Charter Schools’ Secret Weapon: Ivy Grads
I am ignorant of many things, but I think I know charter schools, particularly what makes the best ones successful. I have a new book out on that subject. I discuss the issue often in this column. For instance, in a recent piece I sifted reader reaction and concluded the best name for our highest-achieving charters is No Excuses schools, because their teachers believe their students’ impoverished backgrounds are no barrier to learning.
But here comes Steven F. Wilson, one of the savviest of charter school scholars, making me look dumb. He has revealed an important facet of No Excuses schools that never occurred to me. I tried to cover my embarrassment when I read his American Enterprise Institute paper, “Success at Scale in Charter Schooling.”
“Oh, yeah, I knew that,” I said.
I was lying. Some of his facts were familiar to me, but I never put them together. With clever research, Wilson, a senior fellow with the Education Sector think tank and a former charter school executive, has opened a whole new line of inquiry. He has discovered that an extraordinarily high percentage of No Excuses teachers attended very selective colleges. That could be, in the long run, the downfall of high hopes for what at the moment are our most promising public schools.
In his paper, written for the AEI Future of American Education Project, Wilson looks at eight No Excuses schools in the Boston area: Academy of the Pacific Rim, Edward Brooke, Boston Collegiate, Excel Academy, Boston Prep, MATCH, Roxbury Prep and the KIPP Academy Lynn. He offers a useful list of their shared characteristics. They are small and selective in hiring; prefer direct instruction to inquiry learning; embrace state standards and state tests; have large class sizes, strong discipline and longer school days and years; make teachers accountable for results; have parents and students sign contracts promising cooperation; give school leaders great power; don’t have the latest education technology or unionized teachers; and are charters, that is, independent public schools supported by tax dollars.
All eight of these Boston area public charter schools had at least 75 percent of students in their oldest grade scoring proficient on the state math test. This is in spite of the fact that every school on Wilson’s list had a majority of impoverished students, except Boston Collegiate, which was close with 42 percent.
Okay, I thought when I reached that page. I get it. Those shared characteristics -- particularly the strong school leaders, selective hiring, strong discipline and longer school days and years -- explain the impressive classroom results.
Uh, well, maybe not. At least not in the way I thought. The selective hiring had a hidden dimension. Using “Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges 2007,” Wilson rated the selectivity of the colleges attended by the staffs of six No Excuses schools in Boston that gave him the relevant data. He calculated an average selectivity rate and compared that to public schools they outperformed.
Of 204 No Excuses staffers, 55.9 percent attended colleges in the most selective Barron’s category, “most competitive” That included the eight Ivy League schools, selective liberal arts schools such as Amherst, and top public universities like U-Va., UNC-Chapel Hill and UCLA.
Wilson divided the Barron’s categories into five levels. The most competitive group he called level 5. More than 70 percent of No Excuses staffers attended level 5 or level 4 (such as Bryn Mawr, Ohio State and Babson) schools. Only 2.5 percent attended level 1 schools, such as Keystone College, New Jersey City University and Regis College.
By contrast, Wilson cited a 2002 study showing that 25.3 percent of urban teachers in New York City had received their bachelor’s degrees from level 1 colleges. Another study found that 19.2 percent of public school teachers attended level 3, 4 or 5 colleges, compared with 82.9 percent of the No Excuses school staffers in Boston.
The selectivity of the colleges attended by teachers in such schools in other parts of the country also appeared to be high. Wilson gathered data from eight public charter schools in Georgia, Texas, California, Tennessee, New Jersey and New York that had also produced high proficiency rates among students from low-income families. More than 36 percent of their staffers had attended level 5 colleges and 77.3 percent had attended colleges at level 3 or higher.
Many of these schools hire teachers who have been in the Teach for America program, which itself focuses on selective colleges when it looks for potential applicants about to graduate. Some of the highest-performing charter school networks say that a degree from a prestigious university is one of the things they look for in their teachers, as well as high grades and other academic accomplishments.
Wilson notes the advantages of this selective process. The No Excuses schools rely on teacher brainpower. They want staffers to produce their own lesson plans and, through trial and error and consultation with other teachers, figure out what works best in raising the achievement of students who are often two or three years below grade level when they enroll. A typical No Excuses school “requires the teacher to possess unusual analytic skill, agility in shaping the curriculum, personal drive, capacity to engage students, and, not least, time,” Wilson says. Those are traits often found among the hard-charging students from affluent families that make up the bulk of level 5 college graduates.
But is that an unalloyed blessing? The need to find such talent, Wilson says, might limit how much the No Excuses schools can grow. The most selective colleges are unlikely to provide enough graduates interested in teaching to fill the need for their talents in inner city and rural schools. Only 9.5 percent of the 1.5 million students who graduated from four-year colleges in 2006 attended level 4 or 5 schools.
Teach for America has succeeded in making public urban education one of the most popular post-graduation jobs for our brightest youth, but few of them stay in the classroom beyond their two-year commitments. Some of the No Excuses school networks have begun a program at Hunter College’s education school, the Teacher U. Training Institute, designed to prepare more young people for such jobs. But by 2011 it will be admitting only 500 students a year.
We need many more good teachers than that, Wilson concludes. How do we get them? His answer, one more surprise, is to return to innovations in curriculum that showed promise in past years -- such as Direct Instruction, Core Knowledge and Success for All -- but lost favor in the faddish world of school management.
“If teachers were provided a powerful instructional system -- placement tests and guides for class formation; a sequential, content-rich curriculum tightly linked to state standards and taught to mastery; frequent electronic assessments; detailed pacing charts, and so on -- then skilled career educators of varying backgrounds might be able to achieve results similar to those posted by the No Excuses schools,” Wilson says.
I think Wilson is too pessimistic about the ability of the No Excuses schools to attract more teachers from elite colleges. The chance to be creative in the classroom and change young lives is a powerful recruiting tool. I think these schools’ effectiveness gives them a chance to turn a significant portion of the latest generation of college graduates toward teaching instead of law, medicine or finance. Many of them will move on to other work eventually, or at least step back from the 10-hour days that No Excuses schools often require. But Wilson is wrong to suggest they will all leave teaching after just two years. Many of the ones I know stay six years or more, learning and growing. It is only when they start having children, which often happens long after they have left college, that they leave. Some come back to do part-time duty which makes it easier for full-time teachers to leave in time to pick up their kids.
I also think Wilson leaves the false impression (he tells me he didn’t mean to) that graduates of colleges of lesser renown lack the talent our best urban schools yearn for. They haven’t had much chance to shine, because Teach for America hasn’t tried very hard to recruit them. Research indicates that character traits, not college pedigree, produce successful careers. Many students at little-known colleges possess the persistence, humor and charm that leads to classroom success. To take a personal example, the best classroom teacher I ever saw, the man who inspired me to be an education reporter, was a graduate of California State University at Los Angeles.
But Wilson’s call for a look at out-of-fashion curricular reforms is genius. I don’t want to be too sanguine. Formerly hot education ideas rarely come back into vogue. The imaginative people who teach at the No Excuses schools won’t like Wilson’s idea because the programs he wants to resurrect seem too much to them like painting by the numbers. But plenty of teachers would be happy just helping their students improve, and the data show some out-of-favor programs do that.
The best thing about the charter school system is that it gives educators a chance to test both Wilson’s ideas and alternate schemes at the No Excuse schools. Wilson says in the paper he is already acting on the implications of his research. He has started a nonprofit organization, Ascend Learning, which is licensing the SABIS model, one of the teaching systems he thinks would be helpful to average instructors. We should keep an eye on him as well as other charter educators. Which will prove to be best at teaching young Americans the skills and concepts they need to have the widest range of choices in life?
Washington Post editors
| April 24, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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