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.

leader change

Memphis leader of Teach for America stepping down this spring

PHOTO: Teach for America Memphis
From left: Athena Palmer, executive director of Teach for America Memphis, Ayo Akinmoladun and Barbara Rosser Hyde.

The leader of Memphis’ largest alternative teacher training program is stepping down at the end of the school year after nine years at the helm.

Athena Palmer was in the first cohort of 48 Teach for America recruits to Memphis in 2006 and took over as executive director in 2010. Over the next six months, Palmer will hand over the program to Nafeesha Mitchell, a 2009 member of Teach for America in Charlotte who worked her way up to assistant principal before returning to lead the national organization’s chapter there.

In an email to colleagues Thursday, Palmer said she doesn’t know yet where she’ll go next.

“Someone really smart once told me that knowing when to leave is just as hard as knowing when to stay committed,” she said. “As our current strategic plan comes to an end and with our region in an incredible place from which to innovate in the sector, it became clear to me that this was a great time to embrace the feeling I have for my next adventure.”

PHOTO: Teach for America
Athena Palmer

The competitive national program places mostly recent college graduates in schools that districts have a hard time staffing. Teach for America has welcomed about 1,200 teachers over the past 12 years in Memphis with a commitment to stay in the classroom for two years. This year, 263 teachers are in 108 traditional and charter schools, including the state’s Achievement School District. That’s fewer than in previous years, keeping in line with national trends.

The program has consistently received high marks from the Tennessee Department of Education in its annual teacher preparation report card, and has enjoyed wide support from local and national philanthropies. Teacher unions have been wary of the program’s influence because the teachers have little training before going into classrooms that can be difficult to manage.

About 500 alumni of the program are still in Memphis, according to recent numbers from the organization, including 100 school administrators, 300 teachers, and five in charter network or district leadership roles. Among them is Brad Leon, a member of the top cabinet for Shelby County Schools who was the first regional director for Teach for America in Memphis.

PHOTO: Teach for America
Nafeesha Mitchell

Under Palmer’s leadership, the teachers recruited have more closely matched the students they serve in race and economic background. This year, 42 percent of recruits were teachers of color, and 42 percent came from low-income families. In the organization’s first year in Memphis there were three teachers of color, or 6 percent. By comparison, about 93 percent of Shelby County Schools were composed of students of color that year and 59 percent lived in poverty.

Mitchell, who will take over in June, is a vice president on the national organization’s leadership and engagement team. She starts as deputy director immediately and will be in Memphis full time in January, according to a statement.

“Memphis is regarded around the country as one of the model Teach For America chapters,” she said. “Athena and her team have built something incredible here, and I’m thrilled to be able to expand on her work and push all of us even harder to reach our goal of true and lasting equity for all children in this great city.”

In the lead

The winners of Tuesday’s Detroit school board election include one incumbent and one new arrival

School board candidates Corletta Vaughn (L) and Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the incumbent, are in the lead with 87 percent of Detroit precincts reporting.

An incumbent Detroit school board member has retained her seat and will continue to help guide the state’s largest school district for another four years.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a former suburban school superintendent, will be joined on the board by Corletta J. Vaughn, the pastor of the Go Tell It Ministry Worldwide church in Detroit. The two were the top vote-getters among eight candidates seeking to fill two seats on the seven-member board.

Though the Detroit school board election was near the bottom of a full midterm election ballot, the vote comes at a crucial time for the 50,000-student district. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti will need the board’s support as he continues to overhaul the district’s curriculum and address serious challenges including the $500 million repair bill the district is facing as it tries to bring its aging buildings up to modern standards. 

With so many candidates vying for two seats on the board, name recognition was crucial. That gave Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, a key advantage. She and Shannon Smith, a financial analyst, also outraised their opponents by thousands of dollars and spent their campaign coffers to buy billboards, yard signs, and mailers.

With 100 percent of Detroit precincts reporting early Wednesday morning, Hunter-Harville was the clear winner with 22.6 percent of the vote. Vaughn was second with 18.8 percent of the vote. Reverend David Murray and Smith were not far behind with 18.0 percent and 17.9 percent respectively. They were followed by Britney Sharp (13.6 percent), Terrell George (14.7 percent), and Natalya Henderson (12 percent).

Deborah Elaine Lemmons, a sister of current board member LaMar Lemmons, had 12.9 percent of the vote even though she let it be known that she had dropped out of the race a few weeks ago, citing health reasons. Candidate M. Murray was in last place with 5.7 percent of the vote.

At the polls, voters said they wanted to ensure that children in Detroit had the same opportunities as those in the suburbs.

“Access to education is the biggest thing,” said Jesus Hernandez, a 30-year-old resident of Southwest Detroit.

To learn more about the winning candidates, read their answers below to six questions about how they plan to guide the city district over their four-year terms: