colored-pencils-656202_1280What are some drawbacks to the Success Academy’s definitions of success?

When it comes to articles about education, I usually know exactly where I stand: in the land of the progressives, where discovery, growth, care, and authenticity lie.

I recently had a reading experience, though, that threw me into no-man’s-land. I had to admit, after reading this NYT article by Kate Taylor, that I wasn’t sure where I stood in relation to its topic, which is a group of charter schools called Success Academy.

The reason I found myself in no-man’s-land was, basically, that the Success Academy schools appear to be working. I mean, here’s how other public school students in New York City did on their standardized tests last year: 29% of students passed reading and 35% passed math. In blazing contrast, 64% of Success school students passed reading and 94% passed math. That’s a dramatic difference.

How does Success Academy do it?

According to the article, the Success Academy approach to education is “driven by the relentless pursuit of better results, one that can be exhilarating for teachers and students who keep up with its demands and agonizing for those who do not.” In Success schools, rules rule. Student behavior is completely controlled, from how students sit — backs straight, feet on floor, hands folded on desks, and eyes glued to the teacher during lessons — to how they walk — silently, in lines, obeying teachers instantly.

The academic life at Success schools is demanding and highly structured. From what I can tell, the curriculum is almost exclusively focused on the subjects in which the students will be formally tested: English, math, and science. Thinking skills such as glossing every paragraph in a reading passage appear to be routinized. Students who do well are praised and rewarded with such gifts as Nerf guns and candy. Students who do not do well are sent to “effort academy,” where they re-do their work to get it right while their peers take fun breaks. Students are frequently suspended, and those who deviate too far from the norm — students for whom English is not the first language, for example, or who require special education services — are under-represented.

Students’ scores on class assignments are posted for all to see, so poor performance can become public humiliation. In fact, one Success school administrator exhorted teachers to make students who were not doing well to feel “misery.”

Did I mention that the vast majority of students who attend Success schools are African American and Hispanic?

With all due respect to no-man’s-land, I have some concerns.

First, I’m concerned about the focus on standardized test scores. This one’s pretty obvious. As a hot-blooded progressive, I have no use for standardized tests. Of course, I am all for students’ working hard and feeling proud of their accomplishments, and this is something Success Academy aims for. But there is actual evidence that the skills required for success on standardized tests do not translate into success in life as directly as was previously assumed and that they can even “create far-reaching damage” (that’s a quote from the second-to-last page of Henry Levin’s 2012 article “More Than Just Test Scores”). And there is no evidence that Success Academy students (who are all elementary-level) will apply to, get into, go to, and graduate from college, this last being an achievement that can translate into life success.

But that’s the obvious concern. Here’s perhaps a less obvious concern: the emphasis on, the requirement of, compliance in the Success Academy.

I don’t see forced compliance in classrooms as a good thing. While supportive structure — consistency, reasonable predictability, and routines — can really help students get down to work in school, tightly controlled environments of the type advocated in Success Academy are not hospitable to emotional or cognitive development.

Here’s why: Growth requires space. In psychodynamic terms, healthy development requires “potential space” (a term coined by my hero, D.W. Winnicott). It is in potential space that children/students/people-in-general play, which is to say they engage, experiment, create, make mistakes, and organize data about the world into meaningful understanding. I (and some others) like to call potential space “the Third” because potential space is a “third reality” that emerges from interactions between and among at least two other realities (two people’s realities, for example, or one person’s reality and a book’s reality, etc.).

Forced compliance is the enemy of potential space. As I like to characterize it, forced compliance crushes the Third; it stamps out creativity and meaning-making. It prohibits authentic relationships with people and ideas. And, while it might lead to high test scores, it robs students of their birthright, which is to grow up into people who are, at the very least, intellectually flexible; innovative and confident in their problem-solving capacities; and self-regulated, able to live in a healthy, balanced way.

But that’s not the worst of it.

My final concern is my biggest. It is related to the issue of compliance coupled with the fact that so many of the students who are being treated to the Success Academy approach are children of color. Is it a coincidence that the strict environment they’re learning in could be called “slavedriving”? Is it fair to characterize Success schools as browbeating children of color into conformity? Am I the only one who sees the behavior requirements, the public postings of scores, the punitiveness, the normalization of underlings’ misery, the complete centralization of power and approval that requires slavish adherence to rules as recapitulations of slave culture?

If there’s even the hint of a possibility that this is so, then that’s a serious drawback to the Success Academy.

I confess, I was proud of myself for being open-minded enough to stand in educational no-man’s-land for a while when it came to passing judgment on these charter schools. But here’s my own uncomfortable realization: Was I, a white middle class woman, in no-man’s-land because of my own unconscious racism and classism, which prevented me from immediately seeing the disturbing parallels between Success Academy norms and the controls and aims of slavery?

What do you think?