Monday, March 28, 2011

What Works for Schools

I just finished reading the book Waiting for Superman: How We Can Save America’s Failing Public Schools, a companion to the recent documentary, which I haven’t seen. The book is actually a series of essays, the first two by the producers of the documentary about why they made the film and how they made editorial decisions, sort of a behind-the-scenes look. The rest are by various educators, some better than others.

Full disclosure: I am not a champion of public schools. I homeschooled for the last ten years of my kids’ K-12 years, and while I realize that may not be the solution for everybody (maybe for not more than 10%), it not only worked for us, we thrived as homeschoolers—teachers and students. Family benefits were beyond expectation, and I wouldn’t have given it up.

I can give a pro-homeschool lecture another day (believe me, I can!) But today I just want to note a few things from the book, about what we do know that works.

First, what doesn’t work: the following table shows what we’ve been spending money on that has failed to result in better student achievement
(p. 91):

Public School Resources in the United States, 1960-2007
                                                                                    1960       1980       2000          2007
Pupil-teacher ratio                                                       25.8        18.7        16.0           15.5
Percentage of teachers with master’s degree
            Or higher                                                          23.5        49.6        56.8           n/a
Median years of teacher experience                            11            12           14              n/a
Real expenditure/student (2007-2008 dollars)          $3,170      $6,244     $10,041   $11,674

So, smaller class sizes, teachers with additional education levels, teachers with greater experience, and simply more dollars per student—none of these, as policy, has yielded any positive benefit.

So what does? In his essay “What Really Makes a Super School?” Jay Mathews uses two examples: Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, where Jaime Escalante (subject of the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver) taught, and the charter school network KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program).

How super are these examples? “In 1987, fully 26 percent of all Mexican-American students in the United States who passed an Advanced Placement calculus exam were at Garfield High School. That means Escalante and the calculus teacher he trained, Ben Jimenez, were doing something extraordinary” (p. 169). More than a quarter of highly successful Hispanic math students in the entire country, out of tens of thousands of various schools and teachers, were the product of Escalante’s classes—in a poverty area where the students didn’t have any advantage until he gave it to them. That’s a super teacher.

As for KIPP: “In 2008, KIPP assessed the first 1,000 students who had completed all four grades of a KIPP middle school. Students from about twenty KIPP schools were involved in this assessment. Eighty percent of the students sampled had family incomes low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. Ninety-five percent were black or Hispanic. On average, they had gone from the 32nd to the 60th percentile in reading and from the 40th to the 82nd percentile in math” (p. 179). Essentially, they rose from typical urban levels to suburban levels, all disadvantages disappearing.

What were they doing right? KIPP has a list of Five Pillars, which are pretty much identical to what Escalante used as well. Here’s the secret formula:

  • High expectations of all students.
  • Expanded learning time.
  • Testing to measure progress.
  • Team spirit (positive atmosphere).
  • Power to Lead (ability to make decisions in best interest of the school).

None of these essentials costs significantly more than what we’re doing. It’s one of those simple solutions that isn’t easy. But it is possible. And there probably isn’t a school district that can legitimately say, “That wouldn’t work here.”

Here are my suggestions for getting closer, right away:
  • Abolish the federal Department of Education. It is a drain on money states need. It has not contributed to greater student achievement in its entire existence. And schools were better meeting student needs before it was established in the mid 1970s. Cutting the federal education budget doesn’t mean you hate students and frown on education—just the opposite.
  • Give local levels (parents, schools, districts) power to make decisions about curriculum, and about teacher hiring and firing, so that students benefit from the best and don’t have to suffer with the worst.
  • Let students know what is expected of them, what it will take on their part, and what the life outcomes can be for them. If students choose not to participate, separate them so that uncivilized environments don’t hinder the willing learners. This will include teaching principles of honesty, caring, helping one another.
  • Focus on essential education: math, reading, science, history. But use arts and athletics to educate the whole person. Music can increase math ability. Drama can enhance literary understanding. Sports can increase physical health as well as improve brain function and teach civilizing principles.

I’m not particularly in favor of more time for kids in government institutions and away from family. I think concentrated learning time is efficient and requires less time. In homeschool we accomplished more in fewer hours. But we had the advantage of teaching moments at any time they happened, because the teacher and student were together during so many leisure hours. I don’t know how to translate that to a public school, so maybe longer hours and longer school years are all they can do to catch up.

If we’re going to have public schools (and despite my preferences, that looks inevitable for the foreseeable future), the least we can do is make them work based on what we know actually works.

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