(This is a guest post by Peter Cunningham, the executive director of Education Post. He recently served as assistant secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama Administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.)
Somehow, while managing a sprawling network of public charter schools serving 15,000 children, engaging in the day-to-day political combat of New York, and raising three kids, Eva Moskowitz found time to write her memoirs. For readers with a taste for drama, “The Education of Eva Moskowitz” doesn’t disappoint.
Journalists, union leaders, politicians and even a few reform allies come in for a tongue-lashing from the diminutive and determined educator whose schools serving low-income kids in New York City are outperforming schools in the wealthiest suburbs across her state.
Among New York politicos, her name is now synonymous with being a political target as in “getting Eva’d.” This article’s title comes from one of her losing political campaign slogans but it speaks to the trajectory of her life. Far from angry, she aims to get the last laugh, as the smiling photo on her book cover suggests and her eye-popping results affirm.
Moskowitz has been attacked because of her funders and her “no excuses” approach to schooling. She’s been the target of street protests from union-backed community groups like ACORN and from politicians representing the very same low-income parents who overwhelmingly apply for seats in her network of 46 charter schools.
She has weathered extreme scrutiny from the New York Times, public television journalists and political columnists with the notoriously merciless New York tabloids. But she gives as good as she gets, skillfully applying public pressure on politicians and bureaucrats to meet her demands, while working back channels to further her agenda.
Despite formidable opponents like the current President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten, and the current Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, not to mention legions of anti-reformers who prowl the fact-free corners of the internet, Moskowitz has succeeded through her shrewd use of the media, her high-powered network, and unrelenting drive inherited from her Holocaust-surviving ancestors.
She gleefully assumes the mantle of arch-reformer from a long line of disruptors like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Arne Duncan, John King, Wendy Kopp, John Deasy, the first generation of charter school founders, and others with the courage to challenge an educational system that cannot get even one in 10 low-income students through college.
Moskowitz is now in her 11th year as a charter educator following six years as a member of the New York City Council. While in office, she chaired the Education Committee and conducted an unprecedented set of hearings on the 77,000-word teacher contract, hoping (in vain, it turns out) to expose its excesses and foster a more streamlined labor-management relationship.
The big story in her book is how the entire system resists change. If the bureaucracy can’t stop you, the unions will by buying the state legislature or ginning up community opposition, and the media is often complicit, amplifying shortcomings and downplaying success. In today’s hyper-political world, the required skill set for a successful charter school leader is media, marketing, fundraising, community engagement, politics and bureaucracy-busting. Pity the poor soul who thinks it’s just about education.
As for education, Moskowitz is transparent and unapologetic about her approach, which she spells out in a closing chapter and has published online. Essentially, kids need to be molded and discipline and structure are part of the equation along with “joyful” classrooms. But the real work of improving schools is about improving teachers, which requires hustle, rigor, constant feedback and high expectations.
She closes her book by suggesting that school districts with sclerotic bureaucracies and inflexible collective-bargaining agreements are inherently incapable of educational excellence for low-income children. As she sees it, the charter school model, with more autonomy, less bureaucracy, and a performance-based culture, is the best hope for American education. David Osborne of the Progressive Policy Institute just released a new book, “Reinventing America’s Schools,” making the same point.
Sadly, many in the charter school space fall short of Moskowitz’s demanding standards and remarkable outcomes. And, it’s beyond hope to think that 100,000 public schools across 14,000 school districts will voluntarily alter their governance model any time soon or undo the self-perpetuating bureaucratic structure of American education.
Nevertheless, Moskowitz’s provocative and engaging personal and professional story is proof that fearless disruption can work, though it may come at the price of being “Eva’d.”