Tough but not impossible

I missed Paul Tough’s New York Times Magazine story, What It Takes to Make a Student, because I’ve been running around North Carolina promoting my book. Last night at the Hunt Institute retreat for North Carolina legislators, the former governor, Jim Hunt, handed out copies he’d underlined to everyone there, urging the legislators to “read every word.” (I was invited to talk about academic standards.) Tough writes:

The academics have demonstrated just how deeply pervasive and ingrained are the intellectual and academic disadvantages that poor and minority students must overcome to compete with their white and middle-class peers. The divisions between black and white and rich and poor begin almost at birth, and they are reinforced every day of a child’s life. And yet the schools provide evidence that the president is, in his most basic understanding of the problem, entirely right: the achievement gap can be overcome, in a convincing way, for large numbers of poor and minority students, not in generations but in years. What he and others seem not to have apprehended quite yet is the magnitude of the effort that will be required for that change to take place.

But the evidence is becoming difficult to ignore: when educators do succeed at educating poor minority students up to national standards of proficiency, they invariably use methods that are radically different and more intensive than those employed in most American public schools.

Schools like KIPP and Amistad that succeed in educating low-income students tend to do three things well, Education Gadfly points out.

Students are required to be in school longer-much longer-than their peers in traditional public schools.

Pupils are tested, and re-tested, to measure achievement. Lesson plans, teaching strategies, even whole curricula are adjusted based on how well, or poorly, students are learning what they should. Moreover, teachers are closely monitored and constantly working to improve their skills.

Students’ behavior and values are aggressively shaped by school leaders and instructors.

What is complicated, however, is implementing these changes within today’s rule-bound, bureaucratic system, with its collective bargaining constraints, bureaucratic regulations, and the inertia of 100-plus years of public education. It’s no coincidence that all of Tough’s profiled schools are charters, and as such have the freedom to do things differently and take control of their own destinies. In turn, this greater autonomy allows them to attract many top-notch, talented, and energetic teachers who are willing to work long hours for mediocre pay because they yearn for a results-oriented, break-the-rules environment. Replicating this atmosphere in the traditional system would be hard-maybe even impossible. But expanding charter schools–and getting more good ones-is no easy feat, either.

As I told the legislators, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a school with high test scores and disadvantaged students that didn’t have a longer school day and often a longer school year (or summer school) to give kids more time to learn.

About Joanne


  1. Cardinal Fang says:

    The successful schools also rely on teachers who are willing to work very long hours for not much money. In order to replicate the success widely, we’d have to pay teachers a lot more. There just aren’t enough young, idealistic teachers to staff all the schools we’d need.

  2. I would add to the Cardinal’s comment, “There just aren’t enough young, idealistic teachers without families to staff all the schools we’d need.”

  3. Hunter McDaniel says:

    Well spending more ‘time on task’ is certainly key to the success of of KIPP and other charter schools. But even without lengthening the school day and year, most public schools could go a long way by focusing the time they already have. Too many schools treat teachers’ and childrens’ time as an unlimited resource which can be interrupted at will.

    Having served on the board of a charter schools for six years, I would say that the pool of teachers willing to accept somewhat less pay in exhange for a more meaningful work environment is pretty deep – we never had any difficulty attracting applicants. The way I see it, it’s the regular schools who have to pay a premium in order to make teachers put up with mickey-mouse in-services, lack of effective discipline, and the like.

  4. Andy Freeman says:

    > In order to replicate the success widely, we’d have to pay teachers a lot more.

    The charter school guy above has a different view.

    I’ll just point out that if we have to pay teachers more to get “good enough teachers”, we’re going to start by firing the existing teachers. Why? The “pay more to get” argument assumes that the current ones aren’t good enough and giving them more money won’t make them any better.

  5. And of course, it isn’t true, at least not universally, that charters pay less then districts. At least in New Mexico teachers were being lured to charters by, among other things, better pay then the district was offering.

    Maybe it’s easier for charters to pony up because of the large number of highly-paid employees who don’t work for charters. All the administrators, curriculum coordinators, assistant superintendents, assistant principals and other titles and categories too numerous to mention. Maybe with more money actually going to education less money is needed overall.

    Now there’s a concept. Getting more education for less money rather then the reverse.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    I’m not saying that charters pay less than districts. I’m saying that if a large percentage of low-income students were being educated at the kind of schools Joanne is talking about, they’d need a large number of dedicated teachers willing to work very long hours: longer days than normal, longer schoolyears than normal, and probably some weekends too. Judging by Joanne’s book, the job is stressful and demanding.

    There won’t be enough teachers willing to accept those conditions unless pay goes up. It’s good that Hunter McDaniel had no trouble filling vacancies at a charter school, but what if there were fifty schools in the area, instead of three, all looking for the same kind of applicant? Then would it be so easy? I think not.

  7. Cardinal is no doubt right that many teachers would not want to work in a KIPP-type environment unless pay were dramatically higher. Note too that the vast majority of students (who currently spend less than 2 hours a week on home study) probably would “take a pass” at anything approaching a KIPP-type level of effort. And lots of parents would balk at signing a KIPP contract.

    Still, for the perhaps small percentage of students, teachers and parents willing to put forth that much extra effort (like the small percentage willing to sacrifice to excell at varsity sports, other extra-curriculars, etc.) perhaps we should offer the option.

  8. Cardinal–people work for money, but they also work for other things, including autonomy and respect. If the schools in question provide teachers with the ability to get rid of disruptive students–and they must, or they wouldn’t be successful–then some of the most degrading aspects of K-12 teaching are eliminated. Ditto if intrusive and moronic bureaucracy is reduced.

    Also, if pointless job requirements (education degrees) are eliminated, the potential applicant pool becomes much larger.

    I expect there is a substantial population of people who would be interested in teaching but are turrned off by the working conditions and, in many cases, kept out by the artificial requirements.

    Money is important, but it’s not everything.

  9. Cardinal Fang says:


    I agree with you that we ought to offer these intensive schools to low-income kids. But if the rest of your comments are right, then that’s a depressing thought.

    Low-income kids in our country are getting a poor education, for whatever reason. One theme of this blog is– how can we change that? If intensive KIPP-type schools won’t work for most kids (because they can’t be staffed, or because kids won’t do the work, or because parents won’t sign on) that’s depressing. I don’t see a lot of other promising ideas out there. Yes, I’m a liberal, but I can’t see how throwing money at the problem without changing anything else will work.

    I know that some of the readers of this blog are conservatives who are big on personal responsibility, but we can’t be laying “personal responsibility” on some poor six-year-old with crummy teachers and negligent (or ignorant) parents).

  10. A comment on Joanne’s last paragraph:

    As I told the legislators, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a school with high test scores and disadvantaged students that didn’t have a longer school day and often a longer school year (or summer school) to give kids more time to learn.

    Joanne, a major reason why these children need more time to learn is to compensate for the years in which these children were unable to learn (for a myriad of reasons). ‘More time to learn’ can be interpreted to mean they learn more slowly (I know you were not implying that). While some may have learning disabilities, the real issue is that the foundation skills needed to learn were never developed. Imagine trying to learn Level V Spanish when you haven’t gotten through Level I!