In the summer of 2013, After New York’s adoption of new, more rigorous testing benchmarks under the Common Core State Standards Initiative, student test scores plummeted around the state, wiping out years of paper gains. Fewer than one in three New York City School District students scored proficient in math. Yet students enrolled in the Success Academy charter school network stunned the education establishment with their performance: more than 80 percent achieved proficiency in math.
Now, amid the pandemic-driven national experiment in compulsory homeschooling and online learning, Success Academy and its president and CEO, Eva Moskowitz, appear poised to shock the education system again—serving as both inspiration and rebuke. Two months into the state lockdown, the network of 45 New York City schools serving 18,000 students is close to replicating itself remotely, with full days of instruction, professional development, and planning meetings for staff. Principals are observing teachers giving online lessons. In a matter of weeks, Success has converted itself into a functional digital school, while eliminating none of its ambitious regimen of academics, internal assessments, and progress monitoring—even as New York, like every state, has abandoned standardized testing for the year.
Only 44 percent of U.S. school districts are providing instruction online and monitoring students’ attendance and progress, according to data compiled by the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). “For most children, the school year effectively ended in March,” observed University of Michigan’s Susan Dynarski in the New York Times last week. Even schools and districts making “remote-learning” efforts have mostly limited themselves to reviewing material covered previously, in an attempt to prevent learning loss. Most U.S. school districts have adopted pass/fail grading for what’s left of the school year; the San Francisco Board of Education has considered giving every student an A in classes disrupted by the pandemic.
Moskowitz will have none of it. “We don’t think it’s fair for kids who have to be prepared for the next grade to just dispense with grades,” she said last week on Fox 5’s Good Day New York. Success Academy is pressing ahead, with average daily attendance holding steady at 97 percent among a predominantly low-income, minority student body.
Never one to be paralyzed by indecision, Moskowitz decided on March 12 to close her schools, and announced that decision to Success families the following day. At the time, Mayor Bill de Blasio was still insisting that DOE schools should remain open because health and hospital workers needed child care while fighting the pandemic—a questionable stance even then, and one that now looks close to reckless.
“This is a time for simplicity and being careful not to throw in too many bells and whistles,” Moskowitz advised in the early days of remote learning. Elementary school staff, she said, would focus on “inspiring and engaging” students. Teachers were initially instructed to call students twice a day to check in and discuss reading assignments and math problems that they would complete independently or with parental supervision. Two months later, even the youngest Success Academy “scholars” spend a full day of online instruction in all subjects, including small-group math and “guided reading” with their teachers.
“You hit a routine with the younger kids and then they add another layer,” notes Erica Woolway, who works with school districts and charter-management organizations nationwide as an education consultant. Her three children, in first, third, and sixth grades at Success Academy, follow a schedule from 9 a.m. through 3 p.m. daily. As we spoke, her middle son participated in a network-run soccer practice with his coach via Zoom.
Woolway is impressed with the effort Success is making but clear-eyed about how challenging it would be for other schools to match it—and for parents of younger children to monitor and keep pace. “I’m healthy and an educator. Is working from home and supporting my kids’ online learning the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do?” She pauses. “Maybe. If I had more kids, health or housing issues, or if I were a front line worker, how in the world would I be able to do it?”
The answer, at least in part, is that Success Academy is reaping the harvest of the habits, expectations, and culture that Moskowitz has carefully built for more than a decade. Its admissions process and academic model require deep parental commitment. Success Academy has long required parents to read nightly with their children, update reading logs, check homework, drill sight words and math facts, and maintain frequent contact with teachers. The parents are more conditioned than those at most other schools, charter or public, to play an active role in their children’s schooling. The expectations and level of engagement resemble what parents have come to expect from elite private schools.
Success entered the Covid-19 crisis better positioned than most for the transition to remote learning. Every student from grade four onward already had a school-issued Chromebook. By fifth grade, children take digital assessments and get feedback electronically from teachers. Middle and high school students, as well as their teachers, have Audible accounts and can access online-learning resources that include DreamBox, Mathalicious, BrainPop, Newsela, and Lichess. When it became clear that in-person schooling would not resume anytime soon, network staff acquired and distributed more than 10,000 Chromebook tablets to students in grades K through three. By May, every student had one. Digital communications between home and school, which many disrupted schools have struggled to set up and maintain, has long been a standard feature of life at Success Academy.
The contrast with the experience of most American students could not be more stark “Kids in the majority of districts, which are either providing no instruction or offering instruction but not tracking progress, have little or no chance of finishing their current grade and being ready for the next grade in the fall,” observes CRPE’s Paul T. Hill. With no state tests by which to compare Success Academy’s performance with New York City district schools or competing charters, it will be at least a year before reliable third-party data exist to gauge pandemic-related learning loss at schools in New York or across the country. But it should surprise no one if, when the dust clears, Success Academy students are once again defying the odds.