What Explains Success at Success Academy? asks Charles Sahm in Education Next. Test prep isn’t the answer, concludes Sahm, education policy director at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
The New York City charter network’s students — predominantly from low-income black and Latino families — outscore suburban kids, he notes. “If the network were a single school, it would rank in the top 1 percent of the state’s 3,560 schools in math and the top 3 percent in English.”
Like other “no excuses” charter schools, Success has created a culture of discipline and high expectations. “Scholars” wear uniforms. The school day and year are longer. What’s distinctive is “a laser focus on what is being taught, and how.”
Success Academy has developed its own challenging, content-rich English Language Arts (ELA) and math curricula.
English classes involve “project-based learning” and writing workshops. Reading selections expose children to “relevant, important, beautiful material … diverse cultures, economic backgrounds, settings, and characters.”
In math, students are encouraged to develop their own strategies to solve problems. Teachers “plan the lesson with a clear goal and use precise questioning and a carefully designed set of activities to lead scholars to learn, develop, or master a new concept each day,” says Stacey Gershkovich, director of math and science.
Starting in kindergarten, every student “takes a full-period, experiment-based science class,” writes Sahm. “No wonder 100 percent of Success 4th graders and 8th graders passed the 2014 state science exams, 99 percent scoring an advanced rating.”
Success uses experiential learning to bring history to life. Second graders, for example, take part in a multiweek unit on the Brooklyn Bridge. They conduct experiments to learn the engineering principles behind bridge construction, read a biography of the project’s field engineer, Emily Roebling, and visit the bridge to record their observations.
Success schools aren’t test-prep factories where kids are drilled in the basics, Sahm writes.
I toured a Success middle school in Harlem during a 90-minute “flex” period. In one room, the chess team prepared for the national tournament; in another, students worked on the school newspaper; down the hall, students rehearsed a musical; in other rooms, students worked on art projects or learned computer coding. Success’s debate and chess teams have begun to win national awards.
The schools prepare students for state exams by giving practice tests and requiring extra work sessions on Saturday for those who do poorly. However, test prep doesn’t crowd out authentic learning, says Eva Moskowitz, the network’s founder. “You cannot ace these Common Core tests with test prep. Our kids can interpret the meaning of a poem because they’ve read so much poetry. . . . When we are prepping for math, it’s open-ended math questions.”
The Times asked current and former Success parents to write about their experiences at the schools. Some love it. Others say their kids were under too much pressure.
A father credits a Success school with helping his son move from special to general education. At the highly rated district school, “Jack” was expected to achieve only half what other students could do, writes Doug McCurry. Thanks to “small group instruction, speech and occupational therapy, in-school counseling and a great team of teachers” at Success Cobble Hill, the second grader “reads well above grade level, scores near the top of his class in math, writes with style and precision and loves science.”