At Success Academy, Strong Content and Curriculum are Keys to Success
Progressive education techniques and innovative teacher training help the charters outperform NYC public schools
In 2014, the New York City-based charter network Success Academy made headlines by significantly outscoring the rest of the city’s schools on the state’s new Common Core aligned exams. In the public schools, 29 percent of students were proficient in English and 35 percent were proficient in math. By contrast, Success Academy low-income and inner-city students had impressive proficiency rates of 64 percent in English and 94 percent in math.
Success Academy was in the news again this April when the New York Times ran an article, relying upon disgruntled former teachers and anonymous sources, who attributed Success students’ high scores to “grueling” test preparation and the “demanding” culture in the schools. Missing from the paper’s chronicle was information about the schools’ unique curricula, the style in which content is taught, and the additional training and support offered to teachers. Now Charles Sahm of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, offers a more balanced review of Success Academy’s approach in a new article for Education Next.
Founded by Moskowitz in 2006, Success Academy is currently made up of 32 schools across the city, serving 9,000 students. It expects to open 13 additional schools in the next two years. “No other charter network has grown this fast and achieved such stellar results,” says Sahm.
Success Academy has developed its own challenging English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum, THINK Literacy, and it’s own equally rigorous math curriculum, the author says. ELA classes involve “project-based learning” and writing workshops from kindergarten through 8th grade. Reading selections are picked with the intent to produce strong reading skills but also in order to expose children to “relevant, important, beautiful material … diverse cultures, economic backgrounds, settings, and characters.” “Teachers often spend only ten minutes delivering direct instruction; the rest of the class period is devoted to hands-on learning,” he says. The academy’s director of math and science credits the high math achievement to the teachers, who “plan the lesson with a clear goal and use precise questioning and a carefully designed set of activities to lead scholars to learn, develop, or master a new concept each day.”
Test prep is not the key to success, according to Moskowitz who says: “If you look at the scope and sequence of our curriculum, it is very, very robust. You cannot ace these Common Core tests with test prep. Our kids can interpret the meaning of a poem because they’ve read so much poetry…When we are prepping for math, it’s open-ended math questions.” Sahm confirms from his observations that while “undoubtedly the teachers approach content in a style that will be particularly beneficial on the tests,” the test prep is seamlessly integrated into “the high-quality curriculum.”
All the teachers Sahm spoke with agreed that Success prepares its teachers well. They provide weeks of additional training for each teacher new to Success Academy. “You know the material at such a high level that it gives you a real confidence in the classroom,” one teacher stated. School leaders regularly visit classrooms and offer targeted feedback and recommendation to the teachers, rather than going through a rigid standardized evaluation process.
Sahm expresses surprise that so many progressives have critiques of Moskowitz’ Success schools and their structure: “Her education vision is essentially progressive. The curriculum is Montessori-like, stressing experiential learning, problem solving, and critical thinking. Instead of formulaic evaluations, teachers receive continual feedback and support. Parents are involved. A longer school day and year allow for extra-curriculars.”
More about Success Academy’s can be found in the article “What Explains Success at Success Academy: Charter network focuses on what is being taught, and how,” available now on https://www.educationnext.org and appearing in the Summer 2015 issue of Education Next.
About the Author
Charles Sahm is education policy director at Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. The author is available for interviews.
About Education Next
Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit: https://www.educationnext.org.