All About Eva

The Simpsons
We need to chill out on the Eva Moskowitz bashing. I understand that the “got-to-go” list is controversial and agree that the question of expulsions is an important one. However, it seems that we’re treating Success as a proxy for much larger issues, and I fear that it’s naively distilling difficult questions into an overly simplistic narrative.

I don’t work at Success and have no insight into the discussions surrounding their decisions not to re-enroll and even outright expel especially difficult students. But having been a public school teacher myself, and having spent way too much of my instructional time trying to address the behaviors of a small handful of students, I imagine the conversations went something like: “[Student] continues to spit and kick other kids and disrupt the class. We’ve met with him and met with his family but this keeps happening. It’s grinding class to a halt and making it impossible for anyone else to learn. What should we do?” And at some point someone seems to have concluded, “Maybe this isn’t the right place for him.”

If I were an administrator, I don’t know what I would have done in that situation. It’s a Catch-22. On one hand, a school has a responsibility to educate every student it accepts, and a “got to go” list clearly violates this. On the other hand, if a child continues to choose behaviors that make it impossible for the rest of the students to learn, then a “got to stay” mandate effectively does, too. So how should an administrator choose between de jure and de facto?

Of course, Moskowitz critics point out that in addition to wanting to ensure an atmosphere conducive to learning, Success’s decision to remove certain students may have also been motivated by the desire to maximize test scores. And that’s a reasonable concern. But here’s the thing: While I don’t work at Success, I’ve spent some time there. A few months ago I spent two days working with their teachers and administrators on how to support higher-order math instruction. None of the conversations we had were about how to teach to the test, and I saw no evidence of this in my classroom observations. Instead, what I saw were students working on problems that were way more challenging and far more meaningful than anything they’d see at the end of the year.

Still, I don’t doubt that Success has an interest in scoring well. So does every school in the United States, many of which do teach to the test. If we’re going to slam Eva Moskowitz for considering the test, then we should do the same to principals who prioritize it. Because which is more problematic: expelling some students and providing a great education, or expelling no students and providing a mediocre one? It’s an over-simplification, sure, but if our beef is with Success’s response to testing pressures, then we should at least be consistent with the critique. (Also, it’s worth noting that even though public schools might not be able to expel difficult students in order to improve classroom conditions or raise test scores, many still accomplish this simply by labeling those students “special needs.”)

Ultimately, though, it seems like the main concern  —  and the most vexing source of ambivalence  —  is the effect that charter schools have on neighboring public schools. After all, when Success expels a student, he just ends up going to a public school down the street, and it’s those teachers and those students who now have to deal with the behavior issues. And that sucks. And it doesn’t seem fair, since all it does is drain resources from the public system. Nor does it seem fair when charter schools “cream” the best students from the most engaged families, since those are exactly the families we want to help make public education better.

Still, both of these issues seem like classic examples of Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Because as much as we want school leaders to internalize the larger social implications of their decisions, the accountability structure we’ve created isn’t optimized for that. Furthermore, if what we’re concerned about is the draining of engagement from the public commons, then let’s have a conversation about private schools, too. Because if we’re upset when a family in Harlem sends their kid to Success, then we should go absolutely crazy when a family on Central Park West sends theirs to Horace Mann.

“Got to go” vs. “all for one.” Charters vs. public vs. private. These are incredibly thorny questions that we as a country would do well to discuss. But wrapping them up in some Eva Moskowitz storyline isn’t just unfair to her. It’s unfair to all of us. These are difficult issues, but casting Success Academy as their proxy is too simplistic.

I don’t think Success is perfect  —  no school is, public or private  —  but I have a lot of respect for some of the work they’re doing. Their teachers and school leaders and, yes, Eva herself are some of the most thoughtful educators I’ve met. (They really are.) This isn’t to excuse what may indeed be an unreasonable expulsion policy, but they’re serious people doing serious work. If we lose sight of that just because we’re pissed, then we risk sacrificing something much more valuable than a few charter schools in Manhattan: an opportunity to discuss what we’re really pissed about.

I think we’re pissed that a few kids can bring an entire class to a halt, but also that nobody seems to have a perfect answer for what to do about it. I think we’re pissed that public schools must follow what may be an outdated rulebook  —  teacher tenure, local funding  — but also that charter schools get to play by a different one. One mom is pissed that her son got kicked out, while another is pissed that hers got kicked, period. We used to be pissed that we had no way to hold schools accountable, but now we’re pissed that standardized tests have suffocated the joy from teaching and learning.

There’s plenty to be upset about. There are plenty of important issues to discuss. And let’s discuss them. But before we do, can we stop pretending this is about Eva Moskowitz?

November 4, 2015