Since the 1960s, education reformers have struggled to find education models that work in urban areas. Various plans went in and out of vogue from community-based education to principals with baseball bats. Every now and then, a school would decrease dropout rates and increase test scores. Education specialists would study and examine the school and its inspirational leader, but efforts to replicate those schools always failed.
The failures to improve urban schools and the persistent race gap in test scores have led many to say that schools can't make a difference. Good teachers give up and lower expectations. It's all environment they say; schools don't matter.
The charter school movement has been a mixed bag of horrible failures and notable achievements. Two programs in particular seem to have made some headway in dealing with urban schools. The KIPP programs have consistently done well over time and scaled up across the country. David Brooks writes about another program, the Promise Academy in Harlem, which shares the basic philosophy as the KIPP academy.
To my mind, the results also vindicate an emerging model for low-income students. Over the past decade, dozens of charter and independent schools, like Promise Academy, have become no excuses schools. The basic theory is that middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads: what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from poorer, disorganized homes don’t have these internalized models. The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values....
Basically, the no excuses schools pay meticulous attention to behavior and attitudes. They teach students how to look at the person who is talking, how to shake hands. These schools are academically rigorous and college-focused. Promise Academy students who are performing below grade level spent twice as much time in school as other students in New York City. Students who are performing at grade level spend 50 percent more time in school.
I'm quite convinced that intensive, resocializing programs can make a difference. The big question is whether these programs can be scaled up. I hate to be the baddie, but I see several problems:
1. The kids who choose to enroll in these charter school programs are exceptional. Their parent or parents are educated and motivated enough to hear about these schools, fill out the paperwork, wait on lines, handle bureaucrats, locate birth certificates, make their kids go to school every day, and make education a priority. This parental support is not found in every household. The students in these schools are outliers from the very beginning. There's no evidence that these programs would work among the general public.
2. The teachers who work in these schools work longer hours than regular public school teachers. They may not enjoy the same union benefits as their non-charter school peers. They have chosen to work in a high intensity environment, because they're unusually committed towards the goal of educating city kids. They have the zeal of a religious convert. It may be difficult to spread the zeal among battle-weary urban teachers.
3. Part of the success of these schools is due to the fact that they double the amount of time in school. How would New York City be able to pay their entire staff over time? Where would they put all those students?
Still, I am a big fan of this model and have been very impressed with their efforts. I think we could overcome problems 2 and 3, but problem 1 seems insurmountable to me.
UPDATE: Great post by Elizabeth on this topic. She looks at the actual study and discusses the findings. She says the findings do show gains by the students in the schools and refute the claims that schools can't make a difference. However, she has nearly the same concerns as I do about scaling up this program.