reporter's notebook

Why my Eva Moskowitz story is the scariest one I’ve ever written

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

Writing about Eva Moskowitz, charter school impresario, is scary as hell. It’s impossible not to imagine what she, or her legions of critics, will say. Today, I am probably going to get a beating from all sides.

That’s because we published a story in partnership with the Atlantic magazine today in which I simultaneously praise and condemn Moskowitz and what she represents for our country, more sharply and honestly than I ever have before.

My key point: “Moskowitz has created the most impressive education system I’ve ever seen.” And I’m both optimistic and also really afraid for what that means for the country.

What’s impressive about Success schools, I write, goes beyond their high test scores, emerging diversity, and speed-of-light expansion. What’s impressive is the new model of public education the schools represent — one that’s taking off all around the country, especially in cities Chalkbeat covers. I introduce this model by explaining why I think school districts have such a hard time (maybe an impossible time) getting better:

The reason isn’t terrible union contracts or awful management decisions. The fault, I came to see, lies in the (often competing) edicts issued by municipal, state, and federal authorities, which add up to chaos for the teachers who actually have to implement them. It’s not uncommon for a teacher to start the year focused on one goal—say, improving students’ writing—only to be told mid-year that writing is no longer a priority, as happened just the other day at a Boston school I know of. We could hardly have designed a worse system for supporting good teaching had we tried.

Of all the reforms that have set out to free schools from this trap, to date I’ve seen only one that works: the implementation of charter-school networks. Large enough to provide shared resources for teachers, yet insulated from bureaucratic and political crosscurrents by their independent status, these networks are creating the closest thing our country has ever seen to a rational, high-functioning school system.

But what’s scary about a charter-school-takeover model, I write, is that it succeeds by squashing democracy.

They have strengthened public education by extracting it from democracy as we know it—and we shouldn’t be surprised, because democracy as we know it is the problem …

As Moskowitz built Success, she enforced what she calls a “dual mission”: first, to build schools “to which any parent would want to send their children,” and second, to enlist staff, students, and families in the fight for laws and policies that let Success build such schools. Her contention is that one mission reinforces the other. But does she wishfully overlook deeper tensions? …

According to Moskowitz, the choices she’s made have been pedagogically driven. Opting out of backfilling ensures that her students aren’t distracted by peers who lag behind; test prep arms her students for the meritocratic ordeal ahead. At the same time, these policies clearly advance Success’s reputation and help cement its political power. …

Who gets to make these trade-offs? In large part, the decisions belong to Moskowitz—or, more accurately, to the Success board. Charter boards, designed to sidestep the unwieldy directives of democratic school governance and focus ruthlessly on leading good schools, are the main reason charter networks operate so well—and also the main reason I worry as the networks grow.

I can’t wait to hear what our readers think. Actually, I’m so nervous about what you’ll say that I’d happily wait a lifetime, but go ahead and let me have it. Comment below, on Facebook, or via Twitter — I promise I’ll read each and every note.

After you read this, please check out our story from Matt Barnum — first in a three-part series — on the portfolio model that has allowed Eva Moskowitz to thrive and the philanthropists and activists who are pushing for it.

Timely Decision

Detroit school board approves 2018-19 academic calendar after union agrees to changes

PHOTO: Hero Images
Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers agreed to calendar changes to do what's best for students.

The Detroit school board approved this year’s academic calendar Tuesday night, hours after Detroit’s main district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement.

The calendar approval, which comes just three weeks before the first day of school, includes some changes to the original calendar spelled out in the teachers’ contract.  The new calendar was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and it was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

After discussion with the district, the union signed an agreement on the changes, known as a memorandum of understanding.

The calendar eliminates one-hour-early releases on Wednesdays and moves the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also will move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the situation was not ideal, and he realizes that some teachers may already have made plans for the week of April 19-26.

“Hopefully, our teachers realize they should be there,” he said. But if vacation plans were already made and can be changed, “that’s good.”

“We will be prepared as much as possible to have substitutes and even district staff, if it’s necessary,” he said.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers aren’t pleased about the agreement.

“No, we were not happy with the change,” Bailey said.

Addressing a question from board member LaMar Lemmons, Bailey said the calendar changes “did constitute an unfair labor practice” because, among other reasons, teachers lost preparation days with the new calendar.

“We are not happy, but we are here for students,” Bailey said. “We understand this is what’s right for students. We put students first, and we are going to work it out.”

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT.

Other changes to the calendar include eliminating scheduled parent-teacher conferences on October 31 because of the Halloween celebration.

calendar quandary

Detroit district and union hammer out last-second agreement on school calendar before vote at tonight’s board meeting

A screenshot of the proposed academic calendar that has caused concern among union officials.

Detroit’s main school district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement Tuesday afternoon after tensions arose over the seemingly routine approval of this year’s academic calendar.

The proposed calendar includes some changes to the one spelled out in the teachers’ contract. It was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the union, and the same calendar was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

With just three weeks until the first day of school, parents and teachers are relying on the calendar to make travel plans and childcare arrangements.

No details were available about the agreement.

Ken Coleman, a spokesman for the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the agreement was resolved before the meeting started, but couldn’t provide further details. District spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said she expected the calendar to go to a vote without opposition from the union.

Coleman said earlier on Tuesday that a vote to approve the calendar could violate the teachers’ contract.

Union leaders were surprised last week when Chalkbeat reported that the board was considering a calendar that was different from the one approved in their contract.

The proposed calendar would eliminate one-hour-early releases on Wednesday and move the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also would move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT, according to school board documents.

Union officials have said that they had no major objections to the contents of the calendar, only to the way in which it was approved.

Correction: Aug. 14, 2018 This story has been corrected to show that the union and district have reached an agreement about the academic calendar.  A previous version of the story, under the headline “An 11th-hour disagreement over an academic calendar could be settled at tonight’s school board meeting,” referenced a pending agreement when an agreement had in fact been reached.