Has Eva Moskowitz overplayed her hand on parent accountability?

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Leveraging the power of parent engagement is one of the under-appreciated ways in which Eva Moskowitz and her New York City-based network of Success Academy charter schools has significantly improved upon the work of pioneering “no excuses” charter schools. Many high-performing charters talk about parents as partners in their children’s education. Success Academy mandates it, monitors it, and holds parents to account for honoring the agreement they signed when enrolling their children. That agreement includes faithful adherence to school policies on things like bringing kids to school and picking them up on time and in uniform; avoiding unexcused absences and tardiness; and monitoring homework and maintaining their child’s reading logs. “We've never believed that we could educate kids without the parents,” Moskowitz told me recently. “We're not that good.”

Success Academy is now pushing its belief in parent engagement to a level that may be unprecedented in U.S. public education. With little fanfare, the network has in the past week begun sending home “Parent Investment Cards” evaluating how well—or how poorly—parents are fulfilling their promise to honor Success Academy’s “parent responsibilities” in three areas: “school readiness,” “homework supervision,” and “parent responsiveness and investment.” In each category, the parent is adjudged as “meeting expectations” (green), “approaching expectations” (yellow), or “not meeting expectations” (red)—a color-system that echoes the behavior chart in every Success Academy classroom. It’s no longer just a child who might “finish the day on red” but his parents, too. Some parents are not pleased.

Sample of Success Academy Parent Investment Card
(Click to enlarge.)

I first heard about the reports from a pair of well-off white parents who send their kids to Success Academy’s Upper West Side school, one of the most ethnically and economically diverse of the network’s 46 schools. One mother was ruefully amused; the other was appalled, describing the Investment Card as a “parent report card.” My initial reaction was that Moskowitz and Success Academy were quietly putting their stake in the ground, establishing that even as the network’s stellar results attract more upscale families in comparatively well-off New York neighborhoods like Cobble Hill, Union Square, and the Upper West Side, their primary focus would remain serving low-SES families, many of whom might not have gotten the word about reading to children, for example, and need to be coached, coaxed, or prodded along. While parental hopes and aspirations may be uniformly distributed, parent engagement is not: A recent Pew study showed that 71 percent of parents with a college degree say they read aloud to their children daily, compared to only 33 percent of those with a high school diploma or less. It obviously wouldn’t be acceptable to send a “parent investment card” to one set of schools or parents and not to others in the same network. By the same token, many families—rich and poor—might not fully believe that Success means what its leaders and team members say about attendance, uniforms, and homework. Spoiler alert: They mean it.

As with so many controversies that have attached themselves to Moskowitz and Success Academy, no one can accuse the network of being anything other than clear and candid, even to a fault. Every new Success Academy family signs a contract promising “to abide by all of Success Academy’s culture policies and values.” The network’s Parent Handbook plainly sets forth those policies and values, and—for as long as Success Academy has existed—failure to live up to them has prompted school administrators to bring parents in for pointed conversations. Critics, meanwhile, have charged those strict policies are a mechanism for counseling out students who don’t mesh with the schools’ exacting culture.

In her new memoir, Moskowitz tells the story of one mother who wouldn’t read at home to her child even after repeatedly promising that she would change her ways. “I invited her to a meeting at which there was a surprise guest: her mother, whom I’d met one day when she was picking up her grandson from school and seemed to be more responsible than the mom.” The grandmother was furious with her daughter and assured her that it wouldn’t happen again. The anecdote, Moskowitz explains, “reflects our philosophy of not giving up.”

Perhaps so, but there may be a difference between an uncomfortable conversation when there’s a clear and obvious problem and having your child’s school assign every parent a grade, an evaluation, and a color. A low-income South Bronx Success Academy mom, whom I’ve gotten to know well, was seething over her “report card” when I ran into her in a church on Sunday. “I’m doing everything that I can,” she said. “How are you gonna give me ‘approaching expectations’ when I’m killing myself?” This parent, who has been supportive of Moskowitz and Success Academy, is planning to speak to her child’s middle school principal about it—the very outcome Moskowitz says she wants to encourage—but she said she first needs to figure out how to approach it without getting upset. “It was an insult,” she said flatly.

To her enduring credit, Moskowitz refuses to perform what she calls “bypass surgery” on parents. “I think there's something very disrespectful about it, to sort of say, ‘You brought these children into the world but now we, the school, will take over,’” she told me when I asked her recently about the new initiative. “I think there's a tendency, particularly when you serve poorer parents, to just work around them.”

In Moskowitz’s view, the Parent Investment Cards arriving at pupils’ homes this month are nothing new. Success Academy, she insists, has always tracked “culture data,” which is even the title of one the chapters of her memoir. “We’ve had a lot of different communications systems and we thought that we needed to make it a little easier for parents to read the data and understand the state of affairs,” she says. “There’s utterly nothing new about the underlying design principle. This particular incarnation is new.”

My Fordham colleague Checker Finn has long supported a move like this. When I told him of Moskowitz's action, he said "Gutsy and much needed. If schools and parents are truly to share responsibility for educating children, each needs in some way to be accountable to the other." Another Moskowitz fan I mentioned it to was also impressed. “Holy s—t, talk about cojones!” he cheered. “The anti-reformers have forever said we should hold parents accountable. They will surely find a reason to oppose this anyway.” Without question, but so might some of Moskowitz’s best and most loyal supporters: her parents. If the small handful of Success Academy parents I’ve spoken to about this are an indication, Moskowitz might for once be overplaying her hand. 

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.