a chalkbeat cheat sheet

In new memoir, Eva Moskowitz offers a look behind the curtain at Success Academy — and tries to reshape her reputation

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz touted her network's test scores at a press conference in 2017.

For followers of the New York City education wars, Eva Moskowitz’s new book is a juicy political read.

“We never hit it off personally,” the charter school leader writes of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of her biggest allies. Of her own ambitions, she says she’s not sure she wants to be mayor herself anymore, a realization that she says began to dawn during Bloomberg’s tenure: “If even somebody as powerful and committed as him couldn’t make fundamental reforms [to schools], I didn’t see how anybody else could.”

But it’s clear that the goal for Moskowitz, who runs the city’s largest, most controversial network of charter schools, is not just score-settling. It’s recasting herself as a compassionate and devoted educator, not just a hardened political operative planning to use her charter empire as a springboard back into public office.

We read the 350-page book — which spans from the late 1800’s, when Moskowitz’s family came to America, to the present day. Here are our takeaways.

Moskowitz really wants you to know she’s human.

“The love of my life and my partner in much of what I’ve accomplished”: The book is partly a love letter to Eric Grannis, also a charter school founder, whom Moskowitz met in high school. We learn what Grannis made for her on their first date (“chicken with porcini mushrooms, risotto, and a mocha gelato”); the first gift he gave her (a collection of short stories by Flannery O’Connor); and how he challenged her skepticism to school vouchers while they were still teenagers. “While I don’t think Eric gave a moment’s thought to how to make me fall in love with him,” she writes, “he couldn’t have formulated a better plan if he’d tried.”

Speaking of emotions: Here are three times when Moskowitz recounts crying: when the New York Times awarded Scott Stringer, now the city comptroller, its endorsement in his 2005 Manhattan borough president run against Moskowitz; when she saw her son’s heartbeat on a sonogram after fearing that she was having a miscarriage; and when she was told that current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wanted to nix co-locations for three of her schools, one of which was already open in shared space. (That ended with the city granting those schools space and a mea culpa from de Blasio.)

Moskowitz has doubted herself — but got over it. As her network grew, so did its challenges, many of which played out in public view. Moskowitz writes that her board’s confidence in her faltered: They “feared I was running people into the ground. They also suspected that I was micromanaging my subordinates.” Moskowitz says she shared some of these concerns and considered whether the network might need a different kind of leader as it grew. But when she sought advice from business leaders who had grown strong companies, she says they validated her approach. “I wasn’t half as bad as he was,” Moskowitz recalls a company turnaround expert telling her. She did add a business executive to her team, but she stayed on as CEO.

One problem she hasn’t solved: When she started Success, Moskowitz had three young children. She writes, “If you’re hoping that this is the part of the book where I tell you how I figured out how women can have it all, you’re out of luck. I think that it’s just an irresolvable dilemma.”

Tragedies strike: Moskowitz reveals that Christian Yoanson, a Success student who was one of five applicants featured in the documentary “The Lottery” (and part of a family of refugees that Moskowitz helped reunite), later died after an illness. She also describes counseling students after another student fell from his building’s roof and died, then attending his funeral.

But she’s proud of her reputation for toughness — and spends much of the book defending the policies that have made Success Academy charter schools famous (and infamous).

On test prep: The sky-high test scores that students at Moskowitz’s schools post often draw criticism that Success is a test-prep factory. And indeed, the network goes to extreme lengths to make sure students are present and prepared on testing day. In the book, Moskowitz defends the practice, saying that test scores do matter — and that, left to their own devices, her teachers weren’t preparing their students adequately. “They were giving students dubious strategies and advice such as not to change an answer because one’s first choice is usually right,” she recalls. She adds: “I have found over the years that our students actually learn more when they do test preparation than at other times of the year because both they and our teachers are so focused on mastery.”

She thinks it’s OK for kids to cry at school. “Many teachers assume that students are generally trying their best. Alas, that’s rarely true,” she writes. At another point, she writes, “Caring inevitably means feeling bad at times. In fact, some of our students cared so much they’d cry when they didn’t do well. We didn’t encourage that but neither did we see it as a sign that something was horribly wrong.”

Some of Moskowitz’s famously tough standards have their origin in a veteran district school teacher. She credits Paul Fucaloro, whom she nabbed from P.S. 65 in Queens for her first school and who is now Success’s executive director.

Other advice came from businessmen. Moskowitz is associated with a hard-charging reform movement that draws practices from the business world. Among them: the idea that low-performers should be fired. Bloomberg channeled this practice when calling for low-rated teachers to be laid off. But Moskowitz recounts that hedge fund founders actually talked her down from firing four teachers after her school’s first year. “Since we’d already let a few teachers go, John [Petry] reasoned,” Moskowitz writes, “the four I was worried about probably fell into the 70 percent category” of teachers who weren’t great but could get better with guidance. Moskowitz notes that she was skeptical of the advice, but took it.

Moskowitz doesn’t think much of “community schools.” The model, which has expanded dramatically in New York City under Chancellor Carmen Fariña, adds health and social services inside the school building on the theory that children who are sick or troubled cannot learn. “That’s nonsense,” Moskowitz writes, adding that poor children’s problems should be addressed, “but they aren’t the primary cause or even a substantial factor in the failures of urban schools.” (A 1999 study found that schools contribute only about 40 percent of variation in student achievement; the rest can be traced to out-of-school factors, including poverty. At the same time, de Blasio’s approach of turning the city’s lowest-performing schools into “community schools” has had essentially no effect on graduation rates or test scores so far, according to one analysis.) Moskowitz points to an early Success student who completed homework while in the hospital after having a stroke as evidence for her case.

Why she doesn’t try to win over her adversaries: In 2009, Chalkbeat tried to understand why Moskowitz was such a lightning rod. Another charter school leader told us that she had a style problem: “Rather than approaching the district public schools with respect, Moskowitz makes a habit of dismissing their work as unacceptable,” we wrote. In her book, Moskowitz rejects the criticism. “In the public sphere, it’s important to be frank about problems so you can fix them.”

The book offers a lot for people involved in the nitty-gritty of running schools.

Entering how-to territory: The book is mostly a memoir, but Moskowitz veers into direct instruction at times. For example, she explains how she began tracking “culture data” for each principal by monitoring attendance, uniform infractions, incomplete reading logs, and other seemingly minor problems. This data, she says, proved to be “a canary in a coal mine: it was a simple, quick, objective measure of how well a principal was managing her staff.” She also emphasizes that her schools offer rich electives, encourage deep intellectual engagement, and strive to get students to love learning. A school leader reading the book could take some of its lessons and apply them right away.

A recognizable trial by fire: Launching the original Success Academy didn’t immediately go well. “By the end of the second week, I was exhausted,” Moskowitz writes. “We’d had a parent with a nervous breakdown, broken glass on our play yard, parents not reading to their children, an incompetent uniform company, failing electricity and Internet, a librarian work slowdown, a broken air conditioner, belligerent parents, nonworking toilets, a police stakeout, a cash crisis, a sick nurse, frozen milk and weevils. Weevils! If this was just two weeks, what would a year be like?” Moskowitz then outlines how she and her team tackled each of these issues and others, bringing stability “by a couple of months into the school year.” (That’s also when she fired her first principal — and became the principal herself for several months.)

One belief that Moskowitz shares with Fariña, at least in theory: Moskowitz has long faced criticism for promoting young educators quickly. Here’s how she says she reacted in late April 2011, when one of her principals (who she says “had placed teacher happiness ahead of student achievement”) said she would not return. She picked a 24-year-old dance teacher, Richard Siegler, as the replacement. “I wouldn’t have promoted him so quickly if I could have avoided it. Before becoming an elementary school principal, a teacher should have several years of instructional experience in at least a couple of grades to understand the scope of the elementary school curriculum and how young children learn.” One of Fariña’s first decrees is that new principals should have worked in schools for at least seven years. (Siegler is now managing director of schools for the Success network.)

Prioritizing teacher training: Moskowitz says her teachers have a month of training before school starts, plus 12 days during the year; that’s compared to just a single day of pre-school training for city teachers (now two). She also outlines the many topics the training covers beyond what she says teachers colleges tend to offer — a program that she solidified through a partnership with Touro College starting in 2012. That program is in some ways a prototype for the self-certification that more city charter schools could soon be able to offer, without a university partnership.

Why it matters that Moskowitz’s own children attend Success schools: “We’d created a summer reading list with hundreds of suggestions, but when I read them to Dillon, I found that many were mediocre.” The network revamped its reading list, with the help of a worker at Bank Street Bookstore — one of Fariña’s favorite places to shop — who later became Success’s director of children’s literature (despite, Moskowitz points out, not having a teaching degree).

One surprise: how much Moskowitz identifies with refugees.

A personal history: The book cuts between Moskowitz’s recollection of her own political battles, both before and while running Success, and an intimate history of her family. Her father’s family came to the U.S. in the late 1800s; her grandmother became a public school teacher and her father, a graduate of elite Stuyvesant High School, where Moskowitz attended. On her mother’s side, her grandparents narrowly escaped the Holocaust by sailing in perilous conditions to the United States in 1941. Her grandfather later wrote a book of poetry called “Songs from a Refugee,” which Moskowitz quotes extensively.

This background appears to have informed Moskowitz’s work. In high school, she writes, she volunteered to find apartments for refugee families from Cambodia. Her first success came when a landlord accepted her argument that he “shouldn’t discriminate because we were all descendants of immigrants.” (She says she also learned on this job that the quality of children’s schools is often tied to how much their parents’ pay in rent.)

And she describes going to bat for a family that had been divided while fleeing civil war in the Ivory Coast, helping the mother and son left behind obtain visas and then paying for their plane tickets.

So why did she consider working for President Trump, who ran on anti-immigrant platform? All of Moskowitz’s personal history makes her openness to the Trump administration’s overtures this year, when she was reportedly considered for the education secretary position, all the more confusing. The president has banned refugees; sent messages that he would end the DACA program allowing young undocumented people to live and work openly; and equivocated about neo-Nazi protestors. Not all of that happened early in his presidency, when Moskowitz considered the job. But her deference to bipartisanship until recently juxtaposes oddly with these parts of the book — and she provides no answers in the text, which doesn’t mention Trump’s election all.

And two themes that should surprise no one who has followed Moskowitz in New York.

One thing Moskowitz does have in common with Trump: Moskowitz pillories the press, even as she says, “Good journalism is absolutely critical, and that is why our country has such protections for the press.” (Disclosure: Chalkbeat escapes her wrath; in fact, she praises two of our journalists.)

She devotes two chapters to “journalists whose bias led them to get things wrong with very serious consequences for Success” — another way of saying “fake news.” They are John Merrow, who investigated discipline at her schools, and Kate Taylor, the New York Times reporter who revealed that a Success principal had maintained a “got to go” list of students and exposed a video of a Success teacher angrily ripping up a student’s work. In both cases, Moskowitz argues that the reporters discounted information that undermined their points; in Merrow’s case, PBS Newshour later issued an on-air apology.

“I’m not saying that Success should be immune from scrutiny, but if a newspaper as powerful as the Times assigns a reporter to spend a year digging up every negative thing it can find about a school then to report what she finds as negatively as possible, the result is inevitably misleading,” Moskowitz writes. She lays the blame for the coverage on the fact that Taylor — and her editor, and her editor’s editor — attended schools with few poor students.

And Moskowitz holds a grudge: Eliza Shapiro at Politico delved into this angry angle last month. Throughout the book, Moskowitz takes aim repeatedly at Juan Gonzalez, the New York Daily News columnist who made her a target for years (“What a sad waste of his talents,” she writes); the Annenberg Institute, which she says betrayed academic values by supporting protests against her schools; Bill de Blasio, whom she first lambastes on page 5 and spends several pages eviscerating when she recounts his mayoral run; and pretty much anyone who has ever been allied with the city teachers union. It’s clear from the book — and from her actions — that Moskowitz stands by her allies and, if someone works against her, can hold it against them.

Finally, here’s one detail that suggests Moskowitz’s pre-Success career might have actually done little to shape her leadership.

The book’s title, “The Education of Eva Moskowitz,” is meant to show that the contentious City Council hearings, tight political campaigns, and bruising Success fights that Moskowitz experienced (and recounts in detail) all shaped her leadership today. But what if that isn’t true? Moskowitz recalls setting up a “school” for her neighbors in Morningside Heights as a child. “They weren’t very well behaved,” she writes, “so I had to reprimand them for their lack of effort.”

Clarification (Sept. 19, 2017): This story has been updated to reflect the fact that only one of the three Success schools whose co-locations de Blasio revoked was already open in shared space.

Powerful Parents

‘Sharing their hearts’: Why these parents became advocates for Memphis students

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization, is training its ninth cohort of public advocate fellows.

While their children are out of school for the summer, a local parent group is using this time to hit the books.

Memphis Lift, a non-profit organization in North Memphis, aims to amplify the voices of those who, some say, have historically been excluded from conversations surrounding their schools. Many of those conversations, said organizer Dianechia Fields, have made out parents like her to be “scapegoats” for students’ struggles in the classroom.

“It’s easy to blame someone who’s not there in the room,” she said. “Instead of blaming parents as the problem, we’re inviting parents to the table to be part of the solution.”

Fields is the director of the program’s Public Advocate Fellowship, which was created three years ago by Natasha Kamrani and John Little, who came to Memphis from Nashville to train local parents to become advocates for school equity. Funded in part by the Memphis Education Fund, the program pays fellows $500 when they graduate the course. (Chalkbeat also receives support from local philanthropies connected to Memphis Education Fund. You can learn more about our funding here.)

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The Public Advocate Fellowship was created three years ago. This year, the program will have trained 300 fellows.

On Tuesday, Lift held the first of ten sessions for its ninth cohort of fellows. This month, 19 parents and grandparents will learn about topics such as the history of education in Memphis and school funding. At each session, they’ll receive coaching from special guests and alumni fellows, and they’ll also make connections with local education leaders.

In order to better communicate with decision-makers, the group will complete public speaking exercises with the help of coach Darius Wallace. His focus this week: getting fellows to “share their hearts.”

In Wednesday’s class, Wallace asked the cohort to think hard about who they’re advocating for, what pain that person may feel, and what their dream is moving forward. Here’s what a few of them had to say:

Jerrineka Hampton, a Shelby County Schools teacher, is advocating for her students at Treadwell Elementary, who often lack access to the materials they need, like pens or paper. Her dream is to “close the economic and academic gap” in schools like hers, and to help train others to do the same.

Shanita Knox, a mother of two, is advocating for her 10- year- old son, who struggles with his speech and is often bullied because of it. Her dream for him is to “do whatever he wants in life without having to work a dead-end job.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The parents are asked to share with each other their hopes for their children.

Patricia Robinson is advocating for her granddaughter, whose father is incarcerated. Robinson’s dream is for her to take the pain and loneliness she feels and “learn how to talk about it.”

Violet Odom, a mother of two, is advocating for her daughter, a soon-to-be middle schooler who is dealing with mental health challenges. Odom’s dream is for her daughter to “be able to live a normal life and use her voice to explain how she feels.”

Aimee Justice, a mother of three, is advocating for her son, who comes from a multiracial family. Her dream is for Memphis schools to become places where students of all nationalities can learn from each other.

Trenika Bufford is advocating for other kids in the system who, like her college-aged son, have been belittled by school officials. Through tears, she said she wished she listened to her son when he was younger. Her dream is to have a relationship with him again.

As the women shared their stories, Wallace and the group gave feedback on their delivery. As they practiced more, the fellows began to make more eye contact, speak louder and more directly, and use body language.

“People make decisions when they’re emotional,” Wallace reminded them. “Facts tell. Stories sell.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Ahada Elton smiles at her son. A mother of four, Elton said she wants to advocate for parents unaware of the opportunities schools offer, especially for children with special needs.

Effective communication will become even more important as the cohort prepares for their last session. That’s when they’ll work together to create a plan of action to tackle an issue in their community. This year, the group is already discussing taking steps toward unified enrollment, a centralized system that allows parents to easily compare schools in the same district.

And while that’s no small feat, it wouldn’t be the first time the group has tackled a project this large. Two years ago, graduating fellows knocked on about 1,200 doors throughout the city to inform other parents about local priority schools assigned to the state-run achievement school district.

That’s when alumna Kiara Jackson heard about the fellowship. Jackson, 24, was pregnant at the time with her third child, and she was living with her father in the North Memphis neighborhood when director Sarah Carpenter knocked on her window and told her about the program.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Kiara Jackson, an alumna fellow, shares her testimony with the new cohort.

“I was a concerned parent,” she said, “but I didn’t even know the types of questions to get answers to.”

Shortly after, Jackson started going to Lift’s weekly classes, where she learned about quality schools in the area. Since joining the fellowship’s fourth cohort last year, Jackson had the opportunity to travel to Cincinnati and advocate for charter schools such as the one she’s working to get her daughter into.

“I enjoy the power that I have as a parent,” she said. “… With us being from low-income communities, they try to deny us our rights as parents. But our kids can get better educations”

When the class graduates next month, the fellowship will have trained 300 members, mostly women, since it launched in 2015. This past year, the group offered training for Spanish-speaking parents led by alumna Carmelita Hernandez. Now, the program is working on creating its first all-male cohort for fathers and grandfathers.

Departure

Tennessee loses a behind-the-scenes education operative

PHOTO: Jennifer Pignolet/The Commercial Appeal
Kathleen Airhart, then the interim superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District, speaks in February to a community meeting sponsored by the Frayser Exchange in Memphis.

Kathleen Airhart, who recently served as interim leader of Tennessee’s Achievement School District during a major transition, has stepped down as the state’s deputy education commissioner and chief operating officer.

Kathleen Airhart

The career educator ended almost seven years with the Education Department last week in Nashville. She will start her new job with the Council of Chief State School Officers as the national nonprofit organization’s program director on special education.

Since 2012, Airhart has been a go-to lieutenant for two education commissioners as Tennessee rolled out major policy initiatives under its First to the Top overhaul of K-12 schools.

She oversaw the transition to the state’s academic intervention program for struggling students, the expansion of career and technical education opportunities, the development of a library of state and local education resources, and operational changes to make the Achievement School District financially sustainable after the end of a federal award supporting Tennessee’s turnaround program for low-performing schools.

Airhart worked mostly behind the scenes until Commissioner Candice McQueen tasked her last fall with leading the Achievement School District, also known as the ASD, as Tennessee looked for a replacement for departing Superintendent Malika Anderson. During that time, Airhart met frequently with school communities in Memphis, the hub of the ASD’s work, and oversaw the closure of two more under-enrolled schools before McQueen tapped turnaround leader Sharon Griffin to take the helm beginning in June.

Airhart previously was superintendent of Putnam County Schools, where she was named Tennessee’s Superintendent of the Year in 2011. She started her career as a high school special education teacher and also served as a special ed supervisor.

In her new job, she’ll return to her roots and advise other states on special education programs and services.

“Dr. Airhart has been an excellent manager and leader at the department, and no matter what challenges she was presented, she always stayed calm and kept students at the center of every decision,” McQueen wrote in an internal letter about the departure.

The Council of Chief State School Officers is comprised of education leaders from across the country.