Last week, the New York Times ran an article about a 2014 cell phone video showing a white teacher at a Brooklyn charter school run by the Success Academy charter network disciplining a black first-grader for failing to answer a math question.
On the day that the video story broke, Success Academy held a press conference featuring parents defending the school’s “no-excuses” approach and reminding the public that no parent is ever forced to send their child to a charter school. Parents must apply to a lottery to attend and they can leave anytime. Success Academy also released an audio recording of parents defending the teacher and the school’s approach to education and discipline to the Times reporter, Kate Taylor.
The Times invited eight education “experts” to weigh in and all of them condemned the teacher’s behavior to one degree or another. The Times also published hundreds of comments from readers about last week’s story, which ranged widely—negative, positive, thoughtful and callous. One teacher wrote:
I’ve been teaching for almost eight years and I’ve kept myself up many a night replaying in my mind something I’d said to a student that I shouldn’t have. There’s not a teacher on earth who could say otherwise. It’s useful to remember that schools, particularly those serving high-needs students, are pressure cookers.
You spend a couple days teaching a concept only to find your students didn’t get it. Students act out. Your principals are expecting the impossible. Sometimes you get frustrated. Sometimes you lose your temper. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.
The video story is the latest in a series of Times articles about the controversial charter network which serves 11,000 children in 34 schools and gets amazing results. On state tests, Success Academy has effectively closed achievement gaps between the state’s poorest and wealthiest students.
Last fall, the Times ran a story about a Success Academy principal with a list of students he hoped would leave his school. The founder and chief executive officer of Success Academy, Eva Moskowitz, described the “got to go” list as an anomaly and disciplined the principal, who recently took a leave.
And last spring, the Times also ran a piece about the public posting of grades and test scores at Success Academy in order to pressure students to improve. In the article, school officials made no bones about their “tough love” approach.
As a supporter of Success Academy and an advocate for high-quality charter schools, I don’t like the implication that Success Academy only gets results through abusive practices, nor do I believe it is true. But ongoing stories about the disciplinary culture at Success Academy have raised concerns among pro-reform colleagues that the Success Academy narrative threatens the larger choice movement.
While I don’t think the sky is falling, my experience working in public sector communications tells me Success Academy needs to go further in addressing these issues. When a narrative begins to get traction, the response has to be bigger than the narrative itself, even if one insists it is entirely or mostly false.
My advice to Success Academy is to bring their entire staff together for a daylong retreat, watch the video, review school practices and policies and ask if there is a culture problem in the network’s schools or whether they really are just anomalies.
Given that the video was taped by a disenchanted staffer, Success needs to create a safe space for honest discussion and then report back out to parents in an open forum. This is neither an admission of guilt nor an overreaction, but rather a proactive response that shows Success Academy’s commitment to building the best possible culture in its schools. Ultimately, parent voices and actions matter most and Success is wise to keep them front and center.
The other big lesson for the school choice movement is to remember that organizations like Success Academy become targets precisely because they get such incredible results and they represent a disruptive threat to the status quo. Some people want to see the high-profile Moskowitz fail.
As one veteran Chicago politician used to say to ambitious younger colleagues vying for position and power, “The higher the monkey climbs up the pole, the more you can see his behind.”