Success Academy Charter Schools will never, ever scale

I will leave to others the task of debating the actual educational conditions of Success Academy Charter Schools, as discussed in this deep, disturbing profile in the New York Times. I will further let others debate the actual meaning of standardized testing and the paucity of evidence that constant testing actually generates superior educational outcomes. I merely will say this: even if you believe that this is a model of education that should be replicated on a larger scale, the fact is that this it can’t be replicated on a larger scale, and will not be, ever.

In recent years, many reform types have started to walk back their previous, absurd goals for massive, short-term, nationwide educational improvements across demographics and cohorts. No Child Left Behind was merely the sharp policy edge of a wildly unrealistic set of expectations from reform types. It is worth saying that no previous attempt to achieve educational gains of such size and universality as dictated by NCLB have ever before been attempted in the history of education, let alone achieved. Now, reformers are faced with decades of false promises and few gains, typically relegated to sui generis institutions that have the benefit of massive effort, sky-high teacher turnover, unusual attention from policymakers, and sponsorship from deep-pocketed institutions and individuals. Little wonder, therefore, that ed reformers who once shouted “No excuses!” are now more likely to grumble about marginal gains.

Success Academy is the kind of institution that keeps their transformative dander up. It’s also an object lesson in how the only truly important questions in school reform concern replicability and scale. Success Academy is part of an evolution in typical ed reform practices. Rather than developing some new base of charter-specific professional teachers, these schools now often feature a teaching class that is essentially Teach for America in all but name. That is, they are frequently staffed in large part by affluent graduates of elite private colleges who come with the specific intent of only teaching for a few years for the benefit of their resumes and for cocktail party righteousness, with the intention of eventually bolting for more lucrative, less emotionally-draining work. That condition can be seen in this article in the sky-high turnover rates at these schools. Teacher turnover is huge in this country in general, reflecting the profession’s relatively low pay, high stress, and long off-the-books hours. Little wonder that it is frequently higher in contexts like this, with the constant grinding surveillance, absence of emotional and social protection of fragile young children, and corporate philosophy of harsh punishment for failing to achieve “success.”

But it is possible in the relatively small number of Success Academy schools — in New York. Because New York is the destination for precisely the type of young overachievers that these schools churn through. Because New York is a place full of desperate people looking to latch on at all costs. Because New York offers vast cultural and social riches to balance the long hours and brutal evaluations. Because New York offers many aspirational economies for these young teachers to dream of eventually entering, once they have had their fill of playing drill sergeant to poor brown children. Now: recall that, in order to achieve the kind of change that ed reformers say they want, this system will have to be scaled up to the tune of thousands upon thousands of schools, and hundreds of thousands of teachers, almost half of whom we can assume will follow the general trend and drop out of the teaching profession within five years. Does this sound like a plan, to you?

If you’re a reform type and you read about Success Academy Charter Schools and their success, as defined by rigid metrics of standardized testing, and you set aside concerns about the emotional and social health of these children,  you must ask yourself this question. Do I believe that I can replicate the labor conditions of New York City, which sees an annual influx of endless thousands of educated young strivers who are desperate for work and any foothold into professional life in  the city, in the Mississippi Delta? In the Appalachian foothills of West Virginia? In Camden, New Jersey? In the secluded rural agricultural communities of inland California? In the destitute Indian reservations of the northern Midwest? In the blighted urban centers of America that have all of New York’s poverty and inequality but none of its arts, restaurants, or nightlife? Can we attract thousands upon thousands of young teachers, reliably, in mass and at scale, throughout the country, at adequate numbers and in requisite consistency,  with constant replacement of the endless dropouts, while eliminating tenure, and without being able to achieve the kind of tax hikes necessary to actually offer meaningful increases in teacher pay?

I’m guessing… no.

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