Harvard Educational Review
  1. How the Other Half Learns

    Equality, Excellence, and the Battle over School Choice

    Robert Pondiscio

    New York: Avery, 2019. 384 pp. $27.00 (hardcover).

    In 1890, Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives, a collection of photographs that shined a light on the abject poverty of New York City’s slums. Poor tenement dwellers living in squalor comprised Riis’s “other half.” Though it makes no explicit connections to Riis, the title of Robert Pondiscio’s new book, How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle over School Choice, is an unmistakable reference to it. The focus of Pondiscio’s book, however, is not the neglected, low performing city schools to which society’s privileged classes too often turn a blind eye. Instead it is Bronx 1, a well-resourced, highachieving school in the Success Academy K–12 charter network. Though “no excuses” charter schools attract much attention, Pondiscio’s reference suggests that the actual goings on of classrooms too often remain hidden in our debates about them. How the Other Half Learns shines a light on one charter school’s inner workings and offers a broader assessment of its network and, in the process, continues the discussion about school choice.

    New York City’s Success Academy, headed by education iconoclast Eva Moskowitz, continues to be one of the country’s most controversial charter networks. Its negative media coverage—a viral video of one teacher’s seething censure of a student’s arithmetic error “became a referendum” on the entire system (p. 84)—paired with its impressive outcomes (test scores often surpass those of New York’s most coveted gifted and talented programs), raised a simple question for Pondiscio: “What do the kids do all day?” (p. 10). To find out, he embedded himself at Bronx 1 for one school year. When he began his fieldwork, Pondiscio, a civics teacher in Democracy Prep Public Schools, another New York City charter network, was skeptical of Success Academy, namely its fanatical test prep, “broken windows” disciplinary system, and seemingly paternalistic orientation toward parents. By the end of his research, however, he was a proud convert.

    Despite Pondiscio’s guiding question, the book winds up concentrating relatively little on classroom instruction. School culture becomes its definitive focus. Descriptions of Success classrooms, professional development trainings, and family engagement events reveal a remarkably unified system that nearly all parties have largely bought into, often enthusiastically. Central to this system is a behavior management system that employs a “maniacal level of noticing and addressing” student lapses (e.g., staff fixation on students’ sock colors) (p. 50) and liberal use of suspensions; a no-apology, year-round emphasis on test prep, replete with chants and pep rallies; and a hands-on approach to parents and parenting. Parents of children in early grades, for example, are required to read to them every night and are instructed how to do so. “We received a lot of training,” a teacher tells parents, “and we know this is the best way that children learn” (p. 187).

    To be sure, there are cracks in Success’s tidy system. There is the modicum of agency boys exercise by loosening their neckties. There was a mother and father’s claim that their son, a child with behavioral challenges, was pushed out of Bronx 1 and into a neighborhood public school. There was the disaffected teacher who abruptly exited midyear and the reality that the network’s “hastily assembled staff of relative strangers—nearly all of them young, many of them in their first adult jobs after college” (p. 112)—rarely stick around for long. And there are questions about how successful Success Academy’s students are on leaving the regimented system that, for some, is all they know. The network’s attempts to open its first high school, modeled after the freer feel of elite private schools, quickly fell into disarray, its faculty of seasoned private school educators reduced “to tracking student behavior on clipboards” (p. 158).

    Unfortunately, while Pondiscio does not overlook these counterstories, his rootedness at Bronx 1 keeps him from pursuing them systematically. Opting for a more straightforward story, his fascination clearly lies more with Bronx 1’s disciples than its apostates. Discussing the network’s eventual use of “parent investment cards” to grade parents on adherence to school policy, for instance, he marvels that “the move was remarkable not for how much pushback the network received from parents, but for how little” (p. 96).

    It is this fixture of school culture—parental engagement and buy-in—that gradually takes the spotlight in How the Other Half Learns, setting the stage for a somewhat delayed discussion of school choice. Eventually, the “other half” shifts from the black box of a successful charter school to a narrow slice of lower-income New York parents whose children’s schools might be the lowperforming ones in their catchment zone were it not for Success Academy in particular and school choice in general. They are parents with the knowledge of Success’s rigorous program, the wherewithal to distinguish it from New York’s dizzying array of other charter schools and networks, and the stamina to stick it out through Success’s competitive lottery and the anxiety-inducing successive hoops to jump through, all designed to further weed out families that might not be the right match.

    A telling example of the hoops is Pondiscio’s recounting of a uniform fitting day, when parents bring their children to Bronx 1 to be measured for Success Academy shirts and pants. While the event offers tangible reassurance of how far families have come in the process, their children’s admittance to the school is still uncertain at even this late stage in the admissions process. Measurements are taken for some students who ultimately won’t be accepted. It is, Pondiscio explains, “yet another step in the process, largely unspoken but well understood, whereby Success Academy ensures that every seat goes to a fully committed family” (p. 317). Charter schools have long faced charges of “cherry-picking” their students; however, as Pondiscio makes clear, it is parents Success Academy cherry-picks, not students (pp. 266–267). And those parents must buy in fully. As one principal put it, “It’s not Burger King. You can’t have it your way” (p. 262). Those who don’t—or, perhaps more accurately, can’t—will not survive at Success.

    The tenacity of parents who do/can buy in fully become, for Pondiscio, living proof of the necessity of school choice. These resourceful parents’ resolve to secure a safe learning environment for their children—and school safety, Pondiscio explains, tops parents’ reasons for avoiding traditional schools—is school choice’s raison d’être. Why? Because it’s what wealthier families do all the time. With relative ease, a well-off family can relocate to gain access to a better, safer neighborhood school furnished with competitive academic programs, or that family can exit the public system altogether for a private option. These actions are “unquestioned and unremarkable” (p. 276). Why forbid parents of lesser means their own form of this luxury, however imperfect? Pondiscio argues that to do so “is tantamount to a kind of enforced mediocrity” (p. 277). As for the argument that affording parents greater self-selection perpetuates inequality by enabling “engaged and invested families” to abandon traditional schools and thus bleed them of resources, Pondiscio argues that no parent should have to think of “their child as a public resource” (p. 278). These sorts of arguments, however, tilt toward whataboutism, particularly since Pondiscio’s most important finding is that Success Academy shops for parents, not the other way around. As How the Other Half Learns vividly demonstrates, school choice for the wealthy and school choice for Success Academy parents are two starkly different phenomena. To argue for one on the basis of the other seems to obfuscate the book’s powerful contribution.

    These arguments also begin to clarify Pondiscio’s intended audience. In How the Other Half Lives, the other “other half” to which Riis’s photographs were directed was New York City’s middle and upper classes who, residing just a short distance away from the city’s poor, might as well have occupied a separate world entirely. But who is Pondiscio’s “other half”? Though it is not stated outright, it becomes increasingly apparent over the book’s 340 pages that it is not necessarily a privileged class oblivious to poor and working-class families’ circumstances but informed members of this class who remain skeptical of charter schools in general and Success Academy in particular. This audience, Pondiscio seems to suggest, would deny parents of lesser means the luxury of choice “in the name of ‘equity’” (p. 333) while exercising considerable choice themselves as far as where they send their own progeny. As such, the book is as much an exposé of Success Academy’s mechanics as it is a proposed exposé of this intended audience, baiting readers to examine their own biases, playing often to the familiar gap between ideals and actions.

    While this somewhat taunting style may earn school choice more doubters than believers, it helps Pondiscio’s case that he, too, was initially a skeptic. With time, however, he became an ardent defender of each controversial component, convinced that the network’s strictness helps enable its outcomes, that intensive parental engagement is imperative, and that, despite what the New York Times might lead the public to believe, these teachers really do care deeply for their students. Demonstrating this, Pondiscio closes the book by telling how, at the start of the following school year, he stood alongside a couple watching their five-year-old disappear through Bronx 1’s doors. When the nervous father asked him if it’s a good school, Pondiscio describes closing his notebook and answering the query, father-to-father, “It’s a great school . . . You’re really lucky” (p. 337).

    Where, if at all, does How the Other Half Learns lead us in the school choice debate? Choice critics can make the argument that Success Academy’s penchant for suspending students and its enculturation of a particular brand of parenting are paternalistic. Advocates, however, can make an equally compelling argument that to deny choices to less advantaged families, to require that they attend traditional public schools, however dim the prospects, is also paternalistic. Though How the Other Half Learns more often provokes debate than reconciles it, it does immerse readers in an extraordinarily cohesive school network so they can decide for themselves where they stand in that debate. In time, with Pondiscio’s keen descriptions and sobering deliberations, readers may arrive at some reconciliation themselves. And though it may take a patient reader to wait to hear what Pondiscio makes of it all, the black box of Bronx 1 is worth opening.

    Jeremy T. Murphy

    Reference

    Riis, J.A. (1997). How the other half lives: Studies among the tenements of New York. New York: Penguin Books.
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