Portents of Success

I wouldn’t have expected it, but events of the last 24 hours have got me in a surprisingly chipper mood.

First off, it was terrific to see some well-deserved recognition for the Success Academy. In the face of bureaucratic hostility, endless second-guessing about discipline and various school policies, and a bizarre amount of vitriol, the Success Academy earned the Broad Prize for Pubic Charter Schools (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the Broad Prize review board). Success has accomplished some truly remarkable things: There’s the extraordinary performance on state reading and math tests. There’s the rapid growth, from one school to more than 40 (serving 14,000 students) in the course of a decade. There’s the commitment to a rich curriculum, an admirable enthusiasm for chess, and an unapologetic commitment to excellence.

Success isn’t to everyone’s taste—observers can reasonably think the school’s discipline policies are too strict for their taste or founder Eva Moskowitz’s expectations for teachers and students too high. Okay. That’s fine. Over the years, people have voiced similar concerns about Steve Jobs and Apple or Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. That’s good company to be in. I kind of wish we had more of those single-minded visionaries in schooling. And the nice thing about charter schooling is that no one has to attend a Success Academy school. If it’s not for you, so be it. But it turns out that there are thousands of families who think their children will benefit from what Success has to offer, and thousands more on waitlists hoping to get their children that same opportunity.

One of the striking things about Success’s story, at least to me, is how Success has posted such impressive results and growth while simultaneously conducting an ongoing struggle with New York City over everything from facilities access to preschool regulations. This also has the unfortunate consequence of shifting the conversation away from the more important issues. As I see it, discussion of Success should revolve around one big question: Why do Success’s academic results seem so outsized, even compared to some of the nation’s other, most-accomplished charter schools? Instead, when Success comes up, the question is frequently: Why do opponents and New York bureaucrats seem so interested in throwing obstacles up in Success’s way?

Anyway, like I said, I was pleased to see Success Academy reap some well-earned plaudits to set alongside all the brickbats and second-guessing. And, surprisingly, it’s not the only news that’s got me a little upbeat.

On Monday, the White House held a confab for school-choice supporters to talk about what’s ahead for its federal school push. Last week, I’d been told that this was going to be the White House scolding everyone, “The train’s leaving the station, time to shut up, get on board, and do as you’re told.” As you can surmise, I would’ve had a big problem with that (in part, it prompted me to pen last week’s imagined presidential address). Instead, though, I was gladdened to hear that it turned out to be an honest-to-goodness listening session. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway listened, asked questions, and took notes, while several dozen advocates offered competing perspectives and prescriptions. Concerns about burdensome federal regulations, heavy-handed mandates, and the problem with one-size-fits-all education directives were aired and given a respectful hearing. That was a heartening development and one that I found reassuring.

Then, on Tuesday, Secretary DeVos gave a speech to the annual charter-school conference that evinced an admirable concern for just those things that have stymied Success. Quoting from my recent blog “It’s Easy to Become ‘The Man,’” she expressed concerns about reformers who “become just another breed of bureaucrats—a new education establishment.” She echoed my concern about 500-page charter-school applications, noting, “That’s not progress. That’s fundamentally at odds with why parents demanded charters in the first place.” It was DeVos articulating the kinds of practical frustrations that bedevil so many educators, parents, and community members—especially that trio of dynamic teachers who might want to launch a charter, but don’t have the time or bandwidth to navigate an application process that requires two years, foundation support, and a professional proposal writer.

Good signs. Now, we’ll see what tidings they bring.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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