In his Still Left Behind piece on education in the November 26, 2006 New York Times Magazine (subscription required), Paul Tough does a great job of describing what the most successful charter schools serving typically low-performing communities are doing. The most successful schools follow three practices, he writes:
"First, they require many more hours of class time than a typical public school. The school day starts early, at 8 a.m. or before, and often continues until after 4 p.m. These schools offer additional tutoring after school as well as classes on Saturday mornings, and summer vacation usually lasts only about a month. The schools try to leaven those long hours with music classes, foreign languages, trips and sports, but they spend a whole lot of time going over the basics: reading and math.
Second, they treat classroom instruction and lesson planning as much as a science as an art. Explicit goals are set for each year, month and day of each class, and principals have considerable authority to redirect and even remove teachers who aren't meeting those goals. The schools' leaders believe in frequent testing, which, they say, lets them measure what is working and what isn't, and they use test results to make adjustments to the curriculum as they go. Teachers are trained and retrained, frequently observed and assessed by their principals and superintendents. There is an emphasis on results but also on 'team building,' cooperation and creativity, and the schools seem, to an outsider at least, like genuinely rewarding places to work, despite the long hours. They tend to attract young, enthusiastic teachers, including many alumni of Teach for
America, the program that recruits graduates from top universities to work for two years in inner-city public schools.
Third, they make a conscious effort to guide the behavior, and even the values, of their students by teaching what they call character. Using slogans, motivational posters, incentives, encouragements and punishments, the schools direct students in everything from the principles of teamwork and the importance of an optimistic outlook to the nuts and bolts of how to sit in class, where to direct their
eyes when a teacher is talking and even how to nod appropriately.
The schools are, in the end, a counterintuitive combination of touchy-feely idealism and intense discipline."
Now that's really a great summary of what KIPP and other similar schools are doing, and these topics deserve much more attention from parent leaders and allied organizations working to improve low-performing schools. We need to recognize, discuss and debate the following issues:
- Are many college-educated middle class educators reluctant and/or afraid to aggressively teach values and behavior the way KIPP and similar schools do? Should they be? Are middle class educators sometimes afraid of the kids they teach? Do educators sometimes feel guilty about their good fortune and does this guilt make them reluctant to "crack down" on poor behavior when poor kids are the ones behaving poorly? Is KIPP laying critical cultural groundwork to enable learning or is it engaging in a form of "cultural imperialism"?
- Do we expect enough of our principals with respect to "leading teaching and learning" in our schools? I keep running across parents who say "Our school has a great principal," but when I probe deeper, they mean that the principal is good at building community. They have no idea if the principal really understands instruction or leads teachers through a process to discover the most effective ways to teach the school's children. Shouldn't we be expecting more from our principals?
- And what about that longer school day, especially for disadvantaged kids? Is it really realistic to fit in a strong basic academic program, and a strong enrichment program in six or six and a half hours? Isn't it time to get realistic about this, and to commit the funding that it will take to lengthen the school day so that we can fit everythig in?
I'd love to hear from you with your thoughts on these issues — leave a comment here or drop me a line at email@example.com.