Maybe you’ve never heard of the Success Academy Charter Schools network or its controversial leader, Eva Moskowitz. Or maybe you have. Maybe you think Eva is the devil incarnate, or maybe you are a fan. As someone who’s been involved in the charter school movement since 1996 and who has in fact written a book about it, I fully recognize that I am predisposed to like this book—about the year that Robert Pondiscio spent observing inside a Success Academy school. But I also believe that anyone who is even remotely interested in education will find HOW THE OTHER HALF LEARNS compelling and thought-provoking.
Pondiscio (full disclosure: a friend) writes beautifully. For example, when describing a principal visiting classrooms with her assistant principals, he notes: “She turns to leave, her team of junior leaders attached to her like remoras as they head off.” And he understands that to engage readers in policy questions (this book is subtitled Equality, Excelling, and the Battle Over School Choice), one must raise issues through stories. There are many in this book. Possibly my favorite is about a day in the life of kindergarten teacher Carolyn Syskowski. First we see her stoically denying a boy access to blocks as a consequence for writing a book review that doesn’t make sense, and—unusually in this particular class—he bursts into tears. Later, we see Syskowski running a meeting for the parents of 90 children, explaining the urgency of the situation with their children and how they not only can help but must help them to learn how to read. By the end, she herself is crying because she cares so much about these children.
Pondiscio describes this parent-teacher meeting as a “Rorschach test.” He recognizes that some people may view it as reinforcing their preconceived notions “about Success Academy, charter schools, and even the entire testing-and-data-driven education reform movement,” while others may see “an unusually gifted and competent teacher, with emotional gears you cannot fathom, who can issue a consequence to a five-year-old like a bank examiner rejecting a loan, then an hour later bring herself to tears in front of a hundred strangers when for a single moment she catches herself weighing the cost of not doing so.” The funny thing about Rorschach tests is that you can train yourself to see both perspectives if you are open to them, and I think Pondiscio signals that by calling attention to both: he seems to want you to consider both.
Indeed, to some degree this whole book is like a Rorschach test. If you are a critic of what the folks at Success Academy are trying to do, the fact that their efforts are well-described will not necessarily change your mind; in fact, the demands they make on parents might solidify your thinking that they “weed out” weaker students. And if you are impressed by their accomplishments, then learning the details of how much hard work goes into their results will probably leave you even more in awe.
I think there is also another angle to consider, a finding which was perhaps inevitable given the anthropological nature of this book: Building school culture is important. Robert Pondiscio has captured very clearly and comprehensively how attentive one must be in order to create and maintain a purposeful culture, as they’ve done at Success over and over. And no matter what kind of organization you work in, this book might cause you to reflect on the nature of the culture of your organization and how intentional people have been—and continue to be—in building it.
That is something for all of us to think about.