The limits of the Eva Moskowitz model, at least until she becomes mayor

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Eva Moskowitz testifies. (edlabordems, via flickr)
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Although Eva Moskowitz opted against running for mayor next year, there’s a "70 to 80 percent chance" she will run during the next Mayoral cycle, she told Capital in an interview last week.

The interview was part of publicity outreach for Moskowitz’s new book, Mission Possible: How the Secrets of the Success Academies Can Work in Any School. The book, released on June 26th, was co-written by Arin Lavinia, the literacy coach for Moskowitz’s Success Academy network of charter schools.

The first part of the book is a manifesto about the importance of charter schools given the state of American education, and explains Moskowitz's belief in the need for charter schools to nudge “the monopoly of district public education [that] will never put the customer first and never find ways to boost productivity and innovate.”

But most of the book is a pedagogical how-to, replete with an accompanying DVD, including everything from a breakdown of the Success Academy’s "THINK Literacy" curriculum to an example of how not to use the insidiously condescending singsong voice to address students.

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“I think we’ve discovered through trial and error, and some really good design principals early on, how to educate kids at a high level,” Moskowitz, a former councilwoman, told me.

“My view is that the work that we’re doing here is not just about Success Academy kids. The end goal is not to have [a few] world class schools and have everything else remain the same. My end goal is to make things better for every child. Not only for the city and state, but also for the country.”

The topic of Moskowitz’s end goal has been a subject of much speculation, and suspicion. Recently, she told the Wall Street Journal that there’s no firm target on the number of schools she might open. This conflicts with her previous assertions, including in her book, that her goal was to open 40 schools.

Last year, Moskowitz opened up a school on the Upper West Side. This coming year, she will open up a school in Cobble Hill. The city is considering putting Success Academy schools in Union Square and Hell’s Kitchen, which would bring the number of her schools to 18 by the 2013-2014 school year.

By opening schools in well-to-do neighborhoods, Moskowitz has gone beyond what many assumed was her original mission: to bring the alternative of charter schools into impoverished districts with horribly low test scores. 

In a blog post entitled “Charter Chain Evolves,” Diane Ravitch, the education historian and former charter school champion who is now their most vocal critic, wrote: “When former City Council member Eva Moskowitz started in the charter school industry, her goals were clear: she planned to open schools in Harlem to save poor black and Hispanic children. She called her chain Harlem Success Academy, and it was branded HAS. She said early on that her goal was to open 40 schools.

“Now she is opening schools in some of the most affluent neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the name of her chain has changed. It is no longer Harlem Success Academy. It is simply Success Academy. And about that goal of 40 schools? That’s gone too. She is up to 18 schools, but she says she’s flexible about the goal. It might be 30 or 40 or 50. Whatever.”

Recently, Moskowitz has gone out of her way to differentiate her schools from many other charter schools, seemingly to rebuff any criticism that she has deviated from her original mission.

“We started with a different premise than some of the other early pioneers of the charter school movement, whose starting point was a remedial model of education: ‘We have kids who have incredible deficits, let’s make up for those,’” she paraphrased to me.

“But my vision and goal was: How do you provide world class education for kids? And I didn’t design schools for any particular race, a particular ethnicity, a particular community, a particular socioeconomic demographic.”

The day before the interview, data released by the Department of Education showed that 97 percent of Success Academy students passed math and 88 percent passed English, compared to 60 percent and 47 percent for city public schools as a whole. (Moskowitz's critics cite a litany of reasons for that difference in scores that have nothing to do with pedagogical superiority.)

Moskowitz’s recent rhetoric points toward defining the education crisis as something beyond the gap between rich and poor, but rather as “an international crisis,” affecting the affluent neighborhoods she's now targeting just as seriously as it affects poor ones.

“All the data says that this isn’t just something that afflicts the most disadvantaged," she said. "Suburban schools all over the country—we’re doing poorly compared to our international counterparts.”

While Moskowitz’s goal for the number of Success Academy schools has gone from 40 to open-ended, she said, “I’m not interested in replicating irrespective of quality. The day I feel we can’t guarantee parents extraordinary quality is the day I stop growing. I’m not experienced enough to know [at what number], but it’s not as if it’s unknowable as you approach it.”

Moskowitz actually says now that a primary limitation on the proliferation of her school model, at least until she gets to be mayor, is personnel. 

A point on which Moskowitz and her critics in the teachers union agree is that the instructors in her schools work very, very hard. Many unionized teachers in public schools work just as hard, of course. But in many cases those public-school teachers are working hours that exceed what's in their contracts, out of a commitment to their students.

For Moskowitz's teachers, the long days are precisely what they're signing up for.

“It’s really a people question," Moskowitz said.

Her model, she said, "requires people who have that relentless commitment to excellence.”