Monday, September 02, 2013

Continued Response: At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice

In my last email, in which I commented on the front-page story in the NYT last week, At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice, I forgot to make a critical point: the four charter networks mentioned in the story (all of which I’ve visited), YES Prep, Achievement First, Success, and KIPP are all kicking serious butt, doing AMAZING things for kids: breaking the mold, showing what’s possible for even the most disadvantaged kids, and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that demography is NOT destiny.

So why is the NYT writing an article that makes it seem as if these schools’ high teacher turnover is a bad thing? Looking at their astonishing success, why didn’t the article instead ask the following, obvious question: “Given how these networks are succeeding with the toughest kids, whereas EVERYTHING we’ve tried as a nation for decades with these same kids has failed miserably (and tragically), why isn’t EVERY school in America serving this demographic of kids shamelessly copying what these networks are doing??? Things like long hours, high expectations, and a ton of hard work, by both students AND teachers. This means hiring a very different kind of teacher – and dealing with higher turnover – but what’s the alternative? Continue to fail millions of kids?

I keep coming back to the Navy SEALs (perhaps because I recently had the honor of meeting the Navy Seal who was one of the guys who shot Osama bin Laden and wrote (under the pseudonym Mark Owen) the best-selling book, No Easy Day – a great book, by the way). Here’s an excerpt from the SEALs web site:

How long does it take to train a Navy SEAL?
Training of a Navy SEAL takes at least a year and a half from boot camp until the time he is ready to go to a SEAL Team. Once at a SEAL Team, he usually has an additional year or more of training prior to his first deployment. Even then, a SEAL's training is not complete he continues to hone and enhance his skills throughout his career.
How many people make it through BUD/S?
Each year, about 1,000 men start SEAL training. Although training success rates vary per class, usually about 200-250 men succeed each year. Candidates who have Physical Screening Test scores below 800 are three times more likely to succeed than those men who only meet the minimum requirements. To see the Physical Screening Test score requirements, visit our page on Navy SEAL enlisted general requirements.

Thanks to this highly selective process and extraordinary training, these guys are the baddest a** warriors our country can produce and they tackle our toughest, most dangerous missions. But the work is incredibly intense and not really compatible with family life, so few are doing active missions for their career – they move on into management/leadership positions or go into the private sector (egads!). Could you imagine the NY Times writing a snarky story about high turnover among SEALs?!

When our nation decides that something is really important, even if it’s really hard, it usually does a good job training people to tackle the problem. But not teachers. Other than the yeoman work of Teach for America and a few hundred high-performing charter schools, this country is doing very little in an organized, focused way to help the 5 million or so kids (out of 50 million K-12 students in total) who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are trapped in horribly failing schools, and are thus on the fast track to welfare, jail, and broken, ruined lives.

Why can’t we be honest and say that teaching in the South Bronx is NOT THE SAME as teaching on the Upper East Side or Scarsdale? When kids come into school with two strikes already against them, we need to provide schools that have BETTER principals, BETTER teachers, LONGER hours, MORE rigor, HIGHER expectations, etc. to give these kids any chance to have a decent life. Schools serving such kids need to do pretty much everything DIFFERENTLY and BETTER!

So what do we do? Precisely the opposite. By and large (with some praiseworthy exceptions), as a nation, we give the neediest kids WORSE principals, WORSE teachers, SHORTER hours, LESS rigor, and LOWER expectations. And then, to cap it off, we throw up our hands in defeat (“You can’t blame schools when there’s so much poverty.”) or, worse yet, BLAME THE VICTIMS (“What can you expect from thosekids and those parents?”).

This is an outrage, an abomination. It infuriates me.

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