This article is adapted from the author’s blog, DianeRavitch.net.
The media have long been in search of a ”miracle” school, a school that can succeed in turning poor children of color into academic superstars. Of course, there already are poor children of color who are academic superstars, but they’re the exception, not the rule (the same is true for poor white children). The defining characteristic of low test scores is poverty, not color. The titans of our society are especially interested in the pursuit of miracle schools because finding them would relieve those with high incomes of any obligation to alleviate the poverty that interferes with academic achievement.
Today we have that very school—or chain of schools—in New York City: Success Academy. It was declared a success almost from the day it opened, back in 2006, as Harlem Success Academy. Founded by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz and backed by a team of Wall Street financiers, Success Academy schools have delivered spectacular results on state tests. While everyone else lagged behind on the new Common Core tests, Moskowitz’s schools did well.
Success Academy schools have been consistently delivering high test performances for several years. And that record has not gone unnoticed. Madeleine Sackler, daughter of Connecticut multimillionaire Jonathan Sackler, made a film about Moskowitz and her charter schools in 2010 called The Lottery, which portrayed them as miraculous institutions holding the key to families’ hopes and dreams. The much-hyped documentary Waiting for Superman also featured Moskowitz’s celebrated lottery. Just recently, The New York Times Magazine published a fawning article about her, seeming to position Moskowitz as a future mayoral candidate.
What are the secrets of Eva’s success? To begin with, there’s the lottery itself. As the Times reported in 2010, Moskowitz spent as much as $325,000 to market her charter schools in Harlem, while the neighborhood public schools could afford no more than $500 to advertise their offerings. The goal of Moskowitz’s marketing was to build her brand and generate excitement about the lottery. This gave her schools an aura of prestige, with the lucky winners clutching their tickets. But the very fact of a lottery is a screening device, since the least functional families—i.e., those who are homeless—are too busy trying to survive to enter it.
Moskowitz often says that she enrolls exactly the same types of children as the public schools, but this is not true. Success Academy has very few of the students with the most severe disabilities (in some of its schools, the number is zero). In Harlem’s public elementary schools, by contrast, the average proportion of such children is 14.1 percent. Also, Success Academy has half as many English-language learners as the neighboring public schools. Whether this is the result of a screening process at the outset or because these children have been “counseled out” is unclear; what is undeniable is that Success Academy has significantly fewer of the children with the highest needs.