Secrets of Test Success at Success Academy

Eva Moskowitz, an attorney who served on the New York City Council and was chair of the education committee, opened her own chain of charter schools in Harlem in 2006. Moskowitz is an interesting, brilliant woman with a Ph.D. in history. Her chain initially was called Harlem Success Academy, but has since been renamed Success Academy, presumably because it is now moving into other neighborhoods. Her schools regularly win editorial plaudits from the city’s tabloids for their high scores. In this article in The New Yorker, it appears that she has the “secret sauce” to overcome poverty and send the poorest kids to college. According to the New Yorker article, her chain spends over $1 million a year on marketing–such as direct mail, ads on buses and bus stop shelters, flyers, etc.– which pumps up the number of applicants for the schools and helps to build the chain’s reputation. It also paid over $500,000 to SDK Knickerbocker, the high-powered D.C. public relations firm, which includes Anita Dunn, who was interim communications director for President Obama in 2009.

Eva’s schools have the advantage of enormous financial support from hedge fund managers, who agree with her that her mission is to prove that public education is a failure as compared to her methods.

Whereas the original purpose of charters was to serve as a laboratory of innovation for public schools and to help public schools improve, Eva’s approach is distinctly competitive, not collaborative. She wants to beat the public schools, and she often belittles them for their inability to match her unparalleled success. If there is something she knows that can help all children, she is not sharing it.

But Eva has a problem. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that he intends to charge rent to charters that can afford to pay it, and that clearly includes Eva’s charters. This is not likely to create a deficit since the schools are very well-funded, but it certainly has set off a media war by Eva against Bill.

What are those methods? Read here about turning children into “little test-taking machines.” Of course, that is not all that happens at Eva’s schools. The children study science and play chess. But the rules are very strict, and students who do not comply are likely to be suspended and/or expelled.

A few months ago, I began corresponding with a teacher at one of the Success Academy charter schools. I do not know which school he or she teaches in; I do not know the teacher’s name or gender. By various details, I believe the email is authentic. I asked the teacher to explain why the school gets high scores. He or she sent the following answer. It does not take into demographics, nor the school’s legendary disciplinary policy, but it does explain what matters most to the SA schools:

Focus on English Language Arts and Math. We spend the vast majority of class time teaching ELA and Math all year long. Kids have several blocks of each daily. We do not teach history or foreign languages in elementary school. We do have a good science program. They have a Specials period every day too. Aside from that, it’s reading, writing, math from 8:00AM to 5:00PM. Obviously the extended day and extended school year helps in terms of sheer volume of time.

Put the best teachers in testing grades. During the first few months of school, teachers and assistant principals are shuffled between grades and even schools. The goal is to put the strongest teachers in grades 3 and up. So a strong Kindergarten teacher might suddenly find herself teaching fourth grade.

Test prep starts in November: ELA test prep starts in November for two periods a week. After winter break, we have daily hourlong ELA test prep. Then we add math. By late February, we spend several hours a day on it. The last few weeks are almost all day test prep.

Custom Test Prep Materials: I think many schools use practice workbooks from publishers like Kaplan, etc. We have people whose job it is to put together custom test prep packets based on state guidance. Much more aligned to common core and closer to the test than the published books I’ve seen. Also, teachers are putting together additional worksheets and practice based on what we see in the classroom. Huge volume of practice materials for every possible need (and we use it all, too). Also many practice tests and quizzes that copy format of the test.

Intensive organization-wide focus on test prep: For the last months and weeks before the test, everyone from Eva on down is completely focused on test prep. Just a few examples….

We have to give kids 1/2/3/4 scores daily. Kids are broken up into small groups based on the data and get differentiated instruction. If they get a 1, they stay back from recess or after school for extra practice.

Thousands of dollars spent on prizes to incentivize the kids to work hard. Some teachers have expressed concern about bribing them with basketballs and other toys instead of learning for the sake of learning. The response is “prizes aren’t optional.”

We get daily inspirational emails from principals with a countdown, anecdotes about the importance of state tests, and ever-multiplying plans for “getting kids over the finish line” (these get old fast).

Old-fashioned hard work: Teachers are working nonstop during test prep. Literally pour 100% of yourself into it day in and day out. We work hard all year, but test prep brings the hours and workload to a new level. I think the same is true of all staff in schools and at Network.

I think those are the main points. We do not cheat on the tests, as some critics speculate. But we do devote an extraordinary amount of resources to them each year, arguably at the expense of actual learning. The justification I’ve heard is that these tests can determine our kids’ futures and we owe it to them to make sure they’re prepared. Obviously we as an organization are judged by them as well, so we make it a priority. What I find most disturbing is that we claim that the test scores are a result of our excellent curriculum…no mention of test prep. If we have faith in the curriculum, why not allow us to teach it and skip the test prep?

By dianeravitch
dianeravitch.net

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