Here’s an important piece in today’s Wall Street Journal (September 7–8, 2019), The Secret of a Charter School’s Success? Parents.”
Robert Pondiscio’s article is brave because it talks real about what many of us know but dare not say out loud. By focusing on the vital role that parents play, it tracks my own thinking that reform efforts for student success really really need parental (or other mentor — caregiver, grandparent, etc.) support and engagement.
In short, for me, it highlights the nagging concern about the “close the gap” obsession that is driving schools and policy makers these days — that focus on schools without focusing on parents. As I see it, we will not get to success by doing that. We continue to try to solve the wrong problem with the wrong players. Thus, the public and policy makers too often continue the drumbeat of beating up on schools and teachers — and throwing more money and effort on the challenge — yet the gaps remain.
Too often, our public schools are not playing with a full deck. One leg of the three-legged stool is missing! We don’t have all the necessary players on board — students, teachers, parents — all fulfilling their end of the mission. It’s time we focus on that other leg of the puzzle — parents. We need them on board as active participants. With that, we can begin to hope for real success.
This article provides a rather stark example of what public schools can do to get parents on board to educate all students…and even begin to “close those gaps.”
Your thoughts? Here’s that article!
The Secret of a Charter School’s Success? Parents
Low-income families ‘self-select’ for Success Academy’s demanding program, with remarkable results
Ninth grader Elliot Detou at Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts in March 2017. PHOTO: STEPHEN REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Sept. 6, 2019 9:50 am ET
Charter schools are a boutique phenomenon in American education, educating a mere 6% of U.S. school children. But they attract a disproportionate amount of attention — and controversy — because of their unique place in our education ecosystem. Public, tuition-free schools open to all students, but operated independently of school districts, they offer a Rorschach test revealing how one feels about U.S. public education at large. They can be perceived either as engines of innovation and an indispensable means to rescue children from failing neighborhood schools, or as an existential threat draining away resources — both money and engaged families — from traditional public schools.
Collectively, charter schools educate 3.2 million children in 7,000 schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia. None are more polarizing than New York City’s network of about 50 Success Academy schools, which serve 17,000 students — 94% of whom are from minority backgrounds — under their visionary and lightning-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz. Most are less than a decade old, and all of them are exceptionally high performing. In a city where less than 40% of black and Hispanic children test at proficiency for reading or math, 90% of Success Academy’s students of color passed the most recent state reading test. Virtually all of them — over 98% — did so in math.
Test results should not be the sole measure of school quality, but they’re how we often keep score. By that standard, there’s no such thing as a bad Success Academy school. Its very “worst” campus saw 85% of its students pass last year’s reading test, and in math the worst was 92% — a level of quality and consistency unmatched by any other large charter school network in the U.S.
Success Academy does something else that’s unique and mostly unnoticed, but it creates the conditions that make these results possible. By law, oversubscribed charter schools must admit students by lottery. Success Academy has roughly six applicants for every seat, which gives the appearance of a randomly selected student body. But it exercises unusual influence over which students end up actually enrolling. In the end, the chances of an applicant being offered a seat appear to be closer to 50/50 than one-in-six.
Eva Moskowitz, founder of Success Academy, in August 2017. PHOTO: CELESTE SLOMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Parents who win the lottery, and even those whose children are only on the wait list, must attend a series of mandatory meetings and complete various administrative steps for their applications to remain “active” between the April lottery and the start of school in August. Those who falter fall away.
At every step, school leaders aggressively preach to prospective parents about their no-nonsense culture and the expectation that parents come with eyes wide open, fully committed to Success Academy’s program and policies, including strict behavior codes, school uniform compliance, supervising homework, reading with children every night and recording what’s read in a log. Parents are warned repeatedly in unsparing language, “Success Academy may not be for you.” Significantly, the schools offer no transportation or after-school programs, a potential deal breaker for working single parents or those without the support network to pick up and drop off their children every day.
This process, whether by happenstance or design, yields a parent body comprised largely of the most motivated parents and those with the organizational skills and resources to meet Success Academy’s high bar for parental engagement. This sets the stage to strive for — and mostly achieve — consistent and high levels of academic achievement “at scale” among low-income children of color, who would otherwise be lost to the dull hum of mediocrity in zoned neighborhood schools.
To deny low-income families of color the ability to self-select into safe and well-run schools with high expectations is to impose mediocrity on them.
This seems unfair — except for the fact that the ability to self-select into a well-run, high-performing school is unremarkable and unquestioned among affluent Americans. When well-off parents pay for their children to attend a private or religious school, or when they move into high-income ZIP codes where inflated home prices and eye-popping property taxes are de facto tuition for excellent “public” schools, they are making the same decision as the low-income parents drawn to Success Academy. Both groups are voting with their feet and committing their own resources — money or time — to ensure that their children go to school with the children of similarly engaged and motivated parents.
To deny low-income families of color the ability to self-select into safe and well-run schools with high expectations is to impose mediocrity on them, ostensibly for the public good. It is a burden that no affluent family is asked or expected to bear. Ms. Moskowitz insists that even if she were allowed to, she would not screen and handpick applicants instead of admitting families by lottery. “I wouldn’t do it,” she told me, “because I don’t think I could tell who they are.” Perhaps not, but she has created a mechanism for those families to identify themselves.
Ms. Moskowitz’s many critics will look at the small but non-trivial hurdles parents must clear as proof that she is not running great schools, merely a sorting mechanism. But this ignores what’s most remarkable about Success Academy: Its schools don’t just match those of affluent suburban districts but easily outperform them. Working with self-selected families under careful conditions, Ms. Moskowitz hasn’t merely closed the achievement gap. She has reversed it.
The politics of education reform require that we be less than candid about all of this self-sorting, but the upshot for rich and poor alike is clear: School culture and parent buy-in matter. The brand of education pioneered by Success Academy may indeed be “not for everyone,” but its schools are well run, not the joyless and militaristic hothouses critics imagine. They serve much the same role as Catholic schools did for previous generations of striving New Yorkers. Success Academy suggests the upper limits of what is possible when a critical mass of active and engaged families of color, who happen to be poor, are given permission to exercise the same degree of choice as affluent families.
But this all must be done sotto voce. One former Success Academy school leader whom I interviewed struck a philosophical tone. “Is it really such a bad thing that this is basically an elite private school that admits by lottery?” he asked. “It’s the first time folks in the inner city have had that chance.”
It’s not a bad thing. The disparity of opportunity afforded to rich and poor Americans is what must change. The privileged are unfettered in their pursuit of an excellent education for their children; the rest get “equity.” Worse, we are forced to be dishonest in arguments both for and against charter schools, resorting to aspirational, politically pleasing narratives about what it takes to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children. It’s time to stop airbrushing parents out of the picture and to acknowledge the sometimes uncomfortable truth that their role is indispensable.
— Mr. Pondiscio is senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and teaches at Democracy Prep Public Schools, a charter school network in New York City. This essay is adapted from his book “How the Other Half Learns: Equity, Excellence and the Battle Over School Choice,” which will be published on Sept. 10 by Avery.
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This was originally posted on Medium