How the Other Half Learns Rich parents have always been able to get their kids an excellent education. Poor parents get “equity,” broken promises, and sermons on patience. Then one woman appeared to figure out how to build excellent schools for other people’s children. All hell broke loose.
______________ Table of Contents
Prologue Chapter 1: The Tiffany Test Chapter 2: “We Have an Army Coming” Chapter 3: Bronx 1 Chapter 4: No Excuses Chapter 5: Whack-a-Mole Chapter 6: “I Want to Slit My Wrists” Chapter 7: “Just Let This Latina Pass” Chapter 8: Marriage Counseling Chapter 9: The Window and the Mirror Chapter 10: Outliers Chapter 11: The Math Lesson Chapter 12: Catholic School on the Outside, Bank Street on the Inside Chapter 13: Survival Mode Chapter 14: Releasing the Beast Chapter 15: Come to Jesus Chapter 16: Plan of Attack Chapter 17: Teach Me! Chapter 18: Joy and Vomit Chapter 19: Testing Day Chapter 20: The Lottery Chapter 21: The GAS Factor Chapter 22: Proof Point Chapter 23: Culture Clash Chapter 24: The “Likely” List Chapter 25: A Place Called School Epilogue: One Last Visit
The leadership team at Success Academy Bronx 1 elementary school is making its morning rounds of classroom visits. Principal Elizabeth Vandlik started the day by announcing
“deliverables” for every teacher, which she and her assistant principals are expecting to see when they enter every classroom: students should be “on-task” at least 95% of the time.
Teachers are expected to notice off-task behavior 100% of the time and, without prompting, take corrective action to refocus and re-engage inattentive students. Every time.
After each classroom visit, Vandlik and her team huddle in the hallway, discuss what they’ve just seen, and what to do about it. Next, they rehearse among themselves the feedback each teacher should get. One of the assistant principals goes back into the classroom and whispers advice or a correction in the teacher's ear. Changes are made immediately, in real-time, and without interrupting classroom instruction.
The pattern repeats in room after room. After the walk-through, the school leadership team huddles to discuss both teachers and students who need their immediate attention. The meeting concludes with a discussion of "whole school improvements" that need to be made.
Two assistant principals take out their cell phones and start calling parents to ask for "brief chats" in person at dismissal that afternoon to address concerns that have come up with their children.
It’s August 15. The school year is three hours old.
Chapter One: The Tiffany Test
The person who has had the greatest influence on my career in education was not a professor, policymaker, researcher, or a fellow teacher. It was a ten-year-old girl named Tiffany Lopez, a fifth-grader in my class during my second year of teaching at P.S. 277, a low-performing elementary school in the South Bronx. Walk into any classroom in any struggling urban school in America and you will spot a child like Tiffany almost immediately. Her eyes are always 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 always neat and complete. She has grown up hearing every day how important education is. She believes it, and her behavior in class shows it. She does well in school. She gets praise and she gets good grades.
She also gets screwed.
Since she goes to a school where most of her classmates read and do math well below grade level, Tiffany is “not your problem,” as an assistant principal pointedly told me, when I expressed concern about how little of my attention she was getting. The message to a new teacher could not have been clearer: focus your efforts on the low achievers, the disruptive, and the disengaged. Get them in the game. Tiffany will be fine.
Since leaving the classroom, I have applied the “Tiffany Test” to any new education reform initiative, policy prescription, or innovative teaching idea: will this make it more likely or less likely that kids like Tiffany Lopez—promising low-income children of color in places like the South Bronx—will get what they need to reach their full academic and life potential? The answer rarely comes back in the affirmative. The broad thrust of education reform efforts, stretching back decades, has been aimed at closing achievement gaps between children of color and white and Asian children; between those who grow up in poverty and those who are more fortunate. The biggest losers in classrooms shaped by these well-intended policies are children like Tiffany. Children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their less proficient and less engaged peers. We can insist that the answer is “differentiated instruction,” personalized learning, or policies that valorize student “growth” over proficiency on standardized tests, making every student the teacher’s problem, but these remedies are unsatisfying and naïve, mere education homilies. If the vast majority of America’s nearly four million teachers cannot easily and effectively implement your proposal, it is no solution at all. It fails the Tiffany Test.
When you have a Not Your Problem Child sitting in your class in the age of testing, accountability, and gap-closing you understand that despite her good grades and rock steady performance on state tests, she is subsisting on starvation rations in history, geography, science, art and music, the stuff that makes education interesting and engaging. Her finish line—read on grade level; graduate on time—is the starting line for more fortunate children, including your own. Tiffany and the numberless, faceless multitude of children like her, represents the low-hanging fruit the typical inner city school leaves dying on the vine. But she is maddeningly, damnably, undemocratically
not your problem.
There is a question that has gnawed at me ever since I was Tiffany Lopez’s 5th grade teacher: If you are committed to equity and social justice, if you wish to keep faith with the American Dream, those who believe in it, and who view education as the indispensable engine of upward mobility, which is the more effective theory of change: should we attempt to serve all
disadvantaged children equally and labor to close achievement gaps because that is what’s fair? Or should we ensure that receptive and motivated students are able to reap the full benefit of their talents and ambitions because that is what’s just? The latter, of course, is what well-off families secure for their children effortlessly, either by paying tuition to opt out altogether from the public school system, or through their ability to buy their way into homes in affluent zip codes where their property taxes function as de facto tuition to excellent neighborhood schools.
What might it look like -- what might America look like? -- if parents’ ability to steer their children into the best possible school setting was not a function of money and privilege, but something closer to the default setting for our public education system?
Give a focused, low-income kid a superior education and you improve the odds that she is on the path to upward mobility, and that her children will not grow up in poverty. Give the same kid a bland, good-enough
education and she is prepared mostly to march in place. A false dichotomy? Of course it is. The promise of American education is excellence for all. But that promise has seldom been kept if you are poor, black or brown. Worse, our humane and laudable efforts to increase educational equity
have made educational excellence largely available only to those with the means to purchase it. Low-income black and brown children who are ready for greater intellectual challenges or who are simply buying what schools are selling? Not your problem.
After leaving my classroom, Tiffany, with her rock-steady performance on state reading and math tests, continued her dutiful march onward and upward through the New York City school system, eventually moving out of state for high school, and graduating from a state university in
Pennsylvania. Given the long odds at birth against the child of a Hispanic single mother ever becoming a college graduate, she is an American success story. But I’m haunted to this day by what I know the data cannot show. Tiffany Lopez was neglected by me, by other teachers, and by the systems we have created ostensibly to benefit children like her. And that neglect was not an accident, it was a policy. There is little doubt in my mind that had she attended my daughter’s school, two subways stops and a world away on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she might have found her way to Harvard, Princeton, Stanford or any of the top-echelon
universities whose admissions office search and compete for students like her. From there, it’s a shorter distance to diversifying the leadership class, America’s ultimate achievement gap.
With her limitless grit and desire to learn, her deep investment in education, and the devoted support of her hard-working mother, Tiffany at age ten had as much upside potential as any kid in this country. With luck those natural gifts will fuel her rise for the next several decades. But if she becomes all that it was obvious she could be, sitting patient, alert, expectant, and ignored in my fifth grade classroom it will not be because of what I, and other teachers did for her. It will be in spite of it.
* * *
People who write about education and our decades-long attempts to improve it invariably bring their personal interests, experiences, and biases to the task. The reader deserves to know mine and something about the lens I brought to my year-long examination of Success Academy, the nation’s most successful and controversial network of charter schools, and the lessons from it that we might apply to American education, particularly schools serving children growing up in poverty.
In 2002, I began working as a fifth-grade teacher in a low-performing South Bronx elementary school. My mid-career decision to become a public school teacher was closer to an impulse purchase than answering a call to service. It was the year I would turn 40. I was the father of a three-year-old daughter. I was working as the communications director for BusinessWeek magazine after serving in a similar capacity for TIME. The magazine industry had fallen out of bed, disrupted by the Internet and the bursting of the dot-com advertising bubble. In a little over a year, BusinessWeek went from running a record number of advertising pages to losing money for the first time since the Great Depression. I was ripe for the plucking a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks as I sat on the downtown N train home from Rockefeller Center across from an ad for the New York City Teaching Fellows, an “alternative certification” teacher preparation program aimed at luring mid-career professionals into hard-to-staff inner city public school classrooms. “You remember your first grade teacher’s name,” read the ad across the subway aisle from me. “Who will remember yours?”
Fools rush in. I had been (and still am) a long-time board member of East Side House Settlement, a community-based organization in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx. Under its executive director, John Sanchez, the organization had evolved from providing cradle-to-grave social services to one with education at the core of its mission and programs.
Undoubtedly my involvement with East Side House softened the ground making me more receptive to the subway ad’s pitch. It was through Sanchez’s advice that I found myself one spring afternoon in the main office of PS 277, on St. Ann’s Avenue and 148th Street, across the street from St. Mary’s Park, asking to speak with the school principal, Carol Pertchik.
New York City Community School District 7 was, then and now, the lowest performing school district in New York City. P.S. 277 was the lowest performing school in District 7. But as I toured the building with Ms. Pertchik, I was struck by the relative calm in the classrooms I visited. When I told her I was hoping to teach 5th grade, typically the oldest, rowdiest, and hardest-to-staff year in most New York City elementary schools, she raised an eyebrow and offered me a job. I received six weeks of training from the New York City Department of Education, District 7, and the United Federation of Teachers, the teachers union. I taught summer school. In the fall, I was assigned to a 5th grade “collaborative team teaching” classroom, which serves both general and special education students in a single inclusive setting. While teaching, I attended required graduate school classes in elementary education as part of my Teaching Fellows training.
It was going to be a two-year, mid-career public service stint. But two years became five and education became my second career. Teaching is the easiest job in the world to do badly: If you wanted to phone it in, go through the motions, and head home at the end of your contractually obligated six hours and 20 minutes per day, you could get away with it forever—particularly in a school like mine where I had only two formal observations in five years. But it’s the hardest job to do well. Most days, to be blunt, it kicked my ass. Like every new teacher, I struggled with classroom management. There was no set curriculum and the techniques I was trained to use to teach reading, writing, and math bore little resemblance to what I remembered as a child. I was surprised at how little of my school’s curriculum was codified in any way at all. My classroom was sloppy with people telling me how to teach, but when I asked what
I should be teaching, the question was greeted with either amusement or dismissal. “Mr. Pondiscio!” a staff developer from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project told me early in my career, “you’re the best person to know what your students need!” I found that answer unhelpful, inscrutable, and almost certainly incorrect. I still do. I was in no position, then or now, to decide unilaterally what a ten-year-old in the South Bronx needed to know to become a well-educated, upwardly mobile, happily productive, and engaged citizen of the United States of America.
As a result of these experiences and frustrations, I became deeply interested in curriculum, which has guided much of my work since leaving the classroom. I became particularly persuaded by the work of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., the author of the Core Knowledge curriculum and the nonprofit foundation that publishes and promotes it. Hirsch alone among educational theorists accurately described and diagnosed what I saw every day in my South Bronx classroom: children who could “decode” printed text, but often struggled to answer seemingly basic questions about what they had just read. Hirsch ascribed reading comprehension struggles to a lack of a shared knowledge base, particularly among low-income children, driven by American education’s indifference if not outright hostility to establishing a set curriculum in schools. This was the subject of Hirsch’s best-known book Cultural Literacy
, as well as several other subsequent works.
Because Hirsch’s insights were so readily observable in my school, where fewer than one-in-five students read at or above grade level, I became an advocate for his vision of literacy instruction and a knowledge-rich core curriculum, particularly for low-income children like my students. I sought Dr. Hirsch out and worked for his Core Knowledge Foundation for several years after leaving the classroom. I also developed a keen interest in civic education and the civic mission of schools. This led me to work on civic education initiatives at Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of charter schools based in Harlem, where I also returned to the classroom, teaching a high school seminar in civics and citizenship. Since 2014, I have been a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy “think tank” based in Washington, DC. In sum, my interest in education has not changed at all from my first day as a fifth grade teacher: I remain focused entirely on what it takes to improve educational outcomes for our most disadvantaged children—those whom America’s schools have generally failed.
Education policymakers are oddly incurious about what children actually do in school all day. It is quite common for analysts and researchers to look at whether school choice, charter schools, or traditional public schools “work,” for example, but from the perspective of a teacher, such sweeping conclusions are of little value—unless we also know which curriculum or instructional tactics are being used, or something about the school’s setting, adult culture, and other factors that shape classroom life and practice. That said, I try to avoid falling into the trap of teachers who waive the bloody shirt and insist that those who have never stood in front of students have no business setting policies that affect the daily lives of teachers and children. As long as public education runs primarily on tax dollars, public scrutiny, transparency, and accountability are inevitable and essential. It will not do to say simply, “Trust teachers and send more money.” Thus, I occupy an odd place in most education policy debates, which tend to focus on structures: academic standards (like Common Core), accountability, teacher quality, testing, school funding, and the like. What happens inside classrooms remains largely beneath the notice of education policymakers and pundits. I have long believed that this indifference to curriculum and instruction is a significant impediment to progress.
This was the spirit in which I first approached Eva Moskowitz in the spring of 2016 to seek access to her network of Success Academy charter schools for the coming school year. For all of the attention, much of it negative, that they had received in the media, I felt I knew very little, and wanted to know much more, about a very simple question: What do the kids do all day?
This has long seemed to me the only question worth asking if we are serious about improving the outcome of American education at large, and particularly for low-income children of color, who comprise every single student I have ever taught.
I confess that I came to Success Academy at least somewhat skeptically. In an August 2014 op-ed in the New York Daily News
that took note of the network’s astonishing test scores, I wrote that I had no idea if Eva Moskowitz is “the Michael Jordan of testing or the Mark McGwire,” invoking the names of one of our most transcendent athletes and a notorious steroids cheater. Privately, I was inclined to think there was at least something
unholy going on. I do not believe in miracles in education. For years I have described my “complicated relationship” with testing and accountability: The data from standardized testing is the lifeblood of education reform. Without it, we would not be fully aware of the pernicious and persistent gaps between white and affluent children and low-income students and people of color. At the same time, I have steadfastly refused to turn a blind eye to the deleterious effects of testing on American education at large: narrowing schooling the reading, math and little else, and the common drudgery reducing a child’s education to a dull regimen of test prep.
There’s only so much that can be learned visiting schools for a “drive by.” Teachers and school administrators are not actors. When you spend hundreds of hours observing, eventually they reveal who they are. Once Moskowitz agreed, albeit reluctantly, to allow me to “embed” in one of her schools, Ann Powell, the network’s communications chief, suggested Success Academy Bronx 1 and escorted me on an initial visit. My first summer in the New York City Teaching Fellows, I taught summer school at PS 18, an elementary school just up the block; my old school was a short walk away down 149th Street. The prospect of embedding in a school in the same neighborhood where I taught was appealing. Having secured Moskowitz’s cooperation, I then asked Elizabeth Vandlik, the principal of Bronx 1, for hers. She agreed and throughout the course of my year of observations was not merely welcoming but forthcoming. We were in immediate agreement that the interest of Bronx 1’s students would come first and that my observations must not distract from the work of teachers. I would tread lightly.
Very few restrictions were placed on my observations. Vandlik suggested classrooms where I might see the best examples of Success Academy’s curriculum and pedagogy. I sat in regularly on meetings with her and the leadership team better to understand her priorities and leadership style. I was not barred from any classrooms although Vandlik—appropriately, in my opinion—asked me to avoid one or two classrooms with teachers who were new or uncomfortable with an outsider sitting in their rooms for hours at a time. Most of the restrictions I faced were self-imposed: If I sensed a teacher was ill at ease with me in their classroom I tended to avoid returning. I never attended meetings on disciplinary matters between Success Academy staff, students, and family members, nor did I ask to. I was, however, privy to many meetings where disciplinary issues were discussed.
Candor increased the closer I got to the ground. Moskowitz allowed me access to her schools and some, but not all, of Success Academy’s teacher training and professional development. Most requests for access to schools or interviews with network personnel were granted; some were not. I signed up independently for several Success Academy-led trainings that were open to interested educators. At Bronx 1, Vandlik was consistently welcoming and forthcoming.Classroom teachers whose rooms I gravitated toward were not just open but enthusiastic about my presence. Parents were unfiltered in their willingness to talk about their experiences with Success Academy, inviting me to visit with them in their homes, workplaces, churches, and elsewhere.
Even with regular and unmonitored access, this book does not purport to be a complete record of a year at Success Academy school. There is simply too much going on in any school for one person to observe. The vast majority of names of the adults in this book are the real names of the administrators, teachers, parents, and others. However, when what I observed, in my judgment, might cast a negative light on an individual, particularly a teacher, I have reserved the right to use a pseudonym. This decision was mine alone; it was not requested or even suggested by Success Academy. It was made out of empathy for the enormous challenge of teaching well in neighborhoods that have seen multiple generations of educational neglect, disappointment, or failure. The purpose of this book is to describe what happens inside one of the nation’s most successful charter school networks, to evaluate the student experience, and see whether there are lessons that can translate to American education at large. There is nothing to be gained nor any value in calling out by name any young man or woman who tried their best and failed, as some do inevitably in every school.
Most importantly: I have maintained throughout this project, complete and total editorial control. The contents of this book have not been subject to oversight by Success Academy, its employees, board members, or others. Nor was I asked by anyone at Success Academy to provide it.
Copyright © 2019 by Robert Pondiscio. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.