When Everyone Pulls Together: The Secrets of Success Academy

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

5 years ago, after the latest round of NY state test scores were released and Success Academy took 7 out of the top 15 spots in NY state, Robert Pondiscio wrote:

“What is imperative now is for serious, unbiased experts and observers to descend on Harlem and figure out how these extraordinary results are being achieved and, if all that glitters is gold, how to replicate them.”

Pondiscio has put his time and effort where his mouth was, and spent a year in a Success Academy elementary school in the Bronx. The outcome is a gobsmackingly incisive and nuanced book in which he attempts to document how those extraordinary results are achieved. This is Pondiscio at his best.

I’ve always been skeptical of Success Academy (SA), but unlike some of my district school colleagues, I don’t have a sustained interest in political nor ideological turf wars against charters. I am interested in learning from what any school or network may be doing that is effective. When I saw those phenomenal results 5 years ago, just like Pondiscio, I wanted to know what the heck SA was doing. And I wanted to know whether what SA is doing is truly successful from a long-term perspective. I came up with a list of questions:

Leadership

  • What do the formal and informal leaders say and do? How and what do they communicate consistently? (This includes student leaders).
  • Is the leadership distributed?
  • What mechanisms are in place for students, parents, teachers, and leaders to collaborate and receive continuous feedback? How do leaders respond to feedback?
  • How is diversity in student ability, knowledge, and skills strategically recognized and cultivated?

Content

  • What are the values and vision behind assessment and unit design?
  • What texts are taught in ELA? Why?
  • How well do topics and themes build knowledge and understanding of academic domains and the world sequentially across classrooms and grades?
  • How are students engaged in their community through units?
  • What scaffolds and interventions for students who are struggling are applied consistently both in and out of classrooms?
  • What opportunities beyond academics are provided for all students?

Environment

  • What does it feel like when you walk into a Success Academy school? What does it sound like? What does it look like?
  • How relevant is posted work and displays to students and their community?
  • What is the ratio of positive to negative language used by students and staff in the building?
  • How (psychologically) safe do students with special needs feel in the hallways, lunch rooms, and classrooms?
  • How are supportive social relationships and networks developed and sustained by the school?

In How the Other Half Learns, Pondiscio ends up answering a fair number of those questions. Read it to learn more.

What this review is and isn’t

I would love to write a more lengthy expository on nearly everything in the book—there’s certainly plenty to dig into—but realized I would never end up finishing, so I’m going to focus on a few things that struck me.

I’m also not going to spend much time on the school choice argument that Pondiscio mounts throughout the book, as interesting as it is, because most other reviews—and there are many—dig into those kind of things more in full. I’m more interested in practice than in politics.

And finally, this really isn’t a proper “review.” So here’s a proper review in short: The book is well-written and thought provoking at every turn. Do yourself a favor and read it.

That said, let’s get to my takeaways:

So what’s the secret sauce?

Photo by Buenosia Carol on Pexels.com

Let’s get something straight: SA posts amazing results, pretty much any way you slice it. But Pondiscio doesn’t shy away from reporting that a key ingredient in their secret sauce is the careful vetting and grooming of a parent population that is involved and committed enough to SA’s approach to make it sing. In fact, Pondiscio leverages that fact to underpin his key argument for school choice: “Well-intended efforts to leverage schools as a means of ending generational poverty are perversely doomed to perpetuate it—unless we allow like-minded parents to self-select into schools in the greatest numbers possible.”

They end up typically being two parent families, faith oriented, and appreciative of firm discipline, according to Pondiscio’s reckoning, drawing parallels to Catholic schools, which historically have served similarly and effectively in the poorest zipcodes.

But aside from hand selecting the parents who are most committed to SAs vision, what exactly is SA doing?

This is the key theme that emerged for me while reading this book: when all adult oars pull in the same direction—in synchronicity—around children, then amazing results can be achieved. Even if the oars or the hands pulling them are far from perfect.

“When you are surrounded by adults who are demonstrably invested in your success, who do not assume your inevitable failure or condescend because they perceive you as less than or other, who do not dwell on your deficits or perceive you as oppressed or a victim, you are pointed in a specific direction in life.”

Let me give you two examples of this from Pondiscio’s reporting of SA, one an example of great literacy practice, and the other one of questionable value.

Exemplary Literacy Practice

SA provides a rigorous balance of close reading of shared grade-level texts that are worth reading, while ensuring that each and every student reads a steady volume of texts that are more accessible. The manner in which they do this rendered clear to me something I’d been sensing but hadn’t yet been able to fully express—students need this balance to become fully literate. Yet in many schools, there is no balance whatsoever—it’s tipped completely one way or another. Either students read a bunch of mostly random books of choice at their “level,” and little else, so they build little background knowledge. Or they read a few books (or excerpts) from their curriculum that are at grade-level, but struggle to understand it and teachers receive little support on how to scaffold those texts beyond injunctions to differentiate, and their school doesn’t have the necessary expertise and resources to provide appropriate intervention.

A key lever at an SA school is that they push the preponderance of volume of independent reading onto parents, and hold parents and students accountable to it. Here’s Pondiscio:

The guidance is specific, granular, and deliverable. Parents are expected to read six books aloud to their children every week through the end of second grade; they must monitor and log their children’s independent reading and homework through high school, emulating the habits and structures associated with affluent families.

In the schools I work with, the common complaint is that many students don’t read on their own and they lack the proper environment or resources to do so even when they are motivated to do so.

The other key lever, which is more scalable to other schools, is that SA’s close reading methods are structured and consistent from grade-to-grade, starting from the very beginning. They have a list of concise and clear “thinking jobs” by genre that students enlist to guide their discussion and annotations, and teachers and students have a clear structure that guides their process of textual analysis. This is what could be called “test prep” when executed poorly and haphazardly with little connection to any disciplinary or world knowledge, but it’s also more generally what we call “close reading.” They study shared complex texts and engage in intellectual discussions around the structure, purpose, and meaning of those texts. So long as the texts selected are worth reading, this is an exemplary practice.

So I found this description of their practices highly useful to my own work, because it clarified the importance in both increasing volume of reading, while also reading shared grade-level text. I came up with a wee graphic to depict this which I now use whenever presenting on close reading:

I’d like to write more on this another time, but while we’re on it, just want to note there are now curriculum offerings that provide more of this type of interweaving balance. For example, Bookworms (freely accessible) intriguingly scales not only between texts at student level and grade-level, but furthermore read alouds of texts at above grade-level, such that it provides a tri-pronged attack for building knowledge and vocabulary alongside increasing volume (listen to Karin Chenowith’s ExtraOrdinary Districts podcast on Seaford, DE, for more on this). STARI, a Tier 2 intervention (also freely accessible), similarly scales between accessible, relevant texts and grade-level work. More to explore here!

At SA, having an abundance of resources and in-classroom coaching all centered around a curriculum and set practices is a given. There is that “educational infrastructure” around the classroom that Elizabeth Green refers to in Building a Better Teacher fully present across the SA network.

As Pondiscio notes, SA is built to run on the backs of extremely young and inexperienced teachers, and it manages to so so effectively, but this also is one of the factors that shows it can’t be done at scale and sustainably.

I’ve spoken to a few folks who’ve worked at SA before, and from what I can glean, it would be a great place to learn the ropes, but not the kind of place you’d want to stay in for long, because if you want to have a family or life of your own, you won’t have any time for it. (As a side note, this is why I think it was extremely shortsighted of the NY Board of Regents to nix legislation allowing teachers to gain a license directly from charter schools, rather than through traditional routes.)

Not-so-exemplary literacy practice

SA isn’t a guiding light in all its literacy practices. One of the most intense, which is quite revealing of SA in all its glory and its shame, is that kindergarten students may be held over if they do not reach Level D on Fountas and Pinnell running records by the end of the school year.

Fountas and Pinnell (or F&P as it is widely referred to) and guided reading is starting to get put under the microscope because though its leveled method appears scientific, it’s not based on solid science. Yet F&P is pervasive in the field, and kids across our nation refer to themselves as “I’m a level __” —even though F&P themselves state that the intent of the leveling system is to pair kids with books, not to define the kids.

SA disregards all of this and goes all in on leveling:

“Classroom libraries have book bins sorted by levels; children’s nightly reading logs have a column to record each book’s level. Data walls in every classroom indicate each child’s current reading level.”

And yet . . . in one scene Pondiscio describes the joyous celebration that occurs when a boy, who has been struggling, moves up a level. As he proudly shares this information with other adults in the building, and it becomes an impromptu parade, this suspect practice still can result in motivating kids to improve their reading ability, when their parents are firmly in tow.

When all adults pull in the same direction—even when the practices might be of questionable value—gains can be made, as SA consistently shows every single year. F&P and running records might not be based on the most solid of science, but they provide clear goals and progress monitoring, and when a school commits to a specific approach and goes all in, you will see impact.

I should also note that when I raised questions about their literacy practices on Twitter, Michele Caracappa, a former CAO at SA who is quoted in the book, clarified the science-based reading practices they do engage in. More here:

What I Think the Book Oversells

Pondiscio was surprised to find that the SA curriculum was not as knowledge based, direct instruction based, and central to SA’s success as he suspected. But he also determines that there is enough knowledge building going on across contents at SA that it warrants a general stamp of approval. He spends a chapter on his greatest hits on the importance of knowledge (great if you aren’t up to speed on it; I have been on the knowledge tip long enough to know it by heart – the baseball study, background knowledge, vocabulary, etc), but I think he oversells the fact that SA aligns with a solidly knowledge-based approach.

They pick books worth reading and they ensure science and history are adequately taught, which unfortunately are all areas many schools are deficient in. But I would argue that their coherence lies primarily in their practices and coaching, not necessarily in an explicit and sequential curriculum that builds knowledge.

To be fair to Pondiscio, he acknowledges the weaknesses in the curriculum, and gives a kind of mea culpa at the conclusion, which I’ll get into in a moment.

What I Think the Book Undersells

I’ve written a lot here about the importance of physical environment, and SA ensures that its physical environment is in top form. I think the impact of this goes further than you may think.

I work with a few schools that are colocated with a Success Academy in the same building, and it’s been endlessly fascinating to me how you can walk from one hallway to another and enter a completely different headspace. They always replace the older school doors with more modern, window covered doors that block out sound well and close quietly. Even this one simple change goes a long way towards reducing the amount of reverberating noise that speeds along down those long echoing corridors.

Their colors, immaculate spotlessness, focused bulletin boards, signage, etc all creates a physical environment that enables learning to occur, both acoustically speaking and in what is communicated to students.

What’s especially interesting about SA is that they have a dedicated leader in each building, parallel to the principal, specifically assigned to building operations!

While Pondiscio notes the attention to physical environment, he doesn’t dwell on it. Here’s what he notes:

The level of detail is exhausting, from checking hallway bulletin boards for ripped papers and making sure classroom posters stay up to ensuring that the overnight custodians who vacuum classroom rugs remembered to replace the “baby plugs” that keep children’s fingers out of wall sockets.

Walk-throughs are done nearly hourly by Fuoco or one of three staff members. While every Success Academy has an ops team and a BOM, the checklists are unique to the layout and physical condition of the building where each school is co-located.

Something else that I think Pondiscio touches on but possibly undersells is the importance of all the various educational infrastructural pieces that together SA does so well, such as PD, strategically mixing classes each year, ensuring intellectual preparation by its teachers, leaders who know the content well, systems for assessing and monitoring student data, and so on.


If the teachers are going to be teaching this lesson on the central idea of this poem, then the leaders need to be getting together two weeks before, and doing the intellectual prep themselves,’ even practice-teaching everything themselves so that they can then go lead that effectively with teachers,’” recalled Toll.

The Tiffany Test

In district schools, we seem to have committed all of our resources and attention to ensuring that even the toughest students are rarely suspended and spend more time in the classroom. A worthy goal, to be sure, but Pondiscio posits a “Tiffany test” that should give all of us strong ethical pause, based on a former student he had who sat quietly and did all that was expected of her, receiving little of the intellectual challenge she deserved due to other students’ misbehavior:

The weight of education policy and practice, as enshrined in impulse, empathy, and the law, comes down on the side of the disruptive child. But not at Success Academy.

A significant tension between public schools and charter schools is the question of who bears the cost and responsibility for the hardest-to-teach students.

….children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their less proficient and less engaged peers.

I have worked with some pretty tough students in my time, and my heart always, always goes out to them, like most other educators I know. They are the ones that keep me up at night and who come back to haunt me. If you ever corner me in a bar and get me talking about some of my former students, I will weep. I can’t help it. But I also think back to the quiet ones, the ones who sat with their hands folded as that one student cursed someone out, or threw a tantrum for the umpteenth time, the ones who quietly and dutifully filed out of my classroom and lined up along the wall when one student would go into crisis and became violent because I didn’t call on him when he raised his hand. I had to learn to handle such crises mostly on my own. I didn’t have a coach or a behavioral team who would swoop in and ensure I could continue to teach the lesson.

So his argument struck me to the core.

And yet, I also work with tough schools where they get students who are dumped on them from charter schools like SA, and they get them shipped over to them without even getting the associated funding for that student because of the strategic timing of when the charter school dumps them.* (See updated footnote on this based on feedback from James Merriman) How is that fair? And these are often the toughest students to teach, all concentrated in that local school because we have to take them, and we do, and we serve them the best that we can, with the limited support and resources we have, because schools like SA can’t or won’t.

This is the Tiffany test, and the Adama test, and it is a tough ethical dilemma worth pondering in depth, and Pondiscio forces us to grapple with it through this book in a meaningful and provocative manner.

On the one hand, there are the students who struggle who will simply not do well at SA:

“For those who try and try and can never get out of the ‘red,’ Success Academy is not for them”

But on the other hand, SA is serving the students and parents who have committed to it and can rise to its challenge, and are raising the bar so high the entire state cringes to look directly at its achievement.

There’s no clear answers here, but I think Pondiscio has some strong medicine here that needs to be more deeply considered on all sides.

It’s the Culture, Man

Pondiscio lands in an interesting place at the finale of the book. SPOILER ALERT: He concludes that what makes SA tick is not scalable, and its not scalable because what’s really happening at SA has more to do with an adaptive, squishy thing like culture, and less to do with technical things like curriculum. And this was a hard thing to come to terms with: “School culture is freighted, hard to define, harder to impose, and nearly impossible to shape through public policy.”

Here’s the money quote for me, and I think you’ll see why:

. . . a comprehensive and equitable system of public education does not require that every school be exactly the same; it requires an ecosystem of schools that collectively can serve the need of every child.

In addition to using the word that gives this blog its name, he acknowledges the key issue that this blog has been focused on conveying for some time: schools and school systems are complex. Imposing a prescription at scale is unlikely to improve the majority of our schools, and the real work is at the ground level. It’s adaptive work, in addition to highly technical work. We need to cultivate and sustain conditions that will enable that hard work to bear fruit and thrive more widely. And ultimately, this requires we think far more flexibly beyond static divides like school district boundaries, charter vs. district schools, and private vs. public funding and institutions.

If there’s one thing we can thank Success Academy for, it is that it shows what can be done when all the adults, from the parents, to the staff, to the leadership, pull in the same direction. It’s a machine that not everyone can hold onto, and it leaves a bloody trail in its wake, but it’s certainly a sight to behold.

*Update 1/1/20: James Merriman gave me some important corrective feedback on my comment on charter schools dumping kids on district schools and keeping the money. I’ll admit I threw out that comment based purely on anecdotal information, not on empirical data, and with little of my own direct experience with this. You can view his comments here in this thread:

What Is Success?

Ecoschool

In an interesting coincidence, Will and I have been writing about Eva Moskowitz and poverty, and here the NY state test results come along. Success Academy made up 7 out 15 of the top scorers in NY state, according to the NY Post. And while of course poverty level correlated with reading performance, there were the outliers of high poverty schools that outperformed state averages.

But Success Academy was more than just a freak outlier—it blew other schools out of the water, and it did so consistently across multiple schools.

In the NY Daily News, Robert Pondiscio writes in “How Does She Do It?“:

What is imperative now is for serious, unbiased experts and observers to descend on Harlem and figure out how these extraordinary results are being achieved and, if all that glitters is gold, how to replicate them.

It’s worth repeating a challenge I threw out earlier to Eva Moskowitz in a recent post: share the practices, content, and protocols your schools are using so others can benefit. That’s what being a “public” school is all about, right? Collaboration, sharing, learning. That’s what our public system of education should be doing if we’re truly dedicated to improving outcomes for all of our children, and not just some.

As John King also said: “The question becomes, what’s happening in these schools that’s leading to those better outcomes?”

I agree with Pondiscio and King. I genuinely want to know what’s happening at Success Academy. And I want to know from the perspective of a school as an ecosystem. From this perspective, some questions I would ask would be oriented around the main pillars of a strong school community: 1) leadership, 2) content, and 3) environment.

Leadership

  • What do the formal and informal leaders say and do? How and what do they communicate consistently? (This includes student leaders).
  • Is the leadership distributed?
  • What mechanisms are in place for students, parents, teachers, and leaders to collaborate and receive continuous feedback? How do leaders respond to feedback?
  • How is diversity in student ability, knowledge, and skills strategically recognized and cultivated?

Content

  • What are the values and vision behind assessment and unit design?
  • What texts are taught in ELA? Why?
  • How well do topics and themes build knowledge and understanding of academic domains and the world sequentially across classrooms and grades?
  • How are students engaged in their community through units?
  • What scaffolds and interventions for students who are struggling are applied consistently both in and out of classrooms?
  • What opportunities beyond academics are provided for all students?

Environment

  • What does it feel like when you walk into a Success Academy school? What does it sound like? What does it look like?
  • How relevant is posted work and displays to students and their community?
  • What is the ratio of positive to negative language used by students and staff in the building?
  • How (psychologically) safe do students with special needs feel in the hallways, lunch rooms, and classrooms?
  • How are supportive social relationships and networks developed and sustained by the school?

These are just some of the questions I would start with.

State test results are just one indicator. Remember, we’re playing the long game here. And there is evidence to suggest that test results are a shallow indicator.

I don’t say this to put down what Success Academy has accomplished. Their students deserve our recognition. They’ve worked hard for this.

But what I want to know is whether what Success Academy is doing is truly preparing students for the future, for the long-term.

What is success? And what does it look like? And is what Success Academy doing truly an exemplar?

And more importantly—what does success look like over the long haul?