Are poor kids failing our schools?

“Are poor kids (especially poor black and Latino kids) failing our schools, or are schools failing our poor, minority kids?” asks Whitney Tilson in the Huffington Post. It’s hard for schools to make a difference for children from troubled communities with poorly educated parents, he concedes.

In fact, if I could fix either all of the parents (broadly defined, meaning ending childhood poverty, making sure every child had plenty of books and both parents in the home, etc.) or all of the schools in America, I’d choose the former in a heartbeat. But I’m not sure it’s possible to fix the parents — and I know it’s possible to fix the schools.

Disadvantaged children will do as poorly as their parents if they attend “mediocre (or worse) schools,” Tilson writes. But “a high-quality school with excellent teachers” can improve life outcomes for many.  He’s “visited over 100 schools that are generating extraordinary academic success with the most disadvantaged children” and serves on KIPP‘s New York City board.

How do KIPP and a handful of other (mostly charter) schools succeed with the same students who are failing in regular public schools?

  1. They identify and train top-notch school leaders who are empowered and held accountable for building outstanding schools.
  2. The school leaders focus on recruiting, training, motivating and retaining top teachers.
  3. There is an extended school day and school year (KIPP students get 60% more class time than they would in regular public schools).
  4. There is an intense focus on character (as discussed in this recent NYT Magazine article). One study showed that grit and determination were twice as powerful as IQ in predicting life success. At KIPP, work hard, be nice, there are no shortcuts, we’re climbing the mountain to college, etc. aren’t just slogans.

It’s very hard to change the life prospects of disadvantaged children, Tilson writes. But it can be done.

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