Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Charter School Conflict in New York City: The Psychodynamics of Self-Control

New York City is the site of an angry political and communal dispute about its public school system. For those of my readers from outside the United States, many cities in the U.S., in response to failing public schools,  have developed what is called a “charter school network” as an alternative to the customary public schools.  Charter schools are funded by tax dollars but its teachers and administrators are free, within limits, to design the curriculum according to their best assessment of what children, particularly poor and minority children, need. Some charters are not-for-profit institutions, others are in business to make money while serving children and their parents. They do not have to comply with all of the city’s administrative mandates, and more importantly, the teachers they hire need not be members of the major teacher’s union. This last provision is particularly attractive to some principals and school executives, since they believe that union work rules constrain their ability to create fruitful teaching settings, for example by extending the school day so that children leave at 5 pm rather than at 2 pm. City residents are free to enroll their children in any charter school, but should there be more children applying than there are seats available, admission is determined by lottery. The “Success Academy,” a charter school network, is at the center of the current conflict in New York City. In 2015, 22,000 children applied for 2,688 spots available in the network’s schools. Parents want in.   

The proximate stimulus for the conflict is a fight over money, space and permits. The prior mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, gave the Success Academy network of schools free space in current public school buildings. But the current mayor, Bill Deblasio, has threatened to charge Success Academy for the space they use, while also denying it permits to open more schools in the city. The result has been a nasty public fight between Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of the Success Academy and Mayor Deblasio. Moskowitz has been astute in mobilizing her parents to protest any constraints on the network’s ability to function and expand. For example, she bussed thousands of parents and children to Albany, the capital of New York State, to protest the Mayor’s threatened decisions.

The conflict also provokes some larger conflicts about privilege, social class, power and poverty in New York City, the quintessential global city.  The Success Academy, while supported by public funds, also gets some money from two hedge fund billionaires. Community leaders and activists are suspicious of the latter’s motives, believing that the two are ideologically committed to “marketizing” public services. This process, activists worry, will undermine a community's experience of itself as a group of people with common interests and resources committed to every member’s welfare. Other critics and community leaders worry that these hedge fund executives are exercising arbitrary authority simply because they have the money to influence events, decisions and elections. They seem to be manipulating society to advance their own private ideals or, in one harsh reading, to indulge in a hobby of “doing good” on their own terms and without being held accountable to citizens and the public.

Two YouTube videos (here and here) highlight the political and communal conflict the Academy’s expansion provokes. The city’s Board of Education held a community hearing to consider the question of whether or not a Success Academy school should be allowed to move into a public school building, thereby taking some space from the public school, called, “P.S. 30,” currently housed there. Both proponents and opponents of Success Academy, including many parents, came to the meeting.  As one can see in the video, P.S. 30 parents and teachers refer to the Success Academy as an “invader” and “intruder,” and as a signal of the city’s gentrification. One speaker passionately invokes the history of school segregation, and bemoans the fact that the Success Academy schools are splitting families apart in a form of a “divide and conquer” strategy. “Look at everybody here,” he says, “We have black and Hispanic versus black and Hispanic.” Parents whose children attend the Success Academy heckle the speaker insisting that they have a right to choose which schools their children attend.

Critics of the Success Academy and its pedagogy believe that its schools are punitive and harsh to both students and teachers. As one journalist reports, “Success has stringent rules about behavior, down to how students are supposed to sit in the classroom: their backs straight, and their feet on the floor if they are in a chair, or legs crossed if they are sitting on the floor. The rationale is that good posture and not fidgeting make it easier to pay attention.” In addition, when students take practice tests, to prepare for statewide exams, they cannot go to the bathroom and sometimes wet themselves. Also, “Students who are deemed to not be trying are placed in an ‘effort academy’ which is part detention and part study hall.” 

In addition, students are suspended from the Success Academy schools at a rate higher than is the case in regular public schools. At the Success Academy Harlem 1 school, 23% of the 896 students were suspended for at least one day in 2012-13, the last year for which the state has data. At Public School 149, a school in the same building, 3% of students were suspended during that same period. Moreover, students who take practice tests and succeed get prizes such as remote-controlled cars, arts and crafts kits, and board games. “Former teachers said that they were instructed to keep the prizes displayed in the front of their classroom to keep students motivated.” In addition, as one journalist writes, “At most schools, if a child is flailing academically, it is treated as a private matter. But at Success Academy Harlem 4, one boy’s struggles were there for all to see: On two colored charts in the hallway, where the students’ performance on weekly spelling and math quizzes was tracked, his name was at the bottom, in a red zone denoting that he was below grade level.”  Finally, as the reporter notes, “A teacher complained that she was expected to announce all of her students’ scores on practice tests, by asking those who had scored a four to stand up, followed by those with a three and then those with a two. The teacher and her colleagues persuaded their supervisors not to make students with a score of one stand up, but those students were still left conspicuously sitting down, she said.”  Responding to the claim that the Success Academy schools were unduly harsh, Moskowitz, the CEO, told a reporter, “We cannot let up on them (the students). Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack will go to effort academy, have their parent called, and will miss electives. This is serious business.”

Let’s accept for the moment that the culture is harsh, though I believe that as a primary descriptor of the setting, this charge is one-sided. Many observers, and more importantly parents, are persuaded that Success Academy’s teaching and administrative bring order and calm to what is often a chaotic setting. Conduct that seems harsh and unforgiving may also represent a teacher’s total commitment to a student’s success and a belief in his or her ability. A reporter for the New Yorker writes, “At Success, the school year is ten months long and the school days stretch from 7:45 A.M. to 5 P.M. for those in fifth grade or higher. Similarly, one parent writes, “As soon as you enter the doors, one senses there is something different. Teachers are on their toes, politely and efficiently directing where you need to go. All are well dressed, well informed and carry themselves with an absolute commitment to providing the best possible education for students in attendance at one of the 14 Success Academies in New York City. This isn't to say one couldn't find this kind of enthusiasm in a different kind of school, but it's rare. Personally, there are only two times I have ever seen it: as a teacher and staff member for Teach for America, and walking through the doors of a Success Academy school.” Success Academy students are also exposed to more art, music, chess and physical play than comparable students in public schools.  Moreover, they are encouraged to talk as much as possible. “‘We’re not big on hand-raising here,’ Moskowitz said.’”

Most importantly, the Academy’s schools are successful. An independent university based evaluation of 3rd graders’ achievement in the network’s first school in Harlem found that the students did better on tests of math and language competence than students who had applied to the school but had not won a seat through the lottery.

In addition, “Last year, sixty-four per cent of the third grade students at Success Academy Harlem 5 passed the state English exam and eighty-eight per cent passed the state math exam. At Public School 123, the Mahalia Jackson School, which is located in the same school building as Success, only eighteen per cent of students passed the English test and only five per cent passed the math test.”

If we grant the Success Academy the benefit of the doubt, that it is successful, the question is what meaning can we make of the sometimes harsh discipline the school imposes on its students. One straightforward hypothesis is that discipline is one vehicle for helping students develop self-control. My readers may recall the famous “marshmallow test” in which pre-school aged children are presented with a challenge: “Sit in front of a marshmallow alone in a room for 15 minutes. If you don’t eat it you will get two marshmallows. If you do eat it, you only get the one in front of you.”  The experiment’s originator, Walter Mischel, found that children who passed the test were more successful as adults. As one journalist writes, “Follow-up studies on these preschoolers found that those who were able to wait the 15 minutes were significantly less likely to have problems with behavior, drug addiction or obesity by the time they were in high school, compared with kids who gobbled the snack in less than a minute. The gratification-delayers also scored an average of 210 points higher on the SAT.” (An entrance exam for college applicants.)

The link between self-control and achievement is readily apparent. A precondition for achieving any worthwhile goal is the ability to not only delay gratification, but more importantly, to tolerate pain, frustration and difficulty. The pain is a measure of the work required for success. This suggests that Success Academy’s disciplined approach would have merit for poor and minority children insofar as they are less able than their middle or upper class peers, to control their impulses. Certainly, many risk factors that shape a child’s ability to control their own behavior affect poor and minority children negatively. 

For example, “Children whose parents, particularly mothers, have greater formal education are better able to exhibit self-control in social and school settings. Mothers with lower educational attainment have children who perform worse on tests of self-regulation..while other studies have found that higher educational status for both parents positively predicted behavioral regulation. Moreover, “The available literature indicates that minority status may be a risk factor for lower self-regulation. When controlling for a host of risk variables, Sektnan et al. (2010) found that being African American was significantly correlated with lower self-regulation in kindergarten.”

There are probably several channels through which risk factors, such as poverty and race, shape a young child’s capacity for self-control. For example, children in single parent, poor families, may experience their setting as unreliable and untrustworthy. They don’t believe, based on their experience, that by delaying gratification and tolerating pain they will garner rewards. In addition, children who internalize their parent’s experience of victimhood, one possible result of settings shaped by institutional racism, may feel unworthy. This means that they don’t expect to be treated fairly; to be rewarded commensurate with their effort. In addition, surveys document that African American parents use more physical discipline than their white counterparts, partly because they believe that their children live in higher risk settings, where misdeeds and mistakes are more likely to expose them to predators. To be “no-nonsense” parents, they physically discipline their children preemptively to keep them out of a larger harm’s way.

But physical discipline tactics can short circuit a child’s development of self-control. The child learns to avoid the parent rather than to modify his or her own behavior. The parent is not experienced as a figure to be admired and imitated, but as one to be feared.  

Finally, it is a well-established finding that children in poor households are exposed to 30 million fewer words by the time they are three-years-old than children from high-income households. But one way in which children develop self-control is by speaking to themselves, first overtly by talking out loud, and then covertly. For example, two researchers found that, “Children talked to themselves more when they were faced with a difficult task, when working by themselves, or when a teacher was not available to help.  They studied the private speech in Appalachian children, (a region of great poverty), as well as middle-class children. They found that Appalachian children’s private speech developed at a slower pace than those who were middle-class.”

Psychoanalysis helps round out our understanding of the dynamics of self-control. Certainly one puzzle of human motivation is why people would inflict pain on themselves. The high school athlete who trains to the point of exhaustion, the high school violinist who practices for hours a day are submitting to what at times is self-imposed tedium, discomfort and disappointment.  One possible explanation is that they anticipate great rewards. But in fact, unlike the setting of the Marshmallow test, these rewards are far in the future and very uncertain. A different hypothesis is that starting out, as young strivers, they are rewarded by their teachers’ and mentors’ approval, but that later, as they mature, they internalize this approving voice. The voice becomes part of their psychological makeup, so that they can reward themselves with feelings of self-esteem and worthiness even when their objective achievements are partial or incomplete and their experience is unpleasant.  

Psychoanalysis calls this internal voice, the “ego ideal” while developmental psychologists describe it as a process of “moral internalization.” Broadly, this process describes how young people are acculturated. Consider the extreme case of a young research scientist who spends a decade on a research question encountering only one dead-end after the other. In this situation the scientist’s internalized “voice” has become abstract, represented not by a person, but by the ideals of scientific study and its meaning for human achievement. One way to understand Freud’s use of the term ‘sublimation” is to envision a developmental movement in the psyche’s structure, starting with the “teacher in the flesh,” moving through the internalized voice of a mentor, and arriving at an end point where a person subordinates himself or herself to abstract cultural ideals such as the scientific method. When parents use physical disciplining tactics excessively, they derail the moral internalization process.

Psychoanalysis proposes that this developmental movement does not proceed smoothly and without conflict. In this way of thinking, children and adults do not readily relinquish what gratifies them immediately, that is why people under conditions of stress resort frequently to drug use, drinking or sexual acting out. Freud argued that in this sense the process of civilizing the individual creates in its wake conflict and discontent. It is never complete and can create unhappiness, hence the regression. One way then to understand the harsher features of the Success Academy schools, is to posit that the school must become an agent of necessary acculturation, imposing the pain and discipline the child must suffer through, in order to gain the self esteem and sense of self-worth that achievement and approval brings.

But I can well imagine my reader recoiling from such a proposition. There is after all a very vital and powerful tradition of theorizing about schooling, “the progressive education movement,” which posits that the acculturation process can be naturalized, so that children, led only by their search for pleasure, their innate curiosity and their wish to play, can acquire all the intellectual and emotional skills they need to thrive as adults.  This idea has been expressed in innumerable pedagogical innovations, for example the “open classroom,” “whole language teaching,” “project based learning,”   “self-guided instruction,” "teaching 'critical thinking skills' (as against a substantive understanding of a discipline),"  “child-centered pedagogy,” and “constructivism.”

I know that I am at some risk of crossing swords with experts, but as far as I understand the history of these innovations, none have been successful when applied to the teaching of young children, particularly children from low-income families, except when seriously modified or implemented by charismatic teachers.  One reason that I can say this with some confidence is that the driving impulse behind these pedagogies is the faulty assumption that just as children learn to speak a language and master the social rules of the playground spontaneously, so they should be able to spontaneously learn to read write, figure, and think critically. But our modern understanding of the mind is that it is modular in construction (See, Egan: 2002). The skills for learning language or understanding a social hierarchy are specialized and innate. They do not represent a generalized ability to learn. In this sense, it is useful to see progressive pedagogy as one branch of “utopian thinking,” a schema through which adults project onto children the wish that a society could socialize its members so that individuality is never compromised and individual impulses are never suppressed.

There is remarkable piece of social history that is relevant here. From 1967 to 1995, the U.S. federal government launched and sustained, Project Follow Through, which remains still today, “ as the world’s largest education experiment.” “Over the first 10 years more than 22 sponsors, worked with over 180 (educational) sites at a cost of over $500 million in a massive effort to find ways to break the cycle of poverty through improved education.” Schools with the support of parents could adopt one of a number of educational models. The reading portion of this study involved over 15,000 students and was designed to test the effectiveness of models of reading instruction by gauging three outcomes; basic skills, cognitive growth, such as critical thinking skills, and the child’s affective experience, for example his or her self esteem. Program results were measured by tests that assessed children’s academic achievements in math and reading competence, their cognitive skills, and two tests of their affective experiences, --their self-esteem, and their readiness to attribute their successes and failures to their own efforts. Interestingly, a plurality of parent groups and schools, chose a program called, “Direct Instruction,” (see YouTube), a highly scripted teaching program that emphasizes both drill, assessment and individual attention. Abt Associates, the premier program evaluation firm of the last decades of the 20th century, conducted the evaluation of Project Follow Through with the following results.

To the embarrassment of progressive education theorists, Direct Instruction, a scripted and teacher guided method of instruction was by far and away the most successful program on all three dimensions, the academic, the cognitive and the affective. Many of the programs in fact reduced achievement. The Harvard Educational Review published a critique of the Abt evaluation methodology and the evaluators countered with a spirited defense in the same issue of the journal.  A group of progressive education theorists persuaded the National Institute of Education, to not disseminate the results of the study in part because, “The audience for the Follow Through evaluations is an audience of teachers for whom appeals to the need for accountability of public funds, or the rationality of science are largely irrelevant.” In other words, teachers would not care.

There is another piece of this story that helps shed light on the political passions that that the Success Academy network of schools provokes. Some of my readers may recall or may have learned about a visceral and dramatic conflict that took place in New York City in 1968 between the teachers union (UFT), black parents, community leaders and the city’s board of education, over who would control the schools. The teachers, wary of local community boards who might decide to fire or remove teachers at will, went on strike, opening up a social and psychological chasm between white teachers and black parents. The conflict also exacerbated tensions between the black community and the Jewish community (many teachers were Jewish) in the city. It was by all accounts a visceral, and an emotionally draining conflict. Some political scientists argue that the historic Black-Jewish political alliance, which was fashioned and strengthened during the Civil Rights movement, never recovered.

One result of the conflict was that a group of parents at Public School 137 in the Ocean-Hills Brownsville section of New York City, -- the epicenter of the communal conflict – decided to bid for participation in Project Follow Through and then chose Direct Instruction as the model they wished to test! As two researchers write, “ The well publicized conflict between the administrators and staff at Public School 137 and the United Federation of teachers in 1966-1968 over the issue of community control irreversibly politicized the Ocean Hill Brownsville District and P.S. 137 in particular. Related activities got parents involved in schools in such a way not found in any other poverty-ridden area. Parents learned how to use power. Some used this power to have P.S. 137 chosen as one of the schools in the national Follow Through program and to select the structured Direct Instruction model. Parent support has kept the program going for 14 years, despite cuts due to the New York City budget crisis of 1975 and subsequent reductions in Federal funding.” Reporting on an evaluation of this program at the school, the researchers note that Direct Instruction was a success.

I think this bit of social history provides some insight into the raw feelings and conflicts that Success Academy has provoked. Let me speculate on what I believe to be the question that community leaders in the black community are raising.  Can the Black community in old inner cities collectively empower itself? Can it, through its own political consciousness, bring will and self control to the aid of its parents and children?  Answering this question in the affirmative may be the only route through which the black community can exercise its forcefulness, without succumbing to the kind of street violence we saw in Ferguson Missouri, after a jury acquitted a white policeman charged with murdering a young black man. This self control was also what the Nation of Islam offered Malcolm X, a reprieve from his criminal impulses, so that through rigorous religious practice and faith he could recover his many and extraordinary talents. Or if the answer is "no," will this community become the object of social programs and social experiments that others -- elites, policy specialists, urban planners, shape and lead? 

If I am right about this question, I wonder if there is not a deep yearning for recovering what was in fact the greatest exemplification of self control in a political movement -- when the Civil rights movement and its leaders taught its members to respond to beatings, murders and fire-bombings, non-violently. But the distressing issue this yearning raises, is on what grounds can community leaders who hope to build empowerment collectively by building political consciousness, possibly deprive individual children and parents of an opportunity for a better education? This is why in the YouTube video of the community meeting, the opponents of Success Academy must concede to its proponents, parents of children who attend its schools, that they do have the right to choose where their children will study. I believe that this concession undermines the opponents’ moral standing and political effectiveness.

Diane Ravitch, a scholar of education and a fierce opponent of charter schools, argues that charter schools undermine the society’s commitment to public education. The question is what vision of public education in the inner city is on offer. The reality is inescapably dispiriting. As I write from Philadelphia, the schools are segregated, students are promoted to higher grades without mastering the requisite skills—a form of psychological expulsion -- and parents do not exercise a strong voice in shaping the school’s climate. Only the black community can save itself collectively from these conditions. No one else cares enough. Absent that, charter schools are an escape valve for the many children lucky enough to attend the good ones.


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  2. Thank you for this post Larry. I had been asked to take a leadership role with the Hungarian Wallenberg Association and could now respond. You address one of the hardest, yet most important issues in the US/ and many regions between “Have and Have Not.” Of great value is your focus on self-control and mastery toward distant goals. The self-talk you point to —often of self-praise —is also useful as a method for helping ADHD without dependence on stimulus medication. This skill as an ego function must certainly draw on adult models who encourage the functioning of the student. Thankfully models do exist which are very successful in this regard, and do not oppose, but augment the “system.”

    One such is my own model which won an ward from Ronald Reagan when i teamed with School Volunteers of New York. This can be found on my linked in, but briefly, old aged home residents were matched with 2nd grade inner city dyslexic students and trained to use game-like tutoring which targeted the schools’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). The grandparent.grandchild model worked like a charm. It seems worth looking at this again, as it cost next to nothing, and the old folks outperformed the school results three fold.

    Another model derives from our own Inter Group research, National School Climate Centre. Jonathan Cohen from William Alison White was able to adapt Bion, and derive measures for the tripartite inter group relations: parents-students-teachers/staff. Far more than a mere 360 degree measure, statistical can be generated and adjusted for what you and i call institutional culture. Am sure Jonathan would be honoured to talk at IPTAR and gain insights into why funding for our children takes back seat. In schools “culture” is called “climate.” So NSCE can actually impact factors such as achievement levels, drop out rate, burn out, bullying by looking at Inter group relations. A consistent finding is the importance of parent variables in terms of involvement. It is clear that the parents are the key stakeholders in their children’s well being and welfare. Yet they are often shut out of the system, let alone engaged as contributors. Why such a rich resource is overlooked is beyond me, but perhaps as an expert in the area of organisation behaviour, please share any insight you may have.Thanks again.

  3. this is really fascinating Laszlo. The grandparent- grandchild model is a classic- I think the main obstacle to its dissemination is the problem of scale. I have often thought that the only way to engage parents is to reduce segregation. Parents from better off homes then have he resources time and education to effectively hold the teachers and administrators accountable. Parents from less well off homes can then find a role and a voice in this process.