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The Real Secret of Success? Progressive Pedagogy at Scale
Success Academy doesn’t lack for press.
And for good reason. There’s the eye-popping academic performance: 99 percent of students proficient in math, 90 percent in English Language Arts. There’s the charter school network’s astonishing growth: from one school in 2006 to 45 across New York City today, educating 17,000 children, mainly from poverty—a system nearly the size of the Syracuse City School District.
And then there’s Eva Moskowitz, Success’s irrepressible CEO. In a sector short on humor and spine, Eva’s lust for combat and whiff of mischief made her a sure draw for the press. And a frequent target.
But I believe the media have overlooked the biggest story at Success. Journalists are blinded by the political spectacle, the Astroturf protests, the claims of “creaming,” the inexhaustible feud with Bill de Blasio. On the rare occasions they visited the schools, they couldn’t see past the starched and branded orange uniforms, the rigid rules, the preternatural calm.
They missed the genius.
Success has implemented a progressive pedagogy at scale.
Eva Moskowitz has described her model as “Catholic school on the outside, Bank Street on the inside,” invoking the Manhattan bastion of progressive education. But Robert Pondiscio, in his excellent new book on Success, argues that Success’s pedagogy isn’t progressive in the way most understand the term. Teaching is not “child-centered,” lessons are not built around children’s expressed interests, and teacher autonomy is not sacrosanct. On the contrary, teachers are equipped with a centralized curriculum that exposes all students to far-reaching and ambitious topics at an early age. All true, and these distinctions are vitally important. But Bank Street would find much to admire.
For decades, schools of education have preached progressive methods, but we’ve all witnessed the dispiriting results in urban schools serving students from low-income families. Restless, unengaged children, faulty lessons, awful outcomes. In a lesson on Moby-Dick, students construct papier mâché models of the whale, never to taste the sweep and invention of Melville’s American masterpiece. Or students earnestly attempt a constructivist lesson on fractions; the bell sounds the end of the period, and not one student has apprehended the point. For all its high ideals, progressive teaching has been for a half century a calamity for children from poverty, marked by low expectations and an absence of rigor.
Understandably, most high-performing urban charter networks have relied instead on didactic instruction—the “I do, we do, you do” cycle of explicit teaching, guided practice, and independent practice derided by professors of education. Effective teaching, these networks proved, could be codified and tightly monitored. In often striking numbers, children learned and experienced academic success.
But then came the Common Core. In math, teaching procedures no longer worked. No longer was it enough to get the right answer; the new standards prized number sense and conceptual understanding. In English, engaging questions about what was “right there” in the text was no good; students were expected to make meaning of ambitious texts that stumped many of their teachers.
When Common Core-aligned assessments were first administered in New York in 2013, results at high-flying charter networks plummeted—often by 30 percentage points. But amid the rubble one network stood tall: Success.
From its start, Success had devised ways to reliably ensure students achieved the deeper understanding the new standards demanded. In math, students engaged in “cognitively guided instruction.” In a typical period, they might tackle a real-world problem, each devising their own solution, then presenting their methods to their classmates, and finally engaging in a whole-class “discourse” that revealed how their diverse methods, of varied sophistication, shared an underlying mathematical truth. In English, students explored ambitious poems like literary detectives, primed to spot clues, searching out and debating the poem’s deepest meaning, identifying and admiring its craft and structure.
It turned out that these specific pedagogies could in fact be broken down into distinct components, each of which could be codified, practiced, and mastered by teachers, and evaluated objectively for quality of implementation in the classroom. An evocative new language could be devised to name the “teacher moves” that drove an excellent lesson in each pedagogy. Ambitious, inquiry-based teaching could be implemented reliably across hundreds of urban classrooms.
I know the power of these innovations because they inspired our own successful post-Core transformation at Ascend Public Charter Schools. When our first Common Core test results came in, math scores dropped 51 percentage points, and English 43 points. We had to act. In January 2014, we decided to develop an entirely new progressive curriculum to launch in September, just nine months later.
Teaching and learning were transformed. Before the Common Core, students read mainly bowdlerized texts in sterile anthologies. In the new curriculum, the goal was to develop a love of reading by engaging students from the earliest grades in exceptional literature from across cultures and ages. In math, we newly focused on developing students’ deep conceptual understanding and experiencing the power and beauty of math.
The intellectual work was shifted to the students. Where once there was silence, children were talking, developing math conjectures, arguing about texts, taking intellectual risks. While results were flat the first year, they shot up over the next four—some 35 percentage points in English and 40 in math, the fastest growth in the city’s charter sector.
To make such a change at Ascend—as at other charter networks in New York City—required an unusual investment in teacher training and development, one inconceivable in traditional school districts because of collective bargaining constraints. Ascend, it can be said, now runs two businesses: schools for nine months of the year and a professional training program for three. The leadership team will tell you that the summer business is by far the more taxing. School leaders, including directors and deans, attend a month-long Leader Institute in July, and teachers gather for all of August for Teacher Institute. Every session must be meticulously planned and rehearsed. Participants unforgivingly evaluate each session on their phones, and the results are shared and discussed with presenters in the evening.
The content is nothing like traditional professional development—glancing looks at trending topics like social and emotional learning or flipped classrooms. Nor is it focused on abstract teaching techniques, as valuable as these are to learn. Instead, the focus is on mastering specific pedagogies through practice. Teachers dive into fishbowl training, teaching real lessons to summer school students. Their colleagues observe and, guided by rubrics, look for the essential teacher “moves.” The teachers then receive detailed and honest feedback from their peers—and, in a supportive and generous atmosphere, try it again.
A second critical innovation, also inspired by Success, is an investment in intellectual preparation. The curriculum is ambitious. For example, in an English unit on The Odyssey, fourth-graders are expected to unpack Dorothy Parker’s sly feminist take, Penelope. To teach the poem while keeping the “thinking work” squarely on the students requires intensive preparation.
Math is no different. All of us know fractions, but teaching it well requires a deep knowledge of how students come to understand fractions, which most novice teachers lack. To afford this level of preparation, Ascend sets aside substantial time every day for teachers to work collaboratively with their grade-level team and dean of instruction. To teach Penelope, teachers begin by discovering and debating the meaning of the poem among themselves. They then draft a concise expression of its meaning, subjecting the meaning to a series of tests. Is it contextualized in the poem? Does it transcend platitudes (“Hallmarking”)? Lastly, they build a “roadmap” of questions that they deploy as they guide their students toward this meaning. This intellectual prep protocol alternates in grade team meetings with similarly structured sessions for data analysis and for the analysis of student work—what their students are producing and what it reveals.
Finally, in developing teachers, Ascend no longer relies primarily on the traditional teacher observation cycle, where a dean of instruction observes a teacher’s class, identifies the top lever for improvement, meets with the teacher to offer feedback, and sometime later returns to look for change. The cycle is slow, costly, and unreliable in improving practice. A school year unfurls quickly, and classrooms must get better fast. Live coaching at Ascend, as at Success, provides feedback that the teacher can act on immediately. The dean of instruction offers suggestions to the teacher in real time, respectfully but without pretense, or briefly takes over to model. Students accept that their teachers will be live-coached; in their classroom, everyone is looking to get better, students and teachers alike.
Pondiscio's remarkable book may be most remembered for his provocative emphasis on parent self-selection. Motivated and attentive parents, he observes, join Success teachers and staff in forging a clear and coherent school culture. Everyone subscribes to the school's singular vision and is pulling in the same direction. Culture drives success.
Like all excellent schools, Success does many things surpassingly well. But our experience at Ascend—as that of other networks that have recently moved from explicit instruction to inquiry teaching—suggests that Success’s teaching model plays a much larger part in the network’s extraordinary outcomes than Pondiscio allows. Ascend and other large New York networks make few or none of the demands on parents that Success repeatedly announces; parents are not admonished that the schools “may not be right for you,” and no “parent investment cards” are issued that evaluate their compliance. And yet these schools too have reversed the achievement gap—if not attained the stellar outcomes of Success. Yes, self-selection at Success likely enhances results, but the accumulating evidence from other networks inspired by its teaching methods suggests selection is not the root of the network’s academic success.
Effective, inquiry-based pedagogy for urban students. That may be the real genius of Success. Now let’s hope the media write about it.
Students in the highest-poverty school systems can’t afford to wait for instruction to go back to “normal.”
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