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In the field of education, success is too often an orphan while failure has many fathers.
The stories of the high-performing charter school networks featured in Richard Whitmire’s important new book provide a welcome antidote to the pernicious notion that high-performing schools for disadvantaged students are isolated flukes, dependent on a charismatic educator or the cherry-picking of bright students. Whitmire’s account lets us in on the secret of the sauce: What is it that schools can do at scale for children to close achievement gaps, even in the face of the real burdens of poverty?
As CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, and later as the U.S. Secretary of Education, I had the good fortune to visit dozens of gap-closing charter schools, including many of the charter school networks featured in Whitmire’s account. I always came away from those visits — as I do when I visit any great public school — with both a sense of hope and a profound feeling of respect and gratitude for the school’s educators and school leaders. These outstanding educators exemplify what we should aspire to in all public schools: Educators who wake up every day determined to make a difference in the life of a child, determined to excite a love of learning, and determined to open a door of opportunity where none existed.
At the same time, it was clear to me on these visits that running a high-performing charter school is anything but simple or for the faint of heart. It takes courage, a caring connection with students, and a tenacious commitment to equity. It takes smarts, and expertise about how children learn. And it takes talent.
I have yet to visit a great school where the school leaders and teachers were content to rest on their laurels. I have never heard a charter school leader describe their school as a “miracle school” or claim that they have found the silver bullet for ending educational inequity. The truth is that great charter schools are restless institutions, committed to continuous improvement. They are demanding yet caring institutions. And they are filled with a sense of urgency about the challenges that remain in boosting achievement and preparing students to succeed in life.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the passage of the first state law authorizing charter schools — which came about, in no small measure, thanks to the advocacy of Al Shanker, the legendary labor leader of the American Federation of Teachers. Twenty-five years later, it seems fitting to take stock of the successes and failures of the charter school movement — and to ask what challenges the next 25 years will bring.
In their first quarter-century, charter schools dramatically expanded parental choice and educational options in many cities. What was once a boutique movement of outsiders now includes more than 6,700 charter schools in 43 states, educating nearly 3 million children. But the most impressive accomplishment of the charter school movement is not its rapid growth. What stands out for me is that high-performing charter schools have convincingly demonstrated that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels — and can do so at scale.
Poverty is not destiny
When I was at CPS in Chicago, people used to warn me that we could never fix the schools until we ended poverty. For the record, let me stipulate that I am a huge fan of out-of-school anti-poverty programs. At CPS, we dramatically expanded the number of school-based health clinics, free vision services, and dental care. I was virtually raised in an out-of-school anti-poverty program, my mother’s after-school tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago.
Yet I absolutely reject the idea that poverty is destiny in the classroom and the self-defeating belief that schools don’t matter much in the face of poverty. Despite challenges at home, despite neighborhood violence, and despite poverty, I know that every child can learn and thrive. It’s the responsibility of schools to teach all children— and to have high expectations for every student, rich and poor. I learned that lesson firsthand in my mother’s after-school tutoring program — and I saw it in action in my visits to many of the gap-closing charter schools featured in this book. High-performing charters are one more proof positive that, as President Obama says, “the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”
Sadly, much of the current debate in Washington, D.C., in education schools, and in the blogosphere about high-performing charter schools is driven by ideology, not by facts on the ground. Far too often, the chief beneficiaries of high-performing charter schools — low-income families and children — are forgotten amid controversies over funding and the hiring of nonunion teachers in charter schools. Too often, the parents and children who are desperately seeking better schools are an afterthought.
When I was at CPS, we replaced one failing school in the violent, high-poverty Englewood neighborhood with three schools, one of which was Urban Prep Charter Academy, an all-male, all-black school. At Urban Prep’s predecessor, Englewood High, a senior was shot to death at a bus stop in front of the school a few years before we closed the school. Just 4 percent of seniors read at grade level — i.e., in every class of 25 students, one student on average could read at grade level. And this educational malpractice had been going on for a long time. Don Stewart, the former president of Spelman College and head of the Chicago Community Trust, told me that his mother wouldn’t let him attend Englewood High 50 years earlier because it was known as a terrible school even then.
In 2010, four years after Urban Prep Charter Academy opened, it graduated its first class — with all 107 seniors headed off to four-year colleges and universities. Urban Prep Academies recently announced that 100 percent of the 252 seniors in the class of 2016 were admitted to a four-year university or college, too — the seventh year in a row in which 100 percent of Urban Prep seniors were admitted to a four-year college or university.
Despite the bloodless, abstract quality of much of today’s debates on charters, the ideologically driven controversies won’t end anytime soon. Advocates and activists will continue to care about whether a high-performing school is identified as a charter school or a traditional neighborhood school. But it is worth remembering that children do not care about this distinction. Neither do I. There is nothing inherently good or bad about a charter or any other school. The only thing that matters is if a school is a great school. It doesn’t matter to me whether the sign on the door of a school has the word “Charter” in it, and it doesn’t matter to children. Nor does it matter to most parents.
Challenges for the next quarter-century
Many of the challenges facing high-performing charter schools in the next 25 years are no secret. Richard Whitmire ably identifies those challenges, as have many pioneering leaders of top-performing charter management organizations. I want to single out three specific issues.
First, while high-performing charters have a solid record of boosting achievement and attainment among students of color, their record is much less impressive with students with disabilities, English-language learners, and difficult-to-serve populations like adjudicated youth. Black and Hispanic students are overrepresented at high-performing charters. But students with disabilities and ELL students are not.
In the next 25 years, top-performing charters should do more to include and elevate the most difficult students to serve. My hope is that high-performing charters will pioneer ways to better educate students with disabilities, overage students, students in the correctional system, and ELL students. Diversity and cultural competency are particularly critical issues at high-performing charters where most teachers are white and where most students suspended are black or are students with disabilities. The relatively small subset of high-performing charters that overuse out-of-school suspensions and expulsions should be striving to reduce their reliance on exclusionary discipline.
Plenty of top-performing charter schools set high behavioral expectations for students without making heavy use of exclusionary discipline. It’s time for all schools, charter or otherwise, to rethink their school discipline and school climate policies if they are suspending a large proportion of their students. Every school should think of itself as a pipeline to college and careers, not as a pipeline to juvenile detention centers and prison.
Second, high-performing charters should be pushing for more accountability in the charter sector. The grand bargain of charters is that in exchange for increased autonomy from school district rules and union contracts, charter school leaders will provide more accountability for taxpayer dollars. The charter sector is doing a better job today of closing down poorly performing charters than in the past. But there are still far too many bad charter schools that continue to be reauthorized, too much financial mismanagement at charter schools, and too many states with weak laws regulating charter authorizers.
A recent study of urban charters in more than 40 cities found that, overall, urban charter students were making substantial gains in math and reading, compared with their traditional public school peers. But the 2015 study, from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), also showed that charter school performance varies enormously from city to city.
In Boston, charter students were making huge gains, learning the equivalent of more than two years of math in only one school year and gaining nearly an additional year in reading. By stark contrast, in Las Vegas, charter school students were losing 11 weeks of learning in reading and 16 weeks of math during the school year. That vast gulf in outcomes between Boston and Las Vegas charters is not just coincidence — Nevada, unlike Massachusetts, has had a history of lax regulation of charter schools.
The best charter school operators set high standards for ethics and accountability. But that doesn’t exempt them from a responsibility to promote better accountability for charters. Fairly or unfairly, the bad actors in the charter sector reflect unfavorably on all charters. Learning from the best, and culling out the worst, is a shared responsibility that shouldn’t be ignored.
Last but not least, in the next quarter-century, I hope that high-performing charters do more to fulfill their promise as laboratories of innovation. Charters were supposed to be the research-and-development wing of public education — “incubators of innovation,” in President Obama’s words. But they have yet to truly realize that potential.
With some notable exceptions, top-performing charters haven’t developed breakthrough innovations in the areas of personalized learning, technology, and competency-based learning. Nor, for the most part, have high-performing charters been in the vanguard of schools applying findings from the learning sciences to drive better instruction. And finally, top-flight charters have done little to either offer or improve the all-important field of early learning — in part because it is difficult, if not impossible, for charter schools to include early learning grades in states that fail to provide per-pupil funding for pre-K.
A seismic shift in American education
In the end, top-performing charters cannot merely tend to their own garden or stand apart from the need for dramatic improvements in American education. K-12 education is undergoing seismic change today. All but a handful of states have embraced higher learning standards, pegged for the first time to the expectations of student readiness for college and careers. The new federal law replacing No Child Left Behind pushes more of the responsibility for protecting at-risk children back to the states. Meanwhile, dozens of states are developing new and better ways to evaluate and support teachers that, for the first time, are taking account of a teacher’s impact on student learning.
Parents are questioning how much testing is needed to hold schools and educators accountable for providing a world-class education to all students. And for the first time in our nation’s history, more than half of public school students are children of color and more than half are from low-income families.
These profound changes in public education are happening while shifts in the job market are making a quality education more important than ever. In a knowledge-based, global economy, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills are the new currencies for landing a job. Under these rapidly evolving conditions, our schools urgently need new ideas and new technology to meet stiffer educational challenges. They need highly skilled and creative teachers with the ability to couple high expectations and personalized learning.
To fully take advantage of these extraordinary opportunities, I believe that the charter sector will need to undergo a slow but profound shift of mind-set in coming years. Charter school leaders will no longer just be outsiders knocking at the door of the traditional schools. My hope is that they will become less like combatants in the battles over education and more like co-conspirators for change with traditional public schools.
Thankfully, the shift to collaboration with school districts is already underway at top-performing charters. Witness the partnerships that YES College Prep has formed with the Houston and Aldine school districts, and KIPP’s partnerships in Houston. At the Uncommon Schools charter network, three leaders banded together to write Great Habits, Great Readers, which helps codify their schools’ successful K-4 reading taxonomy in the hope that it can help all elementary schools address the Common Core State Standards. And the Apollo 20 project in Houston has been the most sweeping and successful effort to date to import the practices of high-performing charter schools into district schools. (A similar project is underway in Denver.)
While the leaders of gap-closing charters are starting to push their gap-closing strategies to scale in school districts, some lawmakers and conservative commentators continue to resist the commonsense investments that would elevate our education system — from universal early learning to better teacher preparation. I urge them to read this book, to visit these schools, and to meet with these charter pioneers — talk with their students and evaluate their work.
This book shows that outstanding charter schools have proved there is no mission impossible in public education. By developing great teachers and leaders, working with courage, skill, and unrelenting determination, these gap-closing schools have demonstrated that every single child can learn.
The extraordinary accomplishments of the teachers, school leaders, and students featured here are a great start, but they cannot be the end of the story. I am not satisfied with just talking about top-performing charters as islands of educational excellence. If no man is an island, no school should be either. The question I ask — and that I encourage all educators who read this book to ask — is: Why can’t success be the norm?
I look forward to seeing how outstanding charter schools advance education in the next 25 years. But most of all, I look forward to the day when educational islands of excellence become districts and even states of excellence. I believe it’s possible. I know it’s needed.
Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a managing partner of the Palo Alto-based Emerson Collective, working with disconnected youth in Chicago.
The best question to ask any book writer is: What did you learn that surprised you? In my case, it took a lunch with Don Shalvey, the founder of California-based Aspire Public Schools, to come up with the answer to that question. Shalvey, who originally suggested this book idea, dipped a spoon into his potato soup and said, “You know, it didn’t have to turn out this way.”
Immediately, I knew that was the big insight: Yes, it really didn’t have to turn out this way. By that, I mean: America’s top charter schools were never hardwired to effusively share with one another. And yet it’s this sharing that has proved to be so pivotal to their success. It’s the explanation for why we now have networks of hundreds of very high-performing charters revealing success stories in neighborhoods where traditional schools have failed kids for generations.
Want to see my charter application? No problem. Want to tour my school? Let me know when you arrive. Want to see my student culture code? Here it is. Want to adopt our guided reading program? No problem. Interested in the most effective online math programs? Here’s what we discovered.
I know what you’re thinking: Teachers in traditional districts share all the time, through in-school meetings, professional development sessions, district-wide conferences, annual teachers union conventions and lesson-sharing websites. Teachers live in a sharing-is-us world.
But what was shared among these charter pioneers is very different. These folks weren’t just passing along new ways to teach multiplication tables; they were cracking the code about successfully educating low-income, minority students — an unprecedented feat.
If this were happening at Apple or the Pentagon, this kind of information would be discussed on a need-to-know basis in rooms impervious to eavesdropping. Instead, these charter entrepreneurs were blabbing their state secrets to anyone willing to visit.
That sharing explains how the top charter schools, roughly the top 20 percent of charters, all of them nonprofits, showed that the impossible — overcoming at least some of the entrenched effects of poverty — is not so impossible. Actually, that’s projecting modesty: The best of the best of this group actually level the achievement gap. Skeptical? Review the data behind Boston’s Brooke Charter Schools.
But in many ways that sharing is, well, odd. Charter schools compete with one another for students as well as talented teachers, philanthropy and facilities. So why did one top charter group after another turn into sharing machines rather than fierce and protective competitors?
For the early charter pioneers, sharing was a matter of survival, Shalvey told me. “We were so convinced that the traditional school district was trying to kill us that we banded together like counterrevolutionaries. We needed one another to survive.”
But was survival the only reason for this heritage of sharing? The laws of competition suggest that once charters became firmly rooted, the charter leaders would revert to their natural, sharp-elbowed instincts and fight over buildings and talent. Here’s a far more interesting way to examine that question: Was there an “original act of sharing” that set an enduring precedent, something powerful enough to persist for two decades?
Impossible to know, right? On one level the question sounds somewhat religious, almost Talmudic. Asking that question evokes those many New Yorker cartoons in which truth-seekers climb to the mountain peak to seek wisdom from the peak-top guru — “Was there an original act of sharing?” — only to be told something silly.
At first, I didn’t think the question was answerable, but a conversation with Dave Levin, co-founder of the KIPP network of charter schools, changed my mind. To Levin, who in interviews with charter founders is often described as Teacher Zero of the entire movement, the guy who cracked the code on effective teaching and then shared with anyone who asked, the answer lies with one person: Harriet Ball.
For anyone who knows the history of KIPP, especially anyone who has read Work Hard. Be Nice., Ball should be an obvious place to start. She is the Houston teacher who taught KIPP co-founders Levin and Mike Feinberg how to succeed as urban educators. The three became so close that Ball referred to them as the Three Musketeers. She was the real Teacher Zero.
Ball, who died in 2011, was over six feet tall, with a commanding voice, a legendary teacher at Bastian Elementary who ran the classroom just down the hallway from Levin, who was struggling with his kids. One day he ventured into Ball’s classroom and asked to observe. From Work Hard. Be Nice.: “She played her students like an orchestra. With her nod, the fourth graders would begin a musical chant, something that sounded like the multiplication tables. With her raised hand, they would snap back into silence.”
Lots of classroom observations and weekend get-togethers led Levin and Feinberg to fashion their own Ball-inspired classroom rhythms, which are visible today in almost any high-performing charter school.
While I was familiar with the Harriet Ball story from reading Work Hard. Be Nice., not until talking to Levin was I aware of the strict guidance Ball passed along to the two. When Levin and Feinberg met Ball, she was 46, a veteran teacher. She had always assumed that one day someone would document what she did and pass it along to others. She just never guessed that someone would be a white Jewish kid from New York City. Sometimes, life just turns out that way.
While Ball was happy to share with her Musketeers, she had one firm request. “She made it clear that we were expected to share everything she shared,” Levin told me. And that’s exactly how it played out, with Feinberg sharing from his Houston KIPP base and Levin sharing from his New York City KIPP base.
Soon other seminal charter founders — Dacia Toll from what would become Achievement First, Norman Atkins from what would become Uncommon Schools — were stopping in to soak up lessons from Levin in his Bronx school, the very lessons that Levin had soaked up from Ball at Bastian Elementary.
Thus, there truly was an original act of sharing, and it was powerful enough to endure over two decades. “Now,” said Shalvey, “sharing is the kind of value that gets handed down around the campfires at the Charter School Growth Fund annual conference.”
It didn’t have to happen. But it did.
Here’s a highly simplified, one-paragraph history of charters: Roughly speaking, version 1.0 charters proved you could make a difference with “no excuses” practices, as in not accepting poverty as an excuse for failure to learn. They won academic gains mostly through efficiencies (never a wasted moment), high-energy teachers from top colleges determined to do whatever it took and a stringent culture — children walking silently, single file through hallways; uniforms; tough suspension policies. But in truth, no one was completely comfortable with that stiff culture, and, as charters moved into version 2.0, relying on CMOs to replicate high-performing schools, the best charters started edging away from the no-excuses model.
Version 3.0 charters, a process now well underway, reveal a more relaxed culture, more akin to what you see in the best private schools (see my Brooke profile later in the book), and focus on skills likely to get students not just into college but through college.
Designing these new schools, the 3.0 charters, is a new goal every bit as ambitious as what Hastings and Shalvey sketched out that day at Cafe Borrone. Interestingly, many of the same people who built the initial wave of high-performing charters, including Shalvey — who by this time was a deputy director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation overseeing its charter school grants — are now engaged with the new goal of molding the next generation of American classrooms.
By early 2016, the 3.0 project, the moon shot that would exponentially boost the number of successful college graduates who come from low-income families, was maturing. Again, the spark came from Silicon Valley, with Summit Public School’s Diane Tavenner leading the way. This time, however, the new design was translating immediately to the East Coast, with Rhode Island’s Blackstone Valley Prep agreeing to be an early adopter. Plus, East Coast charters were launching their own next-generation schools, with Achievement First, for example, pioneering its version in New Haven’s Greenfield school.
Once again, schooling was being reinvented, with this band of reformers at the forefront.
The history of these high-performing charters couldn’t be more different than a traditional history of charter schools. That traditional history, which everyone is hearing about this year as educators celebrate the 25th anniversary of the launch of the first charter school, starts in St. Paul, Minnesota, and slowly expands across the country until today, when we have 6,700 charter schools serving nearly 3 million students.
This is not that history.
In this history of high-performing classrooms, that first charter school in Minnesota barely warrants a footnote. In this history, there’s no self-congratulation about reaching 6,700 charters. Instead there’s wonderment about why hundreds of those charters aren’t shut down as low-performers. In this history, the high-performing charters have about as much to do with the lower-performing charters as dogs have to do with cats.
This history, which starts in California, not Minnesota, has an end goal: Leveraging the lessons learned from this first generation of high-performing schools to create the elusive 3.0 charter — schools that can take poor and minority children and turn them into successful college graduates. This is not the history of charter schools; this is the history of the high-performers and where they’re headed next.
As any reader will quickly observe, the early pioneers are well-educated whites; their students are almost all poor and minority. That’s partly a reflection of these schools in their earliest launch years. Take Uncommon Schools, a charter group profiled in later chapters. All but one of the initial founders (U.S. Education Secretary John King) is white. But contrast that launch team with today’s Uncommon Schools: 42 percent of the teachers and 30 percent of the school leaders are nonwhite. Its Summer Teaching Fellows program is one of several ways Uncommon pursues diversity.
Fifteen years ago, in the 2002–03 school year, only 29 percent of KIPP’s school leaders were people of color. However, since the 2006–07 school year, that figure has ranged between 38 and 45 percent.
Today, the racial mixes at all the top charters are changing, but probably not fast enough for critics, especially African Americans in urban neighborhoods who complain that education reform still feels like something being done to them — not with them or by them. Despite that unease, however, low-income, African-American parents in cities such as Newark, Washington and Los Angeles eagerly seek out these top schools, generating long wait lists. That raises the question at the core of this book: How did these successful schools come about? And the equally important follow-up question: Can these high-performers make the transition to become authentic and sustainable neighborhood schools — schools where parents feel like they have the biggest stake?
by Richard Whitmire
Could there be a more unlikely city to serve as a launchpad for top charters than New York — home to the most powerful and politically savvy teachers union in the country, the United Federation of Teachers, and governed by a legislature in which the unions had invested millions of dollars over the years to ensure that Albany remained a steadfast friend? But it happened when Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor and appointed famed prosecutor Joel Klein to take over the education helm. Bloomberg didn’t care that Klein had no experience running schools. He wanted a fearless change agent, and Klein proved to be that.
Klein took over the New York system in August 2002, and for the first year he remained silent on charters while he carried out big organizational changes. But in his second year, all that changed as he arranged meetings with the heads of top charter management organizations: Dave Levin from KIPP, Norman Atkins from Uncommon, Dacia Toll from Achievement First and Geoffrey Canada from the Harlem Children’s Zone. Klein set out to do something any other schools chief would consider insane: disrupt his own schools with built-in competitors. And Klein didn’t want mere tinkering; he wanted big change, so at first he focused only on the major operators who could open multiple schools that would be high performers from the first day. What about the mom-and-pops, the one-off charter startups that might grow into KIPPs and Uncommons? Didn’t they deserve support? Fuhgeddaboutit. This was New York; only the biggest and the best. And right away!
“I know with Dacia, she was skeptical at first,” said Klein. “People didn’t know how aggressive the city would be. But I pushed hard on this notion that I didn’t want this to be a boutique business, that they would be in this for the long haul with multiple growth opportunities … I wanted to make New York the Silicon Valley for charter schools.”
Toll recalls her first meeting with Klein, who asked that she expand her Connecticut operations to the city. The discussion seemed to go well, so she asked Klein: “OK, who [in the department] do I start the conversation with about Achievement First coming to the city?” Klein answered immediately: We just had the conversation, and you just agreed to open three schools. “It was like, boom!”
Toll checked quickly with Dave Levin and Norman Atkins, the KIPP and Uncommon leaders in New York, to see if they would object to the added competition. “They said they were more than OK. Their attitude was, ‘This is going to be fun. Come to New York!’”
On July 14, 2003, the first day of school for KIPP S.T.A.R. in Harlem, the new strategy kicked off as Chancellor Klein and Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference at the school, which was housed in a former district office building. It was a clear shot across the bow: We will find space for top charters.
Said Bloomberg: “We said we would put children first when it comes to education — and by creating a new school where offices once stood, we are doing just that. We applaud KIPP for their academic achievements and for their continuing commitment to New York City’s schoolchildren.” Added Klein: “In just two weeks we have taken district office space that used to house bureaucracy and transformed it into a charter school in a community that needs innovative and excellent new schools … We continue to work with charter schools throughout the city to share best practices for teaching and learning across all types of schools.”
Most charter operators gravitate to cities where there’s little hostility from unions and charter critics, meaning anywhere but New York. But Klein had a very large carrot to bend that maxim: $1-peryear rental fees inside existing school buildings. “We took the view, and it was controversial, that the schools belonged to the children,” said Klein.
Uncommon’s Brett Peiser, who would return to New York City to lead Uncommon’s expansion there, was stunned by the freedom offered by Klein. The all-consuming need to find buildings in the most expensive city in the country suddenly ended. “It was a huge part of our growth,” said Peiser. “I had just spent three years where all I did was work on the building [availability] issue.” The idea that buildings were going to be taken care of meant Peiser and others could focus just on instruction. That was huge. “That’s what moves people’s hearts and is why people are excited about this work — not school construction bonds.”
To support rapid charter growth (which would soon grow to about 20 school openings a year), Klein pulled together a collaboration of philanthropists who formed the NYC Center for Charter School Excellence, now called the NYC Charter Center. All this was to create schools to compete against his own traditional schools — unthinkable in any other city. “Most people running a school system are not eager to give up market share to the charter sector,” said Klein. “But our overall view was that serving lives, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods, you want to create as many options for good schools as you can.” But creating more good schools was only part of the plan. To be fundamentally disruptive, those schools had to become permanent, not something future union-friendlier mayors could dismantle. The theory: “If you change the status quo for families, the schools become bulletproof,” said Klein. That’s why he ushered in only the top charters; they had to be good from opening day.
One crucial development during the Klein years was granting in-school space to Success Academies, a charter group that has grown faster than the others, attracted more philanthropy than most, registered higher test scores — and drawn exponentially more criticism. All that arises from the unique personality of its founder, Eva Moskowitz, possibly the most polarizing, successful and controversial charter leader in the country.
“She had a rapid growth plan, and one that we were happy to support,” said Klein. “Her whole modus operandi depended on us giving her space. It’s hard to grow at the level she wanted to unless she had co-located space.”
Everything about Moskowitz is different, including her launch. As a former City Council member and head of the council’s education committee, she held a now-legendary series of investigative hearings that skewered union work rules, leaving the unions furious and vowing revenge — a revenge they extracted in 2005 when Moskowitz launched an unsuccessful bid to be the Democratic nominee for Manhattan borough president.
It was during those hearings that Moskowitz began forming ideas for launching her own schools. “At the hearings, I was asking teachers and principals and coaches and custodians about every part of schooling, about what excellence looks like, about what needs to happen,” she said. “Once I decided to open Success Academy, I crisscrossed the country finding every great example I could.”
In addition to the New York City–area schools she visited — Uncommon, KIPP and Achievement First — she went west as well. From California’s High Tech High, she came away impressed by the focus on rigor. From a Colorado charter school, she borrowed lessons learned on running project-based learning. The visits were not limited to charter schools. Parochial, private and traditional district schools were on her must-visit list as well.
In Queens, at Ozone Park’s P.S. 65, she came across Paul Fucaloro, who was overseeing the lunchroom while peppering the students with math facts. She hired him to work at Success, where he ended up as director of pedagogy before he retired in 2014. At the prestigious Nightingale-Bamford private school in New York, she found a social studies program she admired. From the private, all-girls Brearley School in New York she found a science focus that helped shape the intense concentration on science.
In spring 2016, as Success Academy was celebrating its 10th anniversary, Moskowitz ran 34 schools that enrolled 11,000 students, nearly all of whom register striking academic gains. (It was hardly a surprise when the network was named one of three finalists for the 2016 Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools.) In 2015, her minority-dominated schools, which operate in some of New York’s poorest neighborhoods, scored among the best in New York state: Five of the top 10 schools in New York in math were Success Academy schools.
For the next school year, 20,000 students applied for 3,228 spots. Moskowitz’s long-term goal: 100 Success Academy locations. Some of the controversy surrounding Moskowitz is of her own making; she’s still bashing the unions, essentially fighting the same fight from her City Council days. And comparing academic results from her schools with those from neighborhood schools, when her schools enjoy important differences such as not “backfilling” classes after fourth grade, is unfair.
But there’s no question that she has pioneered success at unprecedented scale by doing one thing different: offering incredibly rich academics to students who live in neighborhoods where that just doesn’t happen. Klein, who had his own clashes with Moskowitz, said the success at scale is the source of most of the attacks. “That’s threatening to a lot of people.”
Did Klein’s master plan work out? According to independent researchers, New York charters come close to being the best in the nation. But did they change the status quo for city families? That question got an early test when union-friendlier Bill de Blasio was elected mayor and immediately went after the co-located charters despised by the unions. The result: Thousands of minority parents and their children turned out for massive demonstrations in both New York and Albany. These were parents for whom the status quo had definitely changed. De Blasio famously backed down. Bulletproof.
The Bloomberg/Klein period of school reform in New York involved scores of initiatives, most of them highly controversial and all drawing fire from the teachers unions. Only with hindsight is it possible to see that the most radical change Klein pushed, and certainly the most successful, was persuading the nation’s top charter operators to make New York City a priority. He challenged them to disrupt his schools.
Klein’s revolutionary charter-building initiative in New York points to a second phenomenon: These charter pioneers, the designers of charter groups such as KIPP, Achievement First and Aspire, didn’t do this on their own. That success happened because a separate group of education entrepreneurs, district leaders such as Klein, philanthropy innovators such as Kim Smith of NewSchools and creative funders such as Reed Hastings all joined forces to make it possible.