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

I observed in my last piece that Robert Pondiscio’s theory in the excellent How the Other Half Learns is, well, wrong. Success Academy doesn’t cherrypick parents. I came to this conclusion from the book, not from any external source. Pondiscio’s an honest reporter of the facts he sees, even if he doesn’t always connect what to me seem obvious dots. Multiple times in the book his own observations contradict his claims.

Consider Tyrone and Adama.

In an early chapter, the Bronx SA administrators have a special meeting to discuss Adama, a “troubled and challenging student” in teacher Elena Ortiz’s second-grade class.

The meeting turns into an ad hoc seminar on elementary school behavior management. [Principal] Vandlik cautions Ortiz not to bribe the boy to behave himself.

“You’re like, ‘Class, fold your hands. Adama, you folded your hands. Star!’ It’s not ‘If you fold your hands, I’ll give you a star.” The idea is to recognize and praise children’s positive behavior, not to bargain with them. The overarching goal is to keep the child from being removed from the classroom…”

Exactly 100 pages later, in a different second grade classroom, Laura Belkin, senior teacher at Success Academy, with all of five years experience, is completely ignoring Vandlik’s dictum against bribery with a consistently disobedient second-grader, Tyrone–with her boss’s complete support.

who is wearing an impassive expression and holding a thick stack of realistic-looking dollar bills, play money that Belkin and assistant teacher Alex Gottlieb distribute to the boy as positive reinforcement. “He’s on task, doing well, counting his money, and working,” Vandlik notes. “This is where it’s key to find out what works for a kid, because he’s motivated by nothing except money and sneakers, and we obviously can’t be giving him sneakers every day….He’s just very motivated by the cash.”…Tyrone’s behavior plan isn’t solving all the boy’s issues; it’s a struggle to keep him engaged and on task, but Vandlik is optimistic.

In fact, Vlandlik promises to get Belkin more fake money.

Later that day, Pondiscio notices Tyrone in the hallway, refusing to go to science class.

A second grader who is out hanging around, refusing to go to class. This is a big deal for a high schooler, and evidence of extreme defiance for a second grader.

Does Vandlik call his parents, insisting that they drop everything and rush down to the school to demand their son comply? Does she call the parents at all? Does she walk him firmly to science class, and reprimand Belkin’s failure to keep him in line?

She does not.

Vlandlik finds him lurking in the hallway and privileges Tyrone by allowing him to accompany her on the classroom visits and be a helper, identifying students who are “ready to learn”. A group that manifestly does not include Tyrone.

This disparate treatment foreshadows each child’s future at Success Academy. Adama’s parents remove him from the school after the administrators continually called emergency services to take him away. They also report his parents to Administrative Children Services, who investigated the parents for child abuse.

Tyrone is promoted to third grade.

While the school clearly considers Adama a real problem, Pondiscio makes it clear that Adama’s behavior was “not the only difficult child in a given classroom, nor on any given day even the most obvious behavior problem.” In fact, when a new second grade teacher comes in and lists students with behavior challenges, Adama isn’t mentioned.

So Tyrone is bribed constantly to behave with no penalty calls to parents, while Adama is tagged as priority one on day one as a troubling student and hauled away with 911 calls.

That this is a brutally obvious double standard doesn’t even seem to occur to Pondiscio, who seems instead to admire Vandlik’s decision to “incorporate” Tyrone into her review of classrooms.

We get no more information about Tyrone, apart from the news of his promotion. But  we catch several more glimpses of Adama–including why he has a teacher’s aide, or paraprofessional.

A common sight in schools with large numbers of special education students, ”paras’ are often assigned to support individual students with serious challenges related to executive functioning,  emotional self-regulation, and other behavior issues. (emphasis mine)

At a different point, Pondiscio describes Adama in class:

When Ortiz taps his shoulder….Adama returns momentarily to his book, The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes. It’s a challenging read for early in second grade, and far above Adama’s reading level; he appears to be pretending to follow along, and not convincingly. (emphasis mine)

Here again, I wish that Pondiscio had spent more time giving us a sense of the students’ intellect. Because honest to god, I instantly wondered if Tyrone is allowed to flout the rules because, well, he’s smart. Maybe he’s reading at Level Z, or whatever a better than average leveled reading letter is for second grade. Meanwhile, it’s not impossible that Adama has the capacity for a “proficient” test score. It’s just not incredibly likely.

I have no proof  that Tyrone is allowed to flaunt regulations because Success Academy doesn’t want to bump a high scoring student. But I can’t for the life of me figure out why Pondiscio wouldn’t wonder about it.  Surely the different treatment warrants more investigation. Certainly,  more information would either confirm my nasty suspicion or banish such treasonous thoughts from my brain.

A more skeptical observer might have noticed a continual pattern to Success
Academy’s ruthless rules, and wondered if Drunk Mom and Abusive Dad are parents of high-ability kids who, like Truant Tyrone, get a pass from all the stringent requirements imposed on the parents and kids that need more work to get past the “proficient” baseline–or can’t make it at all. Again, I have no proof of this and it may in fact not be the case. It’s just the first thing I’d wonder about, given how much of Success Academy’s survival depends on their great test scores offsetting their abusive treatment of kids and parents.

Had I been allowed in, I’d have instantly recorded every students’  reading levels and tracked them through the year. And when I came back the next year to watch opening day, I’d have checked off how many kids returned, and what their scores were.

What I want to know, as I’ve written before, is:

  1. Are the weakest students leaving the schools?
  2. Are specific students improving their demonstrated abilities during their tenure at the schools?
  3. Are alumni still doing well after they leave school?

Pondiscio had a chance to answer the first two questions, but again, he focuses most of his attention on the adults, both teachers and parents, and only ever interviews parents on motivation or history. That’s a shame.

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14 responses to “How the Other Half Learns: The Case of Tyrone and Adama

  • Michael Pershan

    Terrific post that draws attention to the author’s project. Everyone has a project — it’s no criticism of the book to point out that RP is interested primarily in parents — but for those of us who don’t come in with that frame, you are correct that this is much needed info for understanding what is going on in SA.

    • Roger Sweeny

      I completely agree. When I finished the book, I was on board with Pondiscio’s assertion that SA selects parents not students. But now I’m thinking that the reality is more complex. The first, and major, screen is parents. If the child is doing well, the parents will some times be cut some slack, just like students are not bounced for a single failure. However, if–after enough time–the school has not been able to get a student up to the school’s standards, the school will make it very hard for the student to stay. And, of course, the standards include building the school culture. Since part of the school culture is students helping each other to learn, any student who is disruptive is by definition not building the culture.

      Of course, SA never tells people this. They pay lip service to the consensual hallucination that “all students can learn” enough to get into college. But if the goal of the school is to prepare kids for college and it looks like a kid will never be college material, bouncing him or her makes sense. Especially if it opens up room for someone who will be college material. In Pondiscio’s metaphor, if it opens up room for a “Tiffany”.

      Forcing a kid to repeat the third grade not just once but twice may be an attempt to push him out. Or it may be that the kid simply hasn’t learned what the school thinks is necessary to pass to fourth grade. If I had to bet, I would say it was both.

  • Hattie

    I’m embarrassed to have missed this point. I thought they were selecting parents as a vague proxy for the kids; the fact that they were actively lying never occurred.

  • How the Other Half Learns: | educationrealist

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

  • How the Other Half Learns: Cannon Fodder | educationrealist

    […] Belkin was, at the time, a five year Success Academy veteran.  Ortiz was a second year teacher who had never taught second grade before. Belkin had Tyrone, who she was allowed to bribe for occasional good behavior, while Elena Ortiz had Adama, a kid the school was determined to eject.  (Tyrone vs Adama). […]

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