I first met Eva Moskowitz more than a decade ago, around the time she was leaving the New York City Council. During her tenure chairing the council’s education committee, she’d held extensive, newsworthy hearings into the New York City Department of Education’s collective bargaining agreements—showing remarkable fortitude and savvy along the way. As a result, I wound up asking her to contribute to an Education Next forum on collective bargaining. At the time, I hadn’t a clue that she’d go on to become one of the most influential, admired, and controversial educators in the land.
If you’re interested in how that happened and what Moskowitz learned along the way, she’s penned a book that tells the tale: The Education of Eva Moskowitz. It offers a no-holds-barred take on launching and running New York’s Success Academy Charter Schools. Since its 2006 launch, Success has grown to 46 schools serving more than 15,000 students. It claimed the 2017 Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools (full disclosure: I was on the selection committee) and has delivered academic results that are little short of astounding. But I don’t want to dwell on the test scores, the controversies, or any of that. Instead, I want to share a few takes from the book that really resonated with me. (By the way, if you like this and want more, Moskowitz visited AEI this week to discuss the book. You can find the link here).
In her book, Moskowitz offers one of the more honest, no-BS discussions of culture-building that I’ve read. She explains, “My highest priority was creating a school culture that had a low tolerance for laziness and dysfunction and high expectations for student achievement and teacher performance.” Success adopted the inevitable five-item “values” schema—in this case, the “ACTION” litany of “Agency, Curiosity, Try and try, Integrity, and No shortcuts.” But Moskowitz gets that the magic in values statements isn’t in the paper or the happy words, but in the doing. She acknowledges that “these may sound hokey” but holds that “they really strengthened our school culture"—and the book is rife with examples illustrating that that’s because these values are lived every day. I find that a lot of people get this wrong—they seem to imagine that there’s magic in this or that gimmicky “values” formulation, when the real trick is creating organizations where a set of coherent values is in the organizational DNA.
Moskowitz offers a compelling response to the frequently heard criticism that charter schools are “anti-teacher.” She argues, “A system of charter schools can actually be fairer to teachers . . . With charters, a teacher fired at one school can usually get a second chance at another. Where district schools are the only game in town, however, termination can end a teacher’s career and . . . [thus] leads to demands for ‘due process’ protections that end up being expensive, time consuming, and ineffective.” She says that the flexibility Success enjoys as a charter allows it to provide nearly a month of new teacher induction and a wealth of ongoing mentoring—much more than does the NYCDOE. She also touts Success’ decision to eschew “pedagogical theory” in this training in favor of concrete attention to lesson planning, discipline, special education, and specific instructional techniques.
The book also addresses the ongoing frustration for educators that dysfunction and bureaucracy are a normal part of their day. Moskowitz writes of the time that she learned after several weeks that teachers at one school were often waiting outside in the morning because the custodian was chronically late. She observes, “Teachers had tolerated this state of affairs . . . because they’d assumed from their prior experiences that this was just one of those things they had to put up with because schools are dysfunctional. Their own low expectations had created a self-fulfilling prophecy . . . A teacher doesn’t report that the lights in her classroom are out, another teacher sees the lights are out and assumes that’s normal, so when her lights go out, she doesn’t report it either.” This feels frighteningly on-point at capturing the little annoyances and cultural frustration that envelop so many educators. And I think Moskowitz is exactly right that tending to these particulars can help transform a school’s culture and the professional life of educators.
Moskowitz fearlessly wades into the tricky terrain of addressing how hard it is to educate children if parents and guardians aren’t doing their part. She tackles the topic head-on, without hand-wringing or sanctimony, writing, “We required parents to check their children’s homework and get their kids to school on time and in uniform. If they didn’t, we’d call them; if that didn’t work, we’d bring them in for a conference; and if they didn’t show up, we’d give their child an ‘upstairs dismissal’ at which they’d have to speak to the teacher or principal. If children were habitually late, we’d make wake-up calls. When one of our parents simply wouldn’t read to her son even after she’d promised me she would, I invited her to a meeting at which there was a surprise guest: her mother.” For educators frustrated by parents who aren’t stepping up, Moskowitz offers both tonic and suggestions. Equally important, she does it with a respect for those parents and the recognition that they almost universally want to do right by their kids—and will do it if they know what it is and find that it’s a manageable lift.
For me, the biggest takeaway is the reminder of how much easier it is to do all of this on a clean slate, when one can start a culture from scratch—with no need to compromise on norms or expectations for students, parents, and educators. That makes it possible to create a shared culture that attracts like-minded families and teachers, meaning that a lot less time has to be spent trying to split the difference on disagreements over dress codes or discipline. While the things that Moskowitz discusses strike me as pretty commonsensical, the reality is that it’s just much harder to forge new expectations and norms in organizations marked by inherited cultures, routines, and contracts, and where influential employees have been doing things a certain way for decades. In the end, the secret to a place like Success may be less about the specific things they do than their ability to do them so rigorously, relentlessly, and well.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.