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Leveling the Education Playing Field, with Eva Moskowitz

Leveling the Education Playing Field, with Eva Moskowitz

Episode 93: Leveling the Education Playing Field, with Eva Moskowitz

Eva Moskowitz, Founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, has been passionate about education from the time she was young. Growing up in NYC, she was aware of the effect a family’s zip code had on a child’s destiny. With her passion for educating grades K through 12 and her service as a chairwoman of NYC Council’s Education Committee, she opened the Academy to close the achievement gap for children in low income neighborhoods. In this episode, Eva discusses how Success Academy is reversing the achievement gap, why we need to more women at the top and why it’s important for parents to have autonomy over where their kids go to school.

Episode Transcript

00:00 Rachel Griesinger: Welcome to the Ellevate podcast. Conversations of Women Changing the Face of Business. And now, your hosts, Kristy Wallace and Maricella Herrera.

00:12 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate podcast. This is your host Kristy Wallace, along with my co-host, Maricella Herrera.

00:19 Maricella Herrera: Hey Kristy, how is it going?

00:21 KW: It's going great. I'm having a great January. How about, you?

00:26 MH: [chuckle] I saw this meme the other day and it really reminded me of how I feel about January.

00:36 KW: Did it involve a cat?

00:37 MH: It did not actually but it was, it just said January is the free trial. So I'll start over in February.


00:49 KW: I saw something similar that said January is the Monday of the year.

00:53 MH: It really is, and for us it really is. It's just such a busy month, which is great. It's great to be busy, especially when it's so cold outside. You don't wanna go outside anyway. So...

01:06 KW: So, why is January so busy for us?

01:08 MH: Well, because... We're running a big promo. It's the month where we really focus on growing our community. It is the month that we've seen our community grow the most, in many years now because it is when you all are thinking of what you want to do this year and how you're gonna reach those goals. And for us that's... I would say number one, most important thing is how can we help you get there? So, we are running a promo for all of you who listen to the podcast, who love the podcast and find that the people on the podcast are amazing people you'd love to get to know and have in your community and in your network. You can have them in your community, and in your network. Just join Ellevate they're part of this big group of smart, ambitious, supportive women who want to help each other out and really help each other achieve their goals. So, if you join this month, use code "my year", you can get 20% off.

02:10 KW: Fantastic. Well, we hope you join. I'd love to meet you. And this week on the podcast, we have someone who I think really personifies what we've been talking about, when it comes to defining your own career path and following your mission. Career paths aren't always straight lines as we have Eva Moskowitz, who is the CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools. And for those that don't know Eva, she was formerly a City Council member for New York City. She then was really passionate about education, and founded her own Charter School to really pursue that, very entrepreneurial and very passionate about impacting the education space. And I think that, that's something we hear often times from women in our community is, "How do you have an impact in your city running for office?" We know that women represent roughly 20% of elected positions. So how do we get more women running for office, and then also starting your own companies and finding that personal and professional mission and really pursuing it.

03:17 KW: So, her story is great. I know you're gonna be incredibly inspired by it, I was. But before we get there, I know we have a poll to share this week, so Maricella take it away.

03:27 MH: I feel like I need a drum roll... I don't know. Yeah, great story. And I think she's someone who personifies leadership. So, what we did ask of our community is, which skill is most critical to being a successful leader at work. Any guesses? We've done this before, so you might know it.

03:50 KW: I don't, but that's tricky because I think on one hand, it's empathy and I think on the other hand, it's a cross between being able to fight for what you want and then being aware enough of all stakeholders, and being compassionate about that. But I might have a different answer if you were to ask me 10 minutes from now. So, I don't know.

04:10 MH: Well, I see what you're saying with the empathy and I do think that EQ is probably the biggest thing to actually be a leader 'cause you wanna get people to buy into what you're putting out there, and I think our members kind of agree. The first answer or the top answer, 46% of our members said strong communication.

04:32 KW: Okay.

04:33 MH: That goes into those EQ bucket.

04:36 KW: Sure.

04:36 MH: 17% said strategic thinking which makes sense. You wanna know where you wanna go. 11% said consensus building, 10% said knowing how to play the game, which I find so interesting 'cause I do not like playing the game. 6% said quick decision making and then all the rest are around 2%, and include operational skills, industry knowledge, ability to multi-task, and heck if I know.

05:08 KW: Heck if I know. Always our favorite.

05:11 MH: That's my favorite answer.

05:11 KW: That's really interesting. So, well let's hear from Eva, and what she thinks it takes to be a strong leader. She has some great insights on leadership and how she got to where she is.


05:32 KW: Thank you so much for joining us here today.

05:35 Eva Moskowitz: Thanks for having me.

05:37 KW: You are a lot of things to many people. You're an educator, former author, a mom. What set you on the path towards getting to this point? What does your story looked like?

05:49 EM: Well, I grew up in New York City, and I grew up in Harlem, and I was really committed from a fairly early age to equity. I saw first hand that zip code can determine destiny for kids. And so, I took a kind of circuitous path but I started as a college professor. I have a PhD in American history. But I became more concerned with K12 education, and I ran for office, and I became the chairwoman of the New York City Council's Education Committee and then I started my own schools. And I now have 46 schools, educating 15,500 kids, kindergarten through high school, and we are on our way to 100 schools which would make us one of the largest districts in the country, somewhere in between the Boston and Atlanta size school district.

07:04 KW: So your school's Success Academy and all based in New York City, the five boroughs.

07:10 EM: In the five boroughs. That's correct.

07:12 KW: And can you explain for our listeners that may not know what a charter school is?

07:16 EM: Sure, a charter School is a public school, which is independent from the large bureaucracy on the one hand and the labor contracts on the other. They are publicly created, they are publicly regulated, they are publicly funded, although we get less money per child than the district. And we have a compact, if you will, with the state. If we deliver on results for children we get to keep educating them.

07:49 KW: Why is this your passion, your mission? Why do you care so much about education?

07:54 EM: Well, I, of course, love my own three children, and I think all mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and grandmothers love their children. And yet, if you were a poor parent, your love of your child can't really protect him or her from a bad school system. And literally in New York City and across the country, if you live in a poor neighborhood, most likely you will have to send your child to a school that will not teach your child to read or to count. And I believe that all children should get access to a world-class education and our school system is fundamentally inequitable. So, unfortunately, there are in America, the educational haves and have nots, and it's even worse for certain categories of kids. You could end up in prison, you could end up with these very terrible outcomes, simply because you did not have access. Having nothing to do with your intellect, your work ethic, simply because you were trapped in a failing school. And I just have a profound sense that that's really unfair.

09:15 EM: And when I look out into the world, I look at other people's children as my own. What would I want for that child if that child were mine? And I would want a joyous and rigorous academic environment, where my child was loved by his or her teacher, where the non-academic subjects, art, music, dance, sports, chess, debate are as important as reading, writing, science, math. And so those are the kinds of schools that we have created at Success. And because we look at the whole child, we have been able to produce truly outstanding results. We've not only closed the achievement gap, we've actually reversed it. Our poor black and brown children are outperforming white, affluent children in the suburbs.

10:13 KW: As we talk about the achieving gap, it certainly pertains to school, but it pertains to many aspects of our society, including business and career paths. Are there learnings from what you've done at Success Academies that could be applied to corporate America or to business and how opportunities in parity can be foster particularly for those that are underserved?

10:41 EM: Well, we have the advantage that we're a high growth enterprise, and so that creates the conditions for opportunity. We also just believe in diversity. We believe very, very strongly in ideas and merit and so we tend to be very open and porous. And we have more women at the top of Success Academies than probably your standard business would, and that's in part because of the fluidity. We have a diverse workforce, about 44% of our teachers are people of color. And in part, that's because you don't have all of the restrictions that keep folks out. And so it's just... It's really a value system of ours that we want there to be no glass ceiling for any group.

11:53 KW: Great, thank you for that. I wanna talk a little bit more about the creation of Success Academy. Obviously, it didn't happen over night, I'm sure it took a lot of work. What did that look like and what was your biggest learning during that journey?

12:08 EM: Sure, well it kind of did happen overnight. In 12 years, we've gone from zero to educating 15,500 kids across 46 schools. We are actually the fastest growing set of public charter schools in America, but we started August 21st 2006, with 165 kindergarteners and first graders. And truth be told, well, I knew a lot about education from a public policy point of view. I'd never run a school, before and I didn't know how to run a great lunch room or I didn't know how to really smartly make class lists and there are just a whole host of learnings on how to run a great school. But I am a good studier and learner and I really care about excellence and quality, and I know what good learning looks like. And so I started to build the school design, I also started to build the home office which supports the school.

13:28 EM: And the scaling in a way, helped me figure it out, because when you have eight schools, you can't pretend you have one or it won't really work. And so we had to really come up with a replicable model, and it had to be replicable in terms of quality, but it also... We're very financially disciplined people, and we also have limited means. We get far less per pupil for our kids than the district gets. And one of our promises to our original funders, was that we were gonna run all of our schools on the public dollar, no matter what it was, when the schools were at scale so that imposed tremendous financial discipline on the enterprise.

14:19 KW: You recently launched a research center, correct?

14:23 EM: A training center.

14:24 KW: A training center. Why is that so important to you 'cause it sounds like it's quite an endeavor?

14:29 EM: It is quite an endeavor. It's called The Education Institute and we just named our center after Julian Robertson. And really the idea behind that was we've always had a dual mission. One is to build world class schools for the children we educate, and the other part of the mission is to change public policy, and disseminate practices that are going to make the world a better place for all children. And the Ed Institute was part of that sharing and making our resources available to everyone. So last June, we put all of our K4 literacy intellectual property online for any superintendent, principal, not only in America but around the world, and we opened the Center just this week. So superintendents and principals can come from around the country and the world to the center or through distance learning, they can see our educational practices.

15:44 KW: I know, so I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where you have a success academy in Williamsburg.

15:48 EM: I do. Yes a great school.

15:50 KW: And there's always a lot of discourse, there's a lot of parents in my neighborhood and they talk a lot and there's a lot of lovers of the school and there's others on the other end of it. But I think part of that discourse, which is so powerful is that it's happening, and the people and parents are really talking about education in a way that's elevated beyond what it had been prior when there was less options. And so, do you share a similar view about just regardless of what side of the education debate you're on we just need to be talking about it, and how do we get more people having these conversations?

16:29 EM: Well, I couldn't agree more, that once you end dialogue, that cannot be a good place to be. So there's always value in dialogue. Sometimes I wish that the dialogue was a little less venomous, because even if you don't wanna send your own child to a particular school and I have three children and they wouldn't all necessarily be able to go to one school 'cause they're different. What was right for my older son was not right for my youngest. But I don't think we can be against choices for other people. And frankly, if you're less affluent you have fewer choices, you can't move to the suburbs, you can't send your kid to an independent school that costs a lot of money, you might not even be able to afford a parochial school. And so I think, while we're debating district education or public charters, we should always be respectful of parents' right to choose a school for their child. I wouldn't want anyone but my husband and I to choose where we send our own kids and so I think we should be respectful of parents' right to decide.

17:52 KW: Yep, and thank you for that, I agree with that. So you were a former council person in New York City, that is an elected position.

18:03 EM: That's correct.

18:04 KW: I'm inspired and excited about that, because I would love to see more women run for office. And particularly, I think the learnings you have when you're in office and the impact you can have that voice. What was the catalyst for you running, and then what was that experience like?

18:20 EM: Well, it was... I really gotta give my husband a lot of credit. I was always talking about public policy. I was interested in social change for a very long time. In high school I was very socially active, as a college student I was very active. I founded something at the University of Pennsylvania, called the Political Participation Center. I taught Civics, but I never, I never thought I could run for office. And my husband said to me one day, "It's the only profession you don't need a degree for. You just need 50 plus one votes, and you're good with people. You should go out there and run." And I thought it was sort of one of the craziest ideas he had, because I wasn't wealthy, I wasn't connected to the Democratic Party infrastructure. But I ran for office and I worked 24/7, and it was the closest race in the city of New York.

19:27 EM: But I lost, and then I ran two years later, and I won. And when I ran two years later, I really debated, because I had a one-year old. And so, this was campaigning with a stroller. My husband and I realized it was our anniversary when I was petitioning to get on the ballot. And we were out petitioning as was my mother-in-law, and my parents and friends and family. But I won in 1999 and served for close to seven years.

20:07 KW: It's been said that some of the things that are keeping women from running for office is confidence. So it's great to hear the support network that really championed you. It's network and particularly knowing people in the political space. And it's also money, the fundraising, asking for money, getting those donations. So was that a difficult process for you to manage that...

20:35 EM: Incredibly difficult. I ran against a billionaire.

20:39 KW: Oh great.

20:40 EM: And I have nothing against billionaires, but it's easier for them. And I come from relatively modest middle class circumstances. I didn't even know people who wrote checks to politics. The people I knew were the door knockers, not the check writers. And so, in my first race, I made 15,000 cold calls to raise a quarter of a million dollars.

21:11 KW: You personally made...

21:12 EM: I personally. [chuckle] I had one of those tele-market... This is the worst things. I had one of those sets that would automatically dial, and as soon as the person hung up another person would come on.

21:24 KW: Oh my goodness.

21:25 EM: And I would say, "Hi, I'm Eva Moskowitz." And most people would slam the phone down. It was an incredibly exhausting, albeit educational experience. And I was really determined not to lose because of money. I felt that was inherently unfair. If I lost because my platform wasn't good, or the voters decided that I wasn't as good a candidate, but to lose over money, that seemed really unfair to me. So I worked really hard and I kept calling and calling. And it's amazing that the more you call, the more you raise, if you're willing to have a lot of people slam the phone down. And sometimes say sort of nasty things, you can, and you get better at making your case.

22:18 KW: It's sales. It's a numbers game, it's a big effort. And I'm super impressed that you did that.

22:27 EM: And I had bad luck by the way, because when I ran in 1999, I ran against a second billionaire. Now I was running in the East Side of Manhattan, where there are more billionaires than average. But it required that I do that over again and more, but I do think it shows that money isn't everything. Because she had about ten times the amount of money that I had and I still won.

22:57 KW: How do we get more women to run for office?

23:00 EM: I think it's the confidence issue, and it's not that I was super confident. I think I was pretty determined to give it my all and do the best I could. That's just the person I am. But it was scary to debate on issues that I hadn't studied before, and it was nerve racking to ask wealthy people for money. It feels like you're asking for you, but you're really not, you're asking to do the people's business. And so it's not an investment in you, it's really a public service. And so I would just encourage... We desperately need more women in office. It's actually gotten worse, meaning fewer women are in elected office. And if you don't have women at the ground level you're not gonna have US Senators, you're not gonna have presidential candidates, and so forth. And so we really need to support and encourage women to go into politics and public service and it's a little bit of a discouraging time, at this moment, but it really... Doing the people's business is really, really important.

24:27 EM: The public policies that we embrace can really help people or not. It can grow the prosperity of the locality or country or not. It can encourage innovation or not. And having people who care about the public square, and a public spirit, unfortunately, is not as common as we'd all like it to be. And so I always encourage public-spirited-minded men and women, for that matter, to go into politics and run for office.

25:07 KW: Speaking of politics, when I was doing research for this interview, there was some... There's an article that referenced you had sharp elbows, and it's sort of hearkened back to last November during the election where with Hillary Clinton, there was a lot of commentary on her voice or on her look and kind of things that could be construed as if it was a man it would not be a negative, if it's a woman it's a negative. And do you think that's the case in some of those sharp elbows commentary that you're just... You're passionate about what you do, you're working hard. And the gender lens tells the narrative a little bit differently.

25:55 EM: Yes, absolutely, others will have to judge, but sharp elbows often... To me I have conviction and so I'm not bending with the wind. I think that children have certain needs and schools need to get the resources, and the space and the attention that they need to be really great and so I'm not incredibly compromising on my standards of excellence, and children's advocacy. But I do think there's a level of sexism and bias that that kind of vocabulary is not often used with men. I'm also called ambitious and I never know what to do with that because I am very ambitious for children. I want all that they can have in the world and I want them to be able to make all the choices that they wanna be able to make. So I think I need to say uncle to, "Am I ambitious?" But it's not for personal gain, it really is to foster something as fundamental as equality of opportunity.

27:22 KW: You recently came out with a book The Education of Eva Moskowitz and I'm excited about that because clearly through the podcast, as you can tell we love storytelling. Why was it important to you to write this book?

27:40 EM: It was incredibly important to me to write the book because I think so many people care about kids, and teaching and learning, and they don't really understand why our school system isn't better. And obviously, in poor neighborhoods, the schools tend to be failing and very bad, but even in affluent suburban neighborhoods we're not keeping up with the rest of the world in terms of educational quality. And I think if you are a lay person who has a busy day job, it's hard to tell from reading the newspapers. Well why is that the case? And in New York City, for example, we spend $31 billion a year and yet 90% of our kids can't read and can't count. And so it's not like we're a little off, we're profoundly off. It's a dysfunctional, broken system. The 10% of schools that are working tend to be in affluent neighborhoods, so it's dysfunctional in a highly segregated way.

28:51 EM: And I have studied this question of public education as a policy maker and as a practitioner and I wanted readers to understand that it's the politics that is preventing us from solving this problem. There are diseases that we don't how to cure and we're just gonna have to do all this research and invest in finding solutions. We actually know how to educate children, but the politics prevents us from changing a pretty broken system and it's my hope that if enough people understand the what, the why and the how, we can overcome the politics and really just have children and teaching and learning as our north star. Instead of... Do we really... What difference does it make if it's the district system, if that's the service delivery mechanism or it's a public charter school. I don't know if we should care so much as long as the school is great, as long as the school is meeting the needs of children, to me that's what's most important.

30:01 KW: So what's next on your to do list? What's next for you?

30:06 EM: Well, I am trying to get to 100 schools very, very quickly. We had 17,000 parents last year who applied to go to our schools, we only had 3,000 spots, so we turned 14,000 parents away. And those parents love their kids just as much as the parents of the 3,000 kids who got in. And so we feel a tremendous sense of urgency and duty, to grow as quickly as we can while guaranteeing quality. So that is... I'm very committed to that. I do think that I might run for office again at some point. As I said I think it's...

30:56 KW: For what spot?

30:58 EM: Well, I have talked about running for mayor at some point, so I might do that, but I'm not being coy. I have not made a decision, I'm very, very focused on serving as many kids as fast as I can.

31:17 KW: Well, thank you. How could our listeners learn more about your work and the schools?

31:22 EM: So you can learn more about us at, which is our website that has a virtual school tour, so you can literally take a tour of our elementary and middle schools, and learn a lot of demographic information about who we serve and data about our results.


31:49 KW: Thank you.

31:50 EM: Thank you.

31:55 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review.

32:07 RG: Also don't forget to follow us on Twitter at Ellevate NTWK, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member, you can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website,, that's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E Network dot com. And special thanks to our producer, Katherine Heller, she rocks, and to our voiceover artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much and join us next week.

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