state, a stone’s throw from where I was teaching. So, not unnaturally, I wanted to know what that was. How was that being done?
This is where it gets super complicated and we can talk about some of these issues, but I’ve already kind of confessed my bias. I expected to walk in and write about or discover a story that was about curriculum and instruction. And when the dust settled, I think it was far more about school culture. Not that curriculum and instruction don’t matter, they do, and I’m also not a believer in that there’s a single magic bullet. But I was very surprised to find that, at the end of the day, I felt like the real power of what was going on at Success Academy … And let’s be clear, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea and it’s controversial for many good reasons. But what I think they’ve really nailed and what is driving both their level of results and the consistency of results across the network is their school culture.
Jason Bedrick: So, content matters, but maybe school culture matters most. What is the school culture at Success Academy, and how do they build this culture?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. This is going to be not a short answer, I’m afraid, because it’s complicated. And it also kind of directly counters some of the narrative both for and against charter schools. Please push back if you think I’m oversimplifying this, but I think there has been, as long as we’ve had charter schools, there has been this aggressive effort, I think, on the part of charter advocates, and I count myself as one of them, to say, “Look, the only difference between a good outcome and a bad outcome for a kid is the door that that kid walks in in the morning.”
And here’s all these charter schools that are proving that it can be done with the exact same school, the exact same kids that are being failed in neighborhood schools. Having taught in, again, a struggling public school in the South Bronx, that narrative has never felt right or satisfying to me. In other words, if you took Tiffany, who we were talking about earlier, out of my classroom at P.S. 277, it would have made my job harder. Even though she was not getting a great deal of my attention, if you’ve got some critical mass of kids in even the most struggling school who are paying attention and reliable and delivering the results, etc., they are there, they just make your job easier as a teacher. If you take those kids out of my classroom, then my job is that much harder. If you concentrate those kids in one place in another school, well, that teacher’s job is going to be easier.
So, when charter critics complain that a school like a Success Academy is concentrating dysfunction and whatnot, how can that not be correct? I mean, of course it’s correct. So, I’m aware as anybody of the data that shows that a high-performing charter creates this kind of rising tide. I get it, but I just don’t believe it. I’m not saying I don’t believe the data, I’m just saying I don’t believe that it makes sense to suggest that you can pull out those kids like Tiffany and put them all in one school and it’s not going to make one person’s job easier and the other person’s job harder. That’s by no means to say that we shouldn’t be doing that. I mean, because who are we to say Tiffany is a public resource that must fit in this dysfunctional school to her own disadvantage? That’s crazy, not in America.
Jason Bedrick: And we should be clear that not all of the students at Success are like Tiffany. You describe some kids who have some severe behavioral issues that the school works mighty hard to address, but what you do also need is the buy-in of the parents in a way that we don’t see at the same level in other school systems, certainly not the district school system.
Robert Pondiscio: You are making my point for me, which is, the moment … I mean, think about what it’s like to be a low-income parent in a community like the South Bronx. Imagine three groups, as it were. The first one, the first mother sends her kid off to the zoned neighborhood school without giving it a second thought because that’s where we go in this neighborhood.
The second one, for whatever reason thinks, “You know, I’m not sure I want my kid to go to that school. I don’t like the way the kids act there, I hear that there’s fights there, I don’t like it. Maybe I should send my kid to a charter school.” And by the way, in New York City, that attitude seems to drive a lot of the charter and choice momentum because just the perception that charter is a synonym for safe.
Now imagine a third parent who is alert, attentive, active, engaged, and says, “Not only do I want a charter, I want that charter,” whether it’s Success, Achievement First, Uncommon, Democracy Prep, where I teach, etc. Demographically, those parents may appear to be the same, but psychographically, in terms of their attitudes and dispositions towards education, they’re hardly comparable at all. And this gets into the complicated issue of how Success puts together its student body, which we can discuss, but when you are starting with a parent body that is, through a pure act of volition, voting with their feet, it just seems unsatisfying to say there’s no difference whatsoever between those three groups of parents. There has to be.
Jason Bedrick: Mm-hmm. And yet, if there are some parents in suburbs, in middle and higher middle-income families, that are making those different decisions we say, “So be it.” We only seem to have a problem with it if it’s lower income families that are making those decisions.
Robert Pondiscio: This is exactly my point, and it has been for quite some time. If you want to make the case, and let me be really, really clear about this. I mean, I don’t want to be cast as Eva Moskowitz’s cheerleader here. I like a lot of what I saw in her schools and I don’t like a lot of what I saw in her schools. We can talk about that as well. But if your argument is that you shouldn’t be allowed to create the conditions to allow low income parents who are engaged and interested to vote with their feet and self-select into an environment like a Success Academy, well then you need to explain why it’s okay for people like you and me to move to the suburbs, to choose a private school or a parochial school for our children, but suddenly it becomes not okay when somebody engineers a way for low income black and brown families to do the same thing.
Jason Bedrick: Well, the other side will say, “Well, we just need to solve the problem in the public school system and we need to make public education high quality for all kids, and for that we just need more money.” And yet, in New York City, they’re spending north of $25,000 per pupil for some pretty terrible results.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, that’s exactly—
Jason Bedrick: So, what Success Academy is doing is, it’s not that they’re spending more, they’re spending more time on things like culture. Not just time, but an incredible amount of effort. You open your prologue describing all of this activity and all of the ways that the administration is coming into classrooms and making tweaks and discussing all of the things that need to be changed, and then you say, “This is only the first few hours of the day of the first day of school.”
Robert Pondiscio: Exactly, right.
Jason Bedrick: And you’re like, “Oh my gosh, that’s more administrative correction of what teachers are doing in a few hours than goes on in an entire year at some schools.” So this culture-
Robert Pondiscio: Oh, without question.
Jason Bedrick: This culture really matters. So, why does Success Academy spend so much time at the beginning of the year on things like lining up and walking to different classrooms the right way with your arms by your sides and sitting the right way, you can describe what the Magic Five is, and tracking the teacher and making sure that the children’s eyes are looking at the teacher. I mean, this seems very paternalistic, it seems very disciplinarian. Why is this so important to what they do?
Robert Pondiscio: Well, it is all of those things, and that’s why you could never impose this unwillingly on public education at large. There’s no harm, I would argue, if a parent wants to send his or her child to a school that focuses on this kind of so-called no excuses pedagogy and culture-
Jason Bedrick: And what does that mean, no excuses?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. Sorry, we’re now at multiple levels of discursion here, but no excuses is a phrase that came into popular use about 20 years ago. It’s closely associated, or was at the time, with the KIPP schools in New York and Houston. It’s kind of interesting, because the meaning of no excuses has evolved significantly, in fact almost 180 degrees in the last two decades. No excuses, when it first came into popular usage, meant something quite literal. It meant no excuses for adults, so in other words, if kids were failing in schools, you cannot blame poverty, you cannot blame race, you cannot blame parents. It’s on us, meaning those of us who run and work in schools. It’s our fault. So, there can be no excuses for that, and it’s up to us to step up and fix this. So, that was very bold and a really laudatory stance to take. Like, “No, we need to fix this, and we will fix this.”
Over time, no excuses became, I would argue co-opted by charter, no excuses opponents. It became conflated with this kind of zero tolerance discipline. It tracks almost exactly how the broken windows theory of community policing went from something that was viewed as a positive to something that was viewed as not just a negative, but shameful, because we conflated broken windows policing with stop and frisk policing, just like we conflated no excuses school models with zero tolerance discipline, exclusionary discipline and all these other things. So, now, even Eva Moskowitz, notably, refuses and bridles when you refer to her schools as no excuses schools.
I think I say in the book, not only is Success Academy a no excuses school, it’s the most no excuses, for all of these reasons that you describe. And that adult culture, it’s not just a reflex, it’s in their DNA. When something is going wrong, they immediately reflectively ask themselves as adults, “What do we need to change?”
Where this gets controversial is, among the adults who are held accountable for bad results or less than desirable result are parents. So, whether you want to call that paternalistic or call it harassment, they absolutely include parents among the set of adults from whom they will accept no excuses.
Jason Bedrick: So, there’s lots of directions we can go from this. I would like to describe first, what the expectations are for the children and how that culture is built. But then, let’s get back into what it means to have no excuses for the adults in the system, both the teachers and administrators and the parents. Let’s start with the kids.
Robert Pondiscio: Sure.
Jason Bedrick: They spend a lot of time building this culture at the beginning of the year and maintaining it throughout the year. How do they build this culture? What do you mean by culture? And why is it so important for their success?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. It’s interesting. When I was describing this to our mutual friend, Pat Wolf at the University of Arkansas, about what I was seeing with school culture, he said, “Well, are you familiar with George Akerlof’s work?” And I said, “Who’s that?”
I know, I should not have said that because this is not … It’s not like he’s not a prominent economist. He’s married to Janet Yellen, the former fed chairman. I’m not an economist, barely an educator. But Akerlof wrote a series of papers about behavioral economics or identity in economics. It’s long and sophisticated, but I will try to give a responsible oversimplification that Akerlof’s work suggested that in any school culture, the school communicates an ideal, and with that ideal comes … Because students want to fit in. In other words, kids are kind of hardwired as kids to want to fit in. So, if you set a culture that stresses an academic identity, then kids will naturally acclimate themselves to that identity, and that significantly sets the level of effort that they will strive in an attempt to fit in.
Going backwards a little bit, I mean, the idea that school culture and identity is meaningful, that this will resonate with anybody who’s ever went to high school and recognized the idea that there’s these various subcultures. There’s the jocks, there’s the burnouts, there’s the nerds, et cetera, and each of those categories of students has along with it a concomitant level of effort that goes along with that academic identity. So if you want the kids in your school to be diligent and hardworking, you have to protect that, you have to valorize that, you have to have a culture that says, “Look, this is how we do things around here. This is who we are and this is who you want to be.”
I’m broadly oversimplifying, but that’s why culture matters and that’s kind of the signals that a Success Academy sends to its kids. What makes it so powerful, I think, is that … And I’m jumping ahead here, but this is kind of where, frankly, I kind of explained this to myself as I went along in time at Success Academy Bronx 1. If you put yourself in the shoes of a low income kid of color in a place like the South Bronx, whether at age 10, for example, you could articulate this to yourself or not … Well, I mean, come on, you can’t at that age. But there’s almost nothing in the experience of a family of color in a place like the South Bronx that would lead you to expect a school culture where every kid is getting that 3 or 4 on a test, where staff is deeply invested in that kid’s academic outcomes.
In other words, where I’m good at school, all my friends are good at school, my parents are pushing me, my teachers are pushing me. All their parents, all their teachers are pushing me. It just changes the relationship, and I think this is ultimately the most important thing that I witnessed in a year … It changes the relationship of a community of color, and particularly a low income community of color, with this thing called a school. These are the conditions that affluent Americans likely just take for granted in their schools, and it’s been rare for low income families of color in places like the South Bronx.
So, even though there may be aspects about it, about their particular flavors of schooling at Success that I don’t necessarily care for, that culture piece is powerful and important. Understanding that, I think, is perhaps my biggest take-away from my year there.
Jason Bedrick: The expectations are so important. I mean, just speaking for myself, when I was in high school, I met someone for the first time who wasn’t going to college. I didn’t know that that was an option. That’s just what everybody in our community did. Eighth graders then went on to high school, high schoolers then went on to college.
This community is obviously entirely different, and yet you’ve got classrooms that are named after colleges in the area. Starting in kindergarten, these kids are being told, “You can succeed. You’re going to go to college. You’re going to make it in life.” But to do that, they spend a lot of time making sure that students get acclimated to this culture, this culture of high achievement, this culture of success, and they stop taking kids after a certain point, so that you can enter, if I’m not mistaken, in grades K–4, but after that, they don’t take new kids from outside the system anymore because they want to preserve that particular culture.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, and Moskowitz has been criticized roundly for this policy. I don’t have strong feelings about it one way or the other, but what you’re describing is what they call backfill. It’s controversial even within charter schools. The first thing you described, classrooms named after colleges, that’s not unique to Success Academy or Moskowitz. That goes back to so-called no excuses charter schools, 20, 25 years.
The no backfill policy is somewhat unique to Success Academy and quite controversial. The theory behind it is that by the time you get to the end of elementary school, if you were a, say, a fifth grader coming from my old school to Success Academy, you would already be so far behind that they wouldn’t be able to take you, or if they did, you’d be where their second or third graders are, it wouldn’t be fair to the kid to put the kid in that grade. So, that’s the theory, is that you want to make sure that you have a reasonably consistent level of skill levels across grades and not have kids who are too far behind. It gets controversial because, well, for obvious reasons. It’s easier to post these results, as I used to say to my fifth graders, it’s easier to keep up than catch up, and this kind of puts that into action.
One of the only times … I don’t want to accuse Moskowitz of being disingenuous, but I asked her at one point, “Look, if you could screen kids for aptitude and culture fit, if you didn’t just have to take them off the wait list in order, would you do that?” And she said no. And her answer was something to the effect of, “I don’t think I could tell who they were.”
But this is what private schools do all the time. My daughter’s school, again, half the class left after 8th grade and a whole bunch of new kids came in, but private school, you get to screen for aptitude and culture fit. So I asked Eva, “Why wouldn’t you do the same thing?” And she said, “I don’t think I could tell who they are.”
I don’t want to accuse her of being disingenuous, but I was not persuaded by that answer. I think because she already goes to such lengths to try to set, maintain, and softly screen for culture match, it’s just challenging, and in the charter world, the ethos is you’re supposed to do this with whoever walks in the door. And just common sense suggests that that’s really, really hard to do. At the end of the day, I think that also disadvantages low income families of color, that they have a difficult time seeking out schools that are culture matches. So rather than have to do this, she has this policy instead of, after fourth grade if we just don’t backfill anymore, because ostensibly you’re so far behind at this point that you wouldn’t be able to catch up.
Jason Bedrick: Right. And just to be clear, it’s not just Success that is screening students. You’ve got private schools, obviously, they have their own admission standards. Public schools that are magnet schools, but even public schools that are in very expensive neighborhoods, that’s one form of screening students. Success technically, as a charter school, has to take all students that show up and then have a lottery if they’re oversubscribed, although you do describe some ways in the book that there is a screening process. What does that look like?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. This is the part that I think fans of Success Academy are not going to like. The argument has been for years that Moskowitz is creaming students, and that’s the secret of her success. Well, she’s not creaming students, she’s creaming parents, and here’s how that works.
You’re exactly right, by law charter schools have to, if you’re oversubscribed you have to admit by lottery. And roughly speaking, there are six applicants for every one available seat at Success. So, that gives the appearance of huge demand, and there is huge demand. The first step happens in April, there is a lottery, at which point the year I was doing it, some 3,000 kids were offered a seat, some 7,000 kids I told, “Sorry, no room at the inn.” And everybody in the middle is on the so-called likely list, and we can come back and talk about what the likely list means.
After that lottery, there are any number of steps that are small, but not trivial in terms of parents meeting them. First, you come to a welcome meeting, where the culture and the expectations are laid out, frankly in very naked terms. There’s no mystery there, they are quite clear about the parental expectations. Then, after the welcome meeting, you have to confirm your interest via e-mail, then there are any number of the forms you have to fill out, then there’s a uniform fitting day that you have to come to, and then there’s a dress rehearsal before school starts. And if you fail to show up for any of these steps and you don’t communicate the conflict to Success Academy and arrange for a different date, then you just get dropped. So what that means is by the end of this multi-step process, these are all, as I think I described in the book, a soft screen for parental engagement and competence. If you are only casually interested, then you tend to fall off. You have to show up and show up and show up and vote with your feet.
At the end of this winnowing process, you end up with a parent body who is either deeply committed, deeply engaged, or willing to have their effort directed on behalf of their kids. That is, again, just a very big difference between what you had in my school, which is whoever shows up because they live in the neighborhood, and parents voting with their feet not once but repeatedly.
Now, let me hasten to add, Jason, this is what Moskowitz critics say, “See, we told you, that’s how she’s getting the results.”
Jason Bedrick: Right, it’s just creaming it.
Robert Pondiscio: Well, yeah. But if that were the case, then Moskowitz would deserve the scorn that’s been heaped upon her. But then you start to look at the results and you realize, with this audience of self selected parents, she’s getting results that outstrip every other school district in New York state and all of New York City’s gifted and talented programs, which actually do hand pick their kids. So yes, in other words, the criticisms that Moskowitz is creaming are, to use the Stephen Colbert phrase, they are truth-y, but it doesn’t explain the whole story. In other words, you can’t explain away her results by saying it’s creaming, because even if you say, “Okay, it’s creaming, but she’s still getting results that are better than anybody else with that self selected audience,” well that’s a different argument, and that’s a different situation that we need to reckon with.
Jason Bedrick: All right. So, a critic might say, “I’ll grant that when you compare Success to other types of programs that also engage in, quote-unquote, “creaming,” or at least the creaming of the parents, if not the students, they’re still doing better.” But in the name of equity, shouldn’t that be prohibited? Shouldn’t everybody be in the same boat?
Robert Pondiscio: Well, for what it’s worth, I’d rather have that discussion than the one we’ve been having for 20 years, which are these kind of technocratic arguments about comparing charter schools to neighborhood schools. If we can have the next 20 years of discussion about the ethics and morality of that, I think we’d be in a better place. I’m not sure this is a direct answer to your question, but I do think it renders comparisons between neighborhood schools and charter schools. At least in the case of Success, those comparisons do not obtain. But the moral argument that you’re rightly raising, and that I hope the book raises, is, “Well, is that OK?”
And I’m not necessarily comfortable answering as a matter of public policy, but as an ethical matter, if you want to say it’s not okay, then you are duty-bound to say why it is okay for affluent families to move to the suburbs, to pay private school tuition to opt out of the system. My daughter went private end to end, nobody ever accused me of robbing the public school system of the resource that is my child. So, I think I said this earlier, but if you want to say that it’s not OK, then you need to explain why it’s only not OK for low income black and brown families, and why it is OK for everybody else.
Jason Bedrick: So, we’ve discussed here how there’s very high expectations for the students. And there was just an incredible amount of feedback given to these children, both positive and sometimes negative, but they really do try to emphasize the positive. They try to get students to essentially conform to the culture of excellence and academic achievement through positive reinforcement. They only resort to the negative when it seems necessary. But there are these high standards for the students. I should say, too, we talk some days about millennials being, quote-unquote, “snowflakes,” whether that’s fair or unfair. But there are no snowflakes at these schools. I mean, the amount of critique … I mean, I don’t know if I would be able to handle it in my job, the amount of critique that they get.
Robert Pondiscio: I don’t think I could.
Jason Bedrick: But these students are resilient. They learn how to accept constructive criticism in a way that I think is very positive for them in the long run. And the parents are held to high standards as well, right?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah.
Jason Bedrick: They’re going to be getting phone calls if their students are misbehaving, they’re going to be getting phone calls if their kids are even showing up with black socks instead of navy blue socks. I mean, it is very clear what the expectations are for the parents, but the expectations start with the staff.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah.
Jason Bedrick: Can you describe how the administration keeps the culture of excellence that’s operating at such a high level among the teachers and the administrators themselves? How does this work?
Robert Pondiscio: You alluded to some of it. I mean, there is an intense feedback culture. If you are uncomfortable with administrators in your classroom all the time and both receiving and responding to feedback, then it is not the place for you. We started to talk about this earlier, but without question, there were classrooms where teachers got more feedback in a week than I got in five years teaching at the public school system, and it’s not always warm fuzzy feedback. Sometimes it is pointed and aggressive. There is a high performance culture there that if you are not the type of person who takes criticism well or defensively, you’re not going to be successful there. You’re not going to last very long.
Jason Bedrick: And some teachers didn’t. You described there were some cases where a teacher decided during the year, “You know what? This is not for me.”
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, look, and again, this gets into the criticism of Success Academy, but it is a culture that not everybody is successful in, and some people, both staff and students, and even parents that say, “You know what? This is just not for me.” This is another one of those kind of points of contention, are families and students counseled out? And then making air quotes around the words counseled out. Or can they not stomach it after a while? That’s not an easy thing, or you can’t make a categorical statement that it’s one or the other.
There’s a moment in the book, and I think this is kind of where this kind of crystallized in my own mind, about midway through the year … One of the central figures in the book is this fantastic kindergarten teacher named Carolyn Syskowski. It doesn’t matter what you think of Eva Moskowitz and this school model, everybody in America would want this young woman as their child’s kindergarten teacher. She is lovely. So, she and her colleague call what I describe as a come-to-Jesus meeting, and they have the entire kindergarten parent body in their hallway to, I don’t want to say complain or read the riot act, but to raise issues about where the children’s reading levels are in January, that a small number of kids were where they needed to be, everybody else was behind.
And so I’m there and it’s a cold winter evening. As is my wont, I’m recording the meeting on a tape recorder and listening to it. It was quite moving. I mean, she was so convincing and encouraging to these parents. And then I went home and I played back the tape and I started transcribing her comments. And suddenly I became aware, like, “Oh, my Lord, the stuff that came out of her mouth,” in terms of just the pointedness of the criticism, and basically calling parents on the carpet and saying, “You guys need to step up because you’re not getting this done for your kids.”
And I realized what I’d seen was not a meeting, it was a Rorschach test, in a sense. If you’re there, if you’re listening to this warm, encouraging tone, you’re like, “Oh, this woman and this school is so clearly trying to motivate these parents,” but the words themselves were unsparing. That, to me, almost crystallizes the culture of a place like Success Academy. It is very demanding, but it is wrapped up in an encouraging tone. But the reason I call it a Rorschach Test is because if you listen to what she said, and I don’t have the words in front of me, depending … You tell me how this lands, and I will tell you how you feel about all of this. If you want to see a school that is pushing kids and is encouraging kids and is trying to create a culture of accomplishment and success, then you’re going to see that. And if you want to see this as, “Who are you to be calling out these low income parents of color and telling them to get with the program?” then that’s there too.
But at the end of the day it say more about what we feel, I think, is the appropriate role of schools in promoting this culture. Do you feel it’s our place to try to impose a culture, as it were, on a community? Or is that inappropriate? No matter what you want to see, you’re going to see it.
Jason Bedrick: So, I think anybody listening to this podcast for this long, by this point should realize that the public-school system cannot be made to operate like this.
Robert Pondiscio: That’s right.
Jason Bedrick: Nor should we want all schools, all private, all charter schools to operate this way. This is something that parents have to self-select into, they have to want, and it’s not for everybody.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. Without question, that’s the big take-away, because at the end of the year I asked Eva Moskowitz, “What part of your school’s culture and routine could translate to K–12 at large?”
And her answer, not surprisingly, was, “All of it.” My answer is far less of it, because you can’t impose this kind of culture on those who do not want it. It would be a disaster. I mean, it’s unthinkable in a way, right? I would actually argue that we make these kind of demands in the K–12 system, not Moskowitz-like demands, but we take extraordinary liberties in K–12 in assuming that there is a one right way to this and making that the default setting. But by no means could you make this, what Moskowitz is doing, by no means could it be the default setting for K–12 education at large.
Jason Bedrick: That’s right. But neither do you think that there’s nothing that can be learned from Success Academy. You think there are some things that the public school system, that even other charter schools, private schools can take from it. So, what about Success Academy’s methods can be replicated at scale and what can’t?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. I mean, my answer goes back to my original theory of this. In other words, I think I said earlier that I walked in expecting I was going to see a story and write a book about curriculum and instruction, and I ended up writing about culture. The culture is not transferrable to K–12 at large, but the curriculum and instruction is. See, it’s gotten kind of interesting, and this is going to get wonky on pedagogy, but right now it is fairly common practice in K–12, particularly at the elementary and middle school level, to ask teachers to be both instructional designers and instructional deliverers.
I love telling this story about one of my first days at P.S. 277 as a teacher, and remember, I had not been in elementary school since I’d been an elementary school student, some 20, 25 years before. So my classroom was sloppy with people who wanted to tell me how to teach. But when I would ask the, I thought, reasonable question, “Well, what am I supposed to teach?” In other words, what’s the curriculum, I would usually get kind of snickered at, like, “Mr. Pondiscio, you’re the best person to know what every child needs.”
I’m like, “What? You can’t be serious. That can’t possibly be right.” And there’s a lot of complicated reasons why I was getting that advice. It was not ill intended or sarcastic, it suggested a skill-driven vision of education. In other words, your goal is to teach in ELA how to find the main idea, how to compare and contrast, how to make inferences. It doesn’t matter what the content is. For complicated reasons we can talk about in a different podcast, it does matter a lot. So the model at Success Academy is not, “You are an instructional deliverer and an instructional designer,” the model is, “You are an instructional deliverer, period, full stop.” There is a curriculum, it is the same across grades, across schools. I think I joke at one point in the book that a 4th grader could go to a different Success Academy school every day of the week and not miss a beat. This is not to suggest that it is McSchool, so to speak, but what they have done, rightly in my estimation, is they have really narrowly defined the job of the teacher as an instructional deliverer.
So, they do lesson planning still, but when I and other … Billions of teachers in this country, when they do lesson planning it means, I go on Google and Pinterest to find out, “What am I going to teach tomorrow?” I’m looking for resources. I’m looking for lesson plans. At Success, they hand it to you, so your lesson planning is not lesson creation, it is preparing to teach that lesson. It is developing questioning strategies. The work of the teacher revolves around studying student work, looking for patterns of error, giving feedback, developing relationships with students and families, all of which is more valuable than going on Google and Pinterest for 20 or 30 hours a week to answer that question that I asked at P.S. 277 so many years ago, “Well, what am I supposed to teach?”
So, that changes the job of the teacher in an unusually powerful way. You are now basically a diagnostician. You are a pedagogue. You’re a lesson deliverer, and your work is all about student work, in a sense. You’re not spending those hours fruitlessly searching for lesson plans that are going to engage your kids. That is one lesson, I think, that would be enormously powerful for American education to adopt at large. It goes, frankly, completely against the grain of the way that we do this now, and there’s lots of reasons for this. We worship at the altar of teacher autonomy, although many teachers, I think would be, maybe most teachers would be grateful to have a curriculum and not have to spend that time looking for lesson resources. But that is the one single change and the one single take-away from Success that I do think not only would be transferrable to K–12 at large, but should be transferrable.
Jason Bedrick: Robert, before we close, is there anything else that you hope readers of the book would take away?
Robert Pondiscio: Well, it depends on who the reader is. For those of us who spend our time in the way that you and I do, Jason, you know, full-time education wonks … I’ve been joking ruefully for the last couple of months that I expect everybody will hate this book, and the more I think about it, the more I will be disappointed if they do not. And what I mean by that, not that I set out to write an unpopular book, but I just think, and we alluded to it before, the narrative and counter narrative about education and education reform are just not serving us very well at all. We spend all of our time trying to argue for the superiority of this model or that model, and marshaling data and evidence to show that choice works, choice doesn’t work, charters work, charters don’t work, etc.
When you start to look at schools at the level of school culture and culture match, it’s a very different conversation, and it’s almost beyond the data. Rather than look for the true and only heaven, as it were, the thing that is going to work for every child, over time I’m much more interested in, “How can we match kids to cultures that are going to work for them?” And I’m meaning school culture, like a no excuses school, a Montessori school, a project-based learning school, et cetera. It seems to me that rather than try to defend or argue over which of those models is best, we’re not spending a lot of time talking about which of those models is best for any particular child. So in other words, there’s just simply no right answer, and the narratives that have grown up around this, charter is good, charter is bad, choice good, choice bad, just don’t obtain here.
So, at the end of the day, when I say I want people to be upset about this, because again, if you are a fan of Moskowitz and Success Academy, and your cheerleading for Success is predicated on the idea of, “Look at what she’s done, we should do this for every child,” well, she’s not doing it for every child. And if your counter argument is, if you’re a public school defender, “Well, look, she’s only doing this by creaming and self-selecting and this should not be allowed,” well, she’s starting with that audience of self-selected parents, but then she’s pushing them to a level that nobody else is doing. So, that narrative doesn’t work either. We’ve been having these arguments for over 20 years, and if you’ve been doing this as long as you and I have, you start to see the same arguments coming around over and over and over again. I’m kind of tired of it, to be honest.
There is more to school than the data, and by reducing these arguments to data points, we’re missing this larger question about the relationships between families and schools and finding a way to where there are more options for parents to find schools that are culture matches. My supposition here, unproven and unprovable, is that if we were better at matching families to cultures that work for them, we would probably be getting further along than we are to date.
Jason Bedrick: And perhaps the people in the best position to figure out how to match their children are the parents themselves.
Robert Pondiscio: Well, obviously. I mean, it’s kind of bizarre to me, and we’re seeing this again, I just wrote a piece not that long ago defending no excuses schools. Because charter folks themselves are reluctant … I use the example of Moskowitz bridling when somebody says, “Well, your schools are no excuses,” and she says, “No, they’re not.”
Well, they are. It’s weird that we should be defensive about that, because parents still want them. Does that mean every parent must have them, every school must be no excuses? Of course not. But it’s just bizarre to me that we think somehow, “Because I don’t like this model of school, therefore you should not be allowed to choose this for your child.” That’s just crazy.
Jason Bedrick: Right. And it’s actually kind of funny, they did have some of these scandals exposing, quote-unquote, “how discipline works in these schools,” and yet the wait lists are just as long as ever. Right? Because it showed parents, I think there are a lot of parents who saw these stories and said, “Oh, that’s the kind of school I want my kids in.”
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Yeah, I mean, if we do nothing else we should probably get out of the business of trying to protect parents from themselves. They are far better judges of what’s in their kids’ best interests than we are. And again, I’m not going to … I don’t want to impugn anybody’s motives. All of this always comes from a good place and people are well-intended … And this is a slightly different path on this, but one of the criticisms of these kinds of schools has been, “Well, they are paternalistic and they impose a set of values on families.”
I mean, one of the big take-aways for me in spending a year at Success Academy is, they are not imposing these values on anybody. Families who have those values are seeking them out or are drawn to these schools and seek them out because they have those values. And that should not be forgotten.
Jason Bedrick: My guest today has been Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also the author of How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice. Robert, thank you for coming on the podcast.
Robert Pondiscio: Thank you. I really appreciate your interest.
Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of the EdChoice Chats Big Ideas series. If you have any ideas for authors of books or essays that we should interview, please email us at email@example.com. Don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher. Follow us on social media, @edchoice, and sign up for e-mail on our website, edchoice.org.
Thank you very much for tuning in, we’ll catch you next time.