Systematizing Success at Inner City Public Schools
Success Academy employs a highly centralized, process driven model to improve the quality and consistency of student outcomes and attract donor dollars.
Founded in 2006, Success Academy is a charter school network that operates 34 schools and serves 11,000 students in New York City. Their published mission statement is to ‘build exceptional, world-class public schools…and serve as a catalyst and national model for education reform’. In 2015, 93% of their students were proficient in Math and 68% were proficient in English, performance which ranks Success in the top 1% of all state schools for Math and top 3% for English1. These outcomes are even more incredible given that Success Academy serves some of the most underprivileged communities in New York. However, these results are the product of an operating model that has met with extensive criticism and led some observers to counter that the ends don’t justify the means.
A Business Model Built on Success
As a public school, Success’ business model relies on public funding. Schools receive a certain amount of funding per enrolled student as well as free facilities. Therefore, driving demand for their services amongst parents and students is critical. However, as a charter school, Success also relies heavily on private funding (23% of total funds in 20132) and local government support for continued school openings. All of these components are primarily driven by the student outcomes generated. Without stellar results, attendance, private funding, and local government support would likely dry up.
Operating Model – Consistency as the Driver of Outcomes
Success’ operating model shares characteristics with many other charter schools – the school day and year are longer, student discipline is tightly controlled – but what sets Success apart is its method for delivering education. Success’ operating model is systematized, from content creation to execution, and focuses on removing variability from the education production process to improve the quality and consistency of outcomes.
At a Success school, the lesson plan is not up for debate. The curriculum is centrally designed, in stark contrast to the autonomy teachers receive in most other schools. Curriculum lesson plans are rolled out in units across all schools and teachers meet weekly to review their implementation plans. To further enhance consistency, a video of each lesson as taught by an experienced teacher is made available. These efforts promote consistency and also allow for rapid best practices sharing. Through substantial IT investments and data tracking, Success is able to quickly identify best and worst performing teachers after unit assessments and act on these findings3.
Success Academy also has made training a core piece of its operating model. A year long stint as a co-teacher and a four week summer training session help indoctrinate newcomers to the Success method of teaching. In 2012, to improve teacher quality, Success entered a partnership with Touro College to offer a Master’s degree and teacher certification credential4. Once in the classroom, teachers continue to receive substantial coaching. All administrative and operations responsibilities are centrally managed, freeing up school principals to observe teachers for much of the day.
These operational aspects serve to change an historically people-centric model into a process-centric model and, as a result, increased the consistency and quality of student outcomes.
Long workdays and a demanding environment takes its toll on the Success workforce. Teacher turnover is exceeds 50 percent annually at some schools. As a result, Success has been criticized for treating teachers as dispensable inputs5. The operating and business models help to mitigate the impact of this turnover. The operating model, focused on process, not personality, makes the individual teacher less important and moves people up the learning curve quickly. The business model, focused on growth, gives those who do succeed unparalleled opportunities. Teachers become principals or found schools while still in their 20’s, a model that attracts extremely talented individuals and supports an operating model that generates turnover.
Conclusion and Future Prospects
Success Academy is building truly exceptional schools. Their operating model delivers quality results regardless of the varied inputs – teachers, students, and other exogenous factors. This has driven significant private dollars into their coffers – including $8.5M this summer from John Paulson6. Consistency and order are staples of the Success model (humorously, even their logo is neatly arranged with only seven letter words).
I applaud success for challenging the existing operating model in schools and at least providing a different proposed solution to the persistent problem of scholastic underperformance in the U.S. However, when growth prospects eventually dwindle and the organization matures, the sustainability of their operating model will be challenged.
1”Our Results.” Success Academy Charter Schools. 2015. Dec 8, 2015. http://jobs.successacademies.org/results/.
2Taylor, Kate. “At Success Academy Charter Schools, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics.” The New York Times. Apr 6, 2015. Dec 8, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/nyregion/at-success-academy-charter-schools-polarizing-methods-and-superior-results.html?_r=0
3Lydia Cuomo (former Success Academy teacher). Interviewed by Dan Egan on Dec 9, 2015.
4Cramer, Philissa and Rachel Cromidas. “Striking deal with Touro, Success jumps into teacher preparation.” Chalkbeat New York. Oct 19, 2012. Dec 8, 2015. http://ny.chalkbeat.org/2012/10/19/striking-deal-with-touro-success-jumps-into-teacher-preparation/#.Vmeq8EorKM-.
5Di Carlo, Matthew. “Teacher Turnover at Success Academy Charter Schools.” Albert Shanker Institute. Apr 9, 2015. Dec 9, 2015. http://www.shankerinstitute.org/blog/teacher-turnover-success-academy-charter-schools.
6Taylor, Kate. “Success Academy Gets $8.5M to Add Charter Schools to New York City.” The New York Times. Jul 30, 2015. Dec 9, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/31/nyregion/success-academy-receives-gift-for-new-schools.html.
Student comments on Systematizing Success at Inner City Public Schools
Dan – I really enjoyed this post. Education is something that affects everyone and Success’s novel operating structure clearly addresses several of the historical issues with low-income area schools. It is interesting, though, to consider their business model and how scalable it is. The network has faced criticism in recent years for “pushing out” students that fall behind (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/30/nyregion/at-a-success-academy-charter-school-singling-out-pupils-who-have-got-to-go.html?_r=0) and not backfilling open seats in later grades once students drop out. These policies provide an exceptional school environment for the bright and motivated students who can fit in at Success, but can that model serve an entire community? Having a budget that relies on 23% private funding also limits scalability. If there is a trade off in education between access and achievement, it sounds like the Success business model is heavily focused on achievement by creating a few “magnet” schools for a small number of high performing students. While certainly a valuable service, Success should clearly communicate this business model to attract the right student base, private funding, and government support as it continues to grow.
Very interesting post, Dan. Indeed, the US ought to dramatically raise the level of its students pre-college if it intends to compete with some of the top nations in terms of scholastic achievements (Singapore, Korea, Finland, Poland, France). I am glad to see that some schools try to tackle this problem. I read that the kids’ performance mostly depends on how they allocate their time outside of school. I see from your post that Success Academy Charter Schools lengthen the day of class and increase the number of school days per year; is there anything else that you think they could do along these lines to help increase achievements? Have they, for example, involved parents in creating an environment outside the classroom that is conducive to learning?
Btw, on that topic, I really like the book “Smartest kids in the world: and how they got that way” by Amanda Ripley
First, bravo for writing about operations at a non-profit organization. Extra kudos for writing about the operational efficiencies at a successful charter school (so often is public attention drawn towards the operational INefficiences of our schools), and MAJOR kudos for doing all of the above really, really well!
I think all your points regarding the effects of standardized processes (e.g. reduced variability and a more process-centric model) are spot on. I wonder, though, what is the purpose of a sound operational model in the context of a school? If the purpose is to enhance a school’s business model, then what is the purpose of its business model? To enhance teacher performance or student performance? And if teacher performance and student performance go hand-in-hand, then does a business model that only satisfies one type of performance and not the other indicative of a poor operations model?
Currently, the convention is to view teacher performance as the input and student outcomes as the outputs. Unfortunately, I don’t think our society understands that producing high quality outputs (i.e. student outcomes) is really, really difficult, and therefore requires really, really high inputs. People become concerned when they hear teachers burning out or being laid off when they fail to meet a school’s high standards. It almost seems as if critics want to see our current system, with low-quality inputs, turn out high-quality products.
However, what if teachers were viewed as outputs instead of inputs? What if the purpose of a school was to make teachers more efficient and effective so that they don’t burn out?
I agree, Success Academy has a terrific operational model in that it focus’ on student outcomes, but considering its high teacher turnover rate, I think its operational model leaves much to be desired. Only until schools adopt an operational model that views teacher performance as outputs and not inputs will high-achieving schools truly ever have a sustainable business model.
Would love to hear your thoughts!
Super interesting, Dan! I haven’t heard of Success before, but I am really intrigued about their business model and their mission. I think there are a lot of great things that Success Academy offers and I think the organization has a lot of potential to really make a difference in educational reform. My only concern with their model is this notion of having a centrally designed curriculum – while I can see advantages to this model, when I think about the formative impact that teachers can have on students’ lives, I wonder if a centrally designed curriculum would stifle some of the impact that individual teachers can have on their students? I think teachers have an impact when they are able to design their own curriculums and explore their own methods of teaching – with everything systematized the way Success Academy has structured its program, I fear that the 1:1 influence that a teacher can have may be mitigated.