Success Academy Charter Schools — interview with Robert Pondiscio (Part 2) | VIEWPOINT

Nat: Hi, everyone. This is part two of our discussion with Robert
Pondiscio. It picks up right where we left off in part
one. Welcome back. Robert Pondiscio, welcome back to this discussion
about “How The Other Half Learns,” your new book about Success Academy Schools after you
spent a year there. I found it a little funny but also illuminating,
the title of this piece that you wrote introducing the book and I’ll read it. The title was, “I Just Wrote a Book About
Success Academy Charter Schools. It Does Not Support Your Preferred Narrative. I Hope You Hate It.” First of all, get a different marketing advisor. That’s the first thing. Second of all, what do you mean, I hope you
hate it? Robert: I meant it puckishly but earnestly. In other words, the intent of that piece,
the intent of this book really is to question people’s priors. And my ed reform credentials are in good order,
I’m a choice guy, I’m a charter guy. I teach part-time right now at a charter school,
but that doesn’t necessarily mean drinking too deeply of the ideology, so to speak, or
the political narratives, I guess more accurately, that we have thrown about in reform and charter
world for the last 20 years. There are these dueling narratives, the risk
of over-simplifying, the pro-charter narrative goes a kid goes in this door, they get a good
outcome, they go in that door, bad outcome. The only differences is the school. If you are anti-charters, well then you’ve
got to fix poverty, racism, etc., fix those things and schools will be better. Well, there’s a lot of daylight in between
those two, but for various political reasons, we tend to be loyal to one of those narratives
or the other. Neither one, I think, has served us very,
very well. So, when I say, “Here’s my new book, I hope
you’ll hate it,” it’s interesting. We talked in the first segment about this
book and these schools being something of a Rorschach test. So, that’s what I expected, that regardless
of where you are pro-charter or anti-charter, pro-reform or anti-reform, you will see things
in this book that will confirm your priors. My hope was that you would also see things
that would challenge those priors. Nat: Sure. Robert: I should probably write another piece
at this point because the book had been well-received, which I’m pleased by, but it’s not necessarily
a good thing because that means you’re only looking at the things that you want. I should probably write another book that
says, “You like my book and I’m disappointed.” Nat: Yeah. Well, let’s bring up some of these different
perspectives on this and I’ll reserve the right to advocate for the devil… Robert: Okay. Please. Nat: …if that helps to make the conversation. One of the things that often gets lobbed at
Success Academy is it does great because it’s it’s creaming. It’s creaming, it’s taking the best kids and
if we could take the best kids, we’d have those scores too. You say that that’s not quite right. Robert: It’s not quite wrong. Nat: And then it’s not quite wrong. Robert: Yeah. What is the Steven Colbert phrase, “It’s truthy?” So, I guess it’s truthy. I think I’d end up describing this and I think
this is an accurate way to describe what Success does is it’s a bit of a self-selection engine. So, there is creaming going on, but it’s the
parents who are self-selecting. It’s worth discussing just briefly the way
this works. There is this impression, and this is another
part of the standard charter narrative, that because there is the existence of a lottery
for oversubscribed charter schools and therefore, by definition, you’re getting a random assortment
of kids. And that’s true enough, but what happens at
Success, and this has been hiding in plain sight for years, you win a seat in a lottery,
then you’re invited to a welcome meeting. And even if you’re on the waiting list…what
they call the likely list, remember that term, it’s significant. If you’re on the likely list, you still have
to come to the meeting, at which point the school lays out, in unsparing terms, their
expectations and their culture. And they ask you repeatedly, you have to ask
yourself, mom and dad, is Success Academy right for you? Not is it right for your kid, is it right
for you? That’s not an accident because a lot of parents
decide, “Well, it’s not right for me. This culture is too much. The expectations are too much.” And then there are structural things as well. If you can’t bring your kid to school at 7:30
in the morning, pick them up at 3:45 in the afternoon, half days on Wednesdays… Nat: Half days on Wednesdays. Robert: …no transportation, no after school,
then it’s literally not for you. Whether it’s by design or by happenstance,
it favors families that have parental bandwidth, if you like. Well, I don’t have data on this. I want to be clear on this. I’m not a researcher, my approach here is
journalistic. Nat: Sure. Robert: But observably, you see families at
Success Academy who tend to be married, religious, engaged, motivated. Nat: Right. And to be quite frank, when teachers are looking
for parents to support the instruction that’s going on in their classroom, these are the
parents they want. Robert: Well, that’s exactly right, but I
don’t wanna leave the impression that this is every parent. You’re still talking about families living
in poverty in places like the South Bronx. So, nobody should kid themselves and say this
is easy. Nat: It should be established that Success’s
students are genuinely disadvantaged. They are low income… Robert: Low income. Well, almost exclusively low-income families
of color. Nat: Right. Robert: Yes. But they are not necessarily the same as the
families that I was teaching at P.S. 277 a few blocks away some years ago. I’m trying not to parse this to make too much
of this, but I think when we look at the differences demographically, we’re missing something. To use a term from marketing, you almost have
to look it psychographically. The family that is…I would argue that the
family that raises their hand says, “I want a charter school” is immediately different
than the family that does not say that. And then the family that says, “No, I want
Success Academy Charter School” is different than the other two. Nat: Yeah. And there are just a lot of hoops that they
have to press through. So, my question on this… Robert: But that drives the culture. In other words, you can’t do these things,
you can’t have this just so culture, these high expectations, unless you have, maybe
not every family, but a critical mass of family voting with their feet repeatedly who become
functionally the culture keepers. Nat: Right. So, my question then…and you said you’re
not a researcher, you don’t have the numbers on this. And I don’t want numbers, I want a gut sense. How potent is this mechanism whereby some
parents leave because they’re not gonna toe the line? It’s too much and it is too much. Black socks are not okay, only blue socks
are okay. They’ll turn kids away at the door. Right? If you don’t come to the orientation meeting,
we give your seat to someone else. These are pretty potent roadblocks for some
parents. So, I’m just wondering, how far does it go? Robert: Well, I’m not sure. Say more. Will you say, how far does it go? Nat: Well, how potent is this as a tool for
creating a cadre of parents that is distinct from your run of the mill cross-section of
parents? Robert: I think Eva Moskowitz might give you
a different answer. And I think for what it’s worth, I think they
don’t like the impression, and I want to be clear, I’m not trying to create the impression
that this is the secret sauce. This is the starting line, but look, it’s
just a lot easier, not easy, easier to accomplish these things with families and students who
are buying what you’re selling as opposed to a coercive relationship where you’re trying
to get them in the game, which is sometimes how I felt as a teacher in the DOE. I was trying to get my kids to followthrough
and step up. There. that’s a given, so to speak. And if it’s not a given, then you’re pushing
it back to the parents and the parents make sure that the kids are engaged and ready and
whatnot. Nat: Sure. Robert: So, I wanna try to be precise here. That’s not the secret sauce, but it enables
this culture of high achievement and these results, and I think it contributes to the
consistency. And look, anybody who’s watching this, my
parents’ generation who maybe went to Catholic schools in New York in the ’40s or ’50s saying,
“Well, duh, that’s the way this works.” This is why I kept focusing on school culture
because it’s interesting. In other words, this is the one thing in the
reform era, they were almost not allowed to touch. Why do we have these random lotteries? Well, because we’re supposed to do this with
every child. So, can you do this with every child or does
it require families at some level who are buying what you’re selling? I think that’s a big lesson of these schools. Nat: In the book, you have the…Is it “Come
to Jesus” chapter, is that right? Robert: Yeah. Nat: And there’s a description of a teacher
going after kindergarten parents, making it clear that they are not doing their part of
the bargain and that they need to step up. That is the absolute message and she’s in
it with them. So, talk to me a little bit about this concept
that’s in the book a couple of times about this partnership or this marriage between
the families that are there and the school staff. Robert: Yeah. Look, this is where I think Moscowitz has
been done considerable dirt by media coverage and whatnot. There’s this impression out there that, one,
they’re claiming students and parents, and as I just was describing, I think there’s
self-selection there. And there was this impression that these are
harsh, militaristic places, almost like Chinese cram schools, in a way. To be perfectly honest, there’s a lot of things
that they do that as a teacher, as an educator, I don’t particularly love. I’m not crazy about aggressive test prep. Well, an assistant principal once described
me as an authoritarian teacher and did not mean it as a compliment. You could argue that they take the behaviorism
a little bit too far. What you cannot miss unless you wanna miss
it, frankly, is the deep investment that `the teachers have. So, you don’t have to necessarily love their
educational program, but if you don’t see the deep engagement and ambition that the
teachers have for their students, well then, you’re either hard-hearted or you don’t wanna
see it. And that’s part of the culture too. I described this in one chapter where I’m
explaining it to myself. I call it the “GAS” factor, which if I can
say as an acronym and the gas stands for “give a shit.” And if you think about that, this is what
I think makes these schools most valuable, even though they may do some things that you
might not like. Think of how rare this is to be in a community
like the South Bronx, any inner-city community in a large urban city. If you are a low-income kid of color, what
reason do you have to expect your relationship with a school or your parents’ relationship
with the school to be anything other than dismissive or coercive? That’s where you go to find out how little
is expected of you. By contrast at Success Academy, nobody is
telling you that this is easy, meaning the standardized tests that they valorize so much,
they’re telling you it’s hard, but they prepare you with attack strategies and practice tests
and whatnot. And during test season, you’re getting calls
home from your teacher every night to review the test with your parents and whatnot. And you’re told, “Hey, kid, you’re gonna get
a three, you’re gonna get a four,” meaning on or above grade level, and then you go out
and you get that three or your four, but that’s not even the most significant part. All your friends do as well, all their friends
do, every adult in your life is in on this. Nat: That’s right, the water you’re swimming
in. Robert: And you go home thinking, “Hey, I’m
good at this. I’m good at school.” So, in a way, to me, that even transcends…I
think that culture is more remarkable than even those remarkable test scores. Just who else does this? Ultimately, the most important value I think
that emerges from this is you’re raising a generation of kids who are just having a fundamentally
different relationship with a place called a school. Nat: Yeah. The whole discussion around the selection
mechanism at work, and I’m trying to put that in antiseptic terms. There is a selection mechanism however it
works, it’s just a non-starter for a lot of folks because they say, “No, the purpose of
the school is to raise all boats perfectly and we’re gonna do it for every kid.” And what you’re saying sounds like something
that is mutually exclusive with that contention. Can we make a system that can deliver high
results for everybody when we may not have the buy-in that we need at home? And I wonder if this is a challenge to that… Robert: This is part of the reason why I think
the book is a bit of a Rorschach test and I’m trying to challenge people’s priors here,
but that’s a lovely aspiration. We should never give up on the idea that we
can create a system of schools, an ecosystem of schools that challenges and raises the
performance of every child or done near every child. That is the right goal, but one of the reasons
this book is called “How The Other Half Learns” is because I don’t think I’m wrong about this
in that I feel like functionally, we have set excellence and equity at war with each
other in our schools and in this country. If you are a well-off white guy like myself,
nobody asked a question about…when I decided to take my daughter out of the public school
system, she didn’t spend a day in public schools. If someone like me chooses a private school,
chooses to move to the suburbs where your property taxes, your de facto school tuition,
that’s not only unremarkable, it’s uncontroversial. Nobody questions my ability to do this. Now, along comes an Eva Moskowitz and figures
out a way to give low-income people of color something similar and now it’s a problem. That’s fascinating, isn’t it? Nat: Yeah. Robert: So, what does that say? I get to pursue excellence, but if you are
low-income black or brown, well, you get equity, and you get hand-wringing, and you get excuses. So, those aspirations are lovely, but I don’t
think it’s persuasive to a parent today to say, “We’re working on it,” or at least there’s
got to be a statute of limitations when you can no longer say, “Give us time, we’re working
on it.” Nat: Sure. When you come at this from a system level,
it’s affected by this thing you call in here, the parent lottery. You can win the lottery for the school, but
to actually make that stick, you might need the parent lottery, you might need parents
that are willing to pull you through. Now… Robert: Okay. But can I interject here? Nat: You can. Robert: Because this is another unlovely thing
that we do in this work. So, I encountered these attitudes so often
in the reporting of this book. So, I described earlier the winners of that
parent lottery and how this system through design or happenstance tends to favor parents
disproportionally who are married, engaged, etc. Well, when you describe those families to
people in our work, you hear, “Well, I’m not worried about them. They’ll be fine.” Well, who says that to me? Who says that to you? Why do we think it’s okay to say that or make
those assumptions about low-income people of color that if you won the parent lottery,
that’s all you need because that’s not all that my kid needs, it’s not all that that
other people’s kids need. Nat: And it’s not all they’re afforded. Robert: Well, that’s exactly right. So, there’s two sets of assumptions we make
about inner city, and I speak as somebody who’s been a teacher and a policy person. They’re both rather unlovely. One is this attitude I just described where,
oh, if you a functional family, you’re growing up in a two-parent household, your parents
are employed, you’ll be fine. The other one is even more pernicious and
worse, which is coming into an urban community and seeing nothing but dysfunction. “Oh, I can’t make demands of parents. I can engage them because everything is broken,
dysfunctional. It’s actually, all these children are traumatized.” Say what you will about Eva Moskowitz, you
cannot accuse her of having low expectations of parents. Nat: That’s right. There’s a certain minimum level of respect
that she has that is not present across the board. Robert: That is structural and, frankly, laudable. Nat: Now, the flip side of this is, okay,
when I’m thinking from a system perspective, what does Success Academy do to the degree
that it siphons off these kids who are parent lottery winners from the schools? Robert: Well, there’s another complication. Nat: It is complicated because part of the
assertion is that Success is able to operate at this high level in part because they have
that support at home. And if we are siphoning off that support,
doesn’t that make some schools jobs harder? Robert: Yes, it does. Did I just commit heresy? Nat: I was expecting a more complicated answer
than, “Yes, it does.” Robert: No. This gets back to why I…questioning people’s
priors and why I wrote that kind of puckish piece about “Here’s My New Book. I Hope You Hate It.” Because that’s the thing we’re not supposed
to say and, frankly, it’s the thing that most of us in this work on the reform side probably
don’t believe. We have this idea that we can create the rising
tide that lifts all boats and am not dismissive of that. Certainly, competitive factors make some sense,
but when I put on my former teacher hat when I think about the way Success Academy or even
charter schools in the South Bronx when I was teaching there 10 or 15 years ago, but
I think about the families and the kids in my former classes who would be most likely
to be drawn off to a charter school, to a Success Academy, and now I imagine my classes
without those kids there. And now you’re gonna tell me, “Oh, no. I just made your job easier.” Well, that can’t be right. If that’s what research is telling us, at
the risk of offending my Ph.D. research colleague here, well then, we’re asking the wrong questions. It doesn’t account for culture, it doesn’t
account for motivation. Maybe there’s some competitive effects there
at work, but I think we have to be honest about that. Nat: It rings true. My years of teaching, I had some kids that,
you know, there’s a spectrum of family involvement and I really appreciated those kids presence
in my classroom. Robert: You sure do. And now imagine that those kids go from being
the culture outliers to the culture keepers. Again, that’s not to say that it’s gonna be
easy in one place and hard, but it’s easier. You can get more done. Look, at the end of the day, that to me is
the real lesson of Success Academy. It shows you the upward or the upper limits
of what can be achieved when every adult in a child’s life is singing from the same hymnal,
so to speak, pulling on yours, parents, teachers, administrators, etc. Nat: Let’s talk about one last thing about
that hymnal. A lot of the notes in it are dictated from
standardized tests. Robert: Yeah. Nat: There’s no doubt about it. This place is driven by standardized tests,
and they ring the bell. They ring the bell. There’s no doubt about it. They do it consistently. And your other work in writing, you’ve been
a little critical about test-driven accountability and the effects they can have on schools,
on the narrowing of the curriculum. Two-part question. How does the test driver manifests itself
in Success Academy’s culture and operations and handicap it when it’s a good thing and
when it’s not? Robert: Yeah. Boy, we could talk for an hour on just that
question. I always say this, I’ve got a very complicated
relationship with standardized testing. Nobody should sentimentalize the days before
we had testing. And in the main, the accountability impulse
is a good thing. That said, I refuse to be blind to the deleterious
aspects of this, the queering effect it has on the school culture, and some specific granular
damages that it does in reading comprehension instruction, for example, curriculum now,
for example, the child’s entire schooling becomes about reading and math and nothing
else. I think those are real measurable effects. Nat: Well, those are the very topics that
I’m curious about. How much of that evidence do you see? In other words, is Success predicated on that
narrowing or is it more than that? Robert: Okay. No. Let me walk that back. They are not narrowing the curriculum. It’s interesting because, at the end of the
day, I think I even asked myself this in the book, I started worrying that I was falling
victim to Success Academy Stockholm syndrome by the fact that I was there so much because
they do a lot of things that I don’t necessarily like, but I liked what I was seeing in the
main and as a whole. And part of it is the culture, it’s the motivation. Testing is a defining principle and it focuses
their efforts and it creates this metric of success that I think is more valuable than
just a test score, this idea that I’m good at school and so are all my friends. What is unknown and unknowable is the long-term
effects on this. As I’m sure you know, a battle raging in our
world about weather testing and a good outcome on a sixth grade ELA test predicts long-term
life success attainment, etc. I think the jury is very much out on that. I’m persuaded, I persuaded myself that getting
the child’s relationship and a functional, successful relationship with school is important. One of the other hats that I wear is in civic
education and I tend to view schools as civic institutions first and foremost. And to me, having a child, having a productive
relationship with the school as the civic institution of first resort, I think is important
and I don’t wanna diminish that. That’s not the same thing as because I’m getting
a level four on my ELA math test, I’m definitely going to college, I’m definitely gonna be
upwardly mobile. It’ll be a long time before we know that. But your larger point is exactly right. It would be dishonest to say that these schools
are not very, very focused on test prep and those metrics. But let’s also be honest, this is a condition
we’ve imposed not on just Success Academy, but on schools at large. So, it seems unusual to blame an Eva Moscowitz
or someone like that to be really good or blame them for being really good at playing
this game that we’ve demanded that they play. Nat: That’s right. An institution shaped by its competitive environment
succeeds and then we fault it for it. That may not be a fair progression. Robert: Yeah. For what it’s worth, I think she didn’t need
outsiders to persuade her of the efficacy of standardized testing. I think she’s very much a true believer, but
I’ve also been around her and around her schools enough to know that whatever the metric would
be that we would design, she would figure out a way to crush it. Nat: So, last question, short one. The book, it’s solid in its reporting. It is just a solid piece of reporting that
is interesting. It’s just got a wide range of experiences,
emotions to share about it that you share in it. But the test scores, let’s move away from
the test scores and just writ large, when you come to a school and evaluate, especially
having spent this much time in it, is this a good school or not? Robert: Yeah, it is. Nat: That’s my real question. Forget the test scores. If they’re scoring well on test scores, that
is a narrow indicator. But are Success Academys good schools? Robert: Yeah. It is the only question that matters. And it’s interesting because I get asked this
question a lot and usually in the context of it being a gotcha question. People who don’t like these schools think
that they’re challenging me by saying, “Well, Pondiscio, would you send your child to Success
Academy?” And my honest and earnest answer reply is,
“Well, what are my choices?” And this gets to the heart of why you write
a book like this. So, would I choose Bronx 1 over my daughter’s
Upper Eastside Manhattan school? No, I would not. And neither would you. Would I choose it over the public school a
few blocks away where I worked for five years? Yes, I would. And so would you. If I were a parent in New York City and I
had a choice between any charter school, would Success Academy be the first one I chose? Yeah, probably. I think so. And I say that even though I work in a competing
charter school, I still think it’s a culture, but that’s my choice. I like rules and whatnot. That’s my orientation as a parent, that’s
my orientation as a teacher. Does that make it right for every parent? No, it doesn’t. And if nothing else, I hope we can get past
this idea that there is a right way that there is a true and only way to educate not just
our own children, but especially other people’s children. Nat: Sure. Yeah. Different people see different things and
they make different conclusions. It’s like a Rorschach test. Right? Robert: Sounds like a good idea for a book. Nat: I appreciate you coming by to talk about
it and I appreciate the work, Robert. Robert: Thank you very much. Nat: Hey, everyone. That’s the end of our discussion with Robert
Pondiscio. Thanks for watching. As always, let us know what other topics you’d
like AI scholars to cover on viewpoint. And to learn more about Success Academy, check
the links in the description below.

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