At The Philanthropy Roundtable’s 2013 National Forum on K-12 Philanthropy, Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, chatted with Charter School Growth Fund president and CEO Kevin Hall about the creation, growth, and outsized political influence of Success Academy, one of the highest-performing charter management organizations in New York City. Selections from this conversation are featured below, along with the following resources on Success Academy and the Charter School Growth Fund:
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On launching Success Academy:
I started with the notion of educational nirvana. What does it look like? How do you build world-class schools? How do you make schools places where children want to come? My standard for that is what I say to my principals all the time: Hypothetically, if you didn’t need any childcare and there were no laws mandating that children go to school, would they come anyway?
What would educational nirvana look like? How do you build world-class schools?
Our schools are designed a little differently. We have science five days a week starting in kindergarten. It’s discovery-oriented science. We believe that science shouldn’t be a second class subject. It should be like reading and math. Not only is science worthwhile, but it increases the engagement factor. Kids are curious long before they can read. They can ask scientific questions and are scientifically intuitive without all the trappings of education. Every kid in our school takes chess. We have a robust art, music, and dance program. We put a real premium on engagement. We only do 10 minutes of direct instruction a day per subject. That means there is a teacher up in front of the classroom imparting wisdom and knowledge to children. The rest of the day is spent on guided and independent practice.
While our class sizes are rather large so that we can afford the chess, and the science, and the music, and the art—large, meaning 30–32 kids in kindergarten and all the way up—we do homogenous groupings and an enormous amount of small group instruction.
On gauging the success of a school:
What you really want to know—and I would urge for you as philanthropists to really think deeply about—is a school’s forced ranking. You want to know if the school or set of schools you invested in do better or worse than specific other schools, because states change the cut scores on a regular basis. So if you want to know if you’ve reversed the achievement gap, you’ve got to take the wealthiest district and you’ve got to compare your school to that district to see whether you’ve really closed it or not. We also look at and compare ourselves to the gifted and talented program, city-wide and locally, to see how we do against those.
On standardizing a welcoming, rigorous school model:
If you want to know if you’ve reversed the achievement gap, you’ve got to compare your school to the wealthiest district.
On the one hand, we have a highly standardized model. On a Tuesday at all of our elementary schools, the same math lesson is being taught. (All the teachers have flex re-teaching days so that they can address the needs of their students.) I think one of the ingredients of our success is that management is much easier if you have a standardized model. But from the child’s perspective, we do not want them to feel like they’re walking into a standardized model. We want an intimate schooling environment and to really create a community where every principal knows every child’s name. For the elementary school in particular, we want a very loving, warm environment. We call what we do “joyful rigor,” and we want an enormous amount of celebration of student work. We want to know our kids as readers, as writers, as mathematicians, as scientists. We also want to know them personally. We see ourselves as in the business of identifying kids’ talents and nurturing them, of developing a portfolio model of what our kids are talented at.
On developing student agency:
Our model is pretty progressive from an educational point of view, and our kids are highly accountable for their thinking. So if you came to our schools, a teacher would never accept an answer to a question without following up with, “what is your evidence for that or why do you think that?” That is, to us, as natural as breathing. You just don’t accept an answer without an explanation. When we do that daily, our kids become sort of like little lawyers. When visitors don’t ask them why they think that, our kids prompt them to say “you have to ask me why.”
On charter schools and the future of education innovation:
We are in the business of identifying kids’ talents and nurturing them.
I don’t really feel like I’m pro-charter. I’m pro-excellence in whatever form that comes in. We don’t know what the future holds. Maybe 10 years from now there will be ishkabibble schools—we all need to move towards wherever quality exists, and we don’t know where that will be if we really get competition going. We’re not going to know where the quality is going to come from.
Charters give you the freedom to get it right and you have a much better chance, it seems to me, of getting the school right if you have freedom. But getting it right is pretty hard to do. When I started, frankly, I don’t think I appreciated how complex the business is, how complex the schooling side is.
On scaling up the Success Academy model:
We know scaling can be done. It’s been done in many other sectors, but K-12 education is at its infancy in scaling. Really basic systems and processes we see elsewhere have not come into the K-12 space.
So from the first school, we were interested in building a financially scalable model. For us, that is something that is very, very important. Our schools are self-sustaining by year three on public dollars alone, and that was built into the model. Everything we did was done with an eye towards whether we could do it 40 times over. What is it going to take to do it 40 times over? We didn’t know what it was going to take to do it 40 times over, but if you don’t start with that commitment, you can find yourself in all sorts of places that are hard to backtrack from.
A teacher never accepts an answer to a question without following up with, “what is your evidence for that or why do you think that?”
We knew a few things when we started. We assumed that adults were the key to the process, and that is very different, I think, than a lot of other school leaders who are very focused on the children. Obviously, the children are the end goal here, but we believe that you can get extraordinary thinking and extraordinary results from the children if the adults are functioning at a very high level. So a key part of our scaling and replication design was this investment in the adults. It’s expensive, and it’s a tremendous time commitment and drain on personnel resources, but we train our teachers 13 weeks a year every single year. We believe that they have to have content mastery. They have to have read and studied the books that they’re going to teach. You have to really know the material and you have to study it to know it at a high level. You have to plan your questions to be a great questioner. If you’re going to be agile at studying student work, you have to give teachers and leaders practice at studying student work. . . . We put on 300 courses last summer to teach our teachers.
On the importance of senior management:
I don’t really feel like I’m pro-charter. I’m pro-excellence in whatever form that comes in.
I think one of the things that has been underestimated in schooling is the importance of the senior management team. Obviously, I’m a part of that. This is a complex enterprise. You need highly skilled people to manage it well and to apportion the resources. I’m not sure that people who have just instructional expertise are the right people to be managing that level of enterprise, and so we have brought in a lot of people from the private sector who can help us manage at a high level. I think that that is part of the secret of our success.
In education, you need a good design, but it’s 90 percent execution. It’s daily execution in a very granular way. If someone wanted to go from one school to three schools, I would go into the bathrooms and see if they’re clean before I invest. If the bathrooms aren’t clean, the person doesn’t have a high level of executional competence. How is their finance going to be hygienic if they’re not? It’s all about the small details, and so you’ve got to really sweat the small stuff in terms of executional competence.
On the importance of advocacy:
Well, when I started, I did not have the illusion that results would be sufficient to quell the opposition to charters or education reform because I had seen up close and personal the opposition. It was very clear to me that while stellar results are obviously good for children and necessary, they are insufficient. It’s not about winning an argument. It’s not about the opposition saying “uncle” once you have the results. It’s really about power and politics. I am certain that until the power and direction of politics shifts on children, not all children will get what they are entitled to and deserve.
You can get extraordinary thinking and extraordinary results from the children if the adults are functioning at a very high level.
So we started Success Academy with a dual mission: one was to provide world-class schooling to children, and the second was to change the public policies that prevent all children from having access to opportunity. We are very engaged in the public policy battles that prevent change, and so we spent a lot of time at city hall and in Albany and in D.C. watching the policies, making sure that they are good for children. That’s a lot of bobbing, and weaving, and navigating, and challenging to do. It is sometimes far-ranging, but it’s incredibly important that we do the policy work that is necessary. Partly, we’re able to be successful in fighting public policies locally because we’ve organized our parents. We knew from the get-go that this was going to be important to do . . . we think it’s important to stand up for what we believe in.
On lessons learned that may aid philanthropists:
The reform community used to fit in a telephone booth and it doesn’t anymore. There are lots of people doing incredible work, and I think truth and the merits will win out. It’s already starting to because the government has embraced a number of the initiatives that you’ve started. I think the trick is to keep being bolder. That is my advice to you, is to raise the ante. Now that government has taken on some of those obligations, keep pushing. Stay 10 steps ahead of government in terms of what you are demanding of the space because there’s so much work to do, and you can really make an enormous impact with resources that are small compared to governmental resources, so long as they’re used as nimbly as they have been over the last 10 years.
We need to apply the no-excuses culture to ourselves, stop whining and get organized.
I would say that one philanthropic strategy that is pretty cheap is to demand that schooling be much more rigorous. Rigor is our most powerful tool for Success Academy in getting the kinds of results that you need to be supporting schools and educational initiatives where the intellectual bar for kids is much higher than it has been. That doesn’t cost more money. It costs the same amount of money to fund a set of schools that have a weak curriculum and a weak instructional vision as it does to have more rigorous standards and benchmarks.
I would also recommend that you demand that people move faster. We don’t have time for this incremental, slow process. Every day we’re slow, generations of children are not getting what they need. I think fast is underestimated as a value in this space. Find the right people and encourage folks to go faster.
On organizing political advocacy for education reform:
Organizing is a question of will, and I think we need to apply the no-excuses culture to ourselves, stop whining and get organized. It’s not that complicated. I also think it would help if we start to think of this more broadly. . . . I look at this from a kid perspective, and if we think of what children need, we need to have a much broader perspective on options.
Until the power and direction of politics shifts on children, not all children will get what they are entitled to and deserve.
There are all sorts of public policies where we’ve got to band together and say we’re driving our reform movement. It stems from our deep commitment to children and their educational needs. We’ve got to organize from the ground up. Organizing is not just for parents. Although you’re all in this room, there are still a lot of wealthy and influential folks in America who are not part of this movement. Where are they? Why aren’t they part of this movement? We need the religious leaders. We need the political leaders. We need the leaders of finance and industry. We need the tech industry. We need every sector of America committed to solving this problem.
The middle class has been left out of education reform in a way which is destructive to their educational futures and also civically destructive. If we only focus on the most disadvantaged folks, I don’t think the monopoly of public education is going to fall quite as fast. If we want it to fall faster, then we’re going to have to engage middle-income folks in this process as well.