Creating Great Schools at Scale

Two decades ago, when a handful of high-poverty charter schools began gaining attention for strong test results, many education experts dismissed them as flukes. “It‘s easy to create one good school," they declared, "the true challenge — the one that may never be surmounted — is creating a system of high-performing schools.”

We at Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City have devoted the past eleven years to proving these doubters wrong. Today, our network of 41 schools serving 14,000 mostly low-income students of color is equal to or larger than 95 percent of school districts in the country; collectively, our schools perform in the top 1 percent in New York state for math and 1.5 percent for English.

This week, we are launching the Success Academy Education Institute, a robust digital platform which shares with educators across the country key elements of our school design; elements that have made possible our unprecedented breakthrough in replicating outstanding schools. By providing an open-source for new ways of thinking about schooling and a resource for planning, managing, and executing the work of education, we aim to dramatically accelerate the pace of school improvement and reform across the country.

The truth is, our nation is facing an educational emergency. The recent introduction of more rigorous standards, and the commensurate steep decline in proficiency rates across the country, laid bare a stark and persistent reality: our schools are failing to prepare students for the challenges of college, careers, and citizenship.

Success Academy, unlike the majority of schools serving high percentages of low-income students, did not experience these steep declines. Here’s why: from the beginning, we set out to create world-class schools that were not simply better than what students in low-income communities commonly experience, but that outshone the best public and private schools in the country.

Creating schools of this caliber starts with creating a rich, challenging, and engaging curriculum. From the earliest age, students must read and study the highest quality books that draw them in with the beauty of their writing and allure of their illustrations, and the complexity and resonance of their ideas, themes, and arguments. They must grapple with interesting, multidimensional mathematical problems. And they must be given opportunities throughout the day to think deeply about what they’re learning and to share their insights with peers and teachers.

But even the best curriculum will fall flat without powerful instruction, and outstanding schools must also support educators in mastering the complex techniques that make up excellent teaching. They must establish a concrete and ambitious vision for engaging, rigorous classroom instruction, and provide training, opportunities for practice, and actionable feedback so that teachers can bring that vision to life.

Over the years, we have worked tirelessly to build and refine a curriculum, instructional model, and school design that provide these opportunities. The Education Institute was developed to codify the results of this work so that we could easily share it with educators across our network.

By empowering Success Academy teachers and school leaders with carefully crafted curriculum, lesson plans, and professional learning tools such as planning templates and videos of exemplary teaching, we have freed them from the time-consuming and onerous task of designing and building their lessons from scratch.

Instead of scrambling to figure out what and how to teach day to day — sometimes discovering too late that their chosen book bored students, or that the selected mathematical problem was insufficiently challenging, and only chancing on effective approaches through trial and error — our teachers spend their time intellectually preparing to deliver lessons with precision and power: they immerse themselves in studying the text or mathematical problem at the heart of each lesson, analyze videos of instruction, anticipate and plan for student misconceptions and struggles, and map out questions that will prompt deep analysis and robust discussion.

Starting this week, the Ed Institute will serve this same purpose for educators across the nation. The Institute launches first with our groundbreaking K-4 THINK literacy curriculum, complete with videos and planning documents to support adult learning, and robust reading lists of the best in children’s fiction and nonfiction. Eventually, as we add additional pieces of our curriculum and model, the Ed Institute will serve as a complete, free resource for executing every aspect of schooling.

The need is urgent. Every day, teachers are working their hardest to help students reach a high bar and yet, every day, there is widespread failure: millions of students are falling through the cracks. But we cannot simply lay this failure at the feet of our nation’s educators: they are stymied by second-rate curriculum, pedagogies, and training.

Success Academy has proven that it need not be so: great schools at scale are within our reach. With the resources made freely available through the Education Institute, we offer a firm foundation from which principals and teachers across the country can build schools that fulfill the original promise of American public education: a free and equal opportunity for students to achieve their highest potential.

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