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Eva Moskowitz: I will work with Trump, but not as U.S. education secretary

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman

Eva Moskowitz, the hard-charging New York City charter school leader, said Thursday morning that she won’t serve as education secretary in a Donald Trump administration — but will support President-elect Trump’s education efforts.

She did not say if she was formally offered the post, but Trump officials confirmed that the two had met in Trump Tower on Wednesday.

“At this time I will not be entertaining any prospective opportunities,” Moskowitz told reporters at a previously planned press conference.

Moskowitz, a Democrat, said that while she voted for Hillary Clinton, her personal politics did not influence her decision not to pursue a job in a Trump administration. Instead, she said she wanted to focus her energy on Success Academy, the charter network she leads, and continuing to fight Mayor Bill de Blasio on his education work in New York City.

“If I left and went to D.C., who would keep their eyes on Mayor de Blasio?” she asked.

Moskowitz told reporters she will support Trump’s efforts to expand school choice — policies that steer public dollars toward alternatives to traditional public schools like charter schools and private school voucher programs. On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to devote $20 billion in federal dollars toward supporting school choice efforts for poor students.

“This is one of the most powerful education reform ideas ever,” Moskowitz said of school choice. “I stand ready to support his efforts in any way I can. I will work with him and whoever he selects as next education secretary to increase educational opportunities for American families.”

Here are four key pieces of background about Moskowitz:

1. She runs New York City’s largest, highest-scoring, and most controversial network of charter schools.

Success Academy runs 41 schools and 14,000 students — essentially a mid-sized school district within New York City, made up of mostly low-income students of color.

The network is best known for its elementary and middle-schoolers’ high scores on state tests, and the schools have an intense focus on test preparation, with their huge pre-test pep rallies and down-to-the-minute planning. That approach has plenty of extremely vocal critics, but Moskowitz says it’s essential to setting kids up for success.

At a time when many charter networks are moving away from “no excuses” discipline, Moskowitz has stood by her network’s strict rules and policy of suspending young students. Earlier this year, a video of a Success Academy teacher yelling at a young student, released by the New York Times, sparked a national debate about what’s appropriate behavior for educators.

Success has also faced accusations that it pushes out high-needs students. The network has long denied that, but a Success Academy principal’s “Got to Go” list of student names reignited that debate last year.

Moskowitz is also known as an incredibly tough manager, who demands long days and full commitment from teachers and staff.

Success Academy is the brainchild of two New York City-based hedge fund managers, Joel Greenblatt and John Petry, who founded the charter school network and recruited Moskowitz as its founding leader.

2. Moskowitz has made a name for herself by fighting, publicly, with lots of people.

As a member of New York’s City Council, Moskowitz chaired the education committee and held contentious hearings castigating the teachers union and education department officials. The union helped defeat her bid for Manhattan borough president in 2005.

Since de Blasio came into office, Moskowitz and Success Academy have made a habit of protesting in front of City Hall, most recently to demand that more space be made available for charter schools in traditional public school buildings. She won a key victory in 2014, when the state passed a law requiring the city had to give charter schools space or pay their rent.

She also had a high-profile battle with de Blasio over whether Success had to follow the city’s rules in order to participate the city’s universal pre-K program. After a lengthy fight with the city and state, Success Academy lost — and then cancelled pre-K classes.

Moskowitz has many enemies, though it’s sometimes unclear whether it’s her style or the substance of her message that rubs people the wrong way. She acknowledged in 2009 that her approach isn’t designed to win friends.

“I think we have a moral obligation to identify schools that are not working for kids, and unfortunately there are a lot of them,” she told Chalkbeat. “If that’s disrespectful – if saying that a school is failing is offensive – I think that we can’t be politically correct and sacrifice children in the process.”

But United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who publicly criticized her as a potential choice for education secretary, takes issue with both what she’s saying about district schools and how she says it.

Moskowitz’s philosophy, according to Mulgrew, is “I’m going to take the best and therefore my school is the best.” He was alluding to accusations that Moskowitz does not serve a representative sample of students. Like other charter schools, admissions to Success happen by random lottery. But Mulgrew said Moskowitz nevertheless finds ways to work primarily with higher performers and students without special needs, an accusation Moskowitz has strenuously denied.

“That’s not the goal of education in this country,” Mulgrew said.

3. Moskowitz has big ambitions, but so far has remained focused on her NYC-based network of schools.

Moskowitz has been public for a decade about her interest in becoming New York City mayor. Last October, she even held a press conference to confirm that she wouldn’t run against Mayor de Blasio in 2017.

At that event, she said she wanted to focus on her growing network of charter schools. “I believe we have the chance to dramatically change public education, of doing for education, frankly, what Apple did with computing for the iPhone, what Google is doing with driverless cars,” Moskowitz said.

Moskowitz has never tried to expand Success Academy outside of New York City by opening schools across the country, as networks like KIPP have done. But she’s a regular fixture at education-reform events and in Washington, growing her profile on the national stage.

In New York City, she has built herself a big political profile, organizing massive rallies with thousands of parents, students and teachers. That following has been growing more diverse in recent years, as Moskowitz has begun opening schools in gentrified neighborhoods, too.

4. Moskowitz aligns with Trump on “school choice” but not much else.

While Moskowitz is a strong proponent of school choice, she disagreed with Trump on several issues. While Trump called Common Core a “total disaster,” Moskowitz has supported the learning standards and frequently touted her students’ results on Common Core-aligned exams.

She also did not support Trump’s candidacy. The day after the presidential election last week, Moskowitz sent an email to Success Academy staff expressing concern about the election results and decrying the “hatred” that drove Donald Trump’s campaign.

“Personally, I’m upset,” Moskowitz wrote. “I believe in an America where we respect our differences and fight for the poor and overlooked.”

Yet Moskowitz said she is determined to support Trump now that he has been elected. “I am troubled by what I see as rooting for Trump’s failure because that is rooting for our own failure,” she said. Of efforts to improve education, she said, “it’s going to take a bipartisan effort. It’s going to take the citizenry. It’s going to take all of us.”

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to say that Trump officials confirmed the meeting with Moskowitz, but she herself did not.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.