Success Academy: Teachers Set the Stage, Students Do the Hard Work

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Success Academy recently won the prestigious Broad Prize from the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation, recognizing their charter school management organization (CMO) as the highest-performing in the land. They were up against some steep competition – Harmony Public Schools and DSST – but they came out on top, likely winning because of their indisputably dynamite academic results with a student population that so many other schools are not serving successfully (which is a topic for another day).

So how does Success do it? Successful CMOs love to say that there is no “silver bullet” to solve public education, that it takes 100 1% solutions to get to 100%, and so on. But let’s take a look at something that certainly stands out about Success – their approach to learning (overall) and literacy (specifically).

Success Academy Founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz has been at this now for over a decade, and she and her academic team rely on progressive pedagogy to make their schools both more interesting to learn in and more interesting to teach in. Their vision of great teaching seems to be about doing less rather than doing more – at least as far as the eye can see, when observing a classroom. Teachers are doing plenty, to be sure, to prepare for delivering excellent instruction – learning, planning, and rehearsing through their summer trainings, regularly-scheduled professional development sessions with colleagues, meetings with their principals, and more. But when it comes to the classroom, where the stage is successfully set for student learning, Success Academy seem more interested in the student role and student speech than that of the teacher.

Moskowitz shared in the recent public launch of Success’s public-facing Education Institute for sharing best practices that their standard practice is for teachers “to intervene the least amount possible.” This may sound countercultural to those of us who are accustomed to hearing about all of the amazing, purposeful, and differentiated interventions that teachers and leaders keep coming up with. But what Moskowitz means is that teachers should be doing as little talking as necessary. Within the unfolding of expertly crafted lesson guides from over a decade of experience and refinement across Success, students are driving their own learning. The student-centered approach places the burden on teachers before class starts and on students when class begins. And a burden it is, because learning is fundamentally difficult. Deep listening, critical thinking, the converting of thoughts into spoken word, and the adjustment of one’s perspective in reaction to the ideas of others – those exercises are at the heart of the learning journey. When Success started over ten years ago, they looked around and realized no one was making the kind of content or curriculum that they felt would get at all of the above.

Success does not use a ready-made, off-the-shelf curriculum from a big content conglomerate. They’ve created their own and refined it over time. Whereas some organizations dig deeply into academic research, relying on it to reveal the secrets of teaching and learning and spending significant time and resources on attempts to convert that research into theory and then into practice, Success appears to have taken another path – that of commonsense attempts at what will work for kids, rapid refinements in the face of data, and a relentlessness about the pursuit of excellence, knowing that improvements to one’s curricular approach are never “done.”

 

They have made their K-4 literacy curriculum, called THINK Literacy, available to the public in full through their newly released online platform called the Success Academy Education Institute, and there are plans in place to unveil more content areas in the years to come. What we can learn from the THINK Literacy components is Success’s obsession with getting the gist, “making meaning,” and finding big ideas. “In many schools, text is a vehicle in the service of a reading skill,” says Success’s Chief Academic Officer Michele Caracappa, “but at Success, texts are chosen and used because they are dynamic, compelling, and interesting for kids.” Success believes kids can and must read both across mores types of text and for longer periods of time than most schools expect. They place primary focus on introducing students to engaging fiction and nonfiction and structure classroom conversations to generate skill-building. Though they may not put it this way (especially in today’s high stakes standardized testing environment), at Success, it seems that reading is simply for the sake of reading. The teacher’s role, then, is to facilitate great discussion and deep grappling with ideas, facts, and opinions, just as is the case at elite college preparatory private schools and boarding schools the country over.

Moskowitz believes that one of the best types of teacher intervention is a question. At the launch of the Ed Institute, she shared that, “We often say education is for the children, but about the adults – the better he questions the adults ask, the better the quality of the thinking and learning the kids do. If the adults are asking factual recall questions, you’re not going to get high levels of learning. You have to ask open-ended questions.” So here’s a question for Moskowitz: When will you grow beyond the confines of New York City? We need more Success in America’s schools.