Success Academy was obviously not happy with this publicity. There has been a lot recently. But it is always framed as one teacher or one leader or one school simply not reflecting the network’s values. It’s not clear to me why this excuse is accepted. It is these the same people who rage that such things happening in “normal” schools is reflective of a general culture in the “normal” system or people wed to the status quo who don’t want to admit that what they do doesn’t work.
I was troubled by David Brooks’ column this weekend about communities of character and the schools that he uses as examples of institutions that intentionally focus on building students’ characters. I also had a conversation on Tuesday with someone who used the term “character-driven” to refer to schools like KIPP, Success Academy and the Denver School for Science and Technology (which I reference here only because it was highlighted in Brooks’ article). Given some recent schools visits I have been making, including to a Success Academy school in New York, I am worried that these college prep charter schools are now being held up as examples of schools that nurture and promote character.
Someone asked me exactly who I meant when I used this term, and it’s a fair question. I intentionally put the phrase in quotes for the purposes of my open letter because it has been used over time by dozens of different groups committed to changing the US education system from whatever happened to be the prevailing approach at the time.
Today, however, I am using it in the way that it is used as a self-identification term by a group of individuals in the education policy space who adhere to a general set of ideas about what approaches and policy levers should be used to create meaningful change in education. It is a diverse camp that pulls together individuals and groups that often believe in the same solutions but for very different reasons. An example would be charter schools, an idea appealing to both Democrats and Republicans for related but perhaps ultimately different goals.
Shocking? Research finds that teachers’ experience level matters
When a Colorado task force, the LEAD Compact, was convened in 2013 one of the questions that arose was the issue of teacher quality. A range of experts came in to speak to the group about the research that underlay one of the unspoken assumptions of the task force’s conveners and reform advocacy groups: that teachers gradually reach a plateau in their effectiveness after 3-5 years on the job; that there is little evidence that improvement continues after the first three years; and that on average, teachers with 20 years of experience are not much more effective than those with 5 years of experience.
Last fall I had friends over whose son was in the same class as my son at our local Montessori school. They were a bit annoyed at the school and the teacher because they felt that their son was floundering and nothing was being done; they were considering changing schools. Montessori schools are organized into multi-age classrooms and their son had just moved from a primary (ages 3-5 years) classroom into a lower elementary classroom (grades 1-3).
My older son had made that exact same transition the previous year and he had had a similar experience. He had a hard time settling into an academic rhythm; instead he seemed more interested in watching what other students were doing; had difficult social encounters with other students; and just generally seemed untethered and unfocused on learning. He came home upset about interactions with other kids almost on a daily basis and it broke my heart to see him struggling. Part of me wanted to jump in, call other parents, ask the teacher to step in and protect him from what he was finding hard.
In my last post I shared stories of some of the students I interviewed at the MET schools in Providence, RI. What I am finding most interesting about my MET experience is what happens when I tell people about it. It drives home to me the fact that our leadership and our notions of success reflect our biographies. Given who I am, where I work and who my peers are, the people I interact with most are college graduates, most of whom also have one or more graduate degrees. We belong to the economic upper and upper-middle class, and fall into the category of people who were successful in formal school settings and generally tried to keep our professional options open for as long as possible. We took courses in high school that made us competitive applicants to four-year universities; attended colleges that had general education requirements that allowed us to decide as late in the game as possible what our majors would be and whether we wanted to go to medical, business, law or graduate school. We then spent anywhere from 2-7 years after college doing more academic work. And finally we got jobs. However, we are the demographic most likely to move for a job, which reflects a bit of an obsession with always seeking different, better, more meaningful or more lucrative professional opportunities. Unsurprisingly, our idea of success is the path we took; this type of success is our expectation and hope for our own children. It is not surprising then that, almost without exception, everyone in this category of friends who I tell about MET immediately expresses grave concerns about a high school experience that would not ensure that all students to get the “well-rounded” education needed to allow them to do whatever they want after high school. When I ask them to clarify what this well-rounded curriculum would be it turns out people mean the algebra, geometry, calculus, US History, European history, world history, biology, chemistry, physics, foreign language, English, general literature, physical education, art and technology classes that most of us took in high[…]
I was at the annual meeting of a local Chamber of Commerce last week and couldn’t help but be struck by the simplistic way in which business leaders talk about education reform. I am frustrated by the double standard adopted by the business community when it comes to shaping and, in many cases, driving education reform efforts.
Business leaders are vocal in opposing increased regulations on business generally and on all manner of specific industries. They argue that politicians and bureaucrats do not understand the complexities of business; that regulations create hurdles and uncertainties that stymie innovation and growth; and that the money used to comply with regulations could be better spent on core business enterprise.
Yet, when it comes to education, we see three growing trends among business advocates:
College prep charter school models like KIPP began as middle schools. The idea was to catch kids before they went to high school and to ensure that they were brought up to levels of proficiency in basic math and literacy. In other words, these schools focused on academic remediation. The fastest way to achieve this goal was to have teachers deliver a lot of content quickly and efficiently.
Not surprisingly, schools developed highly prescribed and scripted curricula, and focused on behavior management and routines that ensured teachers used time efficiently and all students covered the same materials. The push to expand these models was facilitated by an influx of enthusiastic but generally untrained college graduates into urban classrooms through Teach for America (TFA). A highly scripted curriculum allowed TFA Corps members to teach because it reduced the need for planning lessons and facilitating student-directed learning experiences.
My 7-year old son just started at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning (RMSEL) in Denver this fall. It is, as the name indicates, an expeditionary learning (EL) school model that is been recognized as one of the top-performing schools in the state. One reason so many families enter the competitive lottery is the whole-child approach to education that the school takes. RMSEL students explore a rigorous academic curriculum through a project-based instructional model. This is combined with a strong Outward Bound focus on leadership and character development. Parents and older students speak appreciatively about ways in which the small school environment allows for individualized learning and the development of authentic relationships between all members of the school community.
It was against the backdrop of this school environment that I found myself in a discussion about school choice in Denver with Tasha, the African-American mother of my son’s new classmate, who works at a local detention center. I mentioned wanting to explore the social justice issues involved in the current push to replicate college prep charter school models within areas of the city with concentrations of poor and minority students. (My use of college prep in this blog refers to what some also call high-performing charter school models including KIPP, STRIVE and a handful of others here in Denver; and networks such as KIPP, Aspire and YES Prep nationally). Tasha’s voice got a little higher as she mentioned one local school she had visited which had been highlighted by DPS as a strong college preparatory model for students through the 5th grade.