The Mixed Success News from NY's Success Charter Schools

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The NY Times has painted the most complete picture of New York's powerful and controversial Success Academy charter schools I've read to date. The schools claim high test scores for low income students, and the claims bear out, with some clarification. Critics claim the charters use pressure cooker tactics to get students to perform and overwork their teachers, and those claims bear out as well, with some clarification. There's plenty of information in the article for supporters or detractors to latch onto.

According to the article, the 43 Success charters, located in poor areas of New York, have very high rates of students passing the state tests, higher in some cases than schools with more affluent students. If the testing in the schools is legit, and I haven't read anything indicating that the students are helped during the testing or the test papers are doctored in any way, that's impressive.
Now let's take a look at how the schools get there, beginning with funding. Teachers at the schools have plenty of materials, unlike neighboring district schools. The reason is, on top of their public funding, the schools get 30 percent extra in private donations. To put that in perspective, if Arizona schools received an extra 30 percent funding, that would add $2,250 per child, taking our per-student rate from $7,500 to $9,750. Anyone who says money doesn't matter or charter schools are more efficient because they don't have to worry about teachers unions (Success teachers aren't unionized) and they have less bureaucracy (Success principals are freed up to do lots of classroom observation because upper level management takes care of lots of the more mundane duties of running the schools) might rethink that position, given all the extra cash Success charters depend on to run their schools.

Teachers are expected to work 11 hour days. Most of them are young, straight out of college, and the yearly turnover is about 50 percent. Teachers who want to continue teaching and still have time to take care of their children, or just have a life, need to find another school to work at. Many teachers leave for that reason, and others leave because they feel stifled by the strict teaching regimen and don't approve of the way they're forced to treat the students.

In the classrooms, and even the hallways, students have to follow incredibly strict rules of discipline and conformity. Students sit with their hands folded and follow the teacher with their eyes at all times. No fidgeting, no looking down allowed. They walk down the hall silently in straight lines. And the schools are test-taking machines to maximize student performance on the all-important state tests. Practice tests are taken so seriously that children peeing their pants during the tests is a common occurrence, even children in third grade and above. The schools keep lots of clean underwear handy. Every test score is read aloud and posted to praise the high scorers and shame the low scorers. 

Some children thrive in the quasi-military-school atmosphere (though I wonder if one of the results is to create a super-obedient group of literate adults who will do exactly what they're told by their employers and never question authority), and others don't. Detention rates are eight times higher than at the neighborhood schools, and though the article doesn't say children are booted out, it does say many burn out and leave, either because they can't make the academic grade or because they can't abide by the rigid disciplinary structure.

I'll leave it to the reader to decide if the pluses outweigh the minuses or vice versa. Success charter students are high achievers on the state tests, no question about that. Whether their high scores come at the expense of a more rounded education and socialization is another question. And the school's two-part system of self selection certainly helps keep scores high. Parents who apply for the school are more likely to care about their children's educations and give them more support at home, which is one of the most important components of student success, and when the kids or their parents can't abide by the system, they leave and the more successful students remain. No new students are accepted after the fourth grade, so the student body becomes ever more selective as they move up the grades.

How well do the students do once they graduate high school? The Success charters are too new to have ex-students who are out in the world, so we won't know for a few years.

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