How do Success Academies achieve such exceptional results?

In Robert Pondiscio’s brilliant book, How the Other Half Learns, readers gain a real insight into the workings of the Success Academies through an in-depth look at one school year in Bronx 1, one of their primary schools. In this post, I’m going to explore Pondiscio’s writing in an attempt to draw out what makes Success Academies so, well, successful. And before we think about the “they choose their children” argument so often levelled at successful schools, I will quote the author: “While critics frequently attribute Success Academy’s results to systematically weeding out low-performing students, it would be hard to get anywhere near these targets, even if you hand-selected each child. Success Academy outperforms New York City’s gifted and talented schools, which actually do handpick their students.” Success’s results are astronomical: on state standardised tests, the network averages 95% proficiency in Maths and 84% in English, far above even the state’s most selective schools. For me the key learning points that shine through Pondiscio’s book are:

  1. Curriculum
  2. Teaching, and the leadership of teaching
  3. Parents

 

  1. Curriculum

The narrowing impact on the curriculum of national tests is something we in the UK can readily engage with. Pondiscio describes low-income children’s “starvation rations in history, geography, science, art and music” as their teachers prioritise a narrow range of skills to pass state tests (the irony being that a more narrow curriculum drilled tightly to the test tends to have the opposite impact on scores). The impact of the Common Core, introduced in 2013, saw depressed results across the board as children’s lack of a broad curriculum experience emerged – in all except Success Academies. This attests to Success’s rich, rigorous and broad academic curriculum. Success employs a common, shared curriculum across its schools, meaning that their teachers focus instead on “intellectual prep”: i.e., how they will deliver the lesson to their specific children. One of my favourite sentences in the book is this: “once children can decode a piece of text fluently, a reading test is hardly a reading test at all; it is functionally a test of background knowledge.” The Success curriculum is a knowledge rich curriculum.

 

  1. Teaching: behaviour management and teacher instruction

Behaviour is always a priority at Success, and this is quantified for rigorous follow-up. The SLT talk about “deliverables”: children are expected to be on-task 95% of the time; teachers are expected to notice and correct off-task behaviour 100% of the time; teachers should be able to de-escalate challenging behaviour 85% of the time. Why is behaviour so key? Pondiscio writes: “Children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their… less engaged peers”.

The culture of learning at Success emphasises what Doug Lemov calls “ratio” – putting the learning onto the children. Teachers at Success are repeatedly described as creating situations for children to grapple with difficult concepts, even from a very young age. One teacher in Pondiscio’s book advises that: “one of the most dangerous mindsets to my mind is ‘it’s too much, you are all doing too much, it’s too hard on them’… Kids are so resilient.” Later, another teacher concerned about her class’s poor performance brings in all the parents for a meeting, telling them: “we will never lower that bar because it’s too hard. We will figure out other paths to get to the destination.”

 

2a. Leadership of teaching

Coupled with these foci is the amount of time invested by leaders in observing and improving teaching. SLT conduct daily “walk-throughs”, giving feedback by email or in the moment (I wrote about this live coaching in my previous Success post, Mission Possible). The principal ensures their SLT are united in their approach, conducting joint walk-throughs initially and asking for their thoughts to check that everyone is looking for the same things ( “what did you see?” – “I want to see that you’re noticing the same things I’m noticing”; “what [feedback] would you prioritise?”) This culture is led from the very top – Eva Moskowitz herself visits Success Academies frequently, and her feedback as described is rooted deeply in her values and ethics: “you’ve got to ask yourself, Would you have your child in that classroom?” The job of the principal at Success is to focus “entirely on instruction, student data, and outcomes” – all operational issues are delegated to a specific, high ranking individual.

 

  1. Parents

By far the greatest learning for me in this book, as with Mission Possible, was around parents. Pondiscio puts it superbly: “Among education reform advocates, there is a regrettable tendency to view urban communities through a lens of dysfunction… ‘Schools should not expect much from parents at all,’ the founder of one national charter school network told me… Success Academy’s relationship with its parents suggests precisely the opposite view. The network makes significant demands of parents, assumes significant leverage, and makes no discernable negative assumptions about parents’ ability to contribute materially to their children’s education. Very little in the network’s expectations, for good or for ill, suggests a view of low-income parents as any less capable and competent than affluent ones.”

Throughout his book, we learn of the almost constant contact with parents and the logistics of how this works. Teachers call, text and email frequently, and daily during important testing preparation periods, about children’s progress, behaviour, or test scores. We are treated to a blow-by-blow account of a parent meeting, where the teacher explains the minutiae of the school day to ensure parents understand why she is asking for what she is asking for, along with offering to support them in any way they need (“You need more stickers? Just ask! You need more cubes, tiles, index cards? Just ask, ask, ask. We’re happy to give you anything you need to support your child at home”). Just as teachers have “deliverables,” so do parents: “97% of students present, 96% on time, 97% in uniform, 97% of homework completed.” Pondiscio even describes a “parent report card”, which was received without argument.

The unavoidable trade-offs

Pondiscio does not shy away from the inevitable trade-offs required. Ultimately, we can’t do everything. He writes that we can either “attempt to serve all disadvantaged children equally and labour to close the achievement gap” or we can  “do all in our power to ensure that receptive and motivated students can reap the full benefit of their talents and ambitions because that is what’s just”. He notes that the latter is what well-off families secure for their own children. Exposing a second moral quandary, he asks: “when a school or teacher fails to engage or manage disruptive behaviour, children are cheated. But who, exactly? The disruptive child who is suspended and excluded from class? Or the diligent student whose education bleeds away hour after hour while her teacher responds to antisocial outbursts or focuses on her classmate to prevent them? The weight of education policy and practice, as enshrined in impulse, empathy, and the law, comes down on the side of the disruptive child. But not at Success Academy.” Pondiscio does not cover all the trade-offs, however, and I would have liked the author to look more into the high staff turnover at Success.

Ultimately, Success exemplifies the Charter movement: exceptional achievement, at a cost not everyone is willing to pay: “her methods may not work in all schools, and not all parents would want to send their child to a Success Academy even if they could.” Me? I’m totally sold. I would send my children to Success in a heartbeat, as the CEO Eva Moskowitz herself does. Now, to find out how to visit…