What the hell is going on at Success Academy?

I’ll have what she’s having.

New York’s latest round of state test results were released last week and the biggest news is the scores posted by Success Academy, the network of twenty-two charter schools throughout New York City run by Eva Moskowitz. Only 29 percent of New York’s kids met the new higher English standards under Common Core. Success more than doubled it with 64 percent meeting the standards. Wait. It gets better. One in three New York City students scored proficient in math, but at Success it was better than nine out of ten.

With admirable restraint, the head of the New York City Charter Center, James Merriman, pronounced the results “remarkable” and attributed the results to Success’ intensive instruction. A lot of schools, including many charter high-fliers, offer high-octane teaching. None come close to matching Success Academy’s results the last two years. 

Remarkable? No, these are results that make your jaw hit the floor hard enough to loosen your fillings. Success Academy kids didn’t merely pass the state math test, they destroyed it. For example, 680 fourth graders sat for the state test at seven of Moskowitz’s schools. Care to guess how many earned a “4,” the highest level? 

Nearly five freakin’ hundred of them!

No, this is not “remarkable.” This is Secretariat winning the Belmont by thirty-one lengths. It’s Michael Jordan dropping sixty-three points on the Celtics in the playoffs.  It’s Tiger Woods demolishing the field and winning the Masters by eighteen strokes.

On the ELA side, Success Academy’s results are not as eye-popping on the surface, but they are perhaps even more noteworthy. It’s easier to move the needle on math, a sequential, largely school-based subject where curriculum and standards are reasonably well aligned and the content of the assessments are at least somewhat predictable. Reading is a far tougher nut to crack. Everything I know about the slow growing, cumulative nature of language proficiency suggests it is all but impossible to test prep your way to a high score on a third to eighth grade reading test, especially the more challenging Common Core tests. Yet two out of three Success Academy scholars hit proficiency benchmarks anyway.

By contrast, results for charter schools as a whole in New York City were unremarkable.  ELA edged up by 1.7 percent. Math scores were up smartly, a rise of 8.3 percent over 2013 results. But compared to Success Academy, the results are downright pedestrian.

What exactly is going on at Success Academy?

Cheerleaders and skeptics will trumpet or attack the scores. Expect to hear that Eva Moskowitz has solved the achievement gap and that the humiliation of Mayor de Blasio, who targeted Moskowitz during his campaign and tried unsuccessfully to squeeze three of her schools out of Department of Education space, is now complete. Or we will hear that Success creams top students, gets rid of low-achievers through attrition, and test preps kids within an inch of their lives, or even cheats. Pay no mind to either Moskowitz’s fans or foes. What is imperative now is for serious, unbiased experts and observers to descend on Harlem and figure out how these extraordinary results are being achieved and, if all that glitters is gold, how to replicate them. 

Is Eva Moskowitz the Michael Jordan of education reform, or is she Mark McGwire?  I have no idea and you don’t either. But something extraordinary is happening in Harlem.  And it’s time to sit up, take notice, and figure out exactly what the hell it is and how it’s being done.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News.

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