Eva Moskowitz on Building a Vision & Culture for Success

Eva Moskowitz is the founder and CEO of the Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City. The network has 53 public Elementary, Middle, and High Schools across the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.

In her memoir, “The Education of Eva Moskowitz“, Eva shares the story of building Success Academy from scratch. From developing the vision, to opening the first school, to growing the number of schools across the city. All while navigating a very challenging political and media environment in New York City.

Here are some quotes from the book.

Vision for Success

Now I turned to planning the school. Many charter school founders focus on closing the racial achievement gap but I was also worried about another gap: that between American students and those in countries such as Japan, Singapore, and Finland. Closing that gap would require a very high level of rigor, particularly in math and science. In addition, while many of our students would come from poor families, I didn’t want to design a school that served one class of students, but rather one to which any parent would be proud to send their children.

My highest priority was creating a school culture that had a low tolerance for laziness and dysfunction and high expectations for student achievement and teacher performance. To accomplish this, I drew on lessons from other pioneers in the charter movement including KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon.

I also worked hard to improve our school’s appearance. A poorly maintained facility suggests that teachers and students aren’t valued and contributes to low expectations. If only half of a school’s light bulbs work, teachers figure it’s okay to prepare for half their classes and parents figure it’s okay for their children to do half their homework. I wanted our facility to communicate that our school was both rigorous and joyful, and to instantly dispel any preconceptions anyone had about urban public schools.

Culture for Success

Occasionally I’ll read about a teacher at some school who refuses to teach contrary to her deeply held pedagogical beliefs, which are different from those of the school’s principal. That just doesn’t work. If a teacher doesn’t agree with her school’s pedagogical philosophy, she should find a school whose philosophy she does agree with, not create chaos by marching to the beat of her own drum. It’s not that the school’s principal is necessarily right, it’s that a team can’t have multiple quarterbacks calling different plays.

It’s easy to develop a mind-set in which you say, “Well, the manual says do A, B, and C, and I’ve done those things so I’ve done my job.” Our view was that you’ve done your job when you’ve succeeded.

I responded, “If the day ever comes when I think something is okay simply because district schools do it, I hope my board fires me.” Excellence is the accumulation of hundreds of minute decisions; it is execution at the most granular level. Once you accept the idea that you should give in to things that make no sense because other people do those things and you want to appear reasonable, you are on a path towards mediocrity. To achieve excellence, one must fight such compromises with every fiber of one’s being.

I learned that while people may initially dislike being pushed hard, they may feel differently when they see the results of their labors. I also discovered the satisfaction that comes from working with talented people.

But please don’t tell your students that tests don’t matter, because you’re just selling them a bill of goods. Your duty is to prepare your students for the world as it exists, not as you would like it to be.

Many people who find themselves in demanding jobs think they’d be happier in a more relaxed environments but I find that once people adjust to a demanding fast-paced environment, they find it exciting and fulfilling. Conversely, many people who get undemanding jobs are initially very happy because they are comfortable and relaxed but quickly become bored. Hard work is like swimming in the ocean; the cold is unpleasant at first but once your body adjusts to the temperature, it’s fun. The trick is having the courage to wade in.

Data for Success

I needed a more systematic method of monitoring our schools, so I began tracking what I called “culture data”—latenesses, absences, uniform infractions, missing homework, incomplete reading logs, and whether our teachers were calling parents about these problems. This data helped us to manage our principals and helped them to manage their teachers.

5k vs 30k Bulbs

Another problem was our fluorescent lights, which were constantly going out. It turned out that DOE was purchasing bulbs that lasted only 5,000 hours, so we replaced them with 30,000-hour bulbs. This led to bitter complaints from the handymen who’d been earning copious amounts of overtime pay by constantly replacing DOE’s short-lived bulbs. Welcome to public education.