Years before I became a teacher, I found kids of all ages interesting on an intellectual level. I enjoyed seeing the different ways that their intelligence manifested. I remember the moment I realized my son, just four, was extremely bright, capable of synthesizing a wide range of information and coming up with interesting conclusions–and this despite the fact that he didn’t read until he was over six, and was always slow on speech milestones. A few years later, I was playing a card game with my twin niece and nephew and realized they, at age two, were out there on the IQ scale, but in different ways: my niece solves problems, my nephew instantly grasps and files away information.
The three proved out my predictions, all with SAT or ACT scores in the 95+ percentile. My niece has a nursing degree (getting into a nursing school is cutthroat competitive these days), my nephew graduated from a top 20 school with a degree in linguistics. (My son’s history is here.) Recall that I’m the only college graduate in my family of origin, so degrees aren’t really in the family tradition.
But kids don’t have to be unusually intelligent–or relatives–to capture my interest. My articles are filled with student profiles and class profiles in which I try to give a sense of the intellectual presence in the room, in the interaction. I link in a bunch at the end as a demonstration.
I wanted to know more about the students at Bronx Academy 1, and in this way, How the Other Half Learns disappoints. We get no real insight into the students’ intellectual lives.
This is a shame, really. Why, after all, do we care so much about these charters? Because of their academic results:
If you are a black or Hispanic child in a New York City public school, you have a one-in-four chance of passing the state English Language Arts exam. At Success, 82 percent of black and Hispanic students passed in 2016–a rate that easily outpaces even the 59 percent rate of Asian and white students citywide. In math, 93 percent of Success Academy’s black students and 95 percent of its Hispanic students passed their math test, with 73 percent scoring at Level 4, the highest level.
The Big Question, one I hoped I’d get some insight into: to what extent is Success Academy creaming? Are the charters taking some of those 1 in 4 black or Hispanic students who would pass the ELA exam anyway? Are they taking ordinary kids of average skills and beating enough information into their heads to barely get them past the “proficient” rating? Or are they taking barely literate children and turning them into excellent readers?
Pondiscio argues that Success Academy selects for parents, not for students. It’s certainly true that the school is vetting for parents who can be instantly available on demand, willing to put up with truckloads of excessive and unpleasant demands, which are clearly designed with the same goals that Van Halen had when banning brown M&Ms. Because he sees parents as central to Success Academy, Pondiscio interviews several, uncovering their own educational history.
But the book has very little insight into the children themselves.
On Tiffany, the student whose needs gave Pondiscio the entire focus of his career:
Her eyes are on the teacher, paying careful attention and following directions. She is bright and pleasant, happy to help and eager to please. Her desk is clean and well-organized; her homework neat and complete. She has grown up hearing about the importance of education. She believes it, and her behavior shows it. She gets praise and good grades. (emphasis mine)
With the exception of “bright”, which appears to be more about mood than intellect, Pondiscio describes Tiffany primarily by behavior and intent, not ability.
I would trade most of the parent interviews, which all sound the same (“I hated school, I was passed on, I was a drug addict, I fell into a hole, I made something of my life, I need to save my kid, I don’t want my kid to be passed on the way I was, I love the discipline, the end”), for a series of student conversations throughout the year.
Instead, give me evidence the students are developing intellectually. Show me that these are interesting, aware, educated children with an interest in the world around them. Better yet, show me that some kids went from picking their noses to discoursing eloquently on the reasons for a blue sky, all thanks to Success Academy’s brilliant teaching and curriculum.
Interview fourth graders, both those who scored proficient on the third grade test, and those who missed the mark. Are those students who failed still in the school, or were they cut from the program? Are the ones who passed noticeably more developed than the ones who didn’t–assuming they’re still in the school?
I want to hear from all those students who were forced to repeat grades. Did they ever move forward, or did all of them eventually transfer? It’s completely obvious that Success Academy is forcing students to repeat as a way of enticing them to drop out, but do any of them ultimately pass? How are their results?
Tell me stories about the kids who apparently have been spoon fed six books a week for years. What do the kids think about all this reading time? Do the parents actually meet their commitments? What books do they read? Do the parents read the same books more than once? What are their favorite stories?
But Pondiscio gives very little insight into the minds that Success Academy is supposed to develop. For the most part, the students are props. He does provide a description of one pseudo-discovery math class, but his focus is on the teacher, not the students.
When he does provide detail, the results undercut the Success story. (heh). For example, a student takes a reading test:
“So what did you learn in this book?” she asks. Luis begins to rattle off random facts from memory. Whales send messages to other whales. They communicate with “whistles and burps and…” he struggles to recall a word. “They click,” he says finally. Syskowski presses for more. “What other information did you learn about whales?” Luis describes their ability to “bounce sounds off of fish” to find food. “A blue whale is as big as 25 elephants. They’re the giants of the sea,” he adds, a phrase that comes directly from the book. To ensure he’s demonstrating reading comprehension, not just prior knowledge, Syskowski asks Luis to show her evidence for the facts he’s just cited. …
“….How are whales like people?” she asks. “They find food. They send messages to each other,” the boy answers. “They have babies.” And how are they different? Luis twists his face and looks to the book to jog hism emory. “When people need help with something, they don’t cry or whistle or click. They just call for help. Like on the phone,” he answers. “And whales can’t speak. They speak, like, whale….Is that all of your questions?”
The word for this display is regurgitation. You don’t see a Luis who is interested in whales, enthusiastically telling his teacher about cool whale facts, but rather a Luis desperately trying to “empty his head of all that he’s just read.” Luis isn’t fascinated by whales or constructing background knowledge. In fact, the kid doesn’t seem interested in reading at all. He just wants the reward–to be moved up a level in grading. I’m sure Luis is an adorable little boy, but his reading comprehension skills do not strike me as a ringing endorsement for the Success Academy regime.
On a second grade field trip:
Some boys are trying to impress Ibrahim’s dad, Solomon, a Nigerian immigrant, with everything they have learned about Washington Roebling, the chief engineer of the bridge. “He got ill and died,” one says….Showing good teaching instincts, [Solomon] pushes for more. “How do you know that’s not the Queensboro Bridge?” he demands. “Tell me how you know.” The boys point out that it’s a suspension bridge but seem at a loss to “prove” that the suspension bridge in front of them is Roebling’s masterpiece. They just know.
I have to take Pondiscio’s word for it that the only fact of note retained from the Roebling reading is not that he fought in the Civil War, made several major advances in bridgebuilding, or that he lived to 89 before dying of an illness. Nor could they tell the dad that the Queensboro Bridge isn’t a suspension bridge.
In an already famous anecdote from the book, the kindergarten teacher tells a kindergartner that his book review (a pencil sketch and a few words) doesn’t make sense and that he can’t play with the “blocks” the next day.
Why not describe the “book report”? What did it say? What was the picture of? How did it compare to the other sketches? What words did the kids know well enough to write?
I never get the sense that Pondiscio is interested in the kids themselves–not because he doesn’t care about them, which he clearly does. But for whatever reason, the kids don’t seem important to his story. Ability and individualism doesn’t make much of an appearance. Parental character is all:
If Eva Moskowitz is to be charged with creating an opportunity for parents…with more ambition for their children than means, it is a curious charge. 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.
This is an egregious statement on many levels, but for now, consider it purely as insight into Pondiscio’s mindset.
Those familiar with Pondiscio’s writing won’t be surprised. Regardless of what he actually believes, he doesn’t often discuss students in terms of their abilities, as opposed to what methods he wants to use to teach them. In one well-known earlier article, he wrote that students can’t be educated with the “lighting of the fire”, as many teachers say, because “empty buckets seldom burst into flames.” As he wrote in the book, he first turned to the Core Knowledge Foundation because he became convinced that, to quote Dan Willingham, “the wellspring of reading comprehension is common knowledge”. (This always gets near suggesting that kids must be taught knowledge before they can read about it, even though both Pondiscio and Willingham protest whenever this is pointed out.)
Meanwhile, he’s got dozens of articles on the importance of giving parents choice.
“Adult self-interest is the heart of this debate, and the ideological question is whether we trust poor parents to exercise it. ” (Let Poor Parents Choose Too)
“That’s really not what choice is about. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values.” (Putting the evidence cart before the school choice horse)
“About the last thing I want to do is spend the next several years arguing about whose approach to discipline is ‘right.’ The salient question ought to be, ‘Which is right for you?'” (When it Comes to School Discipline, Let Parents Choose)
“I’m strongly biased toward school choice. I defer deeply to parental prerogative.” Deborah Meier, Libertarian?
Even in the book, even when talking about Tiffany, it’s about what her parents did: “She has grown up hearing about the importance of education.” Tiffany didn’t decide this for herself.
Give parents the ability to choose, Pondiscio believes, and they will find the best education for their children. How he squares this with the many caring, ambitious, committed parents who chose Success Academy, jumped through all those idiotic control hoops only to deal with months of harassment once the school targeted their child for expulsion, I don’t know.
I don’t see students as empty buckets. I see them as individual agents with capacities from their parents’ ambitions and desires. For that reason, I wish Pondiscio had dumped all those parent profiles (to say nothing of the Moskowitz power meetings) and spent more time in the book recounting student stories. Let the readers know more about the young people who actually deliver the test scores needed to maintain the Success Academy reputation–and whether they display the intellectual presence we want those scores to represent.
I want to reiterate that I like the book and strongly recommend it. These pieces are just offered up for discussion–the difference between teachers and policy advocates, maybe.
The kid who can do arithmetic in his head but can’t manage basic algebra.
The kid who trusted me more than a math teacher who knew a lot more math.
The kids who had to build a business plan for a basketball team and started by looking up shoe prices.
The kid who asked questions without ever expecting to understand the answers.
The kid who came back two years after his SAT scores were worse than his worst fears.
Seeing the link between algebraic equations and graphs just before the weekend.
Figuring out the Third Dimension
The electoral college and Trump
Reading aloud to my ELL class.
Advising students on their narratives