Like pretty much everyone who is passionate about closing the achievement gap, I’m interested in Success Academies. I’ve read Eva Moskowitz’s book, Mission Possible: How the Secrets of the Success Academies Can Work in Any School, and watched the videos that come with it. But I’m still not sure what to think. The extraordinary results might be due to creaming motivated families, or not backfilling after the early grades, or too much test prep. These questions will likely be answered over the next several years.
Still, students are obviously getting a good education in Success Academies. If there were no test prep (or any manipulations of the student body), then I think the test scores would still be impressive, if not extraordinary.
So what are they doing? Charles Sahm’s new article in Education Next provides some answers. Having visited four Success Academies and interviewed staff, supporters, and critics, he presents a richer picture of the schools than previous accounts.
Without detracting from the complex array of supports needed to attain strong results, I think two of Success Academies’ focal points constitute the anchor of the whole endeavor: a shared curriculum and a shared responsibility for teaching quality. Sahm reaches a very similar conclusion: “What separates Success, in my opinion, is a laser focus on what is being taught, and how.” In my opinion, though, the sharing is what really sets the schools apart.
Curriculum itself matters, of course, shared or not. And as Sahm notes, “What each school needs is what Success has: a team of people whose primary job is to create a high-quality curriculum for their own school.” That would be a step forward for the vast majority of schools. But even schools that have taken this step could do better still if they had the support of a network of schools all using the same curriculum.
When several schools work together on a shared curriculum, great benefits become possible. Sahm offers a powerful example:
Shortly before a lesson is taught across the network, an experienced teacher delivers (and video-records) the lesson early to her students, and shares the recording with other teachers.
Here’s the result:
All the teachers I spoke with agree that Success prepares its teachers well. “You know the material at such a high level that it gives you a real confidence in the classroom,” one teacher stated.
And the kicker:
Even critical former teachers credited the network with having improved their craft.
Which brings me to the other focal point: shared responsibility for teaching quality. Once you have a shared curriculum, you have a platform for helping teachers improve. You have a reasonable basis for comparing performance and figuring out what’s more and less effective. Comparing one teacher’s lesson on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to another’s on Esperanza Rising really is comparing apples to oranges. Having a shared curriculum solves this problem.
Of course, the curriculum alone is not enough; the system also has to believe in shared responsibility for teaching quality. Sahm quotes Moskowitz as saying, “It really is the level of preparation of the teacher and the teacher really understanding the book, the poem, the read-aloud…how much feedback the teacher gets.” Novice teachers and principals are placed in apprentice-like positions and given lots of time and feedback to hone their craft. Expert teachers and leaders are responsible for supporting others.
In all, Sahm has given us a valuable look inside Success Academies. He remains duly skeptical but impressed by their broad, rich, specific, shared curriculum. Their reading achievement leads me to concur.
Their professed love of E. D. Hirsch is a good sign too! Which leaves just one question: Will the Success Academy network release its curriculum? The Core Knowledge Sequence and Core Knowledge Language Arts are online for free. From the beginning, Hirsch has hoped for another Sequence—another specific, rich, broad approach to educating children. Success Academies seem to have it, so I hope they’ll share.
Lisa Hansel is the communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Previously, she was the editor of the AFT’s quarterly magazine, American Educator.