Last spring, Eric Mahmoud had an experience that made his heart skip a beat. He was visiting Success Academy, one of the phenomenally successful New York City schools founded by the controversial Eva Moskowitz.
Mahmoud walked into a kindergarten classroom just as the teacher was asking a student a question. The student stood up, for a silent moment visibly unsure of the right reply.
“You could see the struggle to get the answer,” Mahmoud recalls. “While we might give hints, they let it go on for an uncomfortable minute.”
For Mahmoud, founder and CEO of the Harvest Network of Schools in Minneapolis, the moment was uncomfortable on several levels. There was the discomfort of watching the tiny pupil work through the possibilities in front of the class. But there was also a pang of insight into how much better the programs in Mahmoud’s schools could be doing.
“It almost made me cry,” says Mahmoud. “The vocabulary, the level of response, the digging into the meaning of texts. … To reach this level of rigor there has to be significant intellectual heavy lifting on the part of the student.”
Mahmoud has long experience being the school leader who opens the door to outsiders seeking answers on eliciting excellence from the most vulnerable children. For years Harvest students outpaced impoverished children of color throughout the state in math and reading.
Enter Common Core standards
But then in 2013, reading scores tanked. Proficiency among Harvest students fell from 80 percent overall to 40 percent. The same thing was happening in schools all over the country as teachers and principals adopted the more complex Common Core language arts standards.
On average, schools’ reading scores fell by 25 percent last year. At Success Academies, however, the dip was just 2 percent. As Mahmoud thought about what he was seeing and what he was learning about preparing kids to succeed in college, he reminded himself that proficient was a mediocre bar.
“In 2009, I could brag about being the best of the worst,” he says. “Over the last 20-30 years college standards have stayed the same or increased, but K-12 standards have declined.”
The crux of the debate
This is in fact the crux of the roiling national debate over Common Core, which is the outgrowth of two decades of efforts to make sure U.S. students have the knowledge and skills to keep the work force competitive.
The new, state-developed standards are not a curriculum but rather an effort to develop creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. They are harder than what has been asked of previous generations, which attended school when American prosperity carried the competitive day.
Most recently, federal education officials may have miscalculated by pushing states to adopt the standards at the same time as teacher evaluation systems based in part on student outcomes. As teachers throughout the country become better versed in them, there is evidence that acceptance has grown.
And yet so has the popular perception — fueled by the rush of publishers of textbooks and exams seeking to capitalize on the change — that Common Core is a national curriculum or a testing regime.
Indeed New York is the epicenter of a raging controversy about halting the changes. Moskowitz has gone toe-to-toe with Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who has sought to reverse many of the reforms that occurred during Michael Bloomberg’s tenure.
After NYC trip: immediate changes
If Mahmoud is tracking the national din, he betrays no sign of it. When he got back from New York the Harvest team made a number of immediate changes.
Moskowitz’s philosophy at Success Academy, he notes, “Is if you make the adults better, the students will do better. We’re trying to replicate that.”
His adults didn’t know any more about the new approaches than the general public. “Probably seven of 10 couldn’t tell you why the standards were different,” Mahmoud says.
For him the biggest why was that too many students all over the nation were successful in K-12 but found themselves struggling when they got to college — because they had little experience with that moment of struggle he watched at Success Academy. Nor did their teachers have the parallel experience that teachers at the New York school have in their more rigorous professional development.
Raised teachers’ professional development
The states and school networks that have been most successful in implementing the new standards have invested heavily in teacher training. Mahmoud took the unusual step of shortening the student school year by two weeks, bringing the amount of professional development teachers spend getting ready to 26 days.
And he has doubled down on growing his own teaching and talent. While 15 percent of MPS teachers are non-white, six in 10 Harvest staffers are people of color. Many are alums coaxed back.
Because the network has two instructors in most classrooms, some of the educators of color are content experts who are working on their teaching credentials.
In Harvest classrooms the new reading instruction methods look like anything but “drilling and killing.” One recent morning found three groups of kids working with two teachers in a second-grade classroom in the converted nursing home that is Harvest’s first campus.
There are 30 kids. One group is clustered together reading quietly. Another is arrayed around a teacher in one corner working on vocabulary words.
Questions about the text
In the opposite end of the room a second teacher is engaged in “close reading,” the process of examining a text — a story about teasing and self-esteem — for everything from the author’s intent to inferences and structural cues. The teacher is asking questions to elicit basic responses followed by more elaborate ones.
“So are we seeing a character change? What changed, Jeanette?
“Let’s talk about how our character felt at the start of the story. How did Chrysanthemum feel at the beginning? Happy? What’s a better word than happy? Excited!”
The day’s objective was to read for cause and effect, the teacher explained to the group: “So what caused our character to go from excited to upset? Her friends were judging her.”
There are several important things going on here. First, the teachers have moved away from “whole group” instruction where all students are expected to read at the same level and move at the same speed.
Second, the students are being taught using the approaches favored by both camps in the so-called reading wars. This is much more difficult for teachers, hence the intensive focus on professional development.
“The teachers sit together and say, ‘Where is the North Star, what are the steps to get there?’” Mahmoud says. “We are really creating a culture of practice.”
Finally, under Common Core the students will read stories such as “Chrysanthemum,” but will focus much more heavily on nonfiction reading in a variety of subjects. At Harvest, that means psychology, science, social studies and other topics.
‘It’s OK to struggle’
“Now when you read a hard text, it’s OK to struggle,” says Mahmoud. “That’s what we do.”
To hear Mahmoud talk, you might never know that his painful ah-ha moment at Success Academies — itself the epicenter of a debate over whether and how school reform may play out in New York — is connected to a larger controversy.
Mahmoud’s visit to the East Coast school occurred as part of his participation in an 18-month program called the Charter Network Accelerator. A joint effort by three charter networks, Aspire Public Schools, YES Prep and Achievement First, the program is intended to give 12 charter groups the capacity to scale up successful programming.
Right now, Harvest serves almost 1,300 kindergarten through eighth-graders, plus preschoolers at its SEED Academy at two North Minneapolis campuses. New this year is a middle school enrolling 300 in the former Lincoln Community School building a few blocks from Harvest’s first campus.
Asked to create Mastery schools
Harvest was originally tapped by Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) two years ago to create four high-performing Mastery schools — mastery being a model centered on the concept of “conquering a task via effort.”
After Mahmoud and MPS opened the first Mastery School, state officials insisted Minnesota’s controversial charter lease aid law prohibits the district from acting as both the program’s charter authorizer and its landlord.
This complicates the legal configurations of the planned new schools, but the original intent of the partnership with the district remains, says Mahmoud. The renamed Harvest Network of Schools is Minnesota’s first charter management organization.
The goal is to open three more schools over the next decade, with capacity for 3,800, or 51 percent of students on the north side. When the network is complete, six elementary programs will feed two middle schools.
If there are gaps between middle school and college, the Harvest alums will understand that struggle is part of the learning process.
“If you are used to struggle and struggle is OK, it’s not going to throw you off,” says Mahmoud. “They’re building the intellectual muscles to get to the goals.”