Monday, November 08, 2010

Getting a Kid From Newark to Oberlin

Norman Atkins, the incomparable founder/co-founder of the Robin Hood Foundation, North Star/Uncommon Schools, and TeacherU (now THAT'S a trifecta!), had this article in the WSJ alongside Fenty and Rhee's:

Our large urban districts, which account for an enormous share of our worst schools, can take away three key lessons.

First, great teaching trumps demography. Visitors fall hard for Ms. Jackson's charisma, but what gets Hosea and his classmates to achieve at the 90th percentile in reading, writing and math (60 points higher than when they started at the school) is her highly choreographed teaching routine, which she models every day. Her teachers drive instruction with data. She circulates, cold-calls, waits, checks for understanding, positively frames, rigorously questions, gets students to stretch their responses, insists that right-is-right, delivers precise praise. Engaging all of the students all of the time, she and her staff generate tens of thousands of additional hours of meaningful learning each year. That will change the trajectory of their students' lives.

Second, urban school districts must act like Silicon Valley, not the car industry.

Julie Jackson is exemplary, but she's not a unicorn. The 24 schools in the Uncommon Schools network now serve 4,500 children in Newark, Brooklyn, N.Y., Boston and upstate New York (on the path to 40 campuses and 15,000 students). We are achieving breakthrough results, and so are several other high-performing charter networks. Uncommon Schools, KIPP and Achievement First have worked to codify and share many of these techniques through Teacher U, a teacher-preparation program in New York. And this year, Teach For America—where Ms. Jackson started 17 years ago—drew applications from 12% of Ivy League seniors and 25% of all black Ivy League seniors.

As it happens, the hot spots for the most revolutionary teaching practices are not in the suburbs or elite private schools but in some of our toughest urban districts. City superintendents should embrace this new generation of teachers and innovators and hold them accountable for results, rather than clinging to old models. Districts should open up their old buildings and give more leaders like Ms. Jackson the opportunity to create new high-achieving public schools.

Finally, mindset matters most.

All students need love and high expectations, but too often they get the opposite. During his first months of teaching this year, a young teacher I know heard veteran colleagues referring to students as retards, sluts and drug dealers. Once we start thinking about our students that way, Hosea and his classmates really are doomed. If that's our mindset, we get an "F" in preserving our third inalienable right, the pursuit of happiness.

In fact, we know from research by psychologists that intelligence and character can be shaped positively. Public schools should only hire teachers who share this belief and should get rid of those who don't. We need teachers who will let their students know what Hosea knows: that working hard leads to getting smart, and that college is absolutely in their future.


  • OCTOBER 30, 2010

Getting a Kid From Newark to Oberlin

A pioneer in the charter-school movement on what the best teachers are doing now


When I tell people that I'm the founder of Uncommon Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools for low-income children, started in 1997, I often hear a skeptical response: "Admirable what you're trying, but you're cherry-picking your students. The average poor kid is doomed, right?"

 Subscribe in a reader