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Guest Post: Why Success Academy Charter Schools are So Successful

I usually don’t visit Capitol Hill to see great teaching and learning. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to the Hill recently and observe Success Academy math teacher Dana Adnopoz masterfully deliver a lesson on proportional reasoning to a group of fifth graders.

Ms. Adnopoz’s lesson had all the components of great teaching:

  • A clear understanding of the lesson learning goal.
  • Deep understanding of the big ideas, not just the procedures, of mathematics.
  • Rich anchor problems that stimulate scholar engagement.
  • Higher-order probing questions that foster scholar discussion and discovery.
  • Gathering evidence of learning and making adjustments as necessary.


But there was a more important lesson for the audience of policymakers: Great teaching does not materialize out of thin air or by exhortation. Instead, it emerges from a culture of support and high expectations — the kind of culture that exists at Success Academy and that should be replicated in every school in every community across the country.

At Success Academy, teachers receive training and coaching throughout the year, unlike teachers at many of the nation’s schools. Success Academy school leaders and curriculum leaders work closely with teachers to plan rigorous and engaging lessons. They spend countless hours observing teachers in the classroom and giving them feedback. This laser focus on teacher training is one of the key reasons Success Academy scholars are so successful.

During the demonstration on Capitol Hill, we saw ample evidence that Ms. Adnopoz was well prepared. She asked her students non-stop probing questions like, “Why do you think that?” or “Can you explain that to your fellow scholars?” or “Can you convince the class?” These questions had been carefully planned before the lesson with the help of her principal and a math curriculum leader. It was evident that developing scholar understanding was her overarching purpose and that each “teacher move” she made was done to support scholar learning. It was evident in how mistakes and misconceptions were accepted, even celebrated, as natural components of learning and used as powerful levers to develop correct understandings. And it was so clear that the students, not the teacher, were doing the bulk of the thinking and problem solving.

Great instruction also grows from debriefing lessons. At Success Academy, teachers are constantly reflecting on what could have gone better, what could have been done differently, and what changes could be made for upcoming lessons. There is also the unflinching, guiding mindset that it is all fundamentally about the kids – or, as they are called at Success Academy, the scholars. After Ms. Adnopoz’s lesson, we witnessed a discussion with her and her principal focused on improving student outcomes with questions like: “What about Teisha’s misunderstanding?” “How about starting with Lorenzo’s work?” “Which scholars still appear to be struggling?” “What exactly can we try differently tomorrow to support James?”

Great teaching is not magic; it is hard work. Great teaching is not smoke and mirrors; it is research-affirmed instructional practices. It’s not a set of tricks; it is leadership and shared accountability. It is why Success Academy scholars from Harlem, the South Bronx, and Bed-Stuy are learning, as Eva Moskowitz puts it, “at the most rigorous and joyful levels.”

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Written by Steve Leinwand June 5, 2015

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