A rather unusual public fight has erupted over a “PBS NewsHour” piece by longtime correspondent John Merrow about the Success Academy Charter School network in New York City, which was founded in 2006 by former City Council member Eva Moskowitz with the financial backing of Wall Street financiers. Success demanded a correction to material it said was wrong. PBS issued a clarification, but Moskowitz isn’t satisfied.
In the “PBS NewsHour” video, Merrow reports about student suspensions in the 34-school Success network. Success is structured in the “no excuses” model of schooling, which essentially means that teachers are responsible for student achievement and that there are no excuses — not hunger or sickness or violent home lives — for students not doing well. Critics have long charged that Success counsels out students who may drag down their school’s standardized test scores or present difficult disciplinary problems, which Moskowitz has repeatedly denied.
A recent post by Leo Casey, executive director of the D.C.-based nonprofit Shanker Institute, charged that Success suspends students at about seven times the rate of New York City public schools and that the network has misrepresented its suspension rates to the U.S. Department of Education. The charter network said it had no response to that post.
But it did respond — publicly and strongly — to the Merrow piece, which featured the Success Academy Prospect Heights in Brooklyn. Merrow noted that the school’s code of conduct runs six pages, labeling as infractions everything from “bullying and gambling to littering and failing to be in a ready-for-success position.” Getting out of a seat without permission or calling out an answer are infractions as well — and these can lead to suspension. Moskowitz is shown telling Merrow: “If you get it right in the early years, you actually have to suspend far less when the kids are older, because they understand what is expected of them.”
Merrow featured one young student who had left the school, but apparently did not give the school a chance to respond to the family’s accusations about the school. That and other points in the piece that Success said were inaccurate led to a public request by the Success Academy for corrections and an apology from “PBS NewsHour” in an open letter to host Judy Woodruff. You can see that here.
And that led to this “PBS NewsHour” clarification of the Merrow report:
October 20, 2015 at 5:56 PM EDT
On October 12, 2015, the PBS NewsHour aired a report from veteran education reporter John Merrow, based on nearly a year of reporting, about suspension policies of young children and one successful charter school network in New York City. The NewsHour stands by the report. However, the CEO of Success Academy, Eva Moskowitz, has since raised objections to two specific issues in Mr. Merrow’s report. She protests that she was not given the opportunity to respond to one family’s comments in the story and she asserts that Mr. Merrow’s reporting about attrition rates is incorrect.
Mr. Merrow’s report was not about any particular child but about suspension policy. The reporting included conversations with nearly a dozen families about their young children’s suspensions from Success Academy, as well as other sources, including one within Success Academy. Most of these sources were unwilling to go on camera. In their interview Mr. Merrow asked Ms. Moskowitz for her response to the information he had gathered from these sources, and she was given ample time to respond.
Only one family was willing to talk on camera, but the mother was not willing to allow Success Academy to release her son’s school records. Ms. Moskowitz should have been given a chance to respond to this family’s comments. The NewsHour regrets that decision.
Ms. Moskowitz also disputes Mr. Merrow’s reporting on Success Academy’s attrition rate. This is a complicated area because charter schools, including Success Academy Charter Schools, calculate attrition differently. Mr. Merrow addressed these disparities by comparing similar time frames and methods for calculating attrition. He used both public numbers and internal documents to calculate a comparison of attrition rates. One of the charter schools in the report calculates attrition by the names of individual children over a 365-day calendar year, from the beginning of one school year to the beginning of the next school year. Success Academy’s data is based on the number of children over the school year, not the calendar year. Mr. Merrow reconciled those numbers fairly and thoroughly.
The fundamental point of Mr. Merrow’s report is about the policy of suspensions of young children. It accurately documents that Success Academy suspends students as young as five- and six-year olds at a greater rate than many other schools, which Ms. Moskowitz does not dispute. Mr. Merrow’s report also explains that Success Academy Charter Schools are achieving superior academic results and are popular among New York area families. While the NewsHour regrets the decision to include that particular mother and child without providing Ms. Moskowitz with an opportunity to respond, the NewsHour stands by the report.
That wasn’t the end of it. Moskowitz posted this on the Success Academy Web site: