Examining the success of Success Academy charter schools

On September 9, Brookings’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and the Brown Center on Education Policy hosted Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, for a discussion on the need for a high-quality teacher pipeline to support the American school system, economy, and competitiveness.

Michael O’Hanlon, director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings, moderated the discussion, and reminded the audience that the focus on schools at Brookings ranges from families to poverty and opportunity. But it also covers long-term American national power ideas—the underlying base for future power—including manufacturing, science research, and the people who will do these things.

Prior to founding Success Academy, Moskowitz, a history professor with a PhD from Johns Hopkins University, began an education reform career as a member of the New York City Council. As chair of the Education Committee, she explored all angles of city schools, asking tough questions about many subjects. This background helped foster the ideas that eventually became Success Academy.

Success Academy opened its doors in August 2006 with 165 kids in Harlem. The goal was simple according to Moskowitz: “Give poor kids the same opportunities that rich kids have.” In just eight years, Success Academy has grown to 34 K-12 schools and now serves more than 11,000 children across Harlem, the South Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. Last year, Success Academy ranked in the top 1 percent of New York state schools in math and in the top 3 percent for reading.

During the event, Moskowitz was quick to point out that she did not create Success Academy for poor kids, or for black children, or for Latino children. Rather, she wanted to create the “most magical schooling environment possible.” To accomplish this, she set out to do things differently.

One way was to make school so compelling and engaging that kids would want to attend.

Another was to ensure that science was not a second-class subject. As Moskowitz pointed out, “we do science every day of the week, starting in Kindergarten.” This, she argued, foments a child’s natural curiosity and engagement. Despite that fact, science is often not taught until at least fourth grade in other schools, thus losing several years of that natural inquisitive spirit.

Nonacademic subjects are also part and parcel of Success Academy. Moskowitz shared stories of “intellectually stimulating games” fostering intuition and stamina. When a purely verbal skill is taken off the table, you get strategic thinking, she argued. As such, everyone in Success Academy plays chess, with competitions starting in third grade.

Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow in Economic Studies, joined the conversation by first pointing out that she loves games herself! Further, she said “the education system in the United States is not helping to improve opportunity.” She agreed that reform is needed, and that charter schools are an innovative part of the solution.

Sawhill went on to say, “the Success Academy shows what you can accomplish when you are free from the regulations and mindsets that have taken over education and do things in a different way.” Further, she pointed out that the Success Academy statistics are “mind blowing.”

When it comes to learning, schools can’t do everything, Moskowitz asserted. Parental investment is critical. At Success Academy, parents can join the classroom at any time. High levels of investment are encouraged throughout the process.

Another area where Success Academy sets itself apart, she observed, is the requirement that teachers fully understand what they are teaching, particularly in areas of math and science, and perhaps most importantly how it advances in the years ahead as a student continues to learn. In public school teacher training, this rigor is largely lacking.

Part of being ready comes through training. Success Academy does 13 weeks of training per year for all teachers. Moskowitz stated that this is important because “you need the children … you need to make mistakes … you need to learn the art and science of teaching.” One of the key factors in teaching is clarity. In other professions, it’s perhaps not as necessary, but in teaching it is very obvious when there are mistakes.

Kids at Success Academy are doing much better than comparable public schools at math and reading. This is despite the fact that 76 percent of students are less advantaged and about 94 percent are minorities. All of this is occurring in charter schools that have fewer resources, as much as $3,000-4,000 less per child per year, than their public school counterparts.

While there are some criticisms of Success Academy, such as it being a very selective program and that the teaching style can be too tough or upsetting for children, Sawhill concluded that the success is “incredibly over the top.”