bullseye

“A witch hunt” and “teacher bashing.”

Those words came up over and over again throughout Friday’s Success Academy press conference called by CEO Eva Moskowitz in response to a New York Times story that includes video of a Success Academy teacher tearing up the work of a first-grader and very harshly scolding the child in front of her classmates.

No one at the press conference defended the actions of the first-grade teacher shown in the video. They said her actions were wrong, she apologized to her students and their families, and was suspended by the school.

Instead, Moskowitz, parents and educators focused their energy mostly on attacking the integrity of the New York Times, essentially accusing the paper of being out to get Success Academy, saying it has a “profound bias” against the network while ignoring “hundreds of failing schools” in the city.

The Success Academy Charter School Network has 34 public schools serving 11,000 New York City students. If it were in Massachusetts, it would be one of that state’s 10 largest school districts. It’s run by a high-profile public figure who has talked of running for mayor.

That deserves attention. And Success Academy does get a lot of it—for its stellar record of academic achievement while serving a large percentage of students of color and from low-income households, and lately for concerns about how its students are treated.

As someone who’s worked for the past two decades with the media covering city schools, I can certainly understand the network’s frustration at the barrage of tough stories lately, many from the nation’s biggest newspaper. And I do think the “anti-reform” crowd will take every opportunity to target any successful charter school to protect its turf. But that’s not what this is. The Times article is a fair, solid story that raises important questions about school culture and how children are being treated.

The New York Times isn’t out to get Success Academy. It would be asking the same questions and writing the same story about any school system where frequent and consistent concerns about discipline and culture were raised.

And I’m not just blindly giving the media the benefit of the doubt here. John Merrow, formerly of the PBS News Hour, was clearly out to get Success Academy with this slanted piece on suspensions. And the New York Times is not above reproach. My worst experience working with a reporter was on this horribly unfair and multiply corrected story in 2010 about the Denver Public Schools’ pension financing.

At Friday’s press conference, Moskowitz said the Times story used the video to make the case that “this is the practice of all teachers” at Success Academy and that showing the teacher at her “worst moment” is “teacher bashing” and blowing the issue entirely out of proportion.

The video is certainly the centerpiece of the story. But the story is not at all saying the video depicts the practice of “all teachers” at Success. And it’s not even close to the entire story.

Times reporter Kate Taylor pointed out in her story that “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.” Taylor gives Success Academy lots of room to dispute the notion that this is common or tolerated practice in 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. A group of parents gathered by the Cobble Hill school’s principal defended Ms. Dial and said the video did not reflect their experience of the school.”

On the video itself, Taylor uses this quote from a parent of the first-grade class: “Was that one teacher over the line for 60 seconds? Yeah. Do I want that teacher removed? Not at all. Not because of that. Now if you tell me that happens every single day, that’s a different thing. But no one is telling me that, and everyone is telling me about all the amazing things that she does all the other days.” Taylor gives the teacher an opportunity to address the incident. And the story links to the Success Academy video of Taylor’s interview with a group of parents from the class talking in glowing terms about the teacher.

That’s hardly “teacher bashing.” But I get the frustration there, too. We on the “reform/charter side” of the education debate get accused of “teacher bashing” a lot. For suggesting that teacher evaluations should be improved and tied to student achievement, as one measure. For suggesting that chronically underperforming schools should be closed and replaced with something better. For suggesting that innovation might improve service. That’s hardly “teacher bashing” either. It’s asking: Are we doing right by our kids?

That’s also, in essence, what the Times story is asking. It’s a question that every school, every reform organization, every charter organization, every union organization, every education advocate should be asking regularly.

The Success Academy parents who spoke at Friday’s press conference give a powerful and resounding “Yes” to that question. They sought out and cherish the education that Success Academy is providing to their children. They understand it may not be the best place for every child. But it has meant great things for their children.

Let’s have that conversation.

And let’s stop—on all sides—trying to shout down anyone for asking the question that matters most: Are we doing right by our kids?

WHAT DO YOU THINK?