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Eva’s “Testing Machines”: Taking The Humanity Out Of Education

Testing machine?In a recent profile in New York Magazine, charter school CEO Eva Moskowitz proclaims herself the savior of public education. However, the article makes clear that Moskowitz does not truly offer any solutions to the thorny problems of urban schools; instead, the culture she has implemented as CEO of Harlem Success has actually magnified problems. The gap between rhetoric and reality calls into question what Moskowitz’s real “mission” really is — and at $400K a year, that’s an important question to ask.

Though she makes the absurd claim in the article that her mission to change public education started as early as first grade (while most of us were concerned about which cartoon lunchbox we would get), Moskowitz’s real mission is to increase her own political power. During her early 2000’s tenure on City Council, Moskowitz conducted a series of education oversight hearings. (Which, according to the article, satisfied her childhood “Watergate” fetish.) In many respects, she intended these hearings to be a launching pad to higher office — but the plan backfired, as her coarse personality turned off voters and resulted in a nine point loss in the race for Manhattan borough president. Her current resurgence of interest in educational issues is intended as a pathway back into the public light, and perhaps higher office.

Moskowitz’s contradictory views on standardized testing are one hint that her interest in public schooling is more about playing to political rhetoric than thinking about what urban students really need to succeed. Her story about quitting the PSATs “midstream” in high school because other students were cheating and her denials that her charter schools try to “game” the tests leaves out the story of how high-pressure, high stakes testing feeds the drive to raise scores at any cost — the same drive she now encourages at her own schools.

In fact, in the article the testing culture of Harlem Success resembles a bad version of Orwell’s 1984. Paul Fucaloro, director of instruction (and Moskowitz’s proclaimed “right hand”) is quoted as saying that “we have a gap to close, so I want the kids on edge, constantly. By the time test day came, they were like little testing machines.” At Harlem Success the boot camp for “testing machines” begins in kindergarten, “where they get drilled for two weeks on how to behave in the zero noise corridors (straight lines, mouths shut, arms at one’s sides) and the art of active listening (legs crossed, hands folded, eyes tracking the speaker).” The only teacher who went on record for this piece confirmed the brutality of the testing sweatshop. Her comments are shocking: “Life at Harlem Success is very, very structured, even the twenty-minute recess. Lunches are rushed and hushed, leaving little downtime to build social skills. Many children appear fried by two o’clock, particularly in weeks with heavy testing. We test constantly, all grades. During the TerraNova, a mini-SAT bubble test over four consecutive mornings, three students threw up. I just don’t feel that kids have a chance to be kids.” Harlem Success doesn’t allow for vacation, either — that’s prime test prep time. Students have only two days off; Christmas and New Year’s. If you are having trouble mastering an assessment and deemed one of “the real slow ones” by Fucaloro, you have to stay an extra 30 minutes past the dismissal time of 4:30 p.m. If Moskowitz believes that having students “on edge” and producing “little testing machines” through these harsh methods puts her schools on the forefront of education reform, she’s dangerously mistaken.

The emphasis on standardized testing in Moskowitz’s schools displays another glaring problem with her views on education reform — a blatant disregard for students with special needs. “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” Fucaloro says — and indeed, Harlem Success rosters include very few students with special needs as compared to the surrounding district schools. Fucaloro condescendingly claims that Harlem success fixes special needs kids by “undoing what parents allow kids to do in the house — usually mama.” The article, however, goes on to explain the real means by which Moskowitz’s schools solve the special needs “problem”: “When remediation falls short, according to sources in and around the network, families are counseled out,” and students are then “dumped” into nearby district schools to get the services they desperately need. If Moskowitz is really the savior of education, then why are these children ignored? Two words: test scores.

While Eva Moskowitz is no savior of public education, her misdeeds are helpful in one way — they point to what needs to be fixed in public education; over-reliance on standardized tests and ignoring students with the highest needs. School uniforms, pristine hallways and bathrooms, and gamed test scores does not equal education reform. In a world where perception is reality, Moskowitz might have some fooled. But this was never about getting it “right” for our kids. Raising test scores builds the illusion to the public that children are learning, but teachers and parents know better. In a culture where teachers are demonized for the nation’s ills, the truth falls flat. Opportunists, whether it is for financial or political gain, have rooted themselves in education. Who will save our children from such “saviors?”