What I saw at Success Academies

Morgan Polikoff

On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of visiting Success Academy Harlem 1 and hearing from Eva Moskowitz and the SA staff about their model. I’m not going to venture into the thorny stuff about SA here. What I will say is that their results on state tests are clearly impressive, and I doubt that they’re fully (or even largely) explained by the practices that cause controversy. (Luckily, we’ll soon have excellent empirical evidence to answer that question.)

Instead, what I’m going to talk about are the fascinating details I saw and heard about curriculum and instruction in SA schools. Right now, of course, it is impossible to know what’s driving their performance, but these are some of the things that I think are likely to contribute. (I’d initially forgotten that Charles Sahm wrote many of these same things in a post this summer. His is more detailed and based on more visits than mine. Read it!)

Here's what I saw in my tour of about a half-dozen classrooms at SA 1:

  • The first thing that I observed in each classroom was the intense focus on student discourse and explanation. In each classroom, students are constantly pressed to explain their reasoning, and other students respond constructively and thoughtfully to the arguments of their peers. This “pressing for mastery” is one of the key elements of the SA vision of excellence, I later learned.
  • Students are incredibly organized and on-task. They sit quietly while others are speaking, and when prompted by teachers to begin discussion in pairs, they immediately turn and address the question at hand. I saw virtually no goofing off or inattention in the classes I observed. This includes students in a pre-K classroom. To facilitate the structure and organization, instructors use lots of timers—everything was timed, starting and stopping in the exact amount of time indicated by the teacher.
  • The actual math content I observed being taught was clearly on-grade according to Common Core. In a third-grade classroom, I saw students working on conceptual explanations of fraction equivalence for simple cases (2/3 = 4/6); this comes right out of the third-grade standards. I later learned that there is a strong focus on both problem-solving ability and automaticity in SA classrooms.
  • We were walking around with the school’s principal, and it was clear that she spends a great deal of her time moving in and out of classrooms observing. More than a passive observer, she interjected with pedagogical suggestions for the teacher in almost every class we visited. The teachers all seemed used to this kind of advice, and they implemented it immediately.

Here’s what I heard from Eva and her staff about curriculum and instruction in SA schools:

  • The curricula they use are all created in-house. They evaluated a bunch of textbooks in each subject and found them all wanting, so they created their own materials.
  • The math materials are influenced by TERC and Contexts for Learning. They do not use off-the-shelf math textbooks because they find them all highly redundant (something I’ve found in the context of instruction), the apparent assumption from publishers being that kids won’t get it the first time (this was described as signifying publishers’ “low expectations”).
  • The ELA materials are based on close reading and analysis, and they have been since the first SA school opened in 2006. The goals I heard were for students to 1) love literature and want to read, and 2) be able to understand what they’re reading. These goals are accomplished with a good deal of guided close reading instruction, child-chosen books (every classroom had a beautiful and well-stocked library), and daily writing and revising in class. There seemed to be a clear and strong opposition to “skills-based” reading instruction.
  • The only off-the-shelf materials that they employ in ELA and mathematics are Success for All’s phonics curriculum, which is used in kindergarten and first grade.
  • Every kid in the elementary grades receives inquiry-based science instruction every day. They have dedicated science teachers for this. They also get art, sports, and chess in the elementary grades.
  • The curriculum is uniform across the schools in the network. Every teacher teaches the same content on the same day. The lessons are not scripted, however. The curricula are revised at the network level every year.
  • A typical lesson comprises ten minutes of introduction with students on the floor, some of which is teacher lecture and some discussion; thirty minutes of students working individually or with partners; and ten minutes of wrap-up and additional discourse. The goal for the whole day is less than eighty minutes of direct instruction.
  • Teachers get tons of training, and the training is largely oriented toward curriculum and instruction. They also get two periods of common planning time with other grade-level teachers per day, as well as an afternoon to work together on planning and training.
  • The new New York state math test was derided as too easy and not actually indicating readiness for success in high school and beyond.
  • There is not nearly as much of a testing and data-driven culture as I expected in this kind of school. Testing seems to legitimately be a means to an end, and I didn’t get the sense that lots of instructional time was used up in testing. Rather, judgments about student readiness seemed to be largely qualitative.
  • The only tracking that presently occurs in network schools is in mathematics beginning in middle school, where there are two tracks (regular and advanced).

That’s what I saw and what I heard. From the standpoint of curriculum and instruction, the things that really stood out to me were the organization, which made things flow smoothly and diminished distractions; the common content across classrooms (created by network staff and teachers), coupled with time to plan and share results; the involvement of school leaders in constantly observing instruction; and the more “progressive” and “student-led” approach to instruction than what I had envisioned.

It was a fascinating experience that I hope others can share.

Morgan Polikoff is an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education.

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on Morgan Polikoff's blog, On Education Research.