The Eva Moskowitz Saga: Will the Public Tolerate Zero Tolerance? Will Eva Move to the National Scene?

Eva Moskowitz was a member of the New York City Council from the Upper East Side of Manhattan – probably the highest income electoral district in the nation. New York has a “strong mayor” system of local governance – the fifty-one members of the council elect a speaker, who, along with the mayor, runs the city. The council members, overwhelmingly Democratic, rarely have contested votes, the speaker controls the membership. Each council member gets a few millions to distribute to district projects and use the office as a bully pulpit to advocate for their next job on the elective ladder.

Eva was appointed as chair of the Education Committee, and, surprisingly and unfathomably, used her position to attack the UFT contract. The union negotiates with both the mayor and the chancellor; the City Council has no role in negotiations. Committee meeting after committee meeting she criticized some element of the collective bargaining agreement. At the end of her term, she was term limited and ran for the open position of Borough President of Manhattan. In a nine-way race Moskowitz was defeated by Scott Stringer, an Upper West Side member of the New York State Assembly; needless to say the union was heavily involved and supported Stringer (I was at the victory party for Stringer!!)

Eva, defeated at the polls, jumped from the City Council to the world of charter schools with the total support of Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein; deep pocketed supporters began to rapidly build the Success Academy network of charter schools.

Eva’s access to Klein was unparalleled, a NY Daily News FOIL request, vigorously fought by the city, unearthed an amazing exchange (Read NY Daily News article here  and a detailed analysis of the hundreds of emails here) of e-correspondence.

Klein and Eva were soul mates, anything she wanted in a school she received, they discussed politics on the local and national level, and the emails had the feel of two lovers or a doting father figure.

With the exit of Bloomberg and Klein the city was led by a mayor far less amenable to charter schools and Eva immediately went on the attack. Governor Cuomo, her newest “best friend” passed legislation forcing New York City to either provide space in a public school or pay the rent for leased space. The rumors began to spread – was Eva the candidate to run against de Blasio in 2017?  Ambition was not lacking and on the steps of City Hall Eva denied she was running for mayor – three years before the election, (Read previous blog post here) with plenty of time to change her mind.

In the world of politics rises and falls can be unanticipated and precipitous. While accusations that the Success Academy Network forced out low performing students the charges never gained traction. In the fall the press unearthed a principal of a Success Academy school who maintained a “Got-To Go” list – low performing students who were targeted for moving out. The Success Schools are tightly run, the instruction is carefully scripted, and you see the same leadership style and instructional strategies in schools across the network; the criticism that excellent tests results were more “addition by subtraction,” forcing out low performers, began to gain traction.

In January a group of parents filed a federal complaint accusing the Success Network of discriminating against children with disabilities, a charge vigorously denied by Moskowitz.

On February 12th the NY Times published a highly unusual article; it included a video clip entitled, “A Momentary Lapse or Abusive Teaching?”

In the video, a first-grade class sits cross-legged in a circle on a brightly colored rug. One of the girls has been asked to explain to the class how she solved a math problem, but she has gotten confused.

 She begins to count: “One… two…” Then she pauses and looks at the teacher.

The teacher takes the girl’s paper and rips it in half. “Go to the calm-down chair and sit,” she orders the girl, her voice rising sharply.

“There’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper,” she says, as the girl retreats.

The teacher was not an inexperienced novice; the teacher was a “model teacher” who demonstrated effective practice to other teachers.

The video exposed the instructional philosophy of the network – what is referred to as zero tolerance – defined as a negative reinforcement to extinguish undesirable behaviors.

Kathleen De Cataldo, Executive Director of the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children sees zero tolerance policies as a first step in the “school to prison” pipeline,

School policies and disciplinary practices that discourage students from remaining in the classroom often lead to schools, directly or indirectly, “pushing” students out of schools. “Pushout” policies and practices include zero tolerance and ineffective misbehavior prevention and intervention policies, as well as leads to student disengagement from school.

Elizabeth Green, the editor of Chalkbeat and the author of “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works” takes a much more nuanced approach to “no excuses;” Green summarizes attitudes,

On one side of that debate: educators and parents who argue that the no-excuses approach is not only defensible, but the only way to solve racial and class inequities in schools and beyond … the strong academic results of “no excuses” schools prove that the model only needs evolving, not fundamental change.

On the other side: An equally passionate group arguing that no-excuses practices are systematically abusive and a form of institutional racism, undermining any academic gains they may enable. These critics are not just speculators. They include people who have taught and still do teach at no-excuses schools.

And goes on to parse both sides in detail. The lengthy article details the charter school chains that espouse and defend a no excuses approach and counters the critics.

Green concludes.

Ultimately, I think that critics inside no-excuses schools are right that the no-excuses approach to teaching needs radical overhaul. The behavior first, learning second formula prescribed by broken-windows theory — and for that matter, by most American schools — can successfully build compliant, attentive students, at least in the short term. But it cannot produce students who think creatively, reason independently, and analyze critically.

Whether you refer to the schools as zero tolerance or “broken windows” or “behavior first” you don’t find such schools in middle class white environs. The issue of race hovers over the debate – is there something about students of color that requires a harsher approach, and, the crucial question, does the philosophy or policy prepare students for college and beyond or a method to identify a “talented tenth,” discard the majority for the benefit of a minority that can survive the outwardly abusive instructional/disciplinary practices?

The defenders of Moskowitz are hard to find, and, avid supporters may be beginning to have doubts. When Moskowitz refused to sign a standard contract with the city that allows the city to inspect pre-k programs for health and safety issues no one came to her defense and the state commissioner found no problem with the practice. Members of the Board of Regents openly asked whether the commissioner had the power to intervene and there is little question that legislation viewed as increasing transparency and fairness will be introduced – see bills already introduced here, here and here.

In December the Cuomo Task Force report tamped down the rhetoric and clearly the Governor is looking to repair frayed relations with public school parents and teacher unions. Whether the deep-pocketed funders continue to pour millions into Success is now open to question.

And for Eva…. maybe a high profile role in the Trump or Cruz presidential campaigns.

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3 responses to “The Eva Moskowitz Saga: Will the Public Tolerate Zero Tolerance? Will Eva Move to the National Scene?

  1. If our next president is a republican, the new power phrase will be “zero tolerance”.Given that climate, Eva Moskowitz could certainly go national or at the very least wait a year til they vote the communist cartel out of NYC, and vote in someone,who truly understands the catastrophe that the present administration has made out of the NYC school system. Either a real democrat or republican would then fo well to make her the Chancellor and “zero policy” the centerpiece of school governance. No more principals who come to school late for more then 100 days. No more school leaders who openly deny basic American idealism ie flag pledging, or singing national anthems. And no more family run schools. I will close by saying, if my child had been bullied to the extent of being choked, and then having the choker returned to his class, they would need every security guard present for my conference with the Principal. After more then 40 years of working in our schools, the one thing I am sure of, is that zero tolerance works. You will be told this by parents and administrators of any color, age, gender,religious background, or any other dynamic you can think of.

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  2. As a parent of a Success Academy child and also a Progressive, I can tell you that Eva Moskowitz has plenty of supporters, especially from those who have children at Success Academy, with all kinds of political beliefs.

    I think that having high performing schools in low income neighborhoods of New York City, where traditional public schools are often very poor, is a Progressive idea, and there is a growing number of Progressives like myself who support Success Academy, based on our direct experience with the school.

    You may not like strict discipline policies, but you can’t argue with the incredible richness and depth of the academic curriculum at Success Academy, which features, among other things:
    – two teachers in the classroom in elementary grades
    – daily science class starting in kindergarten
    – a field trip every 3 weeks
    – custom-designed, rich literacy and math curriculum
    – chess, art and sports
    – parents can drop in unannounced and sit in on any class
    – safety and zero bullying
    – and much more

    Now here is a factually inaccurate quote: “Whether you refer to the schools as zero tolerance or “broken windows” or “behavior first” you don’t find such schools in middle class white environs.” There are a few Success Academy locations, including SA upper West, SA Union Square, SA Bensonhurst and some others, that are surrounded by good quality traditional public schools, and yet Success Academies are very popular not only among low income parents, but also among well-off professionals who often choose it over good Gifted and Talented programs for their kids.

    Unfortunately, many Progressives are caught in the old political cliches, have a deep distrust of Success Academy and are inclined to side with the unions of any issue, right or wrong. And Progressive leaders are too quick to resort to emotionally potent oversimplifications, like “privatization of public education”, instead of taking a sober look at all the facts, good and bad.

    “Republican” or “Democrat” has something to do with this, but mostly it’s the parents who have direct knowledge of the schools vs. those who know about it from newspapers. When parents learn the facts about Success Academy, they often move away from negative political cliches and change their view.

    Success Academy has room to improve and get better, but most of its critics will not acknowledge that the school network has any strengths, at all. Meanwhile, there are 9 applications for every open spot at Success Academy, so parents like myself must be either really ignorant, or perhaps know something that the author doesn’t.

    I recommend that the author visit a couple of Success Academy schools, compare them with nearby zoned schools and try to write a more balanced piece.

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  3. You’ve hit the nail exactly on the head about ALL of the dog-whistle-politics school “reform” game: “the issue of race hovers over the debate.” When I was forced out of my inner-city teaching position by a reform-greedy district, I sat down to write about my pain and frustration. My book, which first started out simply as “Why Is You Always Got To Be Trippin'” soon turned into: Why Is You Always Got To Be Trippn’: SCHOOL REFORM AND THE RACIAL DIVIDE.

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