How The Other Half Learns: The Secret Sauce

Once again, all these articles are just discussions of various aspects of  Robert Pondiscio’s book, which  I highly recommend, even if I disagree with every conclusion he reaches.

As I mentioned in my last piece, Pondiscio focuses far more on the parents than the students. This is consistent with his longstanding conviction that parents are a key determinant in educational success.

His theory, which many reviewers have discussed, is that Success Academy achieves its results by letting parents select themselves their school, and by doing so the children are primed for success:

The common criticism leveled at Moskowitz and her schools is that they cherry-pick students, attracting bright children and shedding the poorly behaved and hardest to teach. This misses the mark entirely. Success Academy is cherry-picking parents. Success Academy is cherry-picking parents. (267)

and again:

[Success Academy] starts with the raw material of a self-selected group of mostly low-income parents who win a seat in the lottery, and then ensures and re-ensures multiple times prior to enrollment that they are sufficiently motivated, attentive, and organized to come to meetings, confirm their interest, get their children fitted for school uniforms, solve transportation logistics, and take other small but non-trivial steps, which test their commitment, motivation, and organizational skills, guaranteeing that the families who choose Success are walking in with their eyes wide open..(page 323-4)

But the data, and Pondiscio’s own observations, don’t support this proposition.

Take a look for starters, at Bronx I’s attrition:

SAB1attrition

SAB1overalldecline

(2011 and 2012 are anomalous; given that Success Academy doesn’t accept new students after 4th grade, it seems they rebuild their numbers by absorbing students from other schools.)

SAB1attritionbygrade

There’s plenty of writing about Success Academy’s attrition, whether it’s better or worse than other charters or other public schools, but I don’t care about any of that.

It’s the attrition itself that’s the problem. The school is hemorrhaging students.  Surely the whole point of selecting parents is to achieve a stable school population?  Why select for parents if you’re planning on dumping up to half the kids?

So if Success Academy is cherrypicking parents, they’re doing a terrible job.

Besides, Pondiscio’s observations suggest frequently that despite all those multiple re-ensurances he describes,  parents are still wholly capable of ignoring procedures.

On both first days of school that Pondiscio witnesses, Bronx I’s principal dedicates a full administrator position to ensuring that any kid out of uniform is turned away.

All those parents walking in with their eyes wide open and still one parent didn’t notice that her kid’s socks were the wrong color. Another brought her kid to school in the wrong shoes. The next year, one kid gets kicked to the curb because his mom didn’t buy him a tie on time, and another has been eliminated from the school permanently for missing dress rehearsal.

All these parents had to go through the same idiotic, insulting, rigid routines to make it to first day, yet they still missed any number of rules that had been restated endlessly. So no school for their kids that day–and in one case, permanently.

Another parent somehow missed the fact, mentioned in every orientation meeting and printed in practically every form she filled out, that she was responsible for picking up her child early on Wednesdays. When she learned of this weekly requirement, she told the school her child just wouldn’t be coming to school on Wednesdays.

One mom made it through all that compliance twice–had two kids at school. She showed up drunk at school at 8 am, asking why her son got a uniform infraction for not knowing how to use a belt–and said she didn’t know how one worked, either. Hilariously, another one was furious because her son’s teacher is gay–the “woke” teachers’ huffy responses make it clear they only want their efforts to benefit parents with progressive values. Less hilariously, another father managed to follow all those rules and get several kids into Success Academy but had no problem beating his older daughter. Pondiscio cites director Eva Moskowitz’s memoir, in which she calls in a student’s grandmother to berate his mother for not complying with the six books a week read aloud. Leaving aside the revolting behavior of both grandma and Control Freak in Charge, this recalcitrant mom also made it through the gauntlet without somehow realizing that she’d committed to read to her kid.

Parents aren’t the secret sauce of Success Academy.

As Pondiscio documents, many parents follow all those moronic rules, convinced that the school that’s got it all together is the school for their child, determined to be compliers, anything it takes–and it’s not enough.

There are hundreds of complaints and news stories on Success Academy nastiness to all the parents that did everything right.  Even some of the compliments don’t sound all that great. The abuse stories are horrible, particularly  Success Academy’s Uber routine–it just ignores the law, confident that the NYDOE will just ignore the problems until an impartial observer comes in and finds both the school and the DOE at fault, forcing the DOE to pay for compensatory tutoring.

The three frequent strategies for dumping the kids on the “got to go” list–or “special friends” as Bronx I refers to the problem students are 1)  endlessly calling emergency services to remove the child, 2) reporting the parents to state protection agencies for failing to put their children in special ed classes, 3) when all else fails, forcing the child to repeat the grade more than once, even if the child passed.

Read all the horror stories and notice that none of them involve parents who refuse to follow procedures.

Pondiscio interviewed a targeted boy’s mother.  Success Academy wanted her son, Adama, out. The school suspended Adama frequently , called 911 to cart him away, and reported the parents for abuse and neglect.  While the schools frequently call parents and demand they show up and monitor their child, Bronx I administrators refused to let Adama’s parents come to monitor, because he didn’t misbehave when they were around.  This was all before Pondiscio began observing. By December of his second grade year, the school had called 911 three times in one week and reported the parents again to ACS. The parents gave up and pulled Adama out of school.

[Adama’s story] fits a troubling pattern of parents who have claimed that they were told that Success Academy does not offer special education services or the classroom settings that their children need; or that suspensions were meted out so frequently that work schedules and routines were disrupted, wearing families down and eventually forcing them to give up and pull their children out. (page 300)

Pondiscio then recounts the almost identical charges that made their way into a complaint filed against the Success Academy schools with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights:

There is a sameness to the allegations in the lengthy OCR complaint: A Harlem 4 student required to repeat the second grade three times and on multiple occasions. A Harlem 3 student recommended for 12:1:1 special education placement, which the school did not provide. A Bronx 1 student held over in the same grade three times. Staff urging parents to remove their children and enroll them in DOE schools. In nearly every case, the OCR complaint alleges that staffers pressured parents to remove children altogether rather than working with them to develop strategies to help them be successful.

What Pondiscio doesn’t mention is the outcome of the case. Nearly four years later, the case seems to have disappeared entirely–at least, I can find no media reports of its disposition.

You might think the case is simply over, but it took the USDoE nearly four years to respond to a notorious Success Academy FERPA case, in which Eva Moskowitz brutally revealed a students’ entire discipline history in a rather shocking (at least to those of us in the field) privacy violation.  State education monies will be spent funding professional development to be sure that the rest of her very nearly temporary staff knows the laws that Eva couldn’t be bothered to follow.

So perhaps eventually the January 2016 DOE complaint will get an answer. Long after the feds have funneled millions to Success Academy, of course.

I don’t recite all this history to revisit the many claims against Success Academy’s nastiness which, full disclosure, I believe every word of.

I mention it because Drunk Mom’s kids got to stay. The elementary and middle school principals collaborated to help her in order to avoid calling the state protective agency on a woman who is inebriated at 8 am and announces that she doesn’t know how to put on her second kid’s belt. Abusive Dad’s kids weren’t targeted for removal. But Adama, whose parents drank every drop of Success Academy Koolaid, followed every rule,  were shining examples of immigrants who want their children to benefit from our educational sytem, parents who offered to visit often to help the school help their kid learn to behave–he got kicked out.

If you demand that engaged and committed parents send their children to school with the children of disengaged and uncommitted parents, then you are obligated to explain why this standard applies to low-income black and brown parents–and to only them.

Leaving aside the idea that engaged and committed parents deserve more than disengaged and uncommitted parents (like I said, Pondiscio is oddly uninterested in the students themselves), it’s completely untrue that Success Academy is rewarding engaged and committed parents with a good education for their children. In many cases, the schools are kicking out these parents’ kids, and in others, those parents are running away from a school that “has its act together”, odd behavior, given the “guarantee” that they went into the school  with “their eyes open”.

Turn it around and posit that Pondiscio is completely wrong on this point and the data all hangs together nicely. Success Academy isn’t cherrypicking parents. They’re cherrypicking kids, just like the critics say. Kids who have a good chance of scoring proficient get to stay, even if their mom shows up drunk or their dad beats up the kids. Kids who won’t make the cut will get kicked to the curb, no matter how worthy their parents, how eagerly they comply with uniform, homework, and communication directives.

That’s what’s consistent with the data.

But why, the discerning reader asks, would Success Academy come up with all those idiotic rules if they aren’t cherrypicking parents?

A couple reasons.

First, genetics. Success Academy doesn’t seem to be sorting for geniuses, or even inordinately intelligent kids. As I griped, Pondiscio doesn’t give us much of an intellectual sense of the students, but I can’t help but think he’d mention it if any of them were exceptionally bright.

Success Academy’s sweet spot is probably the bubble kids. Slightly brighter than average kid–the Tiffany, in Pondiscio parlance–with ferociously determined, aspirational parents who are willing to do anything to get their kids away from the knuckleheads.  Select for those, and odds are better than average the kids will have enough ability to be pushed up to proficient. And if they aren’t, hey, then dump them.

But those same aspirational parents also make it easier for Success Academy to play what many see as its shell game.

The obedience and compliance demands aren’t the reason the schools get great test scores.  But the obedient and compliant parents who aren’t experiencing rejection are thinking not “god, there but for the grace of god go I” but “Heh. One more kid who can’t cut it. More teacher time for my kid.”

I have no proof of any of this, other than the data, which is manifestly inconsistent with a parental selection strategy, and Pondiscio’s own anecdotes, which clearly show that many parents aren’t meeting the very objectives he says Success is selecting for.

A few years back, I wondered how Success Academy achieved its numbers without cheating. Pondiscio has straightened that out for me, but probably not the way he wanted to.

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8 responses to “How The Other Half Learns: The Secret Sauce

  • Hattie

    (1) I read the book on your recommendation (thank you). It just seemed like one long stream of him saying “yes, they do X/Y/Z, BUT” and normal readers saying “hang on, let’s focus on the first part of that sentence”. It’s why he seems so shocked at people’s interpretations on Twitter.

    (2) I did laugh at his focus on the sped kids. There was ONE WHOLE SPED KID for him to focus on. He has not one single clue what a high poverty genuinely public school faces.

    (3) Thank you for using uninterested properly. It’s a pet peeve of mine.

  • Stevec

    Thanks for your blog, very interesting. It was one that I found on my journey a couple of years ago, which led to genetics and iq

    I’m still confused about whether there are schools which get significantly better results on [random kids] or whether there are schools who select for [smart kids] – possibly via genetics via parent selection – who will get better results regardless.

    Arnold Kline describes the null hypothesis, which is that education doesn’t have much effect (obviously it socialises and teaches things kids need to know for work).

    Highly contentious subject with prior beliefs and ideologies making it very hard to cut through the motivated & spurious arguments, at least for me.

  • How the Other Half Learns: The Case of Tyrone and Adama | educationrealist

    […] observed in my last piece that Robert Pondiscio’s theory in the excellent How the Other Half Learns is, well, wrong. […]

  • DensityDuck

    “Slightly brighter than average kid…with ferociously determined, aspirational parents who are willing to do anything to get their kids away from the knuckleheads.”

    Isn’t that basically what used to fill up Catholic schools back in the day?

  • How the Other Half Learns: | educationrealist

    […] for pointing this out, it’s pretty obvious that Success Academy just dumps the students who spend too much time […]

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