What if there were an urban public school system which was beating some of the best nearby suburban schools in end-of-year state tests? What if that same public urban system drew its students from predominantly low-income and minority families? Wouldn’t you want to know how that school system succeeds?
Well, there is such a school system in New York called the Success Academy, a network of charter schools. And it is outperforming public schools from nearby wealthy suburbs. And now we know how it is succeeding, thanks to a reporter who embedded himself in the schools, observing for a year what makes the Success Academy successful.
The answer: committed and involved parents.
That is the conclusion of Robert Pondiscio, a former public school teacher and author of How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence and the Battle over School Choice.
Pondiscio claims that the charter schools which are part of Success Academy cull from its applicants parents who are most likely to support the rigorous demands of the schools. This means parents who can transport their students to class each day and pick them up promptly in the afternoon (no bussing, no after-school programs). This means parents who sign contracts to read one book a day to their children through second grade, and who log older students’ reading and homework efforts, discussing these logs with teachers. This means parents who make sure their children are not disruptive, and if they are disruptive, who remove them from the schools.
Are the Success Academy criteria unfair to parents who can’t pick up their children on Wednesdays at 12:30? To parents who can’t take time off from work to take part in school orientation day? To parents who can’t read books to their kindergarteners in English?
Pondiscio says yes. But he adds that such criteria winnow parents who can’t engage and commit the same way that the high cost of housing in suburbia winnows low income families from suburban school systems.
The result in New York is that the children of parents who are committed and involved make the cut into Success Academy’s schools, and the children of parents who cannot be committed and involved are left to study in underperforming city schools.
Is it fair? No.
What Pondiscio shows is that even among the poor, there is a hierarchy when it comes to education.