Video:  Abusive Teaching Methods at Success Academy Charter School!

Dear Commons Community,

The video above was made by an assistant teacher at the Cobble Hill Success Academy Charter School, and is making its way on the Internet.  The video shows a teacher ripping up a student’s work and dismissing the student from the learning circle.  The New York Times has a highly critical article today referring to this incident as an example of the “abusive teaching” that goes on at the charter school.

“In the video, a first-grade class sits cross-legged in a circle on a brightly colored rug. One of the girls has been asked to explain to the class how she solved a math problem, but she has gotten confused.

She begins to count: “One… two…” Then she pauses and looks at the teacher.

The teacher takes the girl’s paper and rips it in half. “Go to the calm-down chair and sit,” she orders the girl, her voice rising sharply.

“There’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper,” she says, as the girl retreats.

The teacher in the video, Charlotte Dial, works at a Success Academy charter school in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. She has been considered so effective that the network promoted her last year to being a model teacher, who helps train her colleagues.

The video was recorded surreptitiously in the fall of 2014 by an assistant teacher who was concerned by what she described as Ms. Dial’s daily harsh treatment of the children. The assistant teacher, who insisted on anonymity because she feared endangering future job prospects, shared the video with The New York Times after she left Success in November.

After being shown the video last month, Ann Powell, a Success spokeswoman, described its contents as shocking and said Ms. Dial had been suspended pending an investigation. But a week and a half later, Ms. Dial returned to her classroom and her role as an exemplar within the network.

Success’s own training materials, provided by the network’s leader, Eva S. Moskowitz, say that teachers should never yell at children, “use a sarcastic, frustrated tone,” “give consequences intended to shame children,” or “speak to a child in a way they wouldn’t in front of the child’s parents.”

Ms. Moskowitz dismissed the video as an anomaly. 

But interviews with 20 current and former Success teachers suggest that while Ms. Dial’s behavior might be extreme, much of it is not uncommon within the network.

Success is known for its students’ high achievement on state tests, and it emphasizes getting — and keeping — scores up. Jessica Reid Sliwerski, 34, worked at Success Academy Harlem 1 and Success Academy Harlem 2 from 2008 to 2011, first as a teacher and then as an assistant principal. She said that, starting in third grade, when children begin taking the state exams, embarrassing or belittling children for work seen as slipshod was a regular occurrence, and in some cases encouraged by network leaders.

One day, she said, she found herself taking a toy away from a boy who was playing with it in class, and then smashing it underfoot. Shortly after, she resigned.

“I felt sick about the teacher I had become, and I no longer wanted to be part of an organization where adults could so easily demean children under the guise of ‘achievement,’” said Ms. Sliwerski, who subsequently worked as an instructional coach in Department of Education schools…

…Joseph P. McDonald, a professor of teaching and learning at New York University’s school of education, who viewed the video at The New York Times’s request, described Ms. Dial’s behavior as “abusive teaching.”

 “We don’t see enough here to know for sure that this classroom is typically full of fear, but I bet that it is,” he wrote in an email. “The fear is likely not only about whether my teacher may at any time erupt with anger and punish me dramatically, but also whether I can ever be safe making mistakes.”

Indeed, several of the current and former staff members interviewed said that the network’s culture encouraged teachers to make students fear them in order to motivate them. Carly Ginsberg, 22, who taught for about six months last year at Success Academy Prospect Heights, said teachers ripped up the papers of children as young as kindergarten as the principal or assistant principal watched. She once witnessed a girl’s humiliation as the principal mocked her low test score to another adult in front of the child.

In one instance, the lead kindergarten teacher in her classroom made a girl who had stumbled reciting a math problem cry so hard that she vomited. Ms. Ginsberg resigned in December because she was so uncomfortable with the school’s approach. “It felt like I was witnessing child abuse,” she said, adding, “If this were my kindergarten experience, I would be traumatized.” She is now teaching in Los Angeles.

Five of the teachers interviewed, including Ms. Sliwerski, described leaders at multiple Success schools and a Success supervisor in the teacher training program that the network runs with Touro College endorsing the practice of ripping up work if it was deemed not to reflect sufficient effort. The purpose, they said, was to get students’ attention and demonstrate urgency.”

Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy has been coming under fire in the news media for its teaching methods in the past couple of years. It should clean up its act if it wants to continue to be the poster child for quality charter schooling in New York City rather than as an example of a school that uses “abusive” methods.


P.S.:  After my initial posting, the New York Times contacted eight education specialists regarding their views of the above video, their responses can be viewed here.



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