Success can’t be measured by one or two numbers

“Whenever you make huge decisions about complex situations based on one or two numbers, you’re headed for disaster — especially when those numbers can be gamed.”

—Mark Palko and Andrew Gelman, “How schools that obsess about standardized tests ruin them as measures of success” on Vox

We’ve questioned Success Academy’s “success” on this blog before. These statisticians bring a new lens to that question.

I don’t want to denigrate the good work that Success Academy teachers and students are doing. There are practices and systems well worth replicating and investigating in these schools. But Eva Moskowitz’s political framing and marketing of her schools as the solution to poverty is problematic.

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What Is Success?

Ecoschool

In an interesting coincidence, Will and I have been writing about Eva Moskowitz and poverty, and here the NY state test results come along. Success Academy made up 7 out 15 of the top scorers in NY state, according to the NY Post. And while of course poverty level correlated with reading performance, there were the outliers of high poverty schools that outperformed state averages.

But Success Academy was more than just a freak outlier—it blew other schools out of the water, and it did so consistently across multiple schools.

In the NY Daily News, Robert Pondiscio writes in “How Does She Do It?“:

What is imperative now is for serious, unbiased experts and observers to descend on Harlem and figure out how these extraordinary results are being achieved and, if all that glitters is gold, how to replicate them.

It’s worth repeating a challenge I threw out earlier to Eva Moskowitz in a recent post: share the practices, content, and protocols your schools are using so others can benefit. That’s what being a “public” school is all about, right? Collaboration, sharing, learning. That’s what our public system of education should be doing if we’re truly dedicated to improving outcomes for all of our children, and not just some.

As John King also said: “The question becomes, what’s happening in these schools that’s leading to those better outcomes?”

I agree with Pondiscio and King. I genuinely want to know what’s happening at Success Academy. And I want to know from the perspective of a school as an ecosystem. From this perspective, some questions I would ask would be oriented around the main pillars of a strong school community: 1) leadership, 2) content, and 3) environment.

Leadership

  • What do the formal and informal leaders say and do? How and what do they communicate consistently? (This includes student leaders).
  • Is the leadership distributed?
  • What mechanisms are in place for students, parents, teachers, and leaders to collaborate and receive continuous feedback? How do leaders respond to feedback?
  • How is diversity in student ability, knowledge, and skills strategically recognized and cultivated?

Content

  • What are the values and vision behind assessment and unit design?
  • What texts are taught in ELA? Why?
  • How well do topics and themes build knowledge and understanding of academic domains and the world sequentially across classrooms and grades?
  • How are students engaged in their community through units?
  • What scaffolds and interventions for students who are struggling are applied consistently both in and out of classrooms?
  • What opportunities beyond academics are provided for all students?

Environment

  • What does it feel like when you walk into a Success Academy school? What does it sound like? What does it look like?
  • How relevant is posted work and displays to students and their community?
  • What is the ratio of positive to negative language used by students and staff in the building?
  • How (psychologically) safe do students with special needs feel in the hallways, lunch rooms, and classrooms?
  • How are supportive social relationships and networks developed and sustained by the school?

These are just some of the questions I would start with.

State test results are just one indicator. Remember, we’re playing the long game here. And there is evidence to suggest that test results are a shallow indicator.

I don’t say this to put down what Success Academy has accomplished. Their students deserve our recognition. They’ve worked hard for this.

But what I want to know is whether what Success Academy is doing is truly preparing students for the future, for the long-term.

What is success? And what does it look like? And is what Success Academy doing truly an exemplar?

And more importantly—what does success look like over the long haul?

How to Fight Poverty: Provide Options

The Network Effect

Last week, Will and I took up the topic of poverty in response to an op-ed by Eva Moskowitz. Poverty is rightfully a major point of discourse in fields such as education, sociology, and economics, especially given the symbolic and vaunted “golden door” of opportunity for the “huddled masses” presented by the ideal of the United States.

For those of us who work in communities entrenched in poverty, we see firsthand the devastation that poverty and its associated ills can wreak on our children and their families. You won’t catch me blithely trumpeting “poverty doesn’t matter” anytime soon. Poverty matters. Which is another way of saying that capital—and who has an abundance of access to it, and who doesn’t—matters.

Optionality—or the Lack Thereof

I like to think of capital, or wealth, as optionality (with a nod to Nassim Taleb). In other words, capital is the possession of options, which can be social, psychological, physical, or otherwise, and not simply a matter of money. As an example, there are folks who may not have lots of money per se, yet are willing to take fairly large (calculated) risks and thus gain wealth. Such people most likely have access to other forms of capital, such as a solid network of family, friends, or other formal or informal sources of guidance and support. And as we know with capital, the more you have, the more you accumulate. This effect, known as the Matthew Effect, has also been much written about in education, especially in regards to vocabulary development.

Unsurprisingly, a child’s exposure to vocabulary corresponds very closely to the socio-economic status of his family.

There’s No Denying the Challenge

There’s a strong tendency in the ed reform crowd to present a righteously indignant insistence that poverty should not determine life nor career outcomes. It certainly shouldn’t. Not in a world that is fair. But it does. Research suggests that poverty can even have long-term consequences on brain development. In summarizing the research from a longitudinal study, Emily Badger on Atlantic’s CityLab said,

Poverty taxes the ability of parents to do all kinds of things, including care for their children. And the developmental challenges that children face in a home full of stressed adults may well influence the adults that they, themselves, become.

To acknowledge the impact of factors associated with poverty does not mean to give up, nor to suggest that our schools can’t do better. It’s rather to acknowledge the extreme challenges our children might face, as well as to acknowledge that such challenges extend well beyond the purview of the classroom.

By acknowledging these challenges and the stark reality that children and their family may face in fact validates yet more the tough work that educators do. It’s our job to provide an environment where our children not only will be challenged at the highest level, but furthermore provided extensive support, both academic and otherwise. A recent post by CJ Libassi on New America’s EdCentral makes this explicit, based on recent findings from a Mathematica study:

“To catch up,” the authors say, “high-risk children would need to make almost twice as much progress during kindergarten as low-risk children.”

Depressing as these findings may be, more discouraging still is the fact that exposure to risk factors that impede kindergarten readiness has not improved since the 1998-99 cohort of students. And, it may be getting worse. In the 1998-99 group, 58% of kindergartners had no risk factors, compared to the most recent cohort’s rate of 56% students with no such obstacles in their lives. Though we can’t be certain that the number of children experiencing risk factors is trending upwards, it is safe to conclude that the problem is at least getting no better.

Let’s Pull Up Our Big Person Pants

Rather than needlessly polarizing the issue of poverty in education by pointing to outliers, the real question is: how we can better serve communities entangled in poverty and seek to mediate the toxic effects?

Let’s go back to the idea of wealth and capital as optionality. We want to provide our children and their families with more and better options.

  • Having options means that you have some place to go to enrich yourself after school ends.
  • Having options means that you have some place within walking distance to obtain healthy food.
  • Having options means that you have access to different spaces of respite and serenity, places with trees, or water, or flowers, or scenic views.
  • Having options means that you can decide not to go to college, and still develop skills for a viable career.
  • Having options means that you can decide to raise a child before you’ve invested in a career or college, and still find support with child care.
  • Having options means that you can decide to start your own business, because you still have a savings or insurance to fall back on if you fail.
  • Having options means that you can decide to move to another part of town, because there will still be affordable housing options there.

It’s incumbent on all of us, as a society, to provide more and better options for each other. And while the seeds of change can be sown in the classroom, they are sustained and scaled by the overarching structures and policies of our economy and government. Our schools may be on the front lines in the fight against poverty, but the real battle occurs on each of our front lawns.

We’re all accountable for the poverty of communities in our nation. What are we doing to provide opportunities for children and families in those communities?

When framed in this way, we can acknowledge the opportunities that educators are providing without the need to denigrate them for political points. We can acknowledge, say, the great work that Eva Moskowitz’ network provides with Success Academy schools, while also acknowledging that it is simply not enough. We can appreciate the effort Geoffrey Canada has made to make a school provide more than just an education, while acknowledging that it’s still not enough.

And we can acknowledge the hard work that educators in our district schools are doing each day across this vast system, while also acknowledging—it’s just not enough.

In this nation, we’re scared of taking big and bold collective action and pulling up our big person pants. What do I mean by big and bold action? How about reparations for people of color? Or affirmative action? Or integrated and affordable housing? How about a global wealth tax?

Yeah, I thought so. Not in my backyard, right? To each his own. Too bad, so sad. The endless charade of American independence.

Since big and bold action is unlikely any time soon, and we know that simply throwing big money or big names at the problem isn’t effective either, fighting poverty is unfortunately about incremental change. It’s about playing the long game.

So, what’s the long game? I’m going to argue that it has a lot to do with trees.

To be continued in our next post. . . 

What We Talk about When We Talk about Poverty

doublespeak

As Mark noted in his last post, Success Academy Charter School CEO Eva Moskowitz recently wrote an op-ed for The New York Post in which she announced:

There is a myth in this country that poverty and race are overwhelming barriers to a child’s ability to learn. This is simply not the case.

On some level, Moskowitz is correct: poverty does not interfere with student learning. To get to that level, we have to dissociate the word “poverty” from both its literal definition and its commonly accepted meaning: the condition of having little or no wealth and the resulting lack of access to human necessities like nutritious food, shelter, clothing, books, and other things that make life comfortable and stimulating.

Once we strip the word poverty of its meaning, it becomes three meaningless syllables. At that point, Moscowitz is 100% right: those syllables have no impact on children whatsoever.

Those of us who are concerned about poverty, however, should keep the word firmly attached to its meaning. When we do that, we recognize that Moskowitz is actually 100% wrong. Over and over and over again, research shows that the elements that constitute the condition of poverty— including hunger, poor nutrition, illness, and lack of access to books— consistently and aggressively interfere with student learning. Over and over again, research shows that the #1 predictor of student learning is wealth, or lack of it.

Incidentally, poor children are also more likely to go to poorly lit, overcrowded schools that lack adequate books and supplies. That’s become even more likely in recent years because Moskowitz’s Success Academies have siphoned millions upon millions of dollars away from the public schools that serve the vast majority of New York City’s children.

Which brings us back to the topic of dissociating words from their meanings. Specifically, the word “public.” In her op-ed, Moskowitz claimed:

Success Academies are free, K-12 public schools, open to all children.

The word “public,” as most of us understand it, means “available to everyone”– like a public park or bathroom. Given that meaning, Eva Moskowitz’s schools are not public. Success Academies refuse to admit students they don’t want (they currently accept roughly 20% of students who apply) and get rid of students they don’t like.

Since Success Academies are not public, it’s kind of shocking that when the chips are down, their students can’t compete with the best and brightest from the city’s allegedly failing public system. But those were the results this spring when every single member of the Harlem Success Academy’s first graduating class failed the entrance exam to the city’s select public high schools.

It’s hard to know what went wrong, but we do know that we’re not allowed to blame poverty when students fail. And you can bet I’m not going to blame the Success Academy’s teachers, who get worked to the bone. Maybe we should just blame Moskowitz.

The Myth of the School as Savior of All Social Ills

Koti Chennayya – Legendary twin heroes known for their martial skills, heroic deeds, discipline and above all strength of character and respect for truth.

Eva Moskowitz recently wrote an op-ed for NY Post in which she makes the case that schools can effectively overcome all obstacles. In my last post here, “An Editorial on Societal Culpability for Have-Nots,” I argued something somewhat different. So it would be worth examining her argument closer so I can clarify my position.

Eva starts off with a strong statement:

There is a myth in this country that poverty and race are overwhelming barriers to a child’s ability to learn. This is simply not the case.

She then promotes the exemplar of her own schools, the Success Academy charter network, as the supporting evidence for this statement. “Success Academies are free, K-12 public schools, open to all children. . . . Success Academy schools are at the top of all public schools in the state.”

This is a bit of an aside, but I’d like to throw down the gauntlet here for Ms. Moskowitz. If she is truly committed to the “public” part of education, then why not share all of the wonderful practices and content that makes her schools so successful? I’m someone always seeking to learn from best practices, and I work willingly across charter and district divides.

When the scores came out for the first Common Core-aligned NY state tests last year, and I saw Success Academy II in the Bronx had the highest scores in the city, I tweeted that I wanted to know what they were doing. I’m serious about that.

Share, Ms. Moskowitz, not simply compete. That’s how we can make all our schools better, and not just yours.

Moskowitz then makes the following statements, in which I can find much to agree with:

If we sell low-income, minority children short, because we believe their poverty prevents them from learning, then indeed, they won’t learn. If we want to help our children of color to rise out of poverty, we must give them schools on par with what their more affluent peers have. . . .

I fully concur that we need to make our schools better for students of color and students in poverty AND for students with special needs, and that we must raise our expectations for ALL children. This is why I teach and this is why I blog.

This also made me think about a recent post on Shanker Blog by William Schmidt, “The Global Relationship Between Classroom Content And Unequal Educational Outcomes,” in which he says:

It is very unlikely that students will learn material they are not exposed to, and there is considerable evidence that disadvantaged students are systematically tracked into classrooms with weaker content. Rather than mitigating the effects of poverty, many American schools are exacerbating them.

We need to make our schools better. Our schools are not good enough, particularly for our students who rely on them for opportunities the most.

Moskowitz closes her op-ed with the following statement:

We don’t need so much to “lift” children from poverty as to equip them with the skills and self-confidence to achieve their dreams. We must choose to make schools incubators of opportunity, not poverty traps.

Though I agree with her sentiment, I also think this kind of wishful thinking can be problematic. You can see more evidence in the following statements that Moskowitz made earlier in the post:

We as a nation can’t fix poverty unless we fix education, and we can’t fix education if we keep telling ourselves our schools are “good enough.” . . .

If we give all children a fair start, then the race is theirs to win.

Why do I call this “wishful thinking”? Because essentially, Moskowitz is arguing that if we fix everything in the classroom, then we’ve provided our students of poverty and color with ample opportunity and equity. Then it’s off to the races. Our wonderful American meritocracy will then function as it should.

But it won’t. It won’t because even if we provide the best education in the world in an isolated pocket of poverty, what opportunities will the children in that community have upon their graduation? What social networks will they have to support them as they climb to ever more challenging and higher rungs in professional and academic settings?

Fixing education is not enough, and saying that it is enough is in my opinion wishful thinking because it lets us off the hook, and this letting-us-off-the-hook is why I wrote my last impassioned post about our society’s culpability for the horrendous living situations and life outcomes of too many of our nation’s children. If we think we can fix everything in the classroom, that we can dust off our hands at the end of the day, get into our BMWs and drive off to our wealthier enclaves, eat our organically grown fresh produce, and tell ourselves that we’ve done everything we could, then we are fooling ourselves, and we are letting ourselves and those in power in our society off the hook.

Because making schools better also isn’t “good enough.” It’s important, and it’s the battle Moskowitz and myself and educators throughout our nation get up each morning to do, because we believe in its importance. But if it’s good enough, then we are effectively saying that we are endorsing socio-economic and racial segregation. We are effectively saying that so long as you have yours, and I have mine—and it’s equal—then everything’s going to be OK.

It’s not going to be OK, so long as there’s the other side of the railroad tracks. And it’s not going to be OK when even if we provide a world class education such as Success Academy is claiming to do, our students living in poverty still are not completing college at greater rates nor obtaining higher paid careers (is Success Academy tracking longer term outcomes? That’s what KIPP is doing–they’re taking a hard and honest look at the graduation rates of their scholars, rather than giving themselves high fives).

I love Moskowitz’ idea of schools as “incubators of opportunity.” I’d like to extend that idea to entire communities. The communities of the South Bronx and Brownsville must be cultivated as incubators of opportunity, not just their schools. Detroit and East LA and South Texas should be nurtured and invested in as incubators of opportunity.

A school is part of an ecosystem of a community. What economic opportunities are available? What social and physical capital investments have been made? What sort of public transportation options are there?

Even if we had the best schools in the world in our poorest communities, our work has only just begun. Education is important. But that’s only half the battle.