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 childâ€™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.