A shorter version of this post originally appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.
Like pretty much everyone who is passionate about closing the achievement gap, I’m interested in Success Academies. I’ve read Eva Moskowitz’s book, Mission Possible: How the Secrets of the Success Academies Can Work in Any School, and watched the videos that come with it. But I’m still not sure what to think. The extraordinary results might be due to creaming motivated families or not backfilling after the early grades or too much test prep. These questions will likely be answered over the next several years.
Still, it seems clear that lots of students are getting a good education in Success Academies. If there were no test prep (or any manipulations of the student body), then I think the test scores would still be impressive, if not extraordinary.
So, what are they doing? Charles Sahm’s recent article in Education Next provides some answers. Having visited four Success Academies and interviewed staff, supporters, and critics, he presents a richer picture of the schools than previous accounts.
Without detracting from the complex array of supports needed to attain strong results, I think two of Success Academies’ focal points anchor the whole endeavor: a shared curriculum and a shared responsibility for teaching quality. Sahm reaches a very similar conclusion, “What separates Success, in my opinion, is a laser focus on what is being taught, and how.” But I’d like to highlight a small difference that, in my opinion, has a huge impact. It’s the sharing.
Curriculum itself matters, of course, shared or not. And Success Academies are driven to improve what they teach. I was overjoyed to read that they find Core Knowledge helpful:
This year, Success is piloting two additional two-week “mini Core Knowledge” project-based learning units. “We love [Core Knowledge founder] E. D. Hirsch,” says Michele Caracappa, Success’s director of literacy.
I hope that this endorsement gets more reformers thinking about content-specific, rich, cumulative curriculum. School choice and teacher evaluation might be sexier topics, but curriculum is a primary factor in opportunity to learn. Perhaps that fact that New York City’s top two charter networks look to E. D. Hirsch will get them thinking. As Sahm writes:
New York’s second-highest performing charter network, the seven Icahn schools in the Bronx, uses the content-rich Core Knowledge ELA curriculum, which is well aligned with the Common Core—further evidence that curriculum counts.
Many teachers outside these charter networks see the value of their school having a strong curriculum; Sahm quotes one, who says “What each school needs is what Success has: a team of people whose primary job is to create a high-quality curriculum for their own school.”
That would be a step forward for the vast majority of schools. It worked well for PS 124, a neighborhood school in Queens that greatly increased student achievement over 15 years under the leadership of Valarie Lewis. Lewis, who is now a Core Knowledge Fellow, implemented the Core Knowledge Sequence starting in 1999. By 2007, she won a Dispelling the Myth Award from the Education Trust. To get there, she made tough choices, including forgoing two assistant principals to fund extra learning time. In 2014, when Lewis retired, PS 124’s economically disadvantaged students significantly outperformed the city; their percentage proficient was 8 points higher in reading and math. But I am convinced that PS 124 could have done even better if it had the support of a network of schools all using the same curriculum.
When several schools work together on a shared curriculum, great benefits become possible. Sahm offers a powerful example:
Shortly before a lesson is taught across the network, an experienced teacher delivers (and video-records) the lesson early to her students, and shares the recording with other teachers.
Here’s the result:
All the teachers I spoke with agree that Success prepares its teachers well. “You know the material at such a high level that it gives you a real confidence in the classroom,” one teacher stated.
And the kicker:
Even critical former teachers credited the network with having improved their craft.
Which brings me to the other focal point: shared responsibility for teaching quality. Once you have a shared curriculum, you have a platform for helping teachers improve. You have a reasonable basis for comparing performance and figuring out what’s more and less effective. Comparing one teacher’s lesson on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to another’s on Esperanza Rising really is comparing apples to oranges. In contrast, shared curriculum leads to shared knowledge and shared pedagogical content knowledge.
Of course, the curriculum alone does not do this; the system has to believe in shared responsibility for teaching quality. Sahm quotes Moskowitz as saying, “It really is the level of preparation of the teacher and the teacher really understanding the book, the poem, the read-aloud…how much feedback the teacher gets.” Novice teachers and principals are placed in apprenticeship-type positions and given lots of time and feedback to hone their craft. Expert teachers and leaders are responsible for supporting others.
In all, Sahm has given us a valuable look inside Success Academies. He remains duly skeptical, but impressed. The one spot where I think he stumbles is in wondering, “If tests are high quality and well aligned with a high-quality curriculum, is ‘teaching to the test’ necessarily bad?” He continues:
I visited a 4th-grade English class where a boy was asked to identify the main idea from a short story. He started to retell the story. The teacher corrected him, and, with gentle prodding, he identified the author’s central point. Some might call that “test prep” because there are main-idea questions on the state exam. But it’s also a skill that’ll make that boy a better reader and communicator.
The problem is that the test is not aligned to the curriculum. To be aligned, the test would have to sample the knowledge in the curriculum, not just the skills. In math, the tests are aligned—the Common Core standards clearly state what math knowledge and skills students must acquire each year, and the tests cover both. But in language arts and literacy, the Common Core standards only state the skills—they do not say what knowledge students must acquire. Finding the main idea is a skill—and it depends on having knowledge of the topic in the text.
The fact that the actual knowledge needed for the reading tests is unpredictable is the reason why Success Academies get much better results in math than in reading. In math, it is possible to fully prepare for the test by teaching all of the required knowledge and skills. But in reading, the best one can do is to have students practice the skills while acquiring broad knowledge. The broader the students’ knowledge, the higher the odds that they’ll have the knowledge needed for whatever passages are on the test. This is why there is such a strong correlation between reading scores and socioeconomic status. Kids with better-educated parents tend to have broader knowledge.
According to Sahm, Success Academies have a broad, rich, specific, shared curriculum. Their reading achievement leads me to believe that’s true. And, their professed love of E. D. Hirsch is a good sign too! Which leaves just one question: Will the Success Academy network release its curriculum? The Core Knowledge Sequence and Core Knowledge Language Arts are online for free. From the beginning, Hirsch has hoped for another Sequence—another specific, rich, broad approach to educating children. Success Academies seem to have it, so I hope they’ll share.