School Talk

Eva Moskowitz: An Imperfect Warrior For Kids

Very few people in America can say that they have, unequivocally, changed the game for black children in the city where they live.  But Eva Moskowitz can. As the founder and CEO of Success Academy, the largest charter school network in New York City, she has proven that race and income based achievement gaps can be closed.

She has been called combative and even been tagged with the nickname “Evil Moskowitz.” And still, each year, she proves what’s possible when you believe in kids and get out from under the crippling layers of bureaucracy that leave far too many schools paralyzed from top to bottom.

Now that Moskowitz is the founder and CEO of Success Academy, the largest charter-school network in New York City, the criticism is as loud as ever. Success has produced stellar academic outcomes, even winning the prestigious Broad Prize this year for its successes in closing race- and income-based achievement gaps at its 45-plus schools. (The Atlantic, 9/22/17)

I have never met Eva nor have I visited one of her Success Academy schools. Everything I know is based on other people’s visits, parent testimony, video footage, their now free and online curriculum, and the many pieces written about the network of  schools that has become almost a fetish for the New York Times, a punching bag for status quo protectors, and a darling of the New York Post.

Taylor Swift has a line in her song Ours that says “People throw rocks at things that shine.” And we all know this to be true whether it’s the prettiest girl in school, the captain of the football team, the teacher of the year, or Steve Jobs and Beyonce. An ugly side of human nature is to tear down those who are successful and who manage to do what the rest of us consider to be impossible. And that’s not to imply that these folks aren’t fair game for criticism or a bit of stone throwing. But when we are blinded by their success to a point of resentment, the stone throwing is really about us and has little to do with the target of our ire.

Brazen. Brash. Bold. Unapologetic.

We’ve all heard the people talk about Eva Moskowitz in those terms (as well as other women like her who dare to challenge the system and take on powerful people and institutions.) We have read the New York Times pieces and the Diane Ravitch missives where the implication is that if a bad thing happens at a Success Academy, it has certainly has never happened at any other school.  From abusing children to pushing out troubled students to creaming the best, a narrative has taken hold that somehow these things either don’t happen or are somehow inevitable and even acceptable in the traditional district system.  

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.” -Eva Moskowitz

Is Eva the first person to have a staff member do something on video that has us all shaking our heads? Or the first school leader to have a board member make a controversial statement?

Most of us who have worked in schools or served on school committees have seen lots of stuff that would make anyone’s head spin. I don’t see anyone dogging those schools day in and day out, accusing them of child abuse, accusing them of fighting a “war against children”,  lobbying for them to cease to exist, casting doubt on their outcomes for kids, and accusing them of perpetuating segregation.

For rational observers (and practitioners) of education, wrong is wrong. It isn’t more wrong because it happens in a school that happens to be part of a system that is governed differently than a traditional public school. And all of us who have worked in a traditional system know that, as with any human endeavor, mistakes happen all the time. Leaders are tasked with fixing those mistakes and the problems caused by them and moving on.

Eva has likely been a frustrating subject for some reporters because she refuses to get tangled up in the absurd games of gotcha that come at her in a fairly relentless manner. She decided a long time ago that the traditional system is dysfunctional and she explains why in her just released memoir, The Education of Eva Moskowitz: A Memoir.

As a council member, I’d also become increasingly aware of the school system’s dysfunction. In this book, I’ve recounted some of what I saw: textbooks that arrived halfway through the school year; construction mishaps; forcing prospective teachers to waste half a day getting fingerprinted. Know, however, that these are just a few selected examples of a mountain of evidence that came to my attention from 100 hearings, 300 school visits, and thousands of parent complaints that came to me as chair of the Education Committee. (To read full excerpt, click here.)

She also decided a long time ago that poor children of color are equally capable as the affluent white children in New York’s premier zip codes. And unlike most who simply bemoan the inequity and throw their hands up, she is doing something about it. And Eva has real skin in the game. Not just because these are her schools but more importantly, because her own children attend them. Unlike the reporters who dog her day in and day out, Eva is connected to Success Academy as a mother. And while critics love to say that reformers would never put their own kids in “these schools,” they aren’t talking about Eva.

Paul Reville recently spoke at the funeral of Massachusetts Education Commissioner, Mitchell Chester. He talked of Chester’s north star.

He was a stickler for evidence and as a former teacher, his north star was always what works best for kids, what was most helpful in advancing student learning.

It is clear to me that Eva Moskowitz is guided by the same north star as her fellow education warrior, Mitchell Chester. Reville goes on in his remarks to also say that his dear friend Mitchell wasn’t perfect. Eva shares that quality too, though it seems that in her case, anything short of perfection is like chum in the water for reporters and critics.

He wasn’t perfect either. In the early years, he could sometimes be bull-headed and naïve about the political consequences of the principled positions he stubbornly maintained in the face of competing viewpoints. He came close to the edge on several occasions, but learned to pull back, regroup, and carry the fight tomorrow. He was nothing if not resilient.  

Resilient. A fitting word for Eva as well.

I don’t pretend to know how it feels to be a low income Black mom in Harlem or any other part of New York City trying to figure out what school will be best for my child. I’m not poor. And I’m not black. And the same goes for the reporters who, in my estimation, spend way too much looking for a scandal at Success Academy instead of appreciating the sheer magnitude of what Eva and her team have accomplished.

Their results speak for themselves, every single year.


What do you think?

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