Author Robert Pondiscio on his complicated portrayal of Success Academy and why he’s skeptical of renewed focus on school integration

Robert Pondiscio has found himself in an unusual spot in the charter school wars — giving ammunition to both sides. 

In his new book “How the Other Half Learns,” Pondiscio offers a rare concession for a charter school supporter: that students who attend Success Academy — New York City’s largest and most controversial network of charter schools — are a self-selected group, a major advantage.

He’s also adamant that Success is doing something remarkable for low-income students of color. Their families, he argues, deserve the opportunity to choose a school the same way white, well-off families are able to, and that should include the choice of a school where disruption isn’t tolerated alongside peers whose families have also made an active choice.

“By and large, affluent Americans can make certain assumptions about their classroom conditions,” he told Chalkbeat. “I don’t understand what we think the benefit is to insisting that low-income kids must abide conditions that we would not abide for our own children.” 

Pondiscio, a former district school teacher in the Bronx and a fellow at the Fordham Institute, a pro-charter think tank, was granted unusual access by Success and embedded for a year in an elementary school in the South Bronx. 

In an interview, Pondiscio doubled down on his firm belief that parents should have widespread freedom to choose among schools. That extends in some noteworthy directions —  Pondiscio is open to allowing charter schools to have explicitly selective enrollment and is not a fan of top-down efforts to integrate schools, despite highlighting in the book the challenges of concentrating disadvantaged students. 

Pondiscio also touches on allegations that have long dogged the network, that Success pushes out troublesome students. In his book, Pondiscio writes about parents who say they were pressured to remove their son, Adama. According to the parents, the school frequently suspended him, called 911 over Adama’s behavior, and called the New York City department that investigates child neglect.

“The story Adama’s parents tell cannot be dismissed,” Pondiscio writes. “It fits a troubling pattern of parents who have claimed that they were told that Success Academy does not offer special education services or the classroom settings that their children need; or that suspensions were meted out so frequently that work schedules and routines were disrupted, wearing families down and eventually forcing them to give up and pull their children out.”

Success Academy, for its part, has stayed mum since Pondiscio’s book was published last month. Its leader Eva Moskowitz declined a Chalkbeat interview request through a spokesperson, Ann Powell. 

Instead, Powell released this statement: “Pondiscio makes clear that it isn’t merely who chooses to come to our schools but ‘the school culture’ — the teaching and learning and the high expectations for academics and behavior that we create once students get here — that is responsible for what he calls ‘the reliably high level of student outcomes … across dozens of schools’ that is ‘an accomplishment that is without precedent in American education.’” 

In response to allegations of Adama’s parents, Powell said, “The account is inaccurate but we can’t comment more specifically without a privacy waiver from the parents.” 

What follows is an interview with Pondiscio, edited for brevity and clarity.

Why did you write the book?

Success Academy has been an object of fascination to a lot of us for a long time. I remember writing a piece for the New York Daily News, and this was after they blew away the test, right after Common Core hit. Their results were almost literally too good to be true. I remember writing in this Daily News piece something to the effect of, someone needs to get the hell up to Harlem and figure out what they’re doing and if it can be replicated. I meant it earnestly, and it just ended up being me, I guess.

Can you describe Success Academy’s approach to preparing for standardized tests and why, as you described in the book, you had mixed feelings about that? 

I have mixed feelings about standardized tests, period. I’m not anti-testing and I’m not anti-accountability. I worry about the instructional signals that standardized tests send to teachers.

It’s a bit of a misnomer to describe Success’ test prep as a major departure from what they do the rest of the year. Their literacy curriculum is test prep-y almost at all times. Their ELA [English language arts] lessons are shared texts. They talk about “attack strategies.” They talk about genres and “thinking jobs.” Kids are almost trained to dissect a reading passage as if they’re preparing for a standardized test. There you’ve got testing culture on steroids. It is central to their mission and school culture. So on the one hand, that should bother me. On the other hand, I found myself surprised by not being bothered by it.

That’s not to suggest I think everybody should do this. I’m out of the business of everybody should do anything. But if you think about this — you’ve got a school in the South Bronx where every single kid is a low-income kid of color. They’re not being told that this is easy. Quite the opposite.

But they’re being really well prepared. The kids are given their attack strategies, notes home, calls, and told you’re going to get a 3 or 4 [proficient or above on the test] — and then dammit, you do it.

You take a step back from that and you put yourself in the mind of that fourth-grade kid who goes home thinking, oh I’m good at school, and all my friends are good at school. It changed the way I view the culture. It doesn’t mean I like the test prep culture of it. But there’s something powerful about a kid in a place like the South Bronx or another community in this city that has not historically had great schools, suddenly being part of a school community where high achievement is not just normalized but taken for granted. I don’t care what you think about Success Academy — that’s remarkable.

You describe Success Academy as a “self selection engine.” Say more. What does that mean? 

I think this has been hiding in plain sight for a very long time, including in a footnote in the [research firm] MDRC study of Success [showing that only about 50% of students who won a spot in Success actually enrolled], which puts numbers on exactly what I saw.

The orthodoxy in ed reform is that we can do this for every kid — it’s a random lottery, first come, first served. That’s simply not how it works.

First you win a seat in the lottery. Well, that just starts the process. The next step is you’re invited to a welcome meeting, which, to their credit, Success could not be more clear and emphatic about what they stand for and what they will not stand for. And then comes a “confirm your interest” email, where you have to actively say yes, I want to continue. Then there is a uniform fitting. And then there is a dress rehearsal for kindergarten.

At every step of the way, some number fall away. Why? Could be any number of reasons.

The undeniable fact is, it is simply not possible for a child to find himself or herself in a Success Academy seat in August unless that child’s parents have voted with their feet repeatedly and either are enthusiastic about the school’s culture or willing to go along with the school’s culture.

Having said that, I want to be really clear about this: That’s the starting line. It is an enabling condition, I believe, that allows them to have their just-so culture, that allows their pedagogy to really reach full flower.

You make the point that white affluent families are never asked to have their children used as a “public resource” [and that this highlights why low-income families of color should also not have their choices limited]. But if you think about mandatory school integration, there were limits placed on white families’ choices. And there was evidence that school integration was successful in helping kids of color learn more. I’m wondering about your reaction to that.

What percentage of American schoolchildren historically are we talking about? What percentage of white, affluent children do you think that that applies to?

Well, it depends on the time period.

In American history — you choose a time period — it’s still a vanishingly small slice. And by the way, if an affluent parent was not enthusiastic about having his or her child used as a public resource, they would do what?

Many of them opted out for white-flight private schools. 

Which is precisely my point.

But there is also evidence that in the wake of mandatory integration, schools became much more integrated. Many of them didn’t opt out. 

Unknown and unknowable, I assume, whether they were enthusiastic about their role in integration or lacked the resources to opt out.

We know that there was a lot of backlash to it. But you’ve described in the book the challenges of educating a concentration of disadvantaged kids in a single school. One reaction to that would be that we should pursue more aggressive integration efforts. I’m wondering whether you think that’s a good idea.

As a general rule, I am not an enthusiastic proponent of using schooling as social engineering or imposing conditions on parents that they do not choose. That is a tricky thing to do well. But more importantly, it is something that affluent parents have the ability to refuse — and do. I’m not going to say all of them, but as a practical matter, if you are an affluent white American and your school district does something that you are not enthusiastic about, you have options.

Part of that goes back to the constraints on integration, like Milliken [the Supreme Court decision that limited courts’ ability to include suburban districts in desegregation mandates]. If there was a metropolitan area-wide integration effort, families would still have options but those options would be much more limited. 

Again, I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush, but as a general rule, good ideas in education do not need the force of law. Good ideas are enthusiastically embraced.

Including desegregation? 

Why do we think we know better than parents? This is just a moral pose on my part. I’m uncomfortable thinking I know better than parents what’s good for their children.

Even in the wake of racially segregated schools where parents’ reasons, at least in some cases, for opposing desegregation were explicitly racist?

For example?

We can look back at some of the protests and some of the racist comments that were used to describe black students. Obviously I don’t have it in front of me. 

I’m just not comfortable talking about these in generalities. My larger point — because I’ve not made a study of school integration; I’ve made a study of Success Academy — is my default setting is I don’t want to think that I’m smarter than parents. I don’t want to think that I know better.

I take your point, and it’s a good one, but I think affluent American children are generally not treated as a public resource, and when they are, the parents have options. Now, you can make the cases there’s an exception here — fine. But in broad brushes, affluent Americans have something approaching perfect school choice already, whether the means to opt out or the ability to move to Scarsdale or Greenwich or Jericho.

Do you think charter schools should be legally allowed to have explicitly selective enrollment?

Yeah, probably. There’s no reason not to be honest about it. I haven’t given it much thought in those terms, but if I had the ability to make that happen, would I? Yeah, sure.

Eva Moskowitz gets criticized for not backfilling after fourth grade. Those valuable seats are going unfilled. Wouldn’t it be better for the city of New York, for low-income families if she could screen, self select, fill those classes up? What’s the downside to it?

I assume you don’t think there should be a requirement that charter schools like Success be forced to backfill.

It comes out of their hide, right? In other words, they’re only hurting themselves.

To what extent does the answer change as the charter sector expands? In some cities they are 40%, 50% of public school enrollment. In New Orleans they’re at 100%. If every charter says ‘I don’t want to backfill’ in New Orleans, what happens? To be clear, they can’t do that in New Orleans.

We love in reform to impose conditions on the charter sector. And I don’t know that that’s really bearing a lot of fruit. Whether it’s reducing every school to its test scores as the alpha and omega of quality, insisting on things like backfilling…

But in most places there isn’t a requirement to backfill. In that sense, I’m not entirely sure what you mean. In contexts where the charter sector is very large, at some point doesn’t no requirement to backfill become untenable?

Yeah. I suppose so, but I mean it’s, what, 6% of American kids in charters? This is a very far-off problem.

Success Academy wants to rapidly grow. In New York City, the charter sector is 10%, but in many cities they’re getting to 20%, 25%. 

Let me back up a bit. Charter critics are right to say these [charter vs. district] comparisons are not always fair. And then you asked about well, would I let them screen, and I would, because that’s how you solve that problem.

I’m going to be maddeningly consistent about this. I want low-income families to have what rich families have — period, full stop. So if the school that a rich kid goes to can have a no-backfill policy until or unless they find the kid who is a fit for their culture, well then I don’t see why the charter sector shouldn’t be able to do the same thing. And let me anticipate the point: Yes, that makes comparisons unfair.

To be blunt about it, I have a sneaking suspicion that the only people who would be offended by any vision of charter schools as a poor man’s private school are those who want to insist we need to figure out which model is better and scale that up. I think average Americans will say, what’s wrong with that? And I don’t think they’re wrong.

Many leaders in the charter sector, including Eva Moskowitz, often compare their test scores to district schools’. 

Sure — because don’t they have to? If you’re existing in a public environment then there are certain protocols you need to observe. And one of them is this idea that you go in this door, you get a good outcome, and go in that door, you get a bad outcome. These are pleasing narratives and I just think they’re nuance-averse.

One pushback you’ve received is that Success Academy is something of an outlier — that you shouldn’t paint the whole charter sector with the Success Academy brush. I’m wondering your reaction to that and to what extent your claims go beyond Success. 

I am currently looking into the degree to which it goes beyond Success, and I don’t want to say any more than that.

Success is probably at the extreme end of culture setting in enrollment. I don’t think that they are alone in enabling self selection, and I would go as far as saying the moment a parent raises his or her hand and says I want my kid in a charter school, they are materially different than the parent who is incurious about what their options might be.

Do you think that a parent not selecting into a charter school implies that they’re incurious about what their options are? 

No — I’m just saying that I see no reason to assume that parents are a monolith, and that just because parents are demographically matched they are psychographically matched. Psychographic connotes attitudes and values.

Some parents are like “that’s our neighborhood school, it’s convenient, I like it, they’re going there.” Some are like “I don’t like that school, I just want one where my kid is safe — a charter school.” Some are like, “I’d like a charter, but I want a KIPP or Uncommon or Success or Democracy Prep.” I don’t see the point in refusing to acknowledge that these gradations of engagement and discernment exist.

Let’s talk about another aspect of the “selection” conversation, which is push out. As you know, there have been allegations that Success has pushed kids out illegally. I’m wondering if you can speak to what you found in your book about this and how that relates to the broader conversation? 

The strongest testimony to me here is from the parents who will talk about how some parents just don’t like it and take their kids out. Did I see any evidence of counseling out? No.

Wait — you did with Adama, right?

Yes, but I wasn’t there. The things that his parents allege — I did not see it.

To their credit, I saw many examples of teachers working damn hard to bring challenging kids in for a landing. That is not part of the standard narrative of Success, and they deserve credit for it. I think a lot of these things are in the eye of the beholder.

At one point in the book I describe a walk-through where they’re looking at the so-called outlier kids. Some of those kids persisted; some of those kids did not persist. I was not privy to the conversations where somebody might have said — I’m making this up — look, we don’t have a 12-1-1 [special education accommodation], this kid should be there. Or we don’t offer this service. Adama’s parents describe being told that he needs a private school placement. What is unknown and unknowable is were these earnest attempts to do what’s right for kids or were these “counseling out.”

What I think is unfair is to suggest that there is an aggressive attempt to get rid of kids. I don’t see evidence of that.

You don’t think the allegations about Adama, if true, would qualify as that?

I mean the story his parents tell is horrifying. On the other hand, it’s not just charter schools who call 911 on kids either. There’s a consent decree with the DOE.

But that’s irrelevant to the question of whether Success is aggressively pushing out. 

I’m making an assumption in your question — that this was a bad action on Success’ part and  they are freakishly off the reservation on this. It happens at other schools.

There is research, which you mention in the book, showing that New York City’s charter sector writ large does not shed more low-performing kids than the district sector. It could be that both sectors counsel out. 

Yeah, I mean the Adama case would have fit in seamlessly with the civil rights allegations — it felt like it fell right out of there. So it would be naive to say that it’s not true or doesn’t happen. I’m uncomfortable taking one instance and saying, this is the thing that proves the entire thesis.

But again, there have been these other allegations

I’m uncomfortable here because I don’t like assuming I know what’s going through people’s heads. If a kid is a so-called outlier kid, he’s having behavior difficulties, he may or may not be in the wrong setting. So much of that is a value judgment. In other words, you can’t put a dipstick into the kid’s ear.

In the specific instance of Adama, has Success offered any more substantive response since your book came out about what happened there? 

I haven’t heard a word from Success about anything in the book.

You express sympathy for the idea of self selection at the front end. So how do you feel about school selection on the back end — meaning push out, if that is true. Do you have sympathy for that? 

This is all a hard one because in the broad brush, affluent Americans do not have to put up with the conditions that low-income Americans have to put up with in their children’s schools. And nowhere is that more acutely felt than in classroom disruption. I’ve long suspected that some percentage of the achievement gap in American schools is a time-on-task gap — just time lost to disruption, chaotic classrooms, interruptions, etc.

My overall motif here is that I want low-income kids of color to have as close as possible the same learning conditions that my kid has. If there’s a disruptive kid in my daughter’s school, that kid may not be there for long, for whatever reason — ends up in a different setting, ends up with an out-of-district placement, ends up at school for special needs kids.

What if your kid is the disruptive kid? 

Then they are still entitled to a free and good public education. But why does it have to be in this setting?

What if your kid is in the neighborhood school and you don’t opt to send your kid to Success Academy? You acknowledge that the Success Academy model concentrates more disadvantaged kids in those schools. So those kids by definition are not getting what affluent families are getting.

But they should get more resources. They have a harder job.

So more school funding for that school? 

I’m not sure whether it’s funding. Whatever it is. Again, my focus is, why do we think that it’s OK to deny kids the right of exit if they’re better suited someplace else. It just rubs me the wrong way to treat children as a public resource.