Success Academy Charter Schools — interview with Robert Pondiscio (Part 1) | VIEWPOINT


Robert: If someone like me chooses a private
school that’s not only unremarkable, it’s uncontroversial, you know. Nobody questions my ability to do this. Now along comes an Eva Moskowitz and figures
out a way to give low-income people of color something similar and now it’s a problem. Nat: Robert Pondiscio, thanks for coming in. Welcome to AEI. Robert: Thanks, Nat. Nat: So, Robert, you’re a senior fellow at
the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and you’ve been an inner-city school teacher… Robert: Still am at least part-time. Nat: Still am, part-time. But we brought you here to talk about your
new book, “How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice.” I’ve read the book, I’m probably gonna read
it again because I read it under time constraints and I want to go through it a little more
slowly. But it says right here, it’s about your year
inside America’s most controversial charter school, which is Success Academy in New York. So just to start off, what’s made Success
Academy one of the most notable and notorious charter school networks? Robert: Goodness, how much time do we have? Well for starters, Success is led by a very
controversial lightning rod figure, its founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz, who is a former New
York City council person, long rumored to be interested in running for mayor someday. The thing that makes them both an object of
envy and scorn I think is their results. There are, and this is just from memory so
I hope I’ve got this more or less right, last year I think there were about 37, 38 Success
Academy schools with kids in testing grades. Though the poorest performing one had something
like 92% of the kids at or above grade level in math and a similar number, about 85% at
or above grade level in reading. Those were the worst ones, in other words,
all the other ones were better. And so nobody, literally, nobody as far as
I know in this country has grown a charter network to that size, 17,000 kids, 50 schools,
roughly without an identifiable weak sister, as it were. So in terms of their quality and consistency,
that’s literally unprecedented. So people have been curious as have I for
a very long time. Okay, how exactly do they do this because
nobody else seems to have cracked the code? Nat: Sure. And to put this in perspective, you know,
the holy grail is closing the achievement gap, right? We want to close the achievement gap. Robert: They haven’t closed it, they’ve reversed
it. Nat: They’ve reversed it. Robert: Right. If Success Academy were a standalone school
district and with 17,000 kids, it’s larger than many school districts in New York State,
it would be by far the highest performing one in the state of New York, including places
like Scarsdale and Jericho, and Long Island that are, you know, with multimillion dollar
homes. Nat: Names we know. So the book gets into these things and it’s
really well done. It evokes a year that you spent and your experiences
observing with not unfettered but pretty wide open access. You spent most of your time in Bronx 1. I usually don’t do this, but you’ve got a
great prologue here and it really sort of sets the tone. So I’m actually gonna ask you to read it. Robert: Sure, happy to. Nat: Just take a go at it, it doesn’t take
too long. Robert: No. And it really kind of gives you a sense of
the flavors, so thanks for asking. It’s as follows. “The leadership team at Success Academy Bronx
1 Elementary School is making its morning round of classroom visits. Principal Elizabeth Vandlik started the day
by announcing deliverables for every teacher, which she and her assistant principals expect
to see when they enter a classroom. Students should be on task at least 95% of
the time. Teachers are expected to notice off task behavior
100% of the time and without prompting take corrective action to refocus and re-engage
inattentive students every time. After each classroom visit, Vandlik and her
team strategize in the hallway rehearsing the feedback each teacher should get. One of the assistant principals goes back
inside and whispers into the teacher’s ear. Changes are made immediately in real time
and without interrupting classroom instruction. After the walkthrough, the school leadership
team huddles to discuss both teachers and students who need their immediate attention. The meeting concludes with a discussion of
whole school improvements that need to be made for tomorrow. Two assistant principals take out their cell
phones and start calling parents to ask for brief chats in person at that afternoon’s
dismissal to address concerns that have come up with their children. It’s August 15th, the school year is three
hours old.” So that was literally the first day. Nat: Three hours old. Robert: And that level of intensity. Nat: That’s a marked difference from what
we expect to see in a typical school. When you started out this project, you got
permission to come into the school for the year, what did you expect to do? Robert: Well, I expected, I think I wrote
this in the book, to tell a story about curriculum and instruction or at least I expected that’s
what the story would be and part of that is confirmation bias. Frankly, I mean, that’s what I tend to write
about and focus on in my work is practice what kids do all day. Nat: In the classroom. You’re concerned with what’s in the classroom. Robert: In the classroom, that’s exactly right. Which I think we’ve just basically missed
those of us who are in the reform space, we tend to focus on the structures, testing,
teacher quality, data, chartering, etc. I’m the weird guy who says, “Can we talk about
what the kids are doing all day?” So I wanted to tell a story about what the
kids were doing all day but that ends up being largely a story about school culture as much
as…more than curriculum and instructions. Nat: So let me put a pause on that because
I definitely want to get to the school culture part, it’s fascinating but at the same time
it’s worth outlining what the curriculum instruction approach that happens in Success schools is
and also to note that it happens pretty uniformly… Robert: Very uniformly. Nat: …across Success schools. So just lay it out for us briefly. Robert: Sure. I mean on the one hand, why do you do a book
like this? Because why do we have charter schools? We’re hoping they’re gonna be laboratories
of innovation as it were that are gonna teach us lessons that we can apply more broadly. I don’t believe, and we can talk more about
this later if you like, that there are all that many lessons, Eva Moscowitz would probably
disagree, I know she disagrees but one of the lessons I think that is transferable is
the curriculum. Now let me start this by saying, look, I’m
a curriculum guy, you know, I really do believe there’s good, better and best. I have very strong feelings about curriculum. I don’t necessarily love some of the curricular
choices that Success makes. But the key thing, a bit of an epiphany for
me is that they have a curriculum and it even though it may not be what I would choose if
I were starting a school, the fact of the matter is having a well-defined curriculum
changes that teacher’s job in ways that I think contribute to the success as it works. Nat: Well, hold on a second, Robert, because
every school’s got a curriculum. Robert: You think so? Nat: I would like to think so. Robert: You would like to think so. Most of us would, most of us are wrong, at
least at the elementary and middle school level, you know, and brief diversion there
was a RAND study some years ago that showed what a lot of us knew but they actually put
numbers to it. Something like 98%, almost literally every
teacher in America is relying on materials some in whole or in part materials they find
themselves, create themselves or find themselves. So the de facto curriculum in this country
tends to be Google and Pinterest and teachers pay teachers and whatnot. So yes, you are under the impression that
many of us are but frankly, Nat, it’s an incorrect impression. Nat: And at Success, they have a… Robert: They have a curriculum. Nat: …well-defined curriculum and if I’m
in one classroom in Bronx 1, I’m gonna see another classroom across town. Robert: Almost certainly, you walk across
the hall and you can probably hear the teacher, you know, finishing the sentence you heard
in the other one but that gives a misimpression. I don’t want to give the impression that there’s
a scripted curriculum, it’s not scripted, it is prescriptive so to speak. So there’s no mystery about what gets taught. But what this does is it changes the job of
the teacher. Instead of spending all that time on Google
and Pinterest you’re practicing teaching that lesson, you’re studying student work, you’re
building relationships with kids and families, all of which is more valuable than sitting
there at night after night with the empty plan book by your elbow thinking, what am
I gonna teach tomorrow? So that change of the culture of teaching
from being a lesson designer and deliver to a pure pedagogue, if you like, I think that
that’s how they get a young, ambitious people to competence and beyond as teachers very
quickly. Nat: Right. Now Success has sort of this reputation as
they’re a drill and kill school, you know, on the basics, makes you think non-progressive
education, that sort of thing, that’s not necessarily the case. Robert: Well, it’s interesting because Eva
Moskowitz likes to describe her schools as, I think this is her quote, “Catholic school
on the outside, Bank Street on the inside.” Everybody knows what Catholic school is, Bank
Street is this kind of, you know, progressive Dewy-esque school college of education on
the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I actually think it’s a little bit less progressive
than even Moskowitz suggests. There’s not a lot there that would meet my
test for progressive education. Their approach to math is fairly constructivist,
it’s not drill and kill, that said, but it’s again a prescriptive curriculum. They do a lot of things that do make sense
that should others should do. They stress phonics in the early grades, they
stress automaticity in math. But let’s be clear that Catholic piece of
the model it’s very much in evidence, uniforms, kids walking in straight line, you know, very
high expectations, very rule driven, you’re gonna show up at this time, you’re gonna go
home at that time. They are unabashed about suspending kids even
as young as kindergarten if they break the rules, etc., high expectations for parents. Nat: Well, this is where you get into the
culture part. Robert: That’s right. Nat: I wanted to talk about… Robert: Well, that’s the Catholic school’s… Nat: …to look at curriculum instruction
and a lot of the book is about the culture. And so what stands out? How does the culture at Success Academies
stand out from what we expect in other schools? Robert: Yeah. Well, it’s the fact that it’s quite well codified. You know, it’s interesting to me if you’ll
indulge a brief digression, how much I’ve learned since leaving the classroom. And by the way, it’s worth noting, the reason
I ended up in this school at Bronx 1 is it’s literally across the street where I was a
student-teacher in the New York City Department of Education and a few blocks from where I
was a fifth-grade teacher in a low performing public school for five years. So many things that I learned almost accidentally
as a teacher that I intuited my way to, I see in evidence there. I remember saying when I was a classroom teacher,
you know what? I just want there to be one set of rules,
they don’t have to be my rules but there can’t be a different set of rules in my room, Ms.
Balraj’s room and Ms. Hall’s room, the kids have to know how to conduct themselves
in every place and yet we all have to be singing from the same hymnal. That was at the time as a teacher, my frustration
speaking, well, that’s what they do at Success. I mean, there is a very well understood, coherent,
cohesive, common culture throughout all their schools so it leaves no mystery for kids as
to what’s expected of them. Nat: So Robert, let me ask you a question
about how this culture gets extended across all these schools, right? I mean, in a lot of districts you will have
efforts to make things the same but there’s actually a good bit of autonomy and differentiation
across schools. It seems like there’s a lot of uniformity
across these schools and also some staffing models at Success that enable them to do that. How does that work? Robert: Yeah. Hiring is a big part of it as well. I mean, you don’t find yourself teaching at
Success Academy by accident, they kind of put you through the wringer on the front end
and then train you. I wish, honestly, I’m not sure I could work
at Success but I sure wish I’d train there. But then, you know, so they they can sort
a little bit for, you know, skill and will as it were and then create teachers out of
mostly young staff who really tend not to have, you know, come with other preconceived
notions in many ways. They also have and this is another piece,
I think, Nat, that that would be transferable to other settings. They’ve got a really good ops team, operations. Every school has what they call a BOM or business
operations manager. Nat: Best title in the school, no doubt. Robert: It is kind of cool, I’m the BOM. And these are the folks who are responsible
for everything non-instructional, You know, light is out, a window shade is broken, there’s,
you know, graffiti in the courtyard. They literally do walkthroughs multiple times
to create that, you know, and I’m not sure this is something we can brag about but it’s
almost the broken windows thing. It creates a culture, especially in a neighborhood
where schools are often covered with trash or graffiti, you know, that are unlovely places. These schools because of the operations team
and because of this coherent culture are bright, cheerful, well lit, inviting, you know, they’re
warm places to be in despite the reputation that some people have with or perceive with
success. But these business…or these BOMs, these
operations people, that’s their full-time job basically, is making sure that everything
is working so that in all that too is focusing the teacher’s job on teaching and the principal’s
job on being an instructional leader. Nat: So they onboard a lot of the operations
and this offloads a lot of responsibilities that teachers would otherwise
be filling. Robert: It focuses, it focuses everybody else’s
job on the task at hand. Nat: And you brought up broken windows sort
of approach, I thought of the same thing as I was reading the book and it brings me back
to the tough stands that Eva Moscowitz is really willing to take in this model and leaves
me to the basic question, how important is Eva Moskowitz to Success Academy? Robert: I’m not sure it can be overstated
how important she is. In other words, it feels like, and it’s interesting
because she’s not a major character in the book. I feel like plenty has been written about
her but it would be incorrect to suggest anything other than her ideas, her vision, her energy
drives the model too. So it’s really a manifestation of who she
is, I think in many ways. So she’d be difficult to replace. That said, there are any number of principals
and network staff who have just drunk deeply from, you know, her vision. So I think is it possible that they could
maintain this level of excellence without her? For a while but it’s almost inevitable in
this work. Things, you know, you put a new person in
charge and they kind of want to tinker with the model. Nat: Sure. What’s it like to teach in a Success Academy? Robert: It’s really hard. There was so many times when I was in a classroom
where I was in the presence of what I perceived to be really good instruction and my very
next thought would be, I’m not sure I could do this. Nat: What do you mean? Robert: Well, look, I guess particularly in
math, I’m an unrepentant algorithm guy. I want kids to know their math facts and I’m
gonna teach you the steps to long division rather than try to, you know, have you conceptualize
it. That said, watching the way they teach math
at Success Academy still causes me to kind of question my convictions around there. So it’s real… I shouldn’t be glib about it. I ended up feeling maybe I sold my kids short
by not thinking they’re capable of learning math this way, maybe I sold myself short as
a teacher by leaning into my frustration after, you know, a few days of trying to get kids
to do it the conceptual way, just closing the door and showing them the steps, maybe
I failed them and I sold them short. Nat: It’s interesting. There’s a couple other episodes in the book,
they’re tough to read, at least with a dry eye some of them. They have some kindergarten teachers who put
a lot on the kids. They…what are they…push it on the kids,
that’s… Robert: Yeah, yeah, yeah, put the lift
on the kids. Nat: …what they say? And they make heavy demands and they are non-repentant
about it and that seems like it would be a tough thing to get acclimated to. Robert: You know, I think I describe somewhere
in the book, the entire thing is a bit of a Rorscach test, right? There was this one moment, speaking of kindergarten,
I spent…once one classroom I kept returning to over and over was a classroom led by a
woman named Carolyn Saskoski [SP] who just struck me as particularly gifted and it was
a good representation of what they’re trying to achieve. To me, one of the big moments in this book
where I kind of start to understand it myself, there was what I call a come-to-Jesus meeting
where she is functionally reading the riot act to parents about how they need to step
up their game and be more supportive… Nat: And to parents of kindergartners? Robert: The parents of kindergartners. And, you know, you’re talking about, you know,
reading this without a dry eye. I was in the audience when she was doing this
and I was moved by her passion and her commitment. And I actually I think I still have it on
my cell phone, I was recording it on my cell phone and I still have it there now. So I went home and started transcribing what
she was saying and it just felt different. In other words, in the moment I was moved
by it and when I started looking at just the words, she said like, “Oh my Lord, the stuff
that came out of that girl’s mouth,” it just seemed harsh and demanding and a little cold
and that’s when this occurred to me that this is very much a Rorscach test. If you listen to the words, if you’re… In context, it can feel one way, it might
feel a different way on the page and that probably surfaces how you feel about charter
schools and no excuses schools and the demands we make on parents, it’s gonna say more about
the reader, I think, than the model. Nat: Well, it’s interesting you say that. I read a couple of reviews, sort of, you know,
looking for different perspectives on the book and there are some folks who, you know,
maybe instinctive critics of Success who have drawn some lines out of the book and man,
do they look rough. I mean, they are some pretty tough words but
it’s much more compassionately communicated in the book which is full of a lot of detail,
a lot of, you know, dialogue, activity in the classroom, out of the classroom with parents,
teachers, and students and, you know. So again, I think it’s an excellently written
book and… Robert: Appreciate that. Nat: …really worth a read, and an easy read
if occasionally tear-jerking. Let’s talk a little bit more about teachers
because Success does burn through staff. Robert: They really do. I mean, I don’t have data on this but doing
some reporting and anecdotally, you know, it seems like 40% turnover in school is not
uncommon in some, even higher than that. This is one of those things that I think work
against it being a scalable model. It’s probably a lot easier to get a steady
crop of bright, eager young men and women willing to come for a year or two in a place
like New York City than say, you know, Youngstown, Ohio or Utica, for example. Privately, I don’t think this made it into
the book because I think this was what I’ve learned since. They seem to be slightly less concerned about
that than they have been. In other words, it’s making their life difficult
obviously to have to replace all these teachers every year but so far it’s not hurting them. Nat: Well, you know, that’s a little bit of
a stunner quite frankly. Robert: It really is, right? Nat: I mean, you know, if you were faced with
replacing 40% of your staff every year and maintaining the same instructional program,
I would be amazed if you could pull it off and you’d have to pull it off with a pretty
centralized program. Robert: Well, I think that’s right, I think
that’s right. So part of it is this kind of hiring that
they do, part of it is the model and the culture that it seems pretty easy to determine whether
or not, you’re…the person you’re bringing in is down with the program as it were or
not. But again, it’s not necessarily scalable and
I don’t want diminish… It’s another Rorscach test. On the one hand, it says something interesting
that you can get fairly inexperienced young men and women to this level of competence
fairly quickly with a well-codified program that flies in the face of a lot of notions
that we have about teacher quality and experience and the value of that. On the other hand, it’s not sustainable either,
you know, this is not something, a place by and large where you’re gonna make a career
out of. You know if you want to, you know, be married,
have children, go home and take your kids to soccer in the afternoon, you’re probably
not gonna be a Success Academy teacher. Nat: It really makes the reader and folks
who are focused on, you know, education policy question the value of the unit of analysis
when it comes to teacher quality. Because what we’ve got here is something where
it cannot be… The quality of the teachers, coming in, they’re
all very young, vast majorities of them. You talked about one veteran teacher, 27 years
old. Veteran teacher, right, a rare…and that’s
astonishing. And if it’s not the individual unit of analysis
then the system is working powerfully to standardize these things and that struck me through the
book. Robert: I think that’s right but I also think
back to the idea of codifying the teacher’s job in a way that is scalable, this I think
is a powerful lesson. Look, I’m not a teacher basher, okay, but
I do think that we have made the job far too hard for myriad reasons we can talk about. So this is a model that even if it is intense,
there are lessons here that we can learn and the fact that you can get this level of results. Another fascinating piece of this, I’m old
enough to remember some of the original KIPP schools, for example, were then as now you
would walk down the hall and you would see schools named after, you know, where the teacher
went to school. Nat: Promoting a college expectation. Robert: Well, that’s exactly why, to create
the college going culture. So, you know, back in the day when we were
all talking about increasing the quality of teachers, you would see those, you know, KIPP
and achievement first classrooms named like Harvard and Yale and Stanford and whatnot. There were some of those at Success Academy
but by and large they’re much more mundane, so to speak. There’s Hunter College or SUNY Oneonta where
I went to school, Fordham, Iona, there was a kindergarten class at Bronx 1 called
BMCC, which is Borough of Manhattan Community College. So, you know, however they’re getting these
results it is not that 20-year-old paradigm of getting, you know, bright, shiny Ivy leaguers
to come in. And they’re still committing a short amount
of time but they’re not necessarily coming out of those elite schools. Nat: Well, Robert, I got a lot to talk about. I need to ask you about the whole other side
of this coin about parents, the expectations for kids, there’s a number of other things. I’ve got so much that I think we’re gonna
break this into two pieces. So let’s take a break and we’ll come back
in a minute and pick it up where we left off. Hey everyone, thanks for watching. Part one of our discussion with Robert Pondiscio. If you enjoyed what you saw, remember to like
the video and leave us a comment. And if you want to see more, check out part
two.

1 thought on “Success Academy Charter Schools — interview with Robert Pondiscio (Part 1) | VIEWPOINT

  • I went to boarding school in the uk after growing up in Canada and Alabama where expectations are vastly different. I was so frightened of screwing up not on purpose but given my different history. It appalls me to see how butt hurt kids are these days and consequences for actions or inactions. I want to throttle them all! And I was a rebellious punk rocker by the way. I’ve been expelled twice but that’s the huge difference. I got done for relatively minor infractions which by today’s sad standards is a lot less than what’s tolerated now.

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