The Clare Spark Blog

May 26, 2013

Eva Moskowitz and the Charter School Movement

Eva Moskowitz

Eva Moskowitz

Last week I attended the first benefit gala for the Success Academy Charter schools initiated by Eva Moskowitz. My son Daniel S. Loeb was being honored, and Chris Christie, Governor of the State of New Jersey was the keynote speaker. Wall Street heavies and some major Republicans were present by the hundreds, as were many of the young principals of the various Charter Schools.

The Governor said flat out that if we did not rescue America’s public schools, the republic was finished, and I could not agree with him more. Christie, like many other activists on behalf of quality free education for all, sees the teachers unions as the chief obstacle to achieving this goal. Sadly, teachers unions have defended teachers, no matter how inept and unqualified, at the expense of learners in our country. Indeed, the teachers unions are major supporters of the Democratic Party, and numerous authors have identified the powerful wealthy Democrats (e.g. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill and Melinda Gates) who have poured wasted money into ed reform, for none of these billionaires will go up against the teachers unions or their defender Diane Ravitch. (For my blogs on Ravitch and Democratic Party reformers see https://clarespark.com/2012/05/03/index-to-blogs-on-education-reform/ Steve Brill’s book is mostly about Eva M. and worries that she will burn out. Brill, a Democrat, thinks that Randi Weingarten can be reformed!)

I find it very mysterious why the high priority given to free public education by Governor Christie and Dan Loeb (like Charles Sumner and other enlightened Americans who came before us), is not widely shared. One can understand why unqualified, underperforming teachers defend tenure and pensions, but how to account for the indifference of parents and grandparents, or of all citizens, many of whom complain about the great dumbing down of our culture and sense an irreversible decline of American leadership in the world?

A brief recollection: when I moved to Los Angeles in 1959, I taught chemistry and biology at Los Angeles High School. Noting that there were no after-school clubs like the one I enjoyed at Forest High School in Queens, New York, I proposed a Philosophy Club, with much student support (and LA High at the time was black, brown, Asian, and Jewish mostly). I was called “that commie Jew from the East” in one anonymous letter deposited in my mailbox, which appalled me as I was mostly apolitical at that time. I recall that my best student was a black boy in chemistry. I never thought that there was anything wrong with the brains of my “colored” students, either in Los Angeles or at Jamaica High School in Long Island where I had taught in the Spring semester of 1958. Eva Moskowitz’s charter schools in NYC have borne out my views that lazy teachers and inadequate expectations for performance of minority children, not racial differences in intelligence, are responsible for low graduation rates and poor student performance in inner city schools in America.

Here is how Wikipedia describes the pioneering efforts of Eva Moskowitz: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eva_Moskowitz

And here are the objectives of Moskowitz’s “lesson plan” in a booklet handed out to all attendees of this inspirational gala on May 22, 2013:

[Item:] Make schools magical places—warm, colorful, joyous—where the curriculum is rigorous, the pace is fast, the bar is high, and boredom is banished.

[Item:] Inspire kids to read, to write, to imagine, to build, to invent, to work, to think. [Eva told me once that early on, students read poems and extract the message of the poem: could anything be better than reading comprehension, including understanding the subtext and messages of great literature?]

[Item:] Invest in excellent teaching, with support and coaching and an unprecedented commitment to professional development.

[Item:] Introduce children to the creative disciplines and elations of art.

[Item:] Enlist parents as partners in schooling and as advocates for education reform.

[Item:] Teach chess and daily discovery-based science, so that scholars grow up to find better ways forward.

[Item:] Give every child access to great public schools and provide every family with great educational choices.

[Item:] Empower a generation of children to achieve their dreams.

[Item:] Transform a nation at risk to a nation of hope and opportunity.

[Item:] Change public education—for good.

In New York State testing, this is how Success Academy Charter Schools have performed: 96% passed 2012 NYS Math Exam; 88% passed 2012 English Exam; 100% passed 2011 Science Exam. In Math, English, and Science, Eva’s schools were beaten only by Anderson, “the most selective Gifted and Talented public school in NYC.”

For more sources on this subject, see the following references:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/nyregion/seeking-teachers-support-mayoral-candidates-pledge-education-reform.html?ref=evasmoskowitz&_r=0

http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/04/christie_town_hall_raritan_val.html

http://socialistworker.org/2009/11/13/charter-school-charade ( A Trotskyist organization attacks Eva Moskowitz and her project.)

Success Academy

August 31, 2011

Review: Steven Brill’s Class Warfare

Eva Moskowitz and Joel Klein

Steven Brill, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix American Schools. New York. Simon and Schuster, 2011. $28. 441 pages.

[Added, 3-16-12: thanks to Larry Sand for this reference: http://reason.com/archives/2005/12/01/the-father-of-modern-school-re. It is about Milton Friedman’s campaign for school choice.]

I have spent many days reading Brill’s book, and my free copy (sent to his followers by education reformer Whitney Tilson) is heavily dog-eared, annotated with objections, and exclamation points. Since it purports to be an inside account of attempts “to fix America’s schools” that will appeal to those interested in the interactions between bureaucrats, government or union officials, and other technocrats operating within the Democratic Party, this review will focus on the major message of Brill’s efforts. I should also preface the review by saying that Brill’s attempt at moderation, along with his careful distancing from [union-busting] conservatives, may be a ploy, for he is appealing to union-loving liberals, including teachers, to reform themselves to the point that accountability and a meritocracy may be furthered by his revelations of shocking behavior all around, shocking at least to those not familiar with the education wars in their latest manifestation: the teachers’ unions offensive against the charter school movement.

The headline for my readers is this: there is a hard-fought battle within the Democratic Party (along with Republican moderates such as Rupert Murdoch and Jeb Bush) going on, regarding the failure of American public education. Powerful Democrats, egged on ostensibly by our education president, Barack Obama, and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, are outraged that students in developed countries are way ahead of American students when tested for proficiency in science and math. Several liberal foundations, most famously the Bill and Melinda Gates and Eli Broad Foundations, along with hedge fund managers such as Whitney Tilson, have been attempting to impose a business model upon the profession of education. That is, they would like the 3.2 million schoolteachers, K-12, to be measured for their performance, and held to high standards. Brill, in conversation with Diane Ravitch, described their objectives as accountability and meritocracy, as opposed to the current heavily unionized profession that protects teachers’ jobs, not student learning.

There is a heated interchange on C-SPAN Books, August 1, 2011 (linked here: http://hnn.us/articles/8-31-11/school-reform-grudge-match-diane-ravitch-vs-steven-brill.html), in which the redoubtable Ravitch, in her own words an ex-conservative (!)* attempts to diminish Brill’s heroes, such as charter school founders, e.g. Eva Moskowitz, whose remarkable Harlem Success charter network has demonstrated that minority children can, through a well-thought out set of strategies (for instance, learning to discern the main message of a text), ace tests that their public school competitors fail; indeed her remarkable accomplishments and tenacity fill out his book. But Brill, as his long book ends, worries that Moskowitz’s rigorous demands on teachers and students alike will cause her [and her victims] to burn out. That leads him to suggest that 1. teachers in K-12 schools get higher pay, but 2. that they also sign on to no more than five or ten year careers, for he can’t imagine either Moskowitz or her teachers making a lengthy career of teaching school, virtually defying the low expectations that prior educators have had for blacks and Latinos in such neighborhoods as Harlem and environs.

There are theoretical and practical problems with Brill’s general approach. 1. He can’t make up his mind as to whether teachers are professionals or workers, to be lumped in with firemen, policemen, and other state sector employees. Yet on the C-SPAN dialogue with Ravitch, he wants teachers to be professionals, like other pros, measured for their performance. In my view, teachers should see themselves as middle management, dependent on social forces and institutions that attempt to dictate their methods and aims, sometimes ambiguously, so that they may be left to drift in a sea of uncertainty, hence unable either to help students learn or to please their supervisors. In a country like ours, filled with religious, sectional, and other long-standing conflicts, there is no curriculum that will please everybody.  Like other social democratic band-aid measures, the entire enterprise of education reform fails to examine the big picture that puts teachers in double binds: are they to prepare their students for a life of independent, critical citizenship, or for conformity to unknowable or shifting “standards” for the sake of “social cohesion”? Should there even be a federal Department of Education, or should all education be locally managed, with major funding derived from property taxes? If teachers are a profession, should they not be relatively autonomous in their classrooms, or are they to be cogs in a vast machine constructed by non-professionals?

And 2. Brill actually has a fantasy that Randi Weingarten, hitherto a reform-resistant teachers union leader and stalwart, should be appointed chancellor of the NYC school system, for, as an astute operator, she is most likely to be able to raise up the mediocre (or sub-mediocre?) majority of current teachers to heights that would please the Big Money education reformers, saving American progress in science and technology. Meanwhile, although Brill has demonstrated ad nauseum the intransigence of the union establishment,  he trashes Republicans such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or “so-called right to work states” that defy Big Labor.  Given the hostile “interview” conducted by Ravitch for C-SPAN, it is hard to follow Brill’s logic of one big happy family, redeemed by such as himself, a non-teacher who has latched onto a scandal that can have no solution, given the premises of Big Government, its beneficiaries, and its electoral base.

By the end of their 59 minute sparring match on C-SPAN, Brill and Ravitch had come to an amicable ending, as Ravitch called for “collaboration” as opposed to competition [between charters and traditional public schools].  Such are the ways of “moderates.” There is no easy fix to the education problem. Both Brill and Ravitch adhere to a management-labor model of class warfare. Is it not time to leave this model behind as a relic of an earlier period of industrialization? Might not teachers look to new forms of solidarity? But that would mean a massive change of consciousness, and the relinquishing of such elite-driven intiatives as multiculturalism. The curriculum is everything. If Eva Moskowitz’s students can learn to decipher textual messages, study science in the earliest grades, along with chess (!), what might our youngsters accomplish with the encouragement of a student-focused teaching culture?

[Added 9-3-2011:] Larry Sand, education writer (see http://city-journal.org/2011/cjc0825ls.html) and founder of the Facebook group California Teachers Empowerment Network, has written this statement to suggest new directions for teachers dissatisfied with the unions: ” If teachers want to be thought of as professionals, they should resign from their union and convince as many of their colleagues as possible to join them. They should do everything in their power to eliminate collective bargaining, fight for an accountability system that would include teachers and administrators, fight for performance pay and fight to eliminate tenure and seniority. Teachers will lose some of their perks – notably all the safety nets that unions have provided for them, but they will gain a professional status that could rival that of doctors. They will have a chance to make a lot more money than they do now. Additionally, they will know that they are part of a system that is about educating children, not a jobs program for those who at this point graduate on average at the bottom of their college class. They will know that if they are good and layoffs are necessary, they will keep their jobs even if they have less seniority than a less effective colleague. They will have much more say in how their schools are run because they won’t have a one-size-fits-all bloated district-union contract monitoring their every move.”

*Ravitch may have been, in her own mind, a conservative Democrat, but she always floated above the fray, crafting a career that was just critical enough to qualify herself as an objective, analytical scholar. See my blog on her “higher moderation” here: https://clarespark.com/2011/05/28/who-is-a-racist-now-2/.

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