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Monday, September 8, 2014

Egregious distortions in NYT article on Success Charters, say parents, teachers & journalist

This Sunday’s NY Times featured an outrageously one-sided article on Success charters.  It is not the first.  One remembers the Steve Brill article from 2010 on Harlem Success Academy which was so similar in tone that I had to keep checking to see that this was not the exact same piece.

The Brill article was replete with many factual errors – claiming that the high-performing students at Success charters were exactly like those as the public schools with which it shared space, even though that was a clear falsehood that any reporter or editor could have checked if they had bothered to look at the data.  This time, the reporter Daniel Bergner admitted that the type of students enrolled may be different, writing in an offhand manner:

On the topic of scores, the U.F.T. and Ravitch insist that Moskowitz’s numbers don’t hold up under scrutiny. Success Academy (like all charters), they say, possesses a demographic advantage over regular public schools, by serving somewhat fewer students with special needs, by teaching fewer students from the city’s most severely dysfunctional families and by using suspensions to push out underperforming students (an accusation that Success Academy vehemently denies). …. But even taking these differences into account probably doesn’t come close to explaining away Success Academy’s results.

Though he mentions that critics cite demographic differences, he doesn’t bother to report the data himself and discounts their impact.  He completely brushes off the higher suspension rates, by saying that Success denies it, but these are well-documented and a Legal Aid attorney argues their practice is illegal. Even the SUNY charter institute, a creature of  the charter lobby, has criticized Success Academy suspensions in documents available online – none of which the reporter mentions, because it is only “critics” who claim their reality.

Bergner only quotes two critics: UFT head Michael Mulgrew (who he depicts as self-interested) and Diane Ravitch, though he left out most of what she said.   At the Huffington Post, Diane Ravitch points out that she told him the following – all left out of his article:

The only Success Academy school that has fully grown to grades 3-8 tested 116 3rd graders but only 32 8th graders. Three other Success Academy schools have grown to 6th grade. One tested 121 3rd graders but only 55 6th graders, another 106 3rd graders but only 68 6th graders, and the last 83 3rd graders but only 54 6th graders. Why the shrinking student body? When students left the school, they were not replaced by other incoming students. When the eighth grade students who scored well on the state test took the admissions test for the specialized high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, not one of them passed the test.

I also told Bergner that Success Academy charters have among the highest rates of teacher turnover every year, which would not happen if teachers enjoyed the work. Helen Zelon wrote in "City Limits": "In Harlem Success Academies 1-4, the only schools for which the state posted turnover data, more than half of all teachers left the schools ahead of the 2013-14 school year. In one school, three out of four teachers departed." I also told Bergner about a website called Glass Door, where many former teachers at SA charters expressed their candid views about an "oppressive" work climate at the school. As more of these negative reviews were posted, a new crop of favorable reviews were added, echoing the chain's happy talk but not shedding light on why teachers don't last long there. … He did not think it mattered that none of her successful eighth grade students was able to pass the test for the specialized high schools, and he didn’t mention it in the article. Nor was he interested in teacher turnover or anything else that might reflect negatively on SA charters.

Not only did the reporter ignore all this negative evidence, he even misquoted her, which Diane had to correct when the editor called her to check:

"For example, he quoted me defending “large government-run institutions,” when what I said was “public schools.” He was using SA’s framing of my views.”

This phraseology “large government run institutions” is a dead giveaway of the reporter’s strong biases: it not just the charter lobby’s framing, it comes right of conservative talking points.  Public schools are described this way by Rick Santorum and the like, rhetoric designed to convince people to oppose them.

Other signs of the purposeful distortions and omissions in this article are when Bergner claims that de Blasio inexplicably opposed the expansion of Harlem Success 1 at PS 149.

Actually, the explanation de Blasio provided was clear – that the charter’s expansion would necessitate the displacement of 20 percent of the severely disabled students at the Mickey Mantle school in the same building.  Clearly Bergner knew this as he interviewed Mindy Rosier and other teachers at this school; as Rosier explains in a comment to the article:

“I did not bash Moskowitz, but what I did tell him as a teacher in a co-located school with her, all the things that has happened in the last 8 years. I told him story after story. All verifiable but unfortunately hidden from the general public. He made points about deBlasio denying her space though he did not truthfully tell you all why. Moskowitz wanted to expand in a building with no free space. Her expansion would have kicked out a special needs school. Over 100 special needs students from the Harlem community and surrounding areas. deBlasio was trying to save that school and he said several times that he did NOT want those students displaced. …Those $6 million ads were basically supporting a special needs school to be kicked out of its own space for her expansion. “

Nor did Bergner quote a single public school parent.  He repeats the canard that Moskowitz always proclaims, repeated without evidence by Steve Brill and other propagandists, that the opposition to Success expansion was driven entirely by the UFT – here’s his quote:

… almost always the proposed arrival of a Success Academy has met with hostility: union members bused in by the U.F.T. to pack community meetings, people heckling and spitting at Moskowitz….

I have attended many public hearings but I have never seen anyone spit at Moskowitz; in fact she rarely shows up for them.  And there is no need for the UFT to provide busing to “pack community meetings.” Anyone who talked to any public school parents or attended any co-location hearings or read the extensive public comments online at the DOE website would know that nothing provokes more fury among parents than the prospect of co-located schools, exiling their children from their classrooms, their art rooms, their science labs and gyms.  Not to mention huge anger from former Success parents, whose children have been pushed out of her schools.

From Noah Gotbaum, parent leader in District 3 where many of Moskowitz’ charters are located:

“Bergner also had information from current and former Success parents about the winnowing and forcing out of low performing students.  Also of Moskowitz's "banning" of parents and suspension of students who in any way question the administration and a general disaffection by current parents.  He just chose not to use it.

A few weeks ago I spoke with him and suggested people for him to speak with including public school parent leaders - who have led the charge against the Success colocations. He told me that he needed to finish the piece and already had had "long interviews with 50 supporters and critics".   Seeing this piece it's now worth asking who are those critics (besides Diane and Mulgrew) and why didn't he include their voices or any of the info they provided?

The Times should be skewered for this.  But they won't be.”

Nor did the reporter bother to investigate how overcrowded our schools already are.  Instead he writes:

“The public schools — with the United Federation of Teachers spurring the fight — have protested that sharing space causes overcrowding, though in theory charters have moved in only where enough rooms were available.”

This is completely untrue.  In fact, nearly half of the recent co-locations pushed through by Bloomberg, including Harlem Success academy co-location, would have put the school building above 100% capacity, according to the DOE formula – a formula, by the way, that most experts believe understates the actual level of overcrowding in our schools.

Below are comments from Gretchen Mergenthaler, a public school parent in Washington Heights:

“I am tired of the focus in the media on Eva and deBlasio and I am tired of Eva's expensive advertising campaign.

In my district, District 6, the CEC (parents elected by parents) passed a resolution saying that District 6 did not want more charters but wanted more support for our existing schools so they could expand, provide more enrichment, smaller class size and better teacher support. But Eva got what she wanted: a free building in our district. Our kids are in trailers while Eva gets a new building.

The CEC was not consulted about the imposition of an SA in our district (no big surprise). The community was not consulted!! SA paid people to hand out applications to make it appear as if there were demand.

I have not met one CEC president who has said that they want more charters. I was told by a CEC president that at the citywide CEC presidents meetings with Chancellor Fariña, no one has ever asked for more charters. NO ONE.

The NYT should be covering the real story.”

The following is from Gail Robinson, an experienced editor formerly at Gotham Gazette, now a freelance reporter for InsideSchools and City Limits:

"This article would have been less flawed/irritating if it did not claim to be a discussion of the battle over NYC schools. What it really is a puffy profile of Eva.
But it's disconcerting that the reporter (if one can call him that) did not attempt to verify anything independently. Figures on attrition of staff and students are a few clicks away on the NYS education department site, as are statistics on number of English language earners and students with special needs in any school.

The author did not seem to have visited many/any co-located schools or bothered to investigate the specific reasons Carmen Farina originally rejected the three proposed co-locations last school year. He also did not say that some other charter operators co-locate in a more cooperative spirit and that relations between co-located schools can be harmonious if the adults try to make it that way.
Finally the writer did not look at how much money Success Academy has. The recruiting efforts and many of the special features (technology, a special room for blocks at the Williamsburg school, a trip to Albany for all students, etc.) are beyond the budgets of many public schools, which do not get the kind of donations Success does. Parent, naturally, are delighted by those frills -- and few care where the money comes from as long as their child benefits. That's understandable. But that fact cannot be ignored in any kind of policy discussion. If regular district schools had the resources some charters do, what could those schools do?

There are lots of bad writers and reporters out there but I wonder what is going on at the NYT when it seems to require less of its writers than I do of my high school journalism students.”


Michael M. said...

Unless the article droned on about Eva's favorite pizza slices in the city, it wasn't up to the puff standards the Times set for itself in its piece on then-Chancellor Klein a few years back.

Anonymous said...

Public school parent here. Success Academy has provide my special needs son with a fantastic education. I credit school culture which is relentlessly optimistic as well as calm, orderly and peaceful for enabling my son to feel comfortable in school. I credit hard working teachers who provide a long day of carefully planned instruction and loads of extra attention. I credit the other Success Academy families who fought for our school to open despite protests and mindless spreading of mis-information. But mostly I credit Eva Moskowitz who shown what is possible in public education. OF COURSE it takes incredibly hard work: teachers must work harder, longer hours yes - but also with better training and support, children must work harder, parents must work harder. But the end result of all of that hard work is nothing short of spectacular. My son is living proof.

Anonymous said...

Eva's PR machine appears to have discovered your kickass takedown.

Anonymous said...

How is that "Public school parent" considers him/herself a parent of the public schools on one hand while speaking as an SA parent on the other? Clearly, SA schools are not public schools--they are not governed by rules and regs that require public enrollment. Why do the enrollment numbers in the student body go down so drastically over the years? Could it be because SA "counsels out" those members of the public it does not want to or cannot teach claiming, "It's just not a good fit?" That is no public school and this person clearly is not a "Public school parent."

What a scam...but nice try, minions.