Schools that work, literally

In Schools That Work, Literally in National Review, Samuel Casey Carter praises the Cristo Rey network of urban Catholic schools which send students into corporate jobs one day a week.

“The educational quality of the program is fundamentally different in kind from what anyone else offers,” says Christopher Connor, the CEO of Sherwin-Williams, “because these students are employable. They have work skills and life skills to match that come through the work-study program.”

As much as 70 percent of school costs are covered by students’ earnings, allowing the schools to charge very low tuition to low-income and working-class parents. If students work extra days, they keep their earnings.

 Cristo Rey provides rich and regular opportunities for its students to acquire the skills, relationships, and professional behaviors of successful adults by exposing them to the rigorous expectations of the professional workplace.

Despite the four-day academic week, Cristo Rey students complete college-prep courses. At the school in Boston, all graduates were admitted to a four-year college or university this year. One girl is headed for MIT.

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  1. Students at an all-girls’ Cristo Rey school serve as volunteers in my workplace — a rotating group is there constantly. They’re consistently polite, hardworking, respectful, all-around good kids. This quote jibes with my observations: “these students are employable. They have work skills and life skills to match that come through the work-study program.”

    I can well believe that the school is helping keep them away from the dangerous elements of the city’s rougher communities. (Though a girl who attended that school was tragically shot to death by SFPD a few years ago directly due to hanging around bad, car-stealing, violent boys, so it’s not a guarantee.)

    These girls consistently tell me they’re headed for community college. I’m a big booster of community college and attended one myself, so that’s not at all a putdown. But the notion that they’re all being elevated above their working-class roots and going off to four-year college does not apply to the San Francisco schools. Maybe it’s happening at the Boston school and entirely off the radar at the San Francisco school, or maybe it’s more reformy propaganda.

  2. greeneyeshade says:

    We have a cristo rey school here in baltimore; might bear comparison

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    I suppose there are two questions: One is whether this works because of the self-selection for the student body. The other is whether this is one of the few ways for these kids to get a lift. Probably, sadly.

    • Really? Those are the only two questions that the story generates?

      One question that comes to my mind is what is it that these schools are doing right that generates nothing but excuses in the district schools the girls might otherwise have gone to?

      Another question that comes to my mind is why the people who pull paychecks in the public education system aren’t asking my first question.

      Of course those are rhetorical question. I know the reasons for both. Still, it’s interesting how so many people seem to reflexively retreat from those sorts of quesitons.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Allen. Yeah. Your first question is likely answered by selection. If that is true, then, knowing that, there is no second question.

        • Except you don’t know that selection is the determinative factor.

          It’s the assumption necessary to the protection of a nasty status quo inasmuch as the same girls wouldn’t do as well if they weren’t allowed to self-select and the schools from which they originally came wouldn’t do noticeably better either.

          So the question remains unanswered and, more importantly, unasked.

          • “Except you don’t know that selection is the determinative factor. ”

            Yeah, we do. The school can’t force kids to work. They do it by choice. That is, by definition, selection.

          • Yes, they’re just the cream of the crop what with enough of a sense of self-preservation to want to escape the rotting hulks of schools you’d consign them too. By your definition pretty much the entire human race would constitute a select student body.

            What’s the matter? Concerned that people with freedom of choice are liable to make the wrong decisions? Get used to it because there’s more to come.

          • Deirdre Mundy says:

            Allen– no, I think Cal’s point is that most of the human race WOULDN’T take the choice–

            Christo Rey doesn’t sort by ‘innate ability’, but it does sort by ‘work ethic’ in the sense that they’re clear, from the outset, that they’ll give the kids all the support they need, but they’re going to have to work– in class (prep school curriculum), at home (tons of homework) and on the job one day a week.

            So it selects for kids who are looking for a break but don’t expect everything to be handed to them— the sort of kids you’d expect to find in a Horace Greeley novel.

            Meanwhile, the bulk of their peers are content to be ‘intentional non-learners,’ and figure that a life of government-supported poverty with cable tv and video games is better than busting their butts to make it into the middle class.

            So it selects– for kids who actually want an education and value what the prep school and the internships can give them.

            The problem is that a huge percentage of kids are in school because it’s the default, and because hanging out and flirting and getting fed 2 meals a day is more fun than sitting alone on the couch and fixing your own darn PBJ sandwich……

            Christo Rey schools select for the kids (or perhaps the parents or grandparents) who want something more….

          • Oh, I know what Cal’s point is, Deirdre. Not too surprisingly it’s a self-serving argument that posits a large segment of the student population that simply isn’t interested in learning.

            It’s self-serving because the argument intentionally diverts from consideration the possibility that it isn’t the kids that are at fault but the institution. But it is the institution.

            Moreover, the argument’s demonstrably false as informed by follow-up research on kids who didn’t make the cut to get into charters that draw their student body by lottery. Those kids who didn’t make the cut didn’t do noticeably better then their district school peers who weren’t entered into the lottery for entrance in charter schools.

            So there’s nothing special about the Christo Rey kids. It’s the school that’s special and the reason it’s special is because the people who run it know they can’t treat parents, and by extension their kids, with the indifference district schools can, and do, get away with.

      • palisadesk says:

        Another question that comes to my mind is why the people who pull paychecks in the public education system aren’t asking my first question.

        Well, I’m one of those people, but I don’t have to ask that question, because I already know a large part of the answer:

        Christo Rey are private schools, correct?

        Thus, besides the selection factor (and, for my purposes, disregarding it), they have powers and sanctions that public schools DO NOT HAVE.

        They can discipline students for misbehavior far beyond anything that would be tolerated in public schools.

        They can demand and enforce “contracts” between family and school, between students and teachers, related to behavior, attendance, homework, punctuality, dress codes, extracurricular activities, and requiring voluneer commitment.

        They can refuse admission to students who are not suitable for whatever reason.

        They can grade students’ work on a fairly rigorous standard, require make-up work, re-taken exams, give failing grades, require after-school or weekend study halls or tutorials,and so on, most of which are difficult or impossible to do regularly in public education, except perhaps in specific magnet schools or tracks.

        They can suspend or expel students without a lot of paperwork or fear of lawsuits.

        They are exempt from most IDEA regulations, correct?

        Now, I don’t have a problem with any of this. I think it is great that these schools are doing what they are doing. I do not think it is realistic to expect many or most regular public schools to copy these “best practices.” The “intentional non-learners” are a big challenge (I like a lot of those kids, though, and find it worthwhile to try to move them forward despite the obstacles); many parents, too, are not all that desirous of “rigor.”

        I think that if public schools separated kids by desire (not so much as by “ability” which in the early years is difficult to measure accurately anyway), they could obtain similar results. But we don’t, and doing so is not in the offing, and we are charged with the task of educating all comers. Pretending kids are all the same is NOT working, but arguing for any change to the one-size-fits-all philosophy is seen as anti-equity and anti-inclusion.

        I’m dying to see the “reform” set develop an effective school model for the “intentional non-learners.” C’mon, folks, put your money where your mouth is!

        KIPP did it once and vowed never again. Somebody else, step up to the plate please. I’ll bet it could be done — but not cheaply.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          Well, I’ll be switched.

          Another mention of “intentional non-learner”. As I’ve said before, my wife heard about the concept in a couple of her PD just before retiring. Figured it was going to be an official category eventually.
          My dtr. had a kid in HS who didn’t do his work, didn’t show up, and if he did show up on a test day, didn’t fill in his test. His career plan was to move to LA and be a celebrity manager. Absolutely convinced.
          I have a suspicion that not knowing anything at all about the world, and I mean less than half of jacksquat, makes what we think of as education practically impossible.
          Story of the woman in a project apt who got hostile when the maintenance guy was trying to explain why the thermostat was making the heater go on and off. Rights being taken away or something. Visiting neighbor said hers worked fine (on permanently) and if the apt got too warm she opened a window. This was an adult.
          One wonders about trying to employ such a person. Child labor laws preclude hiring a moderately competent ten-year-old to supervise.
          Had a person call the office years ago looking for a number to a company we represent. Gave it to her. She complained to the boss that I had given her a wrong number. Didn’t tell her to dial “1” first.
          How did people get so helpless, ignorant, dependent? And, to some, is a feature or a bug?

          • palisadesk says:

            I’ve never heard or seen that term, “intentional non-learner,” anywhere but here on the JJ blog, but it does have a certain cachet and unfortunate accuracy. So maybe the term originates here!

            I have seen some of those “intentional non-learners” turned around, so am not willing to write them off. Humans can be remarkably adaptable creatures capable of change. Or not:-(

            The Good Book states that the poor we shall always have with us. I think some of the qualities you describe are similarly likely to persist, but they have always been here. Maybe we just notice them more.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    My first encounter with “intentional non-learner” was from my wife’s discussion of her PD several years ago.
    The helpless types I mentioned would not have been so helpless a hundred years ago, since they’d have been forced by circumstance to be at least somewhat competent.
    Even an amoeba can learn, if the penalty for not learning is severe enough and consistent enough. For humans, that means relevant to the person’s plans. Which means they have to have plans and it means they have to have some idea that…accounting is necessary to be a celebrity manager. Nobody’s told my daughter’s student this, not, at least, so he gets it. Which means people who don’t get “it”, whatever it is when the world is so full of “it” and the lessons about having “it” or not having “it” are so abundant, aren’t paying attention, and like the lady with the thermostat issue, haven’t been required by circumstance to pay attention to the world, the world of cause and effect, of consequences.

  5. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Allen, et. al. – I think it’s unfair to blame the intentional nonlearners on the teachers and schools (For all that I think the teachers and schools have wandered down the wrong path, especially with the whole ‘academic Kindergarten’ trend….) – I think the issue starts much earlier.

    My kids are anything but intentional non learners. Instead, they constantly want more knowledge. My 8 year old recently complained that she doesn’t know enough history and we really need to watch more documentaries. My pre-schooler’s constantly coming up with questions that need googling (Though usually the answer ends up along the lines of ‘well, it looks like scientists don’t know why humans are the only animals that cry when they’re sad…….’) Even the baby is in a constant state of curiosity and tries to touch everything in sight— which one would think is the natural state of baby.

    Apparently, this is unusual enough behavior that people remark on it. So when does a lack of interest get beaten into the kids? Do we have a nation of evil pre-school teachers who smack the children at the sand and water table when they crow “Look, we made a river going into the ocean!!!!”

    Obviously not. Pre-school teachers are all about curiosity, and even THEY have to motivate kids these days.

    I think the problem is starting earlier–maybe at birth. There was a study a few years ago that talked about how middle/upper class parents and lower class parents interacted with their kids.

    When a toddler showed interested in something, the higher SES parents encouraged the interest and engaged the child. “Ooh yes! It’s a WORM, honey. Can you say worm? Good! It’s slimey. Want to touch it? Worms are good for the soil, so be gentle……..”

    The lower SES parents were more likely to ignore the child, or to respond to questions with verbal or physical abuse. The interactions differ from a very young age. People who value passive children who don’t engage with their environment will create passive children with no intellectual curiosity—which in turn creates the breathtaking ignorance that produces a HS student who thinks that he can get a dream job without basic reading or math skills.

    “Intentional Non-Learner” is just a polite way of saying “Lazy and ignorant and won’t amount to a hill of beans”— But I don’t think we can blame the schools for that.

    AND it takes very few INL’s in a classroom to destroy the whole environment, drag the other kids down, and make teaching next-to-impossible.

    • Richard Aubrey says:


      Nobody, afaik, is blaming the schools for intentional non-learners.
      I don’t have to remember raising our kids since they frequently visit with our grandkids, and bring friends of their age who have neat kids of their own.
      I’ve seen the studies you mention and the diff is clear between SES. Cause? Effect? Positive feedback loop?
      What interests me in a ghoulish way is the enormous ignorance. Not that they can’t understand a television ad for something they like. A college buddy of my son’s–not for long–when he was a freshman was an AA admit. He was absolutely convinced New York was a city and had never heard of the state. Thermostats. Run out of gas and try to get somebody to jump the battery.

      Reminds me of an article I couldn’t sell, “Reflections on Training Rats, Privates, and Children”.

      Point was consistency. If the parents’ rules–for a child the rules of the entire universe–are not consistent it does not pay for a kid to try to figure things out since going on what he knows and has learned to that point does not yield any valid conclusions. It’s a random world and spending even a little bit of energy trying to figure it out is a waste of time and doesn’t even occur to them. What would be the point? It’s an intellectual habit which, by the time they get into, say, late el ed becomes manifest and a serious handicap.
      Ever see anybody complaining about a predictable sanction or other negative result, even one which has been posted clearly and explained in advance, with the air of someone who is both surprised and feels put-upon? To the extent it’s not an act, it’s because there is no reason for the person to pay attention to the warning, whether it’s an announcement, a sign, or a perfectly obvious result, since…there’s no connection in his mind between that and an actual, you know, result. It’s random. The world is random.

      • “Nobody, afaik, is blaming the schools for intentional non-learners.”

        Oh well then let me fill the void: I am.

        There’s nothing inherent to the public education system that mandates that teachers teach any more then there’s any way to mandate that learners learn. The difference being that the latter are required to show up and the former are employed, ostensibly, to see to the learning of the latter.

        That condition of institutional indifference to teaching and learning can be modified, locally and conditionally, but there’s nothing in the institution of public education that tilts public education towards demanding results of those it employs. Teach, don’t teach, learn, don’t learn, it’s all the same.

        That condition creates your marvelous rhetorical construct of the “intentional non-learner” for the simple reason that the efforts of the kids to learn are immaterial. No one cares whether the kids learn except for people who don’t matter – parents.

        Locally, and conditioned upon a potent enough and savvy enough group of parents, that institutional indifference can be reversed but where that condition doesn’t apply well, welcome to Detroit. Or most district schools in urban school districts.

        In the movie Groundhog Day Phil asks two locals, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?” That’s the daily situation for many students and teachers which is why so many students are unmotivated any why teaching has such a horrendous turnover rate.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          You miss the point. intentional non-learners sit in class, if they show up, and do nothing. They do not participate. They do not answer questions as if they know the material. They do not do homework. They do not fill in the tests, should they be in school on a day when there’s a test. They score, effectively, zero.
          The best they do, wrt education, is sleep and not bother others.
          My wife thinks, for lack of any other possibility, that they’re punishing somebody, probably their parents.
          My wife began teaching in 1971. This is new.

          • Deirdre Mundy says:

            Richard– many don’t just sit– they literally try to undermine ANYONE’s attempts to learn and drag the ‘indifferent students’, who might work if that was the norm but will also goof off if THAT is the norm, down with them.

            If they were content just to sit and do NOTHING, they wouldn’t be as dangerous……

            BUT teachers can’t kick them out, because they have to teach EVERY student, even the intentional non-learners.

          • No Richard, I didn’t miss the point. I’m dismissing it as another tawdry excuse for a failed system that far too many people want to see shielded from any inspection, let alone criticism.

            Those “intentional non-learners” you’re so excited to expound upon are the inevitable result of what’s purported to be an institution of education but is in fact only incidentally concerned with education having been hijacked by those with little interest in seeing that institution fulfill its mission.

            That, by the way, is why parents who are swooningly in love with the school their kid goes to see no contradiction holding the polar opposite opinion of the public education system as a whole – they can see what you’ve carefully trained yourself not to see but are powerless to change. It’s also the force that relentlessly drives the real public education reform movement and it’s a force no volume nor cleverness of excuses will deflect.

        • SuperSub says:

          Actually, the problem isn’t the schools, but the governing bodies. Just as students are taught their efforts don’t matter, so are teachers. And actually, teachers are more sensitive to the pressure to maintain the status quo because they recognize the negative incentives (loss of job and income, more negative if they have a family) more than the students.
          Administrators are hired by school boards and local governments not for their experience and expertise, but their ability to massage passing rates. These leaders set the tone for the whole school. Teachers stopped controlling the culture of school a log time ago, and it wasn’t of their choosing.
          We just had a senior civics teacher taken to task by our principal for single-handedly threatening the graduations of 10% of our seniors. His crime? He expected these college-bound seniors to read one government-themed article from the news each day and to write a short half page summary. Close to a quarter of his students, at the end of his half year class, owed more than half their summaries. He told them they could turn them in late with deducted credit…but 20 or so students had to do 50+ articles to pass. Principal told him to provide 10 articles to these students and have them summarize. Teacher was untenured…you guess what happened.
          An AP English teacher found that two of his students shared, word for word, the first page of their final project (a ten page movie or play script) . He gave them zeroes and notified the parents and guidance counselors…one would fail the course and not graduate. Lo and behold, he was visited by the district English supervisor, and the failing student (not the one that still passed) was offered a chance to do an alternative assignment three days before graduation. He was tenured, but his wife (also in the district) was not.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    What you say is frequently true. That’s why I said “the best”, leaving room for considerably worse.
    And that’s why I think this is moving toward being an official category which can be excluded from, at least, evaluation results. Possibly from school altogether.

  7. I may have introduced the term “intentional non-learners” here, but I didn’t make it up; I’ve seen it here and there in the many materials on education policy that I read.

    There’s a hypersensitive (if affected) PC attitude among the most forceful attackers of public education. That attitude leads to shocked offense at the mention of intentional non-learners. Why, every child can learn!

    For anyone who sincerely wants to understand this issue better, I highly recommend the book “Code of the Street,” by the African-American Yale sociology Prof. Elijah Anderson. Anderson defines different types that have emerged in the inner-city ghetto (while acknowledging that many residents show characteristics of both, or they “code-switch”). These are “street” and “decent” families and individuals. His description of the extreme in the “street” category:

    “Highly alienated and embittered, they exude generalized contempt for the wider scheme of things and for (the) system… In their view, policemen, public officials, and corporate heads are unworthy of respect and hold little moral authority. … Violence is quite prevalent — in families, in schools, and in the streets — becoming a way of life that is effectively governed by the code of the street.”

    Anderson explains: “Decent families tend to accept mainstream values more fully than street families, and they attempt to instill them in their children. … In their efforts toward this goal, decent parents are much more able and willing than street-oriented ones to ally themselves with outside institutions such as schools and churches.”

    He shows how the “street” culture can pervade a school: “During their early years, most of the children accept the legitimacy of the school, and then eagerly approach the task of learning. As time passes, however, in their relentless campaign for the respect that will be meaningful in their public environment, youth increasingly embrace the street code. … For many alienated young black people, attending school and doing well becomes negatively associated with acting white. … Impacted by profound social isolation, the children face the basic problem of alienation. Many students become smug in their lack of appreciation of what the business of the school is and how it connects with the world outside. … The code of the street, and by extension the oppositional culture, competes very effectively with traditional values.”

    So, I hope it’s clear that Anderson is describing the “intentional non-learners” and explaining what’s behind their oppositional,disruptive behavior.

    He does call attention to one mistake teachers make. He points out that the “decent” kids feel they have to “code-switch,” to affect “street” behavior. In the high-stress, threatening atmosphere of an inner-city school, this leads teachers to assume that all the students are “street” and to neglect to reinforce any positive behavior they see in the “decent” kids. But Anderson emphasizes that it’s so all-important for teachers to never, ever show fear, even in a culture of extreme violence, that that becomes their consuming priority.

    Richard’s wife may have encountered intentional non-learners from other cultures, and (I hope) not in a troubled inner-city school where those kids have steered it into chaos. Anderson is researching and writing about a certain demographic, obviously.

    I’m not sure what remedies the really hardened critics like Allen would have teachers and school use. Actually, their attitude is similar to the “street” culture in some ways, in its contemptuous and oppositional hostility to institutions that are attempting to promote the traditional values of civility and democracy. So maybe they could make some useful suggestions based on that understanding.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Allen. Wrong again. You need, to support your point, to show how the schools either made learners into non-learners, or failed to make potential learners into actual learners.
    The point the teachers who’ve encountered these folks, my daughter and my wife among them, is that these kids choose, by themselves, to not learn.
    We used to live near Flint, MI. Before the auto industry went south–literally speaking,many of the cars are made south of the old Rust Belt and Flint now has a state-appointed czar or whatever they call him–some of my wife’s students said, more or less literally, “We don’t have to learn this stuff, we don’t even have to graduate. I’m going in the shop like my Dad.” They, at least, had a plan and the earlier of them may have gotten their thirty-and-out pension before being laid off permanently.
    The intentional non-learners, except for the potential celebrity manager my daughter had on class, have no plans, won’t admit to having any plans and won’t be drawn into a discussion of such.
    Cultures vary, as Thomas Sowell said, and differences have consequences. That’s true whether it’s a quarter billion people or one family.
    It would be absurd to presume all kids except the demonstrably handicapped show up ready for a program of restriction and rules and learning from authority from age five to age eighteen, considering the whole idea is less than two hundred years old and there is no evidence of evolution suiting kids for this. It’s a crazy idea and the really crazy part is that it’s worked as well as it has.

    • I’ve already supported my view.

      Mandatory attendance means public schools have no reason to attract kids. Gosh, I’m sure there’s no conclusion kids can draw from mandatory attendance policies.

      Public schools are indifferent to learning. I wonder what conclusion kids draw from that obvious truth? And how that obvious truth effects their behavior?

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Allen. Been mandatory for a hundred years. Intentional non-learners are new.

        There are the disruptive types and the sleep in the back of the room types. What pub ed has done to produce these in the last decade or so is hard to imagine, unless you posit that getting slid by in return for nothing generates contempt (it should but the intentional non-learner’s contempt or complete lack of interest is different).

        Recall Ogbu looking at Shaker Heights. Turns out the black kids needed lots of tv time to keep up with the various issues of paramount importance to them in their cohort’s social whirl. Took it out of homework time. McWhorter, educated there, said something of the same. Shaker Heights is said to be a prime research location because the place is non-ghetto, ethnically diverse, schools are well-funded with lots of early intervention. IOW, allen, your points don’t apply there, but the differences show up anyway.