The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) is one of the largest charter school companies in the US & has shown significant gains in student achievement. Once you look closely at their operations, their success isn't surprising. Would that model work for public schools?
KIPP began in 1994 when two Teach for America teachers decided to create a program to engage middle school students. As any parent or teacher can tell you, that's a rough age. The kids aren't cute little elementary students and they aren't more mature high schoolers who have an idea of college or career plans. They're in the middle of a transition from childhood to young adulthood.
The founders targeted the most disadvantaged group of Middle Schoolers and they were successful:
They deliberately organized their program to serve low- income children, mostly minorities. Today, more than 75% of KIPP students nationwide are eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program, and 95% are Latino/Hispanic or African American.
Efforts are paying off: achievement is up and more children are college-bound. KIPP students who took the Stanford 10 exam increased their scores by 29% in mathematics; 22% in reading; and 20% in language in just one year. In 2004, 85% of KIPP alumni who were seniors in high school were accepted to a university or college.
How does KIPP pull this off?
- A longer school day - 7:30-5:30
- Saturday classes
- 3 1/2 weeks of summer vacation
- Teachers required to be accessible by phone until 9pm every night, carry a cell phone, and give the number to students & parents.
- Parents sign a "Committment to Excellence" contract that requires them to monitor the child, make sure homework is completed, and maintain a strong connection with the school.
Well heck. Why is it news that they're successful? It should be news if a school could not succeed under those circumstances!
But even with those factors pushing achievement higher, the program has a serious weakness: an almost absolute reliance on an effective principal. Without that, it's almost impossible to build a cohesive, successful learning community. As KIPP-supporter and Washington Post reporter Jay Matthews noted:
When KIPP school leaders are not doing well, the schools will have trouble. That seems to be the case with both Fresno and AMP. KIPP national and regional leaders appear to have taken steps to change each school’s leadership, [...]
At KIPP Fresno, school leader Chi Tschang, who founded the school in 2004, resigned in January in order, he said, to remove himself as a barrier to the school’s continued operation. Shortly after the Fresno school district released a report based on interviews with current and former parents, students and KIPP board members accusing Tschang—among other things-- of making a student crawl on his hands and knees while barking, keeping students outside in the rain as a disciplinary measure and yelling "all day" at students caught shoplifting near the campus....
Teacher retention is also an issue. In 2009, Chicago Magazine highlighted the attitude of many charter school operators about teacher pay and workload:
Despite the professed eagerness of some administrators to reward their teachers, most charters generally pay less than union wages. Tim King, the founder and CEO of Urban Prep, says that charter schools enjoy the luxury of a teachers’ contract exemption. “We’re in our third year,” King says. “In the short run, we can stay competitive with CPS salaries because we don’t have [teachers] with 20 years of experience and two Ph.D.’s. It would be difficult for us to accommodate a teacher at that level. We’re trying to figure out a model that will allow us to hold on to our teachers as long as they want to be here.”
Some charter administrators hope that their teachers might one day feel so viscerally the school’s mission—and see so plainly the impact they have on students’ lives—that the pay differential won’t bother them too much.
umm.... 3 points here:
- How is it that someone with experience is less desirable than someone with it? I taught college-level Web design classes for several years and I know that I was a better teacher the second term than I was the first term and a heck of a lot better teacher the second year than the first year. Same thing with my 10 year career as volunteer Sunday School teacher.
Teacher training only goes so far. There's some stuff that you just have to learn how to do through experience.
- What kind of job expects professionals to work, long-term, for less compensation than other people with similar education, skills, and experience? As the daughter of a retired teacher, I can tell you that teachers don't get price breaks on food, clothing, housing, taxes, etc.
Hello...like it or not, in our economy, a person's value to an organization is measured by salary. Remember all these banks that paid huge bonuses to keep the executives who had driven the entire country's economy into the ditch? The banks defended those bonuses saying that high pay was necessary to attract the best people.
If a living wage is good enough for the head of Bank of America, it's good enough for a school teacher - public, private, or charter.
- Burnout has to be brutal. How many people would work long-term putting in 10 hour days M-F, mandatory Saturdays, and on call until 9pm? Call me silly, but even teachers deserve some downtime and their families deserve some attention as well.
After all, with the lower pay, it's not like they can afford to hire household help.....
The Economist Magazine touched on the retention issue in 2009:
The final charge against schools such as those run by KIPP is that their longer hours and the demands those place on teachers make them impossible to sustain, let alone replicate. Mr Hill thinks part of the solution lies in better management and training. The KIPP schools with the best teacher retention are also the oldest, he notes, suggesting that, over time, school leaders work out how to make the job manageable.
Just imagine how successful our public schools could be if everybody worked as a team and parents realized that they're just as important to the equation as teachers and principals. Imagine principals who function as leaders and role models. Imagine students who know that if they don't succeed at school there are consequences at home.
Or what if Alabama's public schools could be like Florida charter schools and shed themselves of those troublesome students with disabilities who cause problems, cost money, and lower test scores?
StateImpact Florida and the Miami Herald gathered and analyzed data on K-12 students with disabilities from 14 school districts representing more than three-quarters of Florida’s total charter enrollment.
The analysis focused on students in the state’s two most severe disability categories, which includes some students with autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy. It shows:
- More than 86 percent of the charter schools do not serve a single child with a severe disability – compared to more than half of district schools which do.
- In Duval County, just one student enrolled in a charter school has a severe disability. Duval district schools educate more than 1,000 severely-disabled students.
Again, it shouldn't surprise us when a charter school succeeds. It's a lot more shocking when one fails.
Surely there's a way to transfer the best aspects of charter schools to public schools. Not everyone has the same learning style, the same talents, and the same goals. Schools that can play to an individual student's strengths are a terrific idea. In the Huntsville City School system, there are magnet schools for science, foreign languages, drama & art, and a science & technology high school. They're all public schools.
At State Senator Shadrack McGill's no good, terrible, very bad public meeting, one teacher stood up and plaintively asked him about charter schools.
"Everybody says that charters are better because they have the freedom to experiment and aren't bound by public school regulations. Well, why don't you just give us freedom to innovate in the public schools?"
I don't want to be uniformly negative about charter schools, but each time I sit down to try and find the positives, the negatives are impossible to ignore.
Nor am I remotely blind to the inadequacies of so many public schools that are shackled to federal, state, and local regulations, run by partisan school boards with various agendas, and staffed by burned out teachers and staff who long ago stopped caring and just work for the pay check.
That doesn't describe every school or even the majority of public schools. But if that description fits just one school, even that one is too damn many.
It may be that in some systems, the only answer is charters. In those cases, we need to study best practices, learn from others' mistakes, figure out what works, and make it work. Remember though: we're dealing with the Alabama Legislature and the GOP majority's infatuation with crony capitalism has been on display this term:
We can only imagine whose brother-in-law owns an ailing computer shop and could supply computers for those K12 kids. Or who has a real estate business that could make a killing selling/leasing land or buildings for new charter schools.
Public education in Alabama is nowhere near as good as it should be - particularly in poorer communities. If we decide charter schools are the solution, we need to move very, very carefully and make sure that the schools serve the kids and aren't yet another way for politicians & corporations to line their pockets at public expense.