Interview with Eva Moskowitz

How this hard-charging leader of school reform accomplishes miracles

  • K-12 Education
  • Philanthropy Magazine

In less than a decade, Eva Moskowitz has built up the largest charter-school network in New York City—34 campuses serving 11,000 children, with many more on the way. And her Success Academies are producing astounding results.

Take a look at the New York state schools with the highest proficiency scores, and you’ll find that five of the top ten in math are from Success Academy, as are three of the top twenty in English. This despite the fact that nearly all Success students come from struggling families and neighborhoods, and start their education with several strikes against them.

Raised by two professors and educated in Harlem public schools before she completed a Ph.D., Moskowitz ran for New York City Council determined to improve ineffective public schools. She earned a reputation as a hard-nosed, fearless advocate for accountability and higher standards. Eventually, fed up with the status quo and determined to demonstrate a better alternative, she used philanthropic money to found her first charter school in Harlem in 2006.

Her striking successes with poor and minority children embarrassed the educational establishment. She became “Teachers Union Enemy No. 1” according to the Wall Street Journal. Bill de Blasio campaigned for mayor on the mantra that Moskowitz must “stop being tolerated, enabled, supported.”

Moskowitz has so far defended her work against these backlashes, and continues to expand the accomplishments of Success Academy. How does she do it? Philanthropy spent time with Moskowitz to learn the secrets of her donor-supported triumphs.

Philanthropy: Tell us about the beginnings of Success Academies.

Moskowitz: Well, I ran for city council in New York City to put a spotlight on education. At the time I had a lot more faith in government than I do now. I am from an FDR liberal-Democratic family. With proximity to government, I have become more libertarian.

I was elected, and ended up chairing the education committee. I thought we could fix the system, and spent a lot of time and energy trying to do just that from within the public-school establishment. I did about 125 hearings as a city-council member before I took on the third rail. Everybody advised me that if I looked at the union contracts with the teachers, the principals, the staff, it would be the end of my political career.

I felt—how else can we understand what needs to be changed? Those contracts are public documents that elected officials sign. It seemed completely fair game to look under the hood at what they actually say. I realized there was a possibility it would end my political career, but I wasn’t the kind of person who always wanted to be an elected official. I got involved in politics specifically to fix this problem, and didn’t aspire to make a career of it.

So I held hearings on the contracts. It was the first time in my life that I kind of felt like I was living a Godfather movie. I had witnesses who insisted on disguising their voices. I had a witness who came with a paper bag on her head. There is a fair amount of thuggery in that world.

No fair-minded person who looks through the 800 pages of the teacher-union contract in New York City would say this was designed with the interests of teaching and learning in mind. This is a document designed backward from the political power of the union.

Philanthropy: You reached a tipping point, left political office behind, and decided you had to do something about this personally. You got involved in creating schools designed around children’s real needs.

Moskowitz: I didn’t start by trying to create schools for poor kids. I wanted to provide a great education to children who, because of a lack of broad parental choice, would otherwise not have access to it.

When I began in 2006 at our first school in Harlem with 165 children, I was interested in building schools as good as any in the world. I wanted kids to be excellent readers, writers, and mathematicians, of course, but I also wanted them to do discovery-oriented science five days a week. I wanted them to have high moral character and be self- reflective about their emotions.

All of our children take chess, which we treat as an academic subject. What I love about chess is it takes language off the table. It’s pure strategic thinking.

We also love debate. Many kids like to argue, and love competitions. If you channel that into an academic exercise kids learn incredibly useful skills of preparation, of public speaking, of thinking on their feet, of arguing and counterarguing. It’s an intellectual sport, if you will. 

We have hundreds of kids participating in debate competitions, not only locally but nationally.

Lest you think we don’t do any sort of sports and visual arts and dancing—we do those things as well. But we emphasize academics. Our math teams are quite good. Just like a sports team, they get paraphernalia, and have fun. When you have 30 percent of your kids on the math team—and for us, that is several thousand children because we now have 11,000 students—you can create a whole math culture.

Philanthropy: What do you think influenced these choices?

Moskowitz: I think being a mother really influenced me. A lot of the early founders of the charter sector, you know, they were not parents themselves. I was the mother of three children when I opened my first school. I just kept asking myself, what would I want this environment to look like? So, just being pragmatic. Educators can be very abstract about things.

I’m a big believer in recess, for instance. I don’t really see how squirmy five-year-olds can go without multiple recesses a day. They need to run around. In all my heart and soul, I believe in recess, and the younger the children are the more frequent it needs to be. We do recess through eighth grade.

Teachers often like to take recess away from children when they misbehave, when they’re not getting their math. We don’t believe at Success Academies that losing recess should be a punishment. You wouldn’t take math away from a kid if they misbehaved.

Boredom is actually a tremendous pain point in education. Many children are bored out of their minds in school. Part of the reason is because there isn’t a premium on engagement, and another big part is because the curriculum is lacking in rigor. If you compare mathematics teaching in America with the rest of the world you find that what other advanced countries are doing in second grade we’re doing in fifth grade.

Our children are not dumber. It’s a product of intellectual underestimation of our young. If we want to engage American students, we’re going to have to stop underestimating their intellect. We’re going to have to start testing the ceiling and really seeing what kids are capable of. That starts with basic skills. You’re not going to be able to write well without a foundation in grammar. We believe in diagramming sentences. We believe in the red pen, which was basically outlawed in the 1970s in New York City. We find it very helpful for students to know where they went wrong. These basic skills are not a goal in and of themselves, they are a means towards an end. In order to think precisely and imaginatively, you need them.

While school is supposed to be for children, in big government-run school systems, schooling is often shaped for the convenience of adults. If you want good student outcomes, adults have to work very hard to develop both content and pedagogy skills. Unfortunately, teacher training and principal training around the country is not being done at a high level. Content training of teachers is a missing link in our K-12 education system, so at Success Academies we provide 13 weeks every single year of teacher and principal training.

Philanthropy: But your early years were very hard.

Moskowitz: There were a lot of things that didn’t go well. We had every kind of rodent and bug you could possibly imagine. We had the water main break. The uniform company I ended up taking over because it was terrible. Teachers quit. My principal quit, so I took over as principal. Every imaginable thing that could go wrong, went wrong.

I think what we had going for us is that I had created a culture of continuous improvement. I would meet with my faculty literally every single day after school. We’d make long lists of things that didn’t go well. And then we’d make a plan. Which things can we fix tomorrow, and which are going to take us longer? And we just kept making the thing better and better.

Philanthropy: In the latest New York state assessments, 93 percent of your students tested as proficient on the math exam—a remarkable 58 points higher than the city average. And your network ranked in the top three percent of all schools statewide in English, despite enrolling mostly low-income minority children. 

Moskowitz: It’s important to understand that on the math exam, for instance, 68 percent of those 93 percent got the very highest score of four. On our science exam, we had 99 percent of kids in fourth grade getting the highest score of four. You can’t get those results by test prep. It just doesn’t happen. The only way you can get those results is to teach children well and treasure the quality of student learning.

So, we do a variety of things. One of the things we do that’s fairly unique is our kids read a poem every single day, starting in kindergarten. That gets kids pretty comfortable with dissecting on the fly the meaning and language of any text.

One of the things we’ve done wrong in American education is to think hard is bad. Without intellectual struggle, kids don’t learn. Now, you don’t obviously want to give kids calculus in kindergarten because that would be too hard, but hard is important. You’ve got to find a problem that is a stretch for the kids where they really have to puzzle over it.

When we teach chess, one of the things we teach the kids is to use all their time on the clock. Poorer players tend to go fast and fail to use all their time to think through options for moves they can make and their opponent could make. You can’t impulsively grab your piece and move it or you will make a mistake. We have to give kids more time to think and puzzle.

Philanthropy: Your formula seems to work.

Moskowitz: We now serve 11,000 students at 34 schools. We’re working to get to a hundred schools. But we recently ran into a small obstacle called the mayor of New York City.

It’s a little strange to have opposition to great schooling in the midst of a massive educational crisis. In New York City, we spend nearly $30 billion every year miseducating 80 to 90 percent of the students. It’s a lot of money for unbelievably poor outcomes.

When we fail to teach a child to read by third grade it becomes very, very difficult and very, very expensive to make that up. Getting things right from the get-go is hard, but not nuclear physics. In New York City we have a big government-run monopoly that is not delivering.

The Berlin Wall is not going to come down easy. It’s going to require a lot of sledgehammers. So we recently organized 18,500 parents to demand their right to educational excellence. The governor listened, and the mayor got a hard rebuff. 

Philanthropy: When you tell donors that in addition to investing in specific school improvements they also need to invest in politics and policy reform so that better rules shape public education, what kind of reactions do you get?

Moskowitz: Politics and policy are a little intimidating for some; it feels like gamesmanship and a little bit foreign. Sometimes it even feels icky, right?

But I think there’s an increasingly positive reaction from a return-on-investment perspective. You have to look at the cost of creating an alternative-school program versus fixing the regular school that is not providing the education kids need. There’s increasing sophistication among donors in recognizing that changing public policy is high-impact work.

Philanthropy: How do you track progress in public policy, given its non-linear nature?

Moskowitz: When opportunities fall from the sky you have to take advantage of them. When there was an opportunity in 1998, a small group of donors in New York got our state’s charter-school law passed. It was a ridiculously small group of donors and small amount of money, yet they created choice on the public-school side for the first time. Now 11,000 students at Success Academies and 100,000 across the city of New York are benefiting. The fits-and-starts nature of policy reform can be discouraging, but there are many opportunities that suddenly arise where you could actually change important rules. The important thing is knowing what you want to change, and being ready to spring when the chance comes.

Philanthropy: How do your organize parents to advocate in the state capital?

Moskowitz: Many of our parents are very sophisticated consumers because they have an older child in the district school and a younger child in a charter. So they see the differences right within their household. I always say parents don’t need to be prepared for these meetings with elected officials, because it’s telling their life story. They know why they believe what they believe.

It takes money to rent buses and hire lawyers and buy ads, though, and those funds can’t come from the educational side. So the engagement of parents in policy advocacy has to run through the donor community.

There is a lot of public-information work to do, partly because teacher unions promote a lot of myths—that charters are selective, that they don’t have a random lottery. A lot of our parents of special-ed children go up to Albany because there are all these myths around charters not serving that constituency.

Philanthropy: How much traction do these various negative myths now have among the public at large?

Moskowitz: Well, we do have to admit that plenty of charters are not excellent. It’s not automatic. I always say the charter-school structure gives you the freedom to get things right, but doesn’t guarantee you necessarily will. But even when charters are less high-performing than, say, Success Academies, they’re often better than the district alternative. In New York, average charters tend to be significantly better than the district alternative.

The media also often distorts things. They mix up children’s scholarships and charter reimbursements, private schools and public-charter schools, tax credits versus vouchers, and so forth. If you randomly walked up to a person on the streets of New York and asked, “What’s a public-charter school?” many couldn’t give you a simple answer. It’s hard to be educated on this topic.

What parents do know is they want choices and want to be in control of where they send their child to be educated. And that’s not the case for most parents in America; they have only one option.

Philanthropy: Why are donors so important to what you’re doing?

Moskowitz: Donors are catalyzers of change. They’re not constrained by existing boundaries, boundaries that often don’t serve children well. They have the freedom to ask, “Is there a better way? A different way? A faster way?” Philanthropy is inherently pioneering, and that’s why it’s so important.

Philanthropy: Though your charter schools are publicly funded, you support vouchers and tax credits that parents could use in private or religious or online schools. Why?

Moskowitz: This year we had about 22,000 parents apply for open slots at Success Academy. It’s heartbreaking, because we could serve only 2,300 of them. The rest we had to turn away, and we knew where those children were going—to public schools where children do not learn to read, do not do math at a high level, do not get to debate on foreign policy, do not get to play chess.

Fully 800,000 kids in the state of New York are trapped in schools that aren’t educating them. There are children not even learning to read and do math. We have to ask, “what is the fastest way to give parents the power to make educational choices that will be better for their kids?” So I was very disappointed that the tax credit for school fees didn’t pass in New York state this year, though it came close. That is a tool that should be in the toolkit of parents.

Philanthropy: How much shared purpose or collaboration is there among schools in New York City that are linked only by the fact that they’re alternatives to the conventional public institutions?

Moskowitz: All of us are aware of the educational suffering that’s going on, and unified in the view that there is a crisis in schooling today that can’t be swept under the rug. Those of us who are providing alternatives have obviously become convinced that there is virtue in a new way of doing things. Who students are as people also matters to many of us. Obviously they need to be good readers, writers, and mathematicians, but they also need to be people of high moral character.

Philanthropy: When did you start caring about what you call “educational suffering?”

Moskowitz: Oh, I was very young. I went to pretty bad district schools in Harlem, and my parents taught my brother and me how to read when we got home, because the school did not. Many of the kids I went to school with were smart and interesting but didn’t have parents who were able to do that for them. So I saw at a young age that there were two paths. And I remember it upsetting me during elementary school. I felt it was wrong.

I don’t know what the term “educational suffering” sounds like to someone who’s not in schools every day, but kids are like a ball of human potential, and then they run headlong into a school system that doesn’t treat them very well. It’s hard to walk through a dysfunctional school and not cry, because these five-year-olds in a different environment would be given a profoundly different experience, one that could yield success instead of suffering.

People are treating the kids as if there’s no hope. How, for a five-year-old, could there be no hope? There’s all the hope in the world. Yet you look into the kids’ eyes and you see that the system is messaging to them that they’re not one of the chosen.

It’s not intentional. The system is just broken, really broken. But it’s unconscionable to be spending precious resources on a system that’s failing kids, so we have to change it. The good news is that America’s a country of change and new ideas. We can work our way out of this. And I think the philanthropic community’s going to be a key to that, because they encourage innovation, because they’re not tied to the existing system.

Philanthropy: You’re known as a hard-charging leader. What keeps you going?

Moskowitz: Well, coffee. But as I’ve said, I’ve got three children of my own. That’s motivation. And our principals and teachers are an incredible group who are so dedicated to kids, and so caring and creative and willing to do whatever it takes. That revs me up.

And I would say New York keeps me going. There’s just a willingness to change here because it’s a city on the go. There are big obstacles, but also groups of people who are not willing to put up with bad results. They step up to the plate, and that’s very inspiring. Our donor community could do anything with their funds, but they’re choosing to focus on what I would argue is the civil-rights issue of our era.

Philanthropy: How do you combine rapid growth with sustained high quality?

Moskowitz: We centralize the curriculum and set that at the home office. Not that we don’t get teacher and leader input. We have lots of committees revising, and teachers all the time come and say we need more of this and less of that. But if you make the curriculum and the assessments standard at a high level, you’re part of the way there in terms of replicability.

Getting people to stick to the curriculum, and to be committed to the pacing, is really important in teaching. It takes enormous training to be faithful to the model. And we have a lot of time built into our schedule for teacher planning and collaboration. Our teachers get about three hours of planning and collaboration time per day. In exchange, we expect them to be exceptionally well-prepared.

And we’ve found that in order to educate kids we have to be in the business of educating adults. The schools of education in this country are not getting the job done. I had to hire 446 teachers in one three-month period; the next year, I had to find 906 teachers. In order to do that, we essentially had to become a school of education. So we are building an ed institute, with lots of philanthropic support.

Philanthropy: What are your thoughts on the New Orleans recovery school district going to 100 percent charter schools?

Moskowitz: I’m not a student of New Orleans, but I know a lot of educators who are there, and compared to the old system it is certainly way more successful. The level of educational suffering in New Orleans was very intense. Does that mean that as a city they are where they need to be? I doubt it. The whole country needs a lot more great operators. We all, everywhere, need to increase standards of what it means to educate a kid excellently.