Success Academy Isn’t Being THAT Unreasonable About Pre-K

For the last three months, the Success Academy charter network has refused to sign a mandatory pre-k contract with the NYC Department of Education. The contract – which every other city pre-k provider already signed – would allow NYC DOE to oversee Success Academy’s five pre-k classes.

Success Academy hasn’t said why they’re not signing the contract. Some critics suggest that the network is trying to avoid program oversight, or is picking a fight with the city, or is just being difficult.

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Another standoff between Success Academy and Mayor Bill de Blasio

But I don’t think that’s what’s happening. It’s more likely that Success Academy doesn’t want to be considered a “vendor” to the NYC DOE program – and with good reason.

NYC DOE pre-k vendors are subject to a number of requirements that K-12 charters are not. When a charter school becomes a vendor, it needs to follow complicated and burdensome administrative requirements that aren’t required of other public schools. And all pre-k vendors — including  charter schools — have to agree to a twice-annual program quality inspection. A 17-page rubric governs each inspection visit.

Success Academy might agree to the inspections if the rubric were reasonable. But it’s not. The suggested evidence list is overly prescriptive and focused on inputs. Program monitors are required to note, for example, if a pre-k classroom doesn’t have a “Block Building area with an adequate supply of blocks in varied sizes that is organized and labeled,” or “a private space for each child’s possessions,” or a posted daily schedule that is “referenced daily, represented in pictures and words, and displayed at children’s eye level.”

Such a prescriptive and inputs-based rubric should alarm charter advocates. The entire charter movement is predicated on an autonomy-for-accountability agreement: Charter schools get increased autonomy in exchange for stricter accountability for student outcomes. This rubric strips charters of the autonomy that they get in K-12, while holding them accountable for questionable inputs. The rubric practically incentivizes charters to regress back to their pre-innovation state.

NYC DOE isn’t the only agency that relies on inputs to monitor pre-k quality. The federal Head Start program started looking at child outcomes after the 2007 Head Start Act reauthorization, but still largely assesses program quality with a (very long) compliance checklist. Many states, like Washington and Arkansas, require pre-k programs to meet similarly burdensome requirements.

To be sure, these types of rubrics have a place in the world of pre-k accountability. They can ensure programs meet a baseline level of quality – but that baseline is low. These rubrics were also largely created with childcare providers, not charter schools, in mind, so these requirements reflect a different set of priorities and goals. Sara Mead and I wrote a report earlier this year that flagged this issue in a number of states.

All of this means that Success Academy isn’t being that unreasonable in their refusal to sign the pre-k contract. I’m not saying that Success Academy shouldn’t be held accountable for its students. They should – but for more important indicators than the number of building blocks in their Building Block area.

Disclosure: Bellwether has worked with several high-performing charters schools in New York City but Success Academy is not among them.