Charter School Founder Eva Moskowitz Sees Benefits, But Too Much Hype, in Ed-Tech

Senior Editor

New York City

At a forum meant to tout the promise of educational technology, a prominent charter school founder from the host city urged entrepreneurs and school leaders against treating digital tools as a panacea.

Success Academy Charter Schools Founder Eva Moskowitz, while acknowledging that her views were “probably unpopular in this room,” said “there a tendency to see ed tech as a savior,” and she remains skeptical of that view.

Moskowitz was one of the featured speakers at NY Ed Tech Week, a three-day gathering at New York University that brings together ed-tech companies, investors, academic researchers, and others to trade ideas, test products among their peers, and network. 

Success Academy’s New York City-based charter schools, which were launched in 2006, are known for placing strong demands and accountability on students and teachers, and for producing remarkable results while serving a student population that is largely African-American and Hispanic and economically disadvantaged.

Along the way, Moskowitz has stoked controversy and engaged in public battles with teachers’ unions and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, among others. And Success Academy’s model has many critics who say its schools are too test-focused, heap far too much pressure on teachers, and are too punitive for students.

Even so, Success Academy’s footprint in the nation’s largest school system is growing. The charter network now operates 46 schools, and it hopes to eventually reach 100, Moskowitz told the conference attendees.

At the ed-tech forum, Moskowitz cautioned the ed-tech community about over-hyping the benefits that digital strategies can play in engaging students and sparking their curiosity–though she said tech can play a role.

In fact, in some areas, ed tech offers clear benefits to districts, Moskowitz said. The rise of student information systems and other administrative platforms have benefited Success Academy and other K-12 systems by making record-keeping on students “faster, better, cheaper,” and more precise, particularly in keeping track of the needs of specific populations, such as special education students.

“There’s a whole lot of infrastructure that needs to be automated and digitized,” Moskowitz said.

Technology has also brought benefits to the classroom in Success Academy–though often in ways that are unexpected, the charter school founder added.

For instance, many of the charter network’s teachers are using Google Classroom, a management system, to communicate with students about writing assignments in rich, meaningful ways, Moskowitz said.

Traditionally, it’s been too easy for teachers to slip into providing quick but not-very-helpful comments on students’ writing, like “good job,” Moskowitz said. The Google product has had a role in encouraging teachers to offer students more specific feedback, in areas such as crafting sharp thesis statements and supporting their arguments with compelling evidence.

Its classroom suite is offering Success Academy teachers more of a “window on how to improve the quality of teacher feedback and coaching,” she said.

Moskowitz said she’s seen similarly surprising results in her schools’ use of a tech tool that rarely features prominently in discussions of innovative ed-tech: audio books.

In addition to relieving some of the needs for space created by print materials, audio books seem to help Success Academy enrollees grasp nuances in stories that they might otherwise miss when reading them on the page.

For some students, “it’s often hard for [them] to hear the voice” in the narrative, she said. The audio option “frees their minds to think more deeply.”

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