Sunday, November 26, 2006

What It Takes to Make a Student (cover story in Sunday's NY Times Magazine)

This cover story in tomorrow's New York Times magazine by Paul Tough is very well done and will hopefully bring a great deal of well-deserved attention to KIPP, Achievement First and Uncommon Schools -- and to the fact that low-income, minority children CAN achieve and that the achievement gap can not only be eliminated, but REVERSED -- BUT only if we as a nation are willing to totally rethink and reform our current educational system for these children (a system that, it goes without saying, is failing miserably).

Off the top of my head, I can think of only two critiques of this article:

1) It only briefly touches on the enormous political obstacles to reform. The system, while failing students, is working GREAT for all of the adults in and associated with it -- the teachers, principals, administrators/bureucrats, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, politicians, etc. These entrenches interests, unlike low-income, minority students and their parents, are well funded, well organized and vote in large numbers -- and will fight to the death to protect their interests.

2) While spending a fair amount of time on teacher quality, it's not enough. For example, it cites three primary characteristics of schools that are achieving success in educating low-income, minority students:
First, they require many more hours of class time than a typical public school...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...Third, they make a conscious effort to guide the behavior, and even the values, of their students by teaching what they call character.
This is correct, but #2 doesn't go far enough. The single most important factor in these schools' success, in my opinion, is that they attract and retain extraordinary teachers -- NOT that they "treat classroom instruction and lesson planning as much as a science as an art" (I don't mean to denigrate the latter, but it's secondary to the pure teacher talent these schools are able to recruit). If the KIPP in the Bronx, for example, were suddenly forced to use the teachers at the lowest-performing middle school in the Bronx (which literally SHARES THE SAME HALLWAY with KIPP), I think the school would struggle to achieve even half the gains it currently achieves with its students.

On the topic of teacher quality, the article, to its credit, points out better than almost any article I can think of how badly poor and minority kids are screwed:

Right now, of course, they are not getting more than middle-class students; they are getting less. For instance, nationwide, the best and most experienced teachers are allowed to choose where they teach. And since most state contracts offer teachers no bonus or incentive for teaching in a school with a high population of needy children, the best teachers tend to go where they are needed the least. A study that the Education Trust issued in June used data from Illinois to demonstrate the point. Illinois measures the quality of its teachers and divides their scores into four quartiles, and those numbers show glaring racial inequities. In majority-white schools, bad teachers are rare: just 11 percent of the teachers are in the lowest quartile. But in schools with practically no white students, 88 percent of the teachers are in the worst quartile. The same disturbing pattern holds true in terms of poverty. At schools where more than 90 percent of the students are poor — where excellent teachers are needed the most — just 1 percent of teachers are in the highest quartile.

But after making this great point, the article gets a little fuzzy about how critical teacher quality is and what, exactly, it would take to dramatically and quickly improve the quality of ALL of our teachers (because simply shifting around the existing teachers in a more equitable way is a zero-sum game).

What It Takes to Make a Student
Published: November 26, 2006

On the morning of Oct. 5, President Bush and his education secretary, Margaret Spellings, paid a visit, along with camera crews from CNN and Fox News, to Friendship-Woodridge Elementary and Middle Campus, a charter public school in Washington. The president dropped in on two classrooms, where he asked the students, almost all of whom were African-American and poor, if they were planning to go to college. Every hand went up. “See, that’s a good sign,” the president told the students when they assembled later in the gym. “Going to college is an important goal for the future of the United States of America.” He singled out one student, a black eighth grader named Asia Goode, who came to Woodridge four years earlier reading “well below grade level.” But things had changed for Asia, according to the president. “Her teachers stayed after school to tutor her, and she caught up,” he said. “Asia is now an honors student. She loves reading, and she sings in the school choir.”

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