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.

the race continues

Diving into charged debate, Nixon calls for immediate repeal of New York’s teacher evaluation law

PHOTO: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

Cynthia Nixon is calling on lawmakers to immediately repeal New York’s unpopular teacher evaluation law, catapulting her gubernatorial campaign into one of the messiest debates in New York state education policy.

Nixon called on her Democratic primary opponent Gov. Andrew Cuomo to stop making “excuses” about the law that he once championed, which has faced significant pushback for the way it tied educator ratings to standardized test scores and was later put partially on hold. The former “Sex and the City” star’s plan received support from a group of a few dozen education leaders called “Educators for Cynthia,” which includes education historian and testing opponent Diane Ravitch.

The announcement puts Nixon on board with the state’s teachers union agenda and threatens to drive a wedge between Cuomo and the major labor group, which he’s had a tenuous relationship with in the past.

“A couple years ago Andrew Cuomo described teacher evaluation based on high stakes testing as one of his greatest legacies, now he is hoping that parents and teachers have forgotten all about it,” Nixon said in a statement released on Thursday. “Enough of the delays and excuses Governor Cuomo, it is time to repeal the APPR now.”

In a statement, a Cuomo campaign spokeswoman attempted to distance the governor from the issue of teacher evaluations, instead turning the blame on the education department.

“Experts across the board agreed that the implementation of Common Core was botched by SED, which is why they have been tasked to overhaul it and the Board of Regents adopted a moratorium on the use of tests in the evaluation,” said Cuomo campaign spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer.

But it was Cuomo who led the charge to create a new teacher evaluation system in 2015, even calling the old system “baloney” in his State of the State address that year. The measure he fought for passed — allowing half of an individual educator’s rating to be based on test scores — but not without a fued with the unions.

Since then, Cuomo has done an about-face on education policy, leading to a friendlier relationship with the labor groups. The governor has also been courting organized labor this year by standing up for union protections in the face of a Supreme Court case that could hinder the union’s ability to collect fees. Both state and city teachers union leaders said earlier this year they had begun to set aside their differences with the governor and were pleased with his new direction.

But the call to repeal New York’s teacher evaluation law has been a major priority for the state teachers union this year. Officials at the New York State United Teachers have been out on a limb calling for an immediate law change that would allow local districts to craft their own evaluation systems. Their push, however, has gained little traction from lawmakers or officials at the state education department, who are trying to revamp teacher evaluations through a slower process.

“First and foremost, the teachers that we represent believe that the time to fix [teacher evaluation] is this year,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of NYSUT, during a February Board of Regents meeting. “Now is the time — we’ve been talking about this for years.” (Neither the state or city teachers unions responded to immediate request for comment on Thursday.)

Crucial aspects evaluation system that Cuomo championed three years ago are currently on hold. After a spate of education issues — including the teacher evaluation system — caused a statewide testing boycott, the governor began reexamining some of his education policies..

Cuomo appointed a task force to review state learning standards that eventually called for a freeze on the use of test scores in teacher evaluations. The state’s Board of Regents soon obliged, placing a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher ratings until 2019. But the law remains on the books, and state officials are just starting to dive into the issue again as the moratorium nears its end.

Officials from Nixon’s campaign said that she believes evaluations should be locally designed and that high-stakes tests should not be used to judge teachers.

This story has been updated to include information from Nixon’s campaign on her vision for teacher evaluations.

passing the mantle

With Sharon Griffin’s departure, Shelby County Schools has big (stiletto) shoes to fill

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Griffin

In many ways, Sharon Griffin embodied the hope many have for the future of Shelby County Schools.

After she became chief of schools last year, she planned to use the knowledge she had acquired working with several struggling schools to improve all Memphis schools.

So the announcement Tuesday that she is leaving Shelby County Schools to spread her expertise to schools across the state was “bittersweet,” said her boss Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

Indeed, the loss to the district’s leadership team is tremendous. As a homegrown leader with success in boosting test scores for students in the poorest areas of the city, Griffin was seen as Memphis’ answer to an influx of state and national influence on education in the city.

Though low performing schools operated by Shelby County Schools have outpaced progress of those run by the state, educators say Memphis schools have a long way to go. The city’s students, who are mostly children of color living in poverty, still lag far behind the state average.

Griffin, a charismatic leader with a vibrant personality who is known for her bleach-white hair and colorful collection of stilettos, has been a go-to expert nationally as city school districts seek to combat the impact of poverty on student learning.

Hopson was sentimental when he read a prepared statement — a rarity for him — announcing Griffin’s departure during a school board meeting Tuesday.

“After a long-standing career in [Memphis schools], I consider Dr. Sharon Griffin family. And she has shared with me her personal and professional goals to continue to support students. We support her and wish her continued success and thank her for the undeniable imprint she’s left on Shelby County Schools,” he said.


Read more about Griffin’s first and only year as chief of schools for Shelby County Schools.


Griffin had just unveiled an academic plan three weeks ago to get the district to its lofty Destination 2025 goals of graduating most of its students on time and ready for college or the workforce by 2025.

Though many expected she would be around to carry out the plan she and her colleagues spent months putting together, education onlookers say she has built a team that can see it through.

“There’s no question that there is not another Sharon Griffin waiting in the wings,” said Marcus Robinson, who has helped raise money for Memphis schools through the Memphis Education Fund. “But I believe strongly that the superintendent and his senior staff are working on a plan to transform Shelby County Schools. Dr. Griffin has had leadership in designing that plan, so I am confident that the work will continue.”

Miska Clay Bibbs, a school board member, said part of what made Griffin a good leader is that she cultivated other leaders. One recently came back to run the Innovation Zone where he was once a principal. Schools in the Innovation Zone add an extra hour to the school day and offer support services for students, most of whom live in poverty.

“One of the good things she did do is assemble a good team,” she said, adding they have all “grown up in the ranks together.”

“The knowledge is there and I’m looking forward to them having the opportunity to perform,” she said.

The search for a chief academic officer will also change direction, because the district was looking for someone who would have worked closely with Griffin.

“When you have someone like Sharon in place, you have to make sure they complement her skill set,” Hopson said. “So, I think that now as we continue to search, we have to think about the role a little differently.”

One silver lining Hopson pointed to: Griffin can help “reset” Shelby County Schools’ often antagonist relationship with the state.

“This could have the makings of a win-win for priority schools throughout the state,” Hopson said. “I love Sharon. And Sharon is family. And if I can work with anybody, I can work with Sharon.”

Memphians have clamored for more input on the state’s decisions since the state-run Achievement School District started in 2012. Both of Griffin’s predecessors lived in Nashville, even though all but two of the schools they oversaw were in Memphis. And previous attempts at a formal process for community input mostly fell flat.

Since the state district was created, local and state districts have sparred over the state’s authority to expand grade offerings at charters, sharing student contact information, and enrollment.

For state Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat who has collaborated with the state to work out the kinks in its district, the timing is right considering Griffin’s groundwork in Memphis and need for more collaborative leadership at the state level.

“I’m hoping the footprint in the infrastructure she’s put in place will help Shelby County keep moving forward,” she said. “And because she understands Shelby County Schools and schools that are on the priority list, that should help her form a more collaborative relationship between the ASD, Shelby County schools and other districts across the state.”

Read more about how Griffin’s hiring is breathing new life into Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

Statehouse correspondent Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this story.