How the Other Half Learns: A Review (Part 3)

Robert Pondiscio’s book is about Success Academies, a highly praised and critiqued charter school network in New York City. Once connected to those urban schools called “No Excuses’–a term that founder Eva Moskowitz hates (p.52)–How the Other Half Learns enters the highly-charged arena of fiery reform rhetoric over publicly-funded urban charter schools that has raged for the past two decades. *

Boosters and opponents of charter schools have argued incessantly over their effectiveness compared to regular public schools (e.g., test scores, degree of innovativeness) and broadening parental choice (e.g., give poor and minority families a choice in schools beyond the one in the neighborhood). Using public funds for charters, critics have said, drained scarce monies away from regular public schools and encouraged the privatization of a public good (see here , here, and here).

Pondiscio’s book becomes fuel for one side or the other in this continuing rancorous struggle over charter schools.**

What this book is clear on is that Success Academies screen parents. Only those parents who can adhere to strict school requirements can have their children enter the lottery for kindergarten and higher grades. Success Academies do not “cream”students from public schools; they select parents who want their sons and daughters to be safe, challenged academically, follow the rules, and achieve academically. There are many parents who want exactly what Success Academies offer. And parents have to work hard in getting their children to accept Bronx 1’s routines and demands.

In many cases, parents cannot abide by the dress code, “color-coded behavioral charts, codes of conduct, data walls with children’s reading levels…” Such a demanding school culture “leave no room for doubt about what is expected, praised, or frowned upon (p. 329).” As a result, only about half of those parents who win the lottery eventually enroll their children in the school (p. 332).

Students of parents willing to accept this kind of school are enthusiastic, engaged and, clearly competent to meet the high bar of many requirements. To have such highly motivated parents send their sons and daughters to Success Academies surely boost students’–they are called “scholars”– motivation to do well in school. “It would be dishonest,” Pondiscio writes, “to pretend that Success Academy is not a self-selection engine….” (p. 333). If this is “creaming” as charter school critics allege, Pondiscio says, so be it. He asks further whether minority and low-income parents who want such schools should not have access to them. Do they not have the right to go to schools of their choice as suburban and wealthier parents seek out? Pondiscio says they do. And I agree.

What is troubling about the story that Pondiscio tells are the facts of student dropouts from kindergarten through 12th grade (Success Academy High School graduated it first class in 2018). Of the 73 elementary school students, “only sixteen remained” to accept the diploma (p. 160). Also see here.

Critics claim that Success Academies’ sloughing off of “scholars” explains large test score gains and high student performance. Pondiscio counters by offering one study of New York City school transfer rates arguing that mobility rates are high among low-income families. He cites figure that Success Academies retained more students than city schools do. I was unconvinced by that one study. There are many reasons for students leaving these schools and surely other factors deserve respectful attention.

Finally, there is the matter of whether such a demanding culture of behavioral management, direct instruction, and one common curriculum prepare 8th graders for high school and, later, for college. Pondiscio writes that it will take “decades” to determine such outcomes. Perhaps. Success Academy leaders, however, can do more more than wait.

The author cites the KIPP experience and notes that student data after high school and college enrollment has been tracked and the low percentages of college completion have spurred KIPP to build an infrastructure of ongoing support after high school with college counselors, mentors, and tutoring. Success Academy, Pondiscio writes, “has no plans to create a similar program” (p.163).

Overall, this ex-teacher’s in-depth study of one Success Academy in New York City written in clear, richly detailed prose paints a complex school with high expectations for student achievement and behavior flowing from teachers, administrators, and parents. Such schools have high attrition among students and teachers and faces dilemmas that can only be managed rather than solved. This is not a school for all low-income, minority parents but it is one that attracts mothers and fathers who want structures, norms, safety, and solid academic achievement from their sons and daughters. So far, Bronx 1 provides that to its “scholar’s” and parents.

Moreover, Pondiscio believes that Bronx 1 is a “great” school. The author meets a couple who have applied to kindergartens in 47 charter schools in NYC. Bronx 1 is at the top of their list. They attended an orientation meeting and Langston, their five year-old son, was accepted. He arrived on the first day of school with parents in tow. On the steps of the school the parents and Pondiscio and begin talking to one another. One parent is a NYC special education teacher and the other drives tourist buses in Manhattan. They discover that Pondiscio is writing a book about his year at the school. The father asks Pondiscio if the school is “good.” The author replies: “It’s a great school… You’re really lucky” (p. 337).

Surely, the author is correct that the parents lucked out in getting their son into the Success Academy kindergarten. Whether Langston will survive and thrive through high school, given the previous high attrition rates is another story for another time. Yes, the school is “great” in Pondiscio’s judgment. But “great” for all parents? All children? Probably not.


*Readers who wish to read other reviews of How the Other Half Learns, see here, here, here, and here.

**My position is that publicly-funded charter schools are here to stay and overall they offer choices to parents who previously lacked alternatives to neighborhood schools.

As for for-profit charters, they should be excluded from receiving public funds. State and local regulation of charters to deter academically and financially bankrupt schools and networks from continued operation using public funds is also a must. Nonetheless, poor and working class parents should have access to different kinds of schools than the one down the block much as economically well-off parents have choices.


Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, Reforming schools, school leaders

4 responses to “How the Other Half Learns: A Review (Part 3)

  1. Mike G

    Great 3-part review.

  2. Just finished the book. My personal experience includes covering school districts for newspapers, working for a year+ for a teachers’ union, growing up among four generations of public teachers and raising a child. I also have tutored in schools, as did my son through his middle- and high-school years and my parents after they retired.

    All this has taught me one lesson: The quality of school results varies almost entirely with the quality of parent support, school by school. Student aptitude, administrative competence and teacher quality are minor factors in the broader scheme.

    What Moskowitz has identified and demanded of her students is that their parents are all in and committed to her Success schools. In exchange, she gives parents an assurance of “safety” for their children — creepy that such isn’t a given, eh? — and constant effort to keep them progressing along the paths laid out by our awful test-test-test bureaucracies.

    Pondiscio understands what he is evaluating because he has raised a child and taught in schools of various quality. His early chapters had my hair standing on end because of the rigidity of what was taught and of the teaching methods. But, by the end of the book, he had convinced himself and me that the parents who sent their children to Success Academies had committed themselves to accepting the best of a bunch of lousy choices in a big-city school district.

    He doesn’t say it, so i will: The squalor of public education starts in students’ homes. Public schools must take children as they come, and many children come now from indifferent parents, with discipline problems and resentful at being assigned to schools that their parent(s) regard as shitty. This necessarily limits the results that can be achieved.

    School boards and administrators have failed to tell parents (often poor, often single) what it takes to assure their children’s success in school. This may be hard for people to hear, but it needs to be said.

    Our federal government funds a 40+year-old national DOE and various Title-Number programs that have seen a steady decline in student achievement and papered it over with standardized tests that set the 70 percent bar lower and lower.

    I wish I knew what to do. Mostly now, I contribute books — hundreds of them, last I checked — to elementary schools in impoverished districts to give to children to take home and read.

    • larrycuban

      I appreciate your thoughts about How the Other Half Learns, what ails urban schools, and New York’s Success Academies. You make a strong argument for parents being the sole determining factor: “All this has taught me one lesson: The quality of school results varies almost entirely with the quality of parent support, school by school. Student aptitude, administrative competence and teacher quality are minor factors in the broader scheme.” There is much research that supports your point. That research shows a very high association between social status of parents and school quality which you do not mention.Of course, there are exceptions to this correlation but they are exceptions, not the rule.

      I would ask you to consider the point that some observers have made that if teachers account for 20-25% of the variation in student achievement–however measured–that substantial fraction is crucial to a school’s success and individual students’ success. What do you think?

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