For followers of the New York City education wars, Eva Moskowitz’s new book is a juicy political read.
“We never hit it off personally,” the charter school leader writes of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of her biggest allies. Of her own ambitions, she says she’s not sure she wants to be mayor herself anymore, a realization that she says began to dawn during Bloomberg’s tenure: “If even somebody as powerful and committed as him couldn’t make fundamental reforms [to schools], I didn’t see how anybody else could.”
But it’s clear that the goal for Moskowitz, who runs the city’s largest, most controversial network of charter schools, is not just score-settling. It’s recasting herself as a compassionate and devoted educator, not just a hardened political operative planning to use her charter empire as a springboard back into public office.
We read the 350-page book — which spans from the late 1800’s, when Moskowitz’s family came to America, to the present day. Here are our takeaways.
🔗Moskowitz really wants you to know she’s human.
“The love of my life and my partner in much of what I’ve accomplished”: The book is partly a love letter to Eric Grannis, also a charter school founder, whom Moskowitz met in high school. We learn what Grannis made for her on their first date (“chicken with porcini mushrooms, risotto, and a mocha gelato”); the first gift he gave her (a collection of short stories by Flannery O’Connor); and how he challenged her skepticism to school vouchers while they were still teenagers. “While I don’t think Eric gave a moment’s thought to how to make me fall in love with him,” she writes, “he couldn’t have formulated a better plan if he’d tried.”
Speaking of emotions: Here are three times when Moskowitz recounts crying: when the New York Times awarded Scott Stringer, now the city comptroller, its endorsement in his 2005 Manhattan borough president run against Moskowitz; when she saw her son’s heartbeat on a sonogram after fearing that she was having a miscarriage; and when she was told that current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wanted to nix co-locations for three of her schools, one of which was already open in shared space. (That ended with the city granting those schools space and a mea culpa from de Blasio.)
Moskowitz has doubted herself — but got over it. As her network grew, so did its challenges, many of which played out in public view. Moskowitz writes that her board’s confidence in her faltered: They “feared I was running people into the ground. They also suspected that I was micromanaging my subordinates.” Moskowitz says she shared some of these concerns and considered whether the network might need a different kind of leader as it grew. But when she sought advice from business leaders who had grown strong companies, she says they validated her approach. “I wasn’t half as bad as he was,” Moskowitz recalls a company turnaround expert telling her. She did add a business executive to her team, but she stayed on as CEO.
One problem she hasn’t solved: When she started Success, Moskowitz had three young children. She writes, “If you’re hoping that this is the part of the book where I tell you how I figured out how women can have it all, you’re out of luck. I think that it’s just an irresolvable dilemma.”
Tragedies strike: Moskowitz reveals that Christian Yoanson, a Success student who was one of five applicants featured in the documentary “The Lottery” (and part of a family of refugees that Moskowitz helped reunite), later died after an illness. She also describes counseling students after another student fell from his building’s roof and died, then attending his funeral.
🔗But she’s proud of her reputation for toughness — and spends much of the book defending the policies that have made Success Academy charter schools famous (and infamous).
On test prep: The sky-high test scores that students at Moskowitz’s schools post often draw criticism that Success is a test-prep factory. And indeed, the network goes to extreme lengths to make sure students are present and prepared on testing day. In the book, Moskowitz defends the practice, saying that test scores do matter — and that, left to their own devices, her teachers weren’t preparing their students adequately. “They were giving students dubious strategies and advice such as not to change an answer because one’s first choice is usually right,” she recalls. She adds: “I have found over the years that our students actually learn more when they do test preparation than at other times of the year because both they and our teachers are so focused on mastery.”
She thinks it’s OK for kids to cry at school. “Many teachers assume that students are generally trying their best. Alas, that’s rarely true,” she writes. At another point, she writes, “Caring inevitably means feeling bad at times. In fact, some of our students cared so much they’d cry when they didn’t do well. We didn’t encourage that but neither did we see it as a sign that something was horribly wrong.”
Some of Moskowitz’s famously tough standards have their origin in a veteran district school teacher. She credits Paul Fucaloro, whom she nabbed from P.S. 65 in Queens for her first school and who is now Success’s executive director.
Other advice came from businessmen. Moskowitz is associated with a hard-charging reform movement that draws practices from the business world. Among them: the idea that low-performers should be fired. Bloomberg channeled this practice when calling for low-rated teachers to be laid off. But Moskowitz recounts that hedge fund founders actually talked her down from firing four teachers after her school’s first year. “Since we’d already let a few teachers go, John [Petry] reasoned,” Moskowitz writes, “the four I was worried about probably fell into the 70 percent category” of teachers who weren’t great but could get better with guidance. Moskowitz notes that she was skeptical of the advice, but took it.
Moskowitz doesn’t think much of “community schools.” The model, which has expanded dramatically in New York City under Chancellor Carmen Fariña, adds health and social services inside the school building on the theory that children who are sick or troubled cannot learn. “That’s nonsense,” Moskowitz writes, adding that poor children’s problems should be addressed, “but they aren’t the primary cause or even a substantial factor in the failures of urban schools.” (A 1999 study found that schools contribute only about 40 percent of variation in student achievement; the rest can be traced to out-of-school factors, including poverty. At the same time, de Blasio’s approach of turning the city’s lowest-performing schools into “community schools” has had essentially no effect on graduation rates or test scores so far, according to one analysis.) Moskowitz points to an early Success student who completed homework while in the hospital after having a stroke as evidence for her case.
Why she doesn’t try to win over her adversaries: In 2009, Chalkbeat tried to understand why Moskowitz was such a lightning rod. Another charter school leader told us that she had a style problem: “Rather than approaching the district public schools with respect, Moskowitz makes a habit of dismissing their work as unacceptable,” we wrote. In her book, Moskowitz rejects the criticism. “In the public sphere, it’s important to be frank about problems so you can fix them.”
🔗The book offers a lot for people involved in the nitty-gritty of running schools.
Entering how-to territory: The book is mostly a memoir, but Moskowitz veers into direct instruction at times. For example, she explains how she began tracking “culture data” for each principal by monitoring attendance, uniform infractions, incomplete reading logs, and other seemingly minor problems. This data, she says, proved to be “a canary in a coal mine: it was a simple, quick, objective measure of how well a principal was managing her staff.” She also emphasizes that her schools offer rich electives, encourage deep intellectual engagement, and strive to get students to love learning. A school leader reading the book could take some of its lessons and apply them right away.
A recognizable trial by fire: Launching the original Success Academy didn’t immediately go well. “By the end of the second week, I was exhausted,” Moskowitz writes. “We’d had a parent with a nervous breakdown, broken glass on our play yard, parents not reading to their children, an incompetent uniform company, failing electricity and Internet, a librarian work slowdown, a broken air conditioner, belligerent parents, nonworking toilets, a police stakeout, a cash crisis, a sick nurse, frozen milk and weevils. Weevils! If this was just two weeks, what would a year be like?” Moskowitz then outlines how she and her team tackled each of these issues and others, bringing stability “by a couple of months into the school year.” (That’s also when she fired her first principal — and became the principal herself for several months.)
One belief that Moskowitz shares with Fariña, at least in theory: Moskowitz has long faced criticism for promoting young educators quickly. Here’s how she says she reacted in late April 2011, when one of her principals (who she says “had placed teacher happiness ahead of student achievement”) said she would not return. She picked a 24-year-old dance teacher, Richard Siegler, as the replacement. “I wouldn’t have promoted him so quickly if I could have avoided it. Before becoming an elementary school principal, a teacher should have several years of instructional experience in at least a couple of grades to understand the scope of the elementary school curriculum and how young children learn.” One of Fariña’s first decrees is that new principals should have worked in schools for at least seven years. (Siegler is now managing director of schools for the Success network.)
Prioritizing teacher training: Moskowitz says her teachers have a month of training before school starts, plus 12 days during the year; that’s compared to just a single day of pre-school training for city teachers (now two). She also outlines the many topics the training covers beyond what she says teachers colleges tend to offer — a program that she solidified through a partnership with Touro College starting in 2012. That program is in some ways a prototype for the self-certification that more city charter schools could soon be able to offer, without a university partnership.
Why it matters that Moskowitz’s own children attend Success schools: “We’d created a summer reading list with hundreds of suggestions, but when I read them to Dillon, I found that many were mediocre.” The network revamped its reading list, with the help of a worker at Bank Street Bookstore — one of Fariña’s favorite places to shop — who later became Success’s director of children’s literature (despite, Moskowitz points out, not having a teaching degree).
🔗One surprise: how much Moskowitz identifies with refugees.
A personal history: The book cuts between Moskowitz’s recollection of her own political battles, both before and while running Success, and an intimate history of her family. Her father’s family came to the U.S. in the late 1800s; her grandmother became a public school teacher and her father, a graduate of elite Stuyvesant High School, where Moskowitz attended. On her mother’s side, her grandparents narrowly escaped the Holocaust by sailing in perilous conditions to the United States in 1941. Her grandfather later wrote a book of poetry called “Songs from a Refugee,” which Moskowitz quotes extensively.
This background appears to have informed Moskowitz’s work. In high school, she writes, she volunteered to find apartments for refugee families from Cambodia. Her first success came when a landlord accepted her argument that he “shouldn’t discriminate because we were all descendants of immigrants.” (She says she also learned on this job that the quality of children’s schools is often tied to how much their parents’ pay in rent.)
And she describes going to bat for a family that had been divided while fleeing civil war in the Ivory Coast, helping the mother and son left behind obtain visas and then paying for their plane tickets.
So why did she consider working for President Trump, who ran on anti-immigrant platform? All of Moskowitz’s personal history makes her openness to the Trump administration’s overtures this year, when she was reportedly considered for the education secretary position, all the more confusing. The president has banned refugees; sent messages that he would end the DACA program allowing young undocumented people to live and work openly; and equivocated about neo-Nazi protestors. Not all of that happened early in his presidency, when Moskowitz considered the job. But her deference to bipartisanship until recently juxtaposes oddly with these parts of the book — and she provides no answers in the text, which doesn’t mention Trump’s election all.
🔗And two themes that should surprise no one who has followed Moskowitz in New York.
One thing Moskowitz does have in common with Trump: Moskowitz pillories the press, even as she says, “Good journalism is absolutely critical, and that is why our country has such protections for the press.” (Disclosure: Chalkbeat escapes her wrath; in fact, she praises two of our journalists.)
She devotes two chapters to “journalists whose bias led them to get things wrong with very serious consequences for Success” — another way of saying “fake news.” They are John Merrow, who investigated discipline at her schools, and Kate Taylor, the New York Times reporter who revealed that a Success principal had maintained a “got to go” list of students and exposed a video of a Success teacher angrily ripping up a student’s work. In both cases, Moskowitz argues that the reporters discounted information that undermined their points; in Merrow’s case, PBS Newshour later issued an on-air apology.
“I’m not saying that Success should be immune from scrutiny, but if a newspaper as powerful as the Times assigns a reporter to spend a year digging up every negative thing it can find about a school then to report what she finds as negatively as possible, the result is inevitably misleading,” Moskowitz writes. She lays the blame for the coverage on the fact that Taylor — and her editor, and her editor’s editor — attended schools with few poor students.
And Moskowitz holds a grudge: Eliza Shapiro at Politico delved into this angry angle last month. Throughout the book, Moskowitz takes aim repeatedly at Juan Gonzalez, the New York Daily News columnist who made her a target for years (“What a sad waste of his talents,” she writes); the Annenberg Institute, which she says betrayed academic values by supporting protests against her schools; Bill de Blasio, whom she first lambastes on page 5 and spends several pages eviscerating when she recounts his mayoral run; and pretty much anyone who has ever been allied with the city teachers union. It’s clear from the book — and from her actions — that Moskowitz stands by her allies and, if someone works against her, can hold it against them.
🔗Finally, here’s one detail that suggests Moskowitz’s pre-Success career might have actually done little to shape her leadership.
The book’s title, “The Education of Eva Moskowitz,” is meant to show that the contentious City Council hearings, tight political campaigns, and bruising Success fights that Moskowitz experienced (and recounts in detail) all shaped her leadership today. But what if that isn’t true? Moskowitz recalls setting up a “school” for her neighbors in Morningside Heights as a child. “They weren’t very well behaved,” she writes, “so I had to reprimand them for their lack of effort.”
Clarification (Sept. 19, 2017): This story has been updated to reflect the fact that only one of the three Success schools whose co-locations de Blasio revoked was already open in shared space.