January 28, 2022

Eva Moskowitz

Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz makes the case for school choice as her network of charter schools in NYC outperforms schools across the state. She discusses the role of teachers unions, education reform proposals and the impact of the pandemic.

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The Secret of Success. This Week on Firing Line.

MOSKOWITZ: We have to act urgently. We are losing generations of children. 

She’s a Democrat and former elected official who champions School Choice— more often a Republican priority. Eva Moskowitz is the CEO of the largest network of charter schools in New York City: Success Academy. The success rate of the students from mostly low-income families — as told by the numbers — is astounding.

But not everyone is a fan. 

Angry parent: How much you make as a CEO?

De BLASIO: Unfortunately in my case, I have had a lot of contact with Eva over the years.

With schools at the center of so much debate over: how to teach during a pandemic, how much SAY should parents have over curriculum, and how about those standardized tests… What does Eva Moskowitz say now?

‘Firing Line’ with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by: Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Fairweather Foundation, The Asness Family Foundation and by, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation and Damon Button. Corporate Funding is provided by Stevens Inc. and Pfizer inc.



HOOVER: Eva Moskowitz. Welcome to Firing Line. 

MOSKOWITZ: Thanks so much for having me. 

HOOVER: You are the CEO of Success Academy, a network of 47 charter schools throughout New York City. It all started right here.

MOSKOWITZ: It did. This is the building

 HOOVER: When in 2006 you decided to found this school, Harlem One. I have known you for more than a decade as you have built this network of schools. For the audience, can you explain the difference between a traditional public school and a charter school?

 MOSKOWITZ: Sure, that the difference is really quite simple. Charter schools are public schools, publicly funded, publicly regulated. But they are independent of the union contracts on the one hand and the managerial bureaucracy on the other hand. Whereas district schools are caught between those two forces, meaning the educational bureaucracy and the labor contracts.

 HOOVER You call your students ‘scholars.’ 

MOSKOWITZ: We do. 

HOOVER: Who are these scholars?

 MOSKOWITZ: Well, 96 percent of them are black and brown. About 80 percent of them live below the poverty line. Sixteen percent of our children are special needs. About nine percent are homeless. We’re in some pretty tough neighborhoods in New York City.

 HOOVER: You’re from New York City.

 MOSKOWITZ: I grew up in Harlem.

 HOOVER: You have a background as an academic historian, a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins. You were elected as a Democrat to New York City’s City Council, where you served Manhattan’s Upper East Side. What motivated you to get involved in K through 12 education?

 MOSKOWITZ: Well, as a historian, I believe despite flaws and challenges, America is a great, great country. And despite its greatness, its public education system has been declining for the last half century. I ran for office because I thought there had to be a better way. We couldn’t be spending this much money and get results that were so poor. And I don’t mean just academic results. I mean, where was the art education for kids? Where was the history education? And I tried really, really hard to fix the district. And I voluntarily gave up my seat at the end – I was not term limited – because I just thought it wasn’t working.

HOOVER: You wrote in your memoir, which is entitled The Education of Eva Moskowitz, “I didn’t go to sleep one night believing in traditional public schools and wake up the next morning believing in charters. Rather, my own views on school choice evolved gradually.” So give me your elevator pitch for school choice.

MOSKOWITZ: I just believe that everything else being equal, putting power in the hands of parents is going to lead to better outcomes. Because they know if their kid comes home and loves school. They know when their kids are unhappy. And they are better able, I think, to judge and make decisions. And the big bureaucratic system is not going to know our children the way we do as parents.

HOOVER: So how is Success Academy and other charter schools in the city, how do they make education more equitable?

MOSKOWITZ: Well, it’s equitable because students – and this is a fact, Margaret, that many people don’t know – we don’t admit. We don’t enroll. It’s a random lottery. So you don’t have to live in a certain catchment area. Your kid doesn’t have to have a certain IQ. We put all the names into a digital lottery and they are randomly selected. And that is actually a much fairer, more equitable way of educating students than the district system. You know, I went both to schools in Harlem and to schools on the Upper East Side. And only if you can afford an apartment in that catchment area do you get to go to those good schools. 

HOOVER: Success Academy students consistently outperform students from across the state, including those in some of the wealthiest school districts, some of the whitest school districts. Among students in grades three through eight in 2019, 99 percent of Success scholars pass the state math exam, 90 percent pass the state English exam. And in that same year, statewide passing rate didn’t surpass 50 percent. To what do you attribute the achievements of your students?

 MOSKOWITZ: Well, first of all, I would just say America and New York has intellectually underestimated children, and we don’t. We create a culture where we really believe in our kids. And so I would say that one of the things we do is just set incredibly high expectations for our kids. But we also have a fairly rigorous curriculum. You know what we’re doing in third grade math, often other district schools don’t do until fifth or sixth grade. We have extraordinarily high rates of college admissions. It’s a hundred percent, and kids can’t get there without being driven. And so, you know, the real test will be, do they graduate from college in four years? We have our first kids graduating this year. I taught them in first grade. I was their principal here. It’s a small class, but the vast majority of them are graduating in four years and there’s something incredibly heartwarming and joyous about seeing your kids develop. One young man who is graduating this year is entering a master’s program at MIT, which is just incredible.

HOOVER: I recall you telling me once that in that first class you personally did all of their SAT tutoring.

MOSKOWITZ: I did. 

HOOVER: And you may have seen, just this week, the College Board announced that the SAT will go completely digital in 2024, and the move comes as more colleges like the University of California system and Harvard have become test-optional, at least for the near future. What do you think of that?

MOSKOWITZ: Well, I think this country’s attitude towards tests is a little wacky. 

HOOVER: How so?

MOSKOWITZ: You know, there are good tests and bad tests. There are certainly tests that, you know–

HOOVER: Is the SAT a good test?  

MOSKOWITZ: I think that SAT is a good test. And by the way, if you can’t do that, you’re not going to be able to do college level work, right? Now they’re not the be all and end all. Meaning, if you can ace the SAT, that does not mean that you are a well-educated person. That does not mean that you have, you know, you can do chemistry or physics. It’s the bare minimum. It’s the floor.

HOOVER: There’s a criticism in education that too often teachers teach to the test. That’s also been leveled at Success. What do you say?

 

MOSKOWITZ: Well, I would say we think that we have a moral obligation to prepare our students to take tests, but we don’t teach to the test. We teach to a much higher standard than the test. So our kids read a poem a day starting in kindergarten. Our students are doing five to seven math problems every day that are much harder than the ones on the state test. So we don’t teach to the test. We do think we have to prepare students. They need to know basic test prep skills. So we do all that for our students, but we’re not teaching to the test. We are teaching to an above grade level standard.

 HOOVER: So what do you make of the trend away from testing requirements?

 MOSKOWITZ: I mean, I think people are a little confused. You know, there is a lack, a fundamental lack of diversity at colleges and universities, and that is very painful and I believe morally problematic. But the way to solve that is to have better K-to-12, not to keep lowering the standards and the bar. That’s not going to help anyone. We’ve got to fix what is a fairly broken educational system. And it’s not the fault of, you know, the teachers. It’s not– if anything, it’s the fault of the political system that doesn’t really make the changes necessary to get out of the educational quagmire that we’re in. 

HOOVER: It’s clear that the idea of school choice is very complicated for Democrats. Why is it so controversial?

 MOSKOWITZ: I mean on most days I’m totally perplexed because I’m an FDR liberal Democrat. I grew up in a liberal Democratic family.

 HOOVER: This Hoover is biting her tongue. [LAUGHTER]

 MOSKOWITZ: And, you know, historically, the Democratic Party was for the little guy, the underprivileged, the voiceless. But it has become captured by the special interests of the teachers union. It has chosen kind of institutional interests above the ordinary parent, black and brown parents who are trapped in failing schools and have no exit strategy.

 HOOVER: Success Academy teachers are not unionized. 

MOSKOWITZ: Correct. 

HOOVER: How do your students benefit from not having unionized teachers?

MOSKOWITZ: Well, the unions in urban school systems govern every aspect of the schooling. 

HOOVER: Give me an example.

MOSKOWITZ: Student teacher contact in high school, according to the New York City union contract, is limited to 3.75 hours. No more. If I’m a teacher, I can’t have more contact. Well, what if my students need tutoring after school? Nope. It is confined. If you’re my principal and I’m a teacher in a district school, you’re not allowed to observe whenever you have time or whenever you think it would be beneficial to my development. You have to announce when you’re going to do it. You can only observe a set number of times a year. The regulatory framework governing schools is antithetical to developing quality in learning and developing teachers, and putting the learning of the students first. I mean, I couldn’t do what I do if I were subject to the New York City union contract. 

 HOOVER: Should teachers unions be reformed or should they just be abolished? 

 MOSKOWITZ: You know, I can imagine a limited role in terms of wages and benefits. You know, as a historian, I certainly am aware of laborers being taken advantage of historically in this country. So I could imagine that. But I can’t imagine dictating every aspect of schooling. 

HOOVER: When the pandemic hit, your schools were among the first to go remote. How did that transition go?

 MOSKOWITZ: It was like D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy. I mean, it was a logistical– This required a redesign of the school. So we worked 24/7 to redesign. Now at the time, I thought, this is going to be six to eight weeks. I had no idea that we were going to be closed through the rest of the year and a year later. 

 HOOVER: So how do you make that up?

 MOSKOWITZ: There’s a way in which we can’t make up for it. It’s gone, and we have to sort of not mourn the loss, but kind of look forward. And certainly academically it’s challenging. There’s more learning loss in math than in literacy. So we’re working really hard at mathematics. And I think that we will make up a significant amount of the loss just because we’re so dedicated and we’re so focused. But I think it’s going to take us another year to make it up 100 percent. I think we’ll make up about 80 percent of the learning loss.

HOOVER: There’s a cap, a limit to the number of charter schools that are allowable in New York City, 290, and that limit was reached in 2019. When Eric Adams was campaigning to be mayor of New York City, he said during the campaign that instead of raising the charter school cap, that he would just instead support shutting down failing charter schools and duplicating successful ones. I’m guessing you think that’s insufficient.

 MOSKOWITZ: I do think that’s insufficient. And, you know, I commend our new mayor who has been supportive of charters and of Success. But we need to be able to grow. The demand from parents for charters is off the charts. If you’re affluent, you can move to the suburbs. You can pay for an independent school. But if you’re poor, sorry, so sad, too bad. You’re out of luck. You must go to the failing school down the street. I mean, that’s wrong. That is just plain wrong.

HOOVER: This program Firing Line was originally hosted by William F. Buckley Jr. Education and education funding was an issue that Buckley tackled periodically throughout his 33 years of hosting. And in 1983 on this program they said this about education funding. Take a look. 

 BUCKLEY: Everybody talks about declining achievement scores in reading, writing and arithmetic, but nobody does anything about them except John Saxon, Graham Down, and Firing Line.

 JOHN SAXON: Now I contend that we have good teachers and poor teachers. We have good administrators and we have poor administrators. And massive inputs of federal money will accomplish no more than massive inputs of federal money as examples have failed. What we have got to do is stir what we have.

 HOOVER: So the argument is we don’t need more sugar in the coffee. We just need to stir the sugar in the coffee a little bit better.  How does resources impact educational outcomes?

 MOSKOWITZ: I mean, I think it would be naive to suggest that somehow money doesn’t matter. I mean, you have states that are sort of under-resourcing education. New York is not one of them. New York spends more money than any other state in the country and gets pretty poor to mediocre results for it. But money does matter. I think what I object to is we don’t change anything else but the resources. We have defined winning in education as a matter of funding. That’s not what winning is. And frankly, we’ve got to change the game we’re playing. The world has changed. We need students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. That’s not going to happen if you have principal tenure. You show me a high performing organization that gives lifetime job security irrespective of performance. That is a weird thing to do if you want results. 

HOOVER: What happens when a student just isn’t a good fit for the school?

MOSKOWITZ: Well, we don’t make that judgment. Meaning, there is no ‘fit’ for the school. There is: are you willing to do the work necessary? But we accept students of all intellectual abilities. We are not looking for a certain type of student. We are looking for students and families that are willing to meet us halfway to educate their child. Sometimes there is, you know, a parent doesn’t believe in homework. Well, I do, and we give homework. So if you don’t believe in homework, that’s not going to work very well. But I and the organization spends time trying to convince parents and kids – we do that all day long – to do their homework. But they’re not going to move on to the next grade if they haven’t done the work.

HOOVER: The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that really dominated the news cycle in the summer of 2020 caused many schools to take a closer look at racism and how history is taught. How have you grappled with that at Success?

MOSKOWITZ: Well, first of all, just on the murder of George Floyd, I mean, it was profoundly disturbing. You know, when you’re educating 96 percent black and brown, as an organization, you know, the way we as educators think about it is, that could have been one of– George Floyd, could have been one of our black and brown boys. Right. But our history curriculum has always been inclusive. You can’t study American history without all of the cultural groups. You can’t understand American history without understanding U.S. slavery. So long before George Floyd, we sought to tell the American story in all of its glory in a rigorous historical way. The thing that I don’t do and won’t do is turn history into a certain kind of polemic. Right. This is not the place, it seems to me, to accomplish all of our political goals. We are teaching kids not what to think, but how to think. And so what I object to is sort of ideologically trying to turn out students of a certain viewpoint. That’s not our goal at Success. So the terrible murder of George Floyd didn’t move us to a different content and curriculum because we were really clear on our purpose and the breadth and depth that we want our students to have.

 HOOVER: Your seniors have overcome unprecedented challenges. And I received an email from you before the Christmas holidays in the New Year that at that point 56 percent of your seniors had been accepted to four year colleges, universities like Yale, Brown, Swarthmore, Haverford, Smith College. How did this admissions year compare to last year?

 MOSKOWITZ: Well, what was different about this year is that the kids were removed for a year and a half, so we were worried about, you know, how this was all going to work. A lot of the advising had to be done remotely, and that was sort of a new thing for us. But I just do have such a feeling of pride. And I think now our percentage is up to about 85 percent have gotten into college because that was right before the holidays. You know, they didn’t. It’s not like these are the perfect kids. They had ups and downs, difficulties. This was not easy. And for the kids, it’s only the beginning, right? They’re going to have to get through four years of college and tough courses. You go to Smith, that’s a competitive environment. You’re at Wharton, you’re with some of the best students around the country who frankly are way, potentially way more affluent than you. Right? So they have tough times ahead. Life can throw you off course, but I’m very confident that they know how to persevere. And they will responsibly take the reins of power someday and pay it forward.

 HOOVER: As you think about education in this country. As you know, under the PISA assessment, the Program for International Student Assessment, the United States ranks 13th in Reading and 37th in math. What needs to happen for the United States to turn around our educational achievement the way you’ve done it here with Success Academy?

 MOSKOWITZ: I mean, first of all, we have to decide that politically we’re committed to it and we can’t– we have to stop fooling ourselves about our position in the world academically because we are in a pretty poor state of affairs while spending more money than any country around the globe. You know, Democrats and Republicans have to unite on this issue. It’s not a partisan issue. It is a children’s issue. It is the future of the country. It is an equity issue, but it is not a partisan issue. I think third, we have to support more transformative mechanisms of change, and that includes school choice. We can’t be afraid of vouchers. We can’t be afraid of charters. We have to put power in the hands of parents. That’s not going to make everything better, but it will rather quickly make things significantly better. 

 HOOVER: Well, with that. Eva Moskowitz, thank you so much for sharing your school, your success and your perspective with me on Firing Line.

MOSKOWITZ: Thank you so much for having me.