Redefining Success in K-8 Education

Eva Moskowitz opened Harlem Success Academy in 2006.  With nine new schools opening in the next few weeks, Success Academy Charter Schools will have 22 New York City locations and will serve 7,000 students. It is clearly one of the three best K-8 school networks in the country and with plans to open 6 new elementaries, 3 new middle schools and their first high school in 2014.
In the recently released (and Common Core aligned) New York test results, Success Academy schools were among the top 1% of schools in math and the top 7% in reading and writing.  At Success Academy, nearly all test takers are children of color, and they dramatically outperformed their peers across the state. In fact, in math they outperform affluent communities like Scarsdale and the Upper East Side.
It’s been a couple years since I’ve visited a Success Academy, so I called Jenny Sedlis, who has been there since the beginning. “Rigor is a key ingredient in our success. We believe in children and challenge them academically.”
“The literacy curriculum is mapped backwards from critical thinking,” said Sedlis. The hand picked library at each grade is designed to “expose kids to great books, to encourage them to think deeply about what they’re reading, to cause rich discussions with their peers, and to promote college readiness and lifelong learning.” By sixth grade, about 40% of the reading on iPad. Moskowitz said, “It’s been hard to find quality in the volume we need,” for the amount of reading Success Academy students do.
Teacher selection and training demand a high degree of content knowledge. “Our teacher training is very focused on content work– studying and understanding the complex poem or math problem before they teach it.” said Sedlis.  “We want teachers delivering the highest quality lessons–creating engaging and thought provoking experiences for students.”
Some schools do occasional professional development–it’s a part of the culture and practice of everyday life at a Success Academy where principals don’t sweat administrative duties–they are full time instructional leaders. “Teachers and leaders are our greatest leverage point and we invest heavily in their development,” said Sedlis.
Success Academy teachers watch a lot of instructional videos and a lot of each other.  Sedlis described the culture as one where teachers ask, “My colleague next door is getting better results, what can I learn from her?”
While some elementary networks have gone to the model of using specialists for the middle school, the K-5 Success Academy teachers handle the core subjects: reading, writing, math and social studies in the classroom.
There is one lead teacher per classroom, but because they are opening so many schools, there is often a lead teacher in training working with a grade level team. While having a single teacher has significant benefits, it can make it more challenging to manage individual progress for students ahead or behind. “We skip kids ahead in reading–they’re bored if not challenged,” said Moskowitz. Since math and reading blocks are at the same time schoolwide, skipping students ahead does create “tricky deployment” issues.
What’s really encouraging is that every school that Success Academy opens is better than the last. Two Success Academy schools – SA Bronx 1 and SA Bronx 2– ranked in the Top 25 highest performing schools in New York State.  They scored higher than the Harlem schools that had been open longer and lower rates of poverty.
Culture is incredibly important. “Success teachers are positive, enthusiastic, and believe in kids,” Moskowitz explains. “We have a culture of daily mastery- we believe children should intellectually struggle with challenging content and the teachers should insist on mastery.”
Number Stories. In the Bronx, 97% of the students passed the new math test. “Our students solve problems and have vigorous discussions about math strategies every day. We want students to develop conceptual understanding and know efficient ways to solve problems,” said Sedlis.
Moskowitz said, “We engage students with Number Stories everyday–30 minutes of problem solving.”  The brain stretching work starts in kindergarten with fractions. Second and third graders use Dreambox as a supplement for the math curriculum. Intermediate grades compete in math competitions. Much of the math content is homegrown, but Moskowitz appreciates Ed Zaccaro’s Challenge Math.
“Teacher and leader training is most important,” to the extraordinary math results said Moskowitz, “We teach math content as part of the training.” They practice what Eva calls, “true value added education” where the goals is “moving everybody north.” It’s adaptive learning but mostly the labor intensive kind. “There’s no tool kit for building this kind of culture,” said Moskowitz,
On the new science tests, 100% Of 4th graders passed (and only 1 didn’t get highest score possible). That’s because Success Academy starts daily science in Kindergarten. “Part of the way you get great reading and math results is creating schools children love to attend. We don’t treat children as a captive audience; we have to generate that motivation and interest,” said Moskowitz.
Teacher judgement. “If we’re really going to meet the needs of children every hour, every minute, it takes executional competence to deliver at that high level–it’s much more profound than most people realize–it requires enormous execution talents,” said Moskowitz.
“It takes a lot of judgement to diagnose reading challenges,” Moskowitz continued. She noted that there could be variety of challenges with understanding complex text, it could be a reading problem or–for a student with challenging home circumstances–a motivation problem.
Rather than giving students the answer “It’s hard to get kids to draw upon resources they have to tackle a text,” said Moskowitz, “The highly skilled teacher can tap into the resources a kid has.”
What do you give a struggling student? Eva believes that answering that question a hundred times a day takes profound judgement and, she added, “I don’t know if tech solution for that is around the corner.”
After 10 years of working with Moskowitz every day, Sedlis is running the New York branch of StudentsFirstNY. With a new mayor coming in, it’s good to have someone like Jenny working everyday to expand the opportunity for more students to experience Success.
Dreambox is Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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