Sunday, February 14, 2016

Fear and Learning at Success Academy

On Friday, the New York Times ran an article and accompanying video showing a Success Academy teacher berating a young child, ripping up the child's work in the child's face, sending the child to the corner and loudly accusing the child of "confusing everybody" and "infuriating me." On the same day Success Academy CEO, Eva Moskowitz, held a news conference, with the teary-eyed teacher, Charlotte Dial, standing at her side, in which Moskowitz defended the teacher, her schools and her policies, berated the New York Times for coverage bias, and described the incident as an "anomaly."

First of all, let's understand that the incident was anything but an anomaly. The reason an assistant teacher in the room surreptitiously shot the video was because she was concerned about this teacher's "daily harsh treatment of children." Secondly, we need to understand that this type of teaching is rewarded in the Success Academy. Ms. Dial was considered so effective that she was promoted to a position where she could model practice for other teachers. Thirdly, we need to understand that this is a pattern that is repeated over and over in Success Academy schools, where one principal kept an infamous "got to go" list of struggling learners he targeted for removal from the school and where harsh discipline and instructional practices have been well documented.

One thing that surprised me in these articles and in the comments that people left online in response, was how so many people see the teacher's behavior not as the child abuse that it appeared to be to me, but as a necessary part of the discipline practices needed for children to learn. One mother of three Success Academy children said, "I think discipline is necessary." One online commentor said the incident wasn't worth an article in the New York Times and we need to stop "coddling children." Another parent said, "I wish my child could have a math teacher like Ms. Dial."

I agree that discipline is a necessary part of learning. Children learn best in an environment that is calm, consistent and well-ordered. But discipline should not and cannot be equated with fear. Fear does irreparable harm to learning. The Times article quotes Dr. James P. McDonald, professor at NYU, who, after viewing the video said,

Because the child's learning is still a little fragile - as all learning is initially - she made an error. Good classrooms (and schools) are places where errors are regarded as a necessary byproduct of learning. But not here. Making an error in (Ms. Dial's) classroom is a social offense." 

He says that the classroom is likely full of fear and that children will likely not feel safe making mistakes.

In his book, The Motivated Student: Unlocking the Enthusiasm for Learning (ASCD, 2009), Bob Sullo dedicates the first chapter to eliminating fear in the classroom. He says that "fear remains one of the most widely used strategies for managing student behavior and encouraging academic achievement", but "fear compromises our ability to learn." Learning is risky business. As Dr. McDonald says, learning is fragile. Children will not and cannot take the risks necessary to learn in an atmosphere of fear. Why would any child in a classroom run on fear take the risk of asking a question for clarification? Why would any child raise her hand to answer a question if there was a good chance the answer would be greeted by public ridicule?

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2010) says that

It is essential that that children have safe, secure environments in which to grow, learn and develop healthy brains and bodies. Science shows that early exposure to circumstances that produce persistent fear and chronic anxiety can have lifelong effects on brain architecture.

I believe that it is safe to say that many of the children who attend Success Academy schools come from neighborhood environments where fear and chronic anxiety are the norm. The Success Academy school, rather than providing a safe haven for these fragile young learners, doubles down on fear and anxiety and introduces it into the learning environment as well.

There is no excuse for using fear to intimidate or motivate children. It is simply unacceptable and abusive and ultimately counterproductive to learning. Success Academy can boast of its high test scores, but any serious educator must ask the question, "At what price this very narrow success?"

I cannot help but notice in the video that this white teacher is belittling a young African American child. I am put in mind of the plantation of the Antebellum south, where instead of ripping up a child's paper, the master meted out forty lashes with the whip.