The Secret to Success (Hint: It's Not Success Academies)

Success Academies have had a tough couple of months. First, a scathing report in the New York Times revealed the severity of the Success approach to discipline. Among the sad stories were tales of depression, anxiety, stress and pant wetting.

Success and its founder, Eva Moskowitz, either denied the reports or reframed the sad stories as anomalies. She also trotted out other Success families to report their cheery experiences. But after the perfume of charter school propaganda faded, an indelible stain on the schools' glossy image remained.

Not long after, a new stink arose. As reported again in the Times, Success administrators were caught in flagrant expressions of the Success strategy for success: Get rid of kids who might soil the test scores. The "Got to Go" list prepared by administrators exposed a small patch of the ugly underbelly of the Success "success." In an effort to justify the tactic, Moskowitz threw one child under the school bus, releasing confidential records of his behavior. She apparently wanted to convince the public that this kid "deserved what he got," perhaps hoping that observers would infer that all the kids on the "Got to Go" list or otherwise separated from Success schools were career felons.

Instead, she revealed herself to be petty and vindictive. Aside from the deeply unprofessional act of revealing confidential information about a small child, she may have violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). This law would seem to disallow this kind of public smearing of a child's and family's reputation.

John Merrow, recently retired from his PBS gig, interviewed Moskowitz on the Success version of "no excuses" discipline. On his blog he reproduced, verbatim, the rigid disciplinary and behavioral policies of Success schools. I offer them here for review, as a subjective summary could not do justice to the comprehensive pettiness therein.

Until now the terms of debate over Success have been about these draconian policies, the extent to which they are used to cull students from the schools, and the likely effect this culling has on the success Moskowitz claims. Critics claim, with ample evidence, that a combination of self-selection for admission, high suspension rates and high expulsion rates distill the Success student body to those who are more likely to do well on tests and thereby burnish their reputation.

These rigid policies and severe consequences for misbehavior are inhumane and cruel, to be sure. The impact on unsuccessful students is obvious -- pant wetting, humiliation, shame, suspension and expulsion. But horrifying as these reports may be, this is not the most important critique of Success and other so-called high performing charter schools.

The effects of this culture on allegedly successful students are the more potent criticism. What is the impact on students who can successfully "focus," comply with constant "eyes on teacher" commands, walk silently from class to class, speak in turn, dress neatly, mind their manners and conform to the joyless expectations expressed in Success policies?

Child psychology and cognitive science suggest -- no, prove -- that sitting upright at a desk with hands clasped, as is the Success formula, is the least rich milieu for cognitive development. The appearance of "order," firm discipline and the powerful emphasis on compliance is neurobiological suffocation. The anxiety that causes some children to wet their pants, as reported in the Times, is no less toxic for kids who stay dry. They just have better bladder control, not less stress. The best learning environments, public, private, charter or other, are lively, fantastic and free, filled with sound, movement and active engagement.

The Success formula for "success" is bad for the brain in addition to being a pretty lousy way to treat children. These children are being trained to comply, not educated to think. Success is branding itself as a "success" before they have graduated a single student. I shudder to think of the frustration and incapacity these children will experience when (and if) they actually get to the fancy colleges that are implicitly promised by Success advertising. Sitting silently with hands clasped, worrying desperately about adult approval and wading through surges of cortisol to find the answer the teacher wants are not things that prepare children for higher education or life. In college there isn't a painted line to follow to class or a scripted lesson to learn to analyze a complex issue.

Success Academies' greatest flaw may not be the sad stories of its "failures." It may be the thin, ephemeral reality of the "success" they claim.