Crazy, but it works

Crazy Like a Fox: One Principal’s Triumph in the Inner City is Ben Chavis’ book about how he turned a failing charter school into one of the highest scoring middle schools in the state, even though 81 percent of students come from low-income families.  Mark Hemingway writes on National Review Online:

It’s true that Chavis is a controversial figure — the book provides ample evidence of that. He’s profane, boasts of humiliating his students when they “act a fool,” and isn’t afraid to tell a teacher or a parent who he feels is out of line where to stick it. He’s beyond politically incorrect and talks about race with a frankness that would make Chris Rock blush.

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post points to Chavis’ decision to keep American Indian Public Charter School students with the same teacher for all subjects and for all three years of middle school.

Chavis says his kids, given all the turmoil in their lives, need the stable presence of one caring teacher. Whatever his method loses in content knowledge, because his teachers cannot be experts in all four subjects, is more than made up by the fact that the teacher knows those children very well. He or she can reach them in ways that teachers who have them just one period a day, for only one year, cannot, Chavis says.

Of course, it’s possible to set up such a system because the AIPCS principal can fire ineffective teachers quickly, easily and cheaply.

Thanks to commenter PM for the reminder to plug my book, Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Actually, much of AIPCS’s success comes from quickly and easily getting rid of any students that are difficult to teach. Currently, the American Indian Public Charter School has almost no American Indian students. Under Chavez it has become a mostly Asian school. Because it is a public school, AIPCS cannot simply expel unruly students, however it uses extreme punishments to drive out any student who is a discipline problem. For example, one student was forced to carry a orange traffic cone while hugging it “like a baby” for the rest of the school year. Chavez publicly denounced the boy as a liar who couldn’t be trusted and told the other students that he should be shunned (http://aipcsschool.blogspot.com/). Unsupportive parents can be subject to treatment they find insulting. One mother received a letter from Chavez suggesting that:
    “1. You are on drugs. 2. You have psychological problems. 3. You are a liar. Could it be that all the above apply to you? I know that numbers two and three are right on target.”

    I have had more than my share of students who are behavior problems and parents who enable their child’s misbehavior. It is tempting to wish for a tough talking principal who would drive these people away from our school, but I know that problem students are still children who need to be educated. To me the real sign of a great school is one that succeeds with a wide variety of students, including those with discipline issues.

  2. ponderosa says:

    Joanne,

    Your final remark –“Of course, it’s possible to set up such a system because the AIPCS principal can fire ineffective teachers quickly, easily and cheaply” –seems like an unfair dig at unionized teachers. As if the only thing keeping principals from assigning teachers to a given cohort of kids is teachers’ obstinacy! What evidence do you have of this? In our district at least, I think the principal has quite a bit of leeway to change teacher’s assignments at will, provided they are within teachers’ area of certification. And why are you so convinced that teachers would object to something like this if it were convincingly-argued that it helped kids? In our unionized district, teachers seem to jump on any promising new scheme with alacrity –too much, in my opinion. Your comment seems to foster the unfair (and unempirical, in my view) stereotype that unionized teachers are malign sandbaggers.

    Can you elaborate on your comment, please?

  3. The suspense was intense, but it never happened. I thought you were going to mention your own book anytime you mentioned someone else’s book? 🙂

  4. If a group of students have the same teacher for three years, that teacher had better be good. I don’t think a principal would risk setting up three-year loops without the ability to dismiss an ineffective teacher.

    I think most elementary teachers are open to the idea of teaching the same class for more than one year. Looping is rare in middle schools.

    While high test scores have attracted Asian students, the scores of black and Latino students are close to Asian scores and much higher than the California average. According to Great Schools, 98 percent of students at AIPCS’s middle school come from low-income families.

  5. The American Indian Public Charter School was founded to meet the needs of American Indian students. Currently, almost no Native American students attend the school. What happened to drive them away? If AIPCS is such a great school, why has it been unable to meet the needs of what was supposed to be its core constituency?

    Beyond issues of ethnicity, is the charge that AIPCS uses tactics that drive away difficult students. It’s easy to have high test scores when the hard to reach students are out of the picture. What impresses me are the schools that are able to reach all students, including those who have behavioral issues or unsupportive parents.

  6. Dick Eagleson says:

    Actually, much of AIPCS’s success comes from quickly and easily getting rid of any students that are difficult to teach.

    As columnist Mark Steyn once noted about mixing together dictatorships and democracies at the U.N., “It’s a good basic axiom that if you take a quart of ice cream and a quart of dog feces and mix ’em together, the result will taste more like the latter than the former.” “Students” who are irrepressibly disruptive of the educations of others need to be thrown out on their ears. Period, end, full stop.

    Currently, almost no Native American students attend the school. What happened to drive them away?

    As they say on the TV lawyer shows, “Counsel is assuming facts not in evidence.”

    A more useful question, Ray, might be how many Native American students there were at the school, before it became a charter. Given that Oakland is a city of 400,000, but is home to fewer than 2700 Native Americans, I suspect the paucity of Native American students is adequately explained by the paucity of Native Americans in Oakland, period.

    What impresses me are the schools that are able to reach all students, including those who have behavioral issues or unsupportive parents.

    That would impress me too. Do you happen to actually know of any such? That are regular public schools, I mean?

  7. I actually consulted with the AIPCS to help them get their AP English program up and going. I saw much that gave me concern at this tiny school, but the bottom line is that (finally) poor students from Oakland can attend a school where they have a good chance at actually passing the AP English exam and making their way into college.

    I taught an entire week at AIPCS (supporting their rookie AP English teacher) during my fall vacation and saw much first hand. The students are indeed poor and about half-Hispanic, half-Asian. Their parents are almost entirely working class and from humble backgrounds. If you are poor and want to work hard, you can get an excellent education at AIPCS. You cannot say the same at the other local comprehensive Oakland High Schools, which is why AIPCS exists in the first place.

    Ben Chavis is not everybody’s cup of tea and the same could be said for his school. But at least there are choices out there now and Ben has plenty of Oakland parents who would jump at the chance to go there rather than the same schools that have been failing for generations.

    “What impresses me are the schools that are able to reach all students, including those who have behavioral issues or unsupportive parents.” Large, inner-city public high schools are never such schools. At least the youth of Oakland who don’t mind hours and hours of homework have a chance now.

    That is why I didn’t mind at all sacrificing time with my family to work with Ben Chavis and AIPCS at all. It is what public education is supposed to be: poor kids who aren’t willing to put in the time and effort can get a solid education without having to duck gunfire and intimidation in the hallways.

    And again, the bottom line fact: if the Oakland public schools had their act together, charter schools would not even exist. May they thrive in the future!

    The community of Oakland is better off with AIPCS in it!

  8. Type — who “are” willing to put in the time and effort.

  9. If you want to know why I send my kids to AIPCS, it is because it is safe, clean, with no bullying/cliques. It does more than any other school in Oakland to prepare the kids for college. Check out the graduation requirements and support they receive at http://sites.google.com/site/aiphsinfo/

  10. I agree with Mr. Eagleson when he replies,

    “That would impress me too. Do you happen to actually know of any such? That are regular public schools, I mean?”

    Of course, he was referring to,

    “What impresses me are the schools that are able to reach all students, including those who have behavioral issues or unsupportive parents.”

    I also noticed the use of the word “reach” rather than “teach.” I may be making something out of nothing here, but I do not care if I reach any of my students. I only care that I teach my students. I know that some would argue that a teacher must connect or reach their students in order to teach them–baloney. Draw a Venn diagram (embedded, not overlapping)–I assure you that “students being taught” is the larger circle and “students being reached” is the embedded circle. As a side note, I do not care if any of my students like me or become friends with me; however, by the end of the year the vast majority always do and always are.

  11. Kirk Parker says:

    Surely the content level of middle school core subjects isn’t so advanced that the average teacher couldn’t hand it adequately. I assume they aren’t doing calculus or reading The Tempest in 7th grade…

  12. I would not bet that the average teacher knows the middle-school content in all of the core areas well enough to teach it effectively. I wouldn’t say that about the affluent,suburban middle schools my kids attended and I wouldn’t think most teachers in the big urban areas are within shouting distance of that standard. Far too many of teachers don’t have adequate knowledge in even one area, despite the watering-down of content in favor of emotional/developmental issues that I observed when junior highs (7-8) were turned into middle schools (6-7-8).

  13. As its name indicates, the American Indian Charter School was always a charter school. It was founded to meet the needs of Native American students and originally had a significant Native American student body.

    There are schools that are able to teach all students, even the difficult ones, to high standards. They are called 90-90-90 schools to indicate 90% minority enrollment, 90% free and reduced lunch, and 90% proficiency. Check out the book “It’s Being Done”.

  14. Ray, I stayed with Ben Chavis when I helped with his AP English program. Each morning I drove from Ben’s house south on MacArthur Blvd. to the AICPS campus. Each morning I passed right by Oakland High School. Just watching the clientele hang around out front did nothing to inspire the observer — precisely the opposite. (Some research online confirms my suspicions about that it “isn’t being done” at Oakland High School.) If it were not for Ben and the AICPS, his students would be at Oakland High School instead and probably would have much different futures. Now they have a choice.

    I taught in the LAUSD in the beginning of my career before fleeing. I was there for only three years but I could see things were not going to change. I was not blind.

    Even the Democrats seem to have lost patient with traditional urban schooling — that is why we have charters and why the law protects them. Not so much as a teacher but as a taxpayer I support Ben Chavis and other non-traditional schools that will have at least a chance to break the status quo of the large dropout factories.

  15. Ray,
    Your too smart for Chaviz. He won’t like you. You’re right.

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  2. […] Cato’s Andrew Coulson believes better schools produce better outcomes for disadvantaged students, citing the success of Ben Chavis’ American Indian Public Charter Schools. […]