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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?

By Washington Post editors  | April 24, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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A couple of comments.
I see a major contradiction. Wilson says one reason they do so well is "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."

And then says public schools need not fear because they could/should do this "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,”

The reason public school teachers get dismayed and burned out is because they are doing exactly what he suggests just above, and are not often given permission to do what the charter schools want their teachers to do: create their own lesson plans and see what is working/not working with THEIR students.

I think the key is the independence the charter schools have, and the collaboration that exists within the school (between principals and teachers) and the collaboration between the school and the community. In public schools teachers find out what the new fad is when they are told to go to a training i.e. their input is not asked for, collaboration is a foreign concept. And in the community, how many stories do you have to come across to realize that often in public schools the parents are the last to know of a major change, again no collaboration.

While the Ivy League teachers aspect is certainly interesting, I firmly believe the majority of public school teachers, whether from a level 5 school or a level 1, if they felt connected to the school in the fashion I gather the charter school teachers feel connected, if they felt valued as a professional, like the charter school teachers feel, you would see the same results in students' achievement.

Posted by: researcher2 | April 24, 2009 6:00 AM | Report abuse

There is a lot at work here. The kind of students who end up at elite colleges are not just smart, they are ambitious, hard-working, and proud. If they go into education, even temporarily, they can't see themselves as just ordinary teachers. Their self-esteem rides on their being "super teachers" and also making a difference in high-poverty neighborhoods. Some of us who went to regular universities are happy to be regular teachers. Is that a bad thing?

Posted by: pittypatt | April 24, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

"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."

No, no, no. That is not right at all. From their website: "To be considered for acceptance into the program, an applicant must be employed as a full-time classroom teacher in one of the program’s Sponsoring Schools or have accepted an offer to teach at a Sponsoring School beginning in fall 2009."

This is an in-service program, not a pre-service program. The people in it already have teaching jobs.

Also, I wholeheartedly agree with researcher2 -- all teachers need the kind of freedom that makes the charter school teachers you praise successful.

Also, since when did DI, CK, SFA go out of style? What have they been replaced by? Do you have any statistics on that?

Posted by: TomHoffman | April 24, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

No offense to a fine writer, but this notion that "students’ impoverished backgrounds are no barrier to learning" could only be held by someone who has not experienced impoverishment. I grew up in a low-income community, and few of my family members or kids in my neighborhood finished high school, much less college. I was an exception and there are other exceptions, and application-based schools, whether charter or public, attract the exceptions.
Cheating, lot's of cheating, is what you are going to get when you do what Ivy League stars like Ms. Rhee is doing: enticing teachers with $100,000 bonuses based on test scores, and threatening their livelihoods if their kids don't make progress. You are going to get cheating and you may not even know it because administrators have no incentive to bring it into the light of day. They'll just be glad they can claim improvements are made.
Reporters won't go deeply enough: they'll only report the new education miracle.

Posted by: JesseAlred | April 24, 2009 10:57 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if the strength of these teachers is that they are teaching subjects in which they studied deeply or majored during college, rather than the fact that they attended selective colleges. I believe research has shown that teachers who majored in the subject they teach are more effective, as opposed to teachers who major in education rather than a content area.

Posted by: Gideon2 | April 24, 2009 11:51 PM | Report abuse

Lord, Jay, will you ever get over your penchant for wishful thinking?

First, the burnout rate at charter schools is HIGHER than the burnout rate at public schools.

Second, the students at these top schools have loans to pay off. Ever heard of loan forgiveness? In order to get loan forgiveness, you have to either teach math or science, special ed, OR work at a Title I school.

So if you have to work at a Title I school, would you rather work at a charter school that gets to expel the low income kids it doesn't want, or a comprehensive school that has a predominantly low income population? At the very least, it counts as an incentive.

And guess how many years it takes to qualify for all the loans to be forgiven? Usually, five. Think that has anything to do with why the teachers stick around five years?

If all that isn't enough, elite ed schools push charter schools *hard*. All elite ed schools secretly (or not so secretly) hope that their students will go teach in a charter school for four or five years, come back to get a PhD in education, and then go open a charter school. Many of them say so explicitly.

It's hardly a coincidence, in other words, that charter school teachers are often elite school graduates. Part of it is economic motivation, part of it is the ideological push of the ed schools themselves. Part of it is that the elite schools themselves are doing their best to find ideologically suitable candidates who will want to teach at charter schools until they burn out.

I go to one of those elite ed schools (they immediately regretted letting me in and spent no small amount of effort trying to kick me out), and one of my instructors gave us a little valedictory speech at the end of our course saying, "Look. Please listen to me, even if [the ed school's director] will drum me out if she heard me. Charter schools aren't for everyone. Do not feel obligated to go to a charter school just because you know it's expected. I don't want you all burnt out."

As for the author's main point: Duh. Is it not completely obvious that the charter school model can't scale? Are all education columnist weak in math?

Jay, your columns often seem to be a restatement of some author's opinion, followed by your profoundly narrow, often misleading, and commonly ill-informed anecdotes. How about some reporting of hard data?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | April 25, 2009 1:49 AM | Report abuse

One of the barriers to enticing graduates of selective colleges to teaching is the lack of advancement in the profession unless they decide to switch from classroom instruction to administration. Ivy Leaguers tend to be ambitious and often one of the criteria they use in evaluating a position is the perceived opportunities for career advancement. Teaching doesn't offer that currently. The responsibilities in Year 1 are the same as those in Year 5, 10, 20, and 30.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | April 25, 2009 4:28 AM | Report abuse

One caveat to your excellent post. The loan forgiveness is typically 3 years when working in an Urban, Title 1, or high needs field. I have recently pointed this out to Jay in another article, where one aspect addressed "former" teachers going on to "improve" education. Rhee, and others like her that are often touted in the media, often have 3 years of teaching experience. Coincidence, I think not.

Posted by: researcher2 | April 25, 2009 5:55 AM | Report abuse

If you want to know why young grads are working at charters and not public schools, I can propose a theory.

The fact is, public schools are unable or unwilling to accept many recent grads because they're not qualified according to the standards set out by NCLB. Specifically, unless you're CERTIFIED to teach the subject/grade to which you're applying, the school will receive a black mark for extending an offer to you.

On the other hand, charter schools are typically seen as more lenient when it comes to paperwork, a fact which you mentioned in your article when you talk about hiring practices. Charters are seen as more willing to give someone with great credentials (that fancy top-tier degree) a chance at teaching even WITHOUT certification.

Yet, herein lies the problem: nobody has devised a simple bridge to help get these charter school teachers with bachelor's degrees over to the public schools, otherwise known as the bridge to getting certified.

In the public schools there are basically two different teaching positions: teacher and paraprofessional. Teachers need to be certified, but all paraprofessionals need to do is have two years of college or pass the Parapro exam with a decent score. Thus, an Ivy League (or similar) graduate with or without teaching experience is only qualified to be a paraprofessional, and make a paraprofessional's meager salary ($20-$25K in much of NoVA). The fact is, today's graduates are up to their fancy tassles in debt and such a meager salary is simply not enough to cover basic needs plus college debt, making this entry-level position a non-option.

If folks want graduates from the nation's top-ranked colleges to grace the classrooms of public schools in this country, they ought to be pushing for legislation that helps public schools make hiring decisions more like charters, with more of a focus on a person's accolades and less on his paperwork.

Posted by: adushok | April 25, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

I am a 7th year teacher in a highly successful urban charter school - not one run by one of the big management organizations. I wanted to expand on a couple of comments made previously.

First, as CrimsonWife said, if you're the kind of person who wants to advance and be recognized for above-average work, there's only so long you are going to stay in a profession where your salary and responsibilities typically relate only to your longevity, and your recognition is often nonexistent. (For every amazing teacher who gets made into a movie, there are hundreds whose names you'll never hear). This is not an argument for merit pay, necessarily - I personally have yet to see a plan for this that I think would not encourage cheating or animosity among staff. I don't claim to have the answers, but I think that there has to be some solution to this problem if we want to keep ambitious and successful teachers in the classroom (NOT only Ivy League teachers but any teachers who are ambitious, innovative, and successful).

Second, the first commenter noted an important contradiction between the findings that successful schools had teachers who were encouraged and expected to refine curriculum and innovate based on the needs and results of their students, and the recommendation that scripted programs be used to replicate this. Those two things are mutually exclusive. I understand that not every teacher wants to - or feels they can - write curriculum, analyze data, etc. For one thing, teachers would need far more prep time than they currently get to make that work.

Scripted programs are billed as being "teacher-proof" and while there are probably times when that's a good thing, the reality is that either a school has a scripted program that is routinely ignored, or it is enforced across the board, on innovative teachers who are going to chafe under the script as well as those who want the script. A big issue here is new teachers who may WANT to have more curricular input but are struggling to adjust to the profession. My school invests a lot of time and energy in supporting and mentoring our new teachers. We give teachers, if necessary, lesson plans and units that work, but don't discourage it when a teacher, new or old, realizes that his or her students need something different or additional. This is a lot of the work of good teaching - understanding student misconceptions and teaching to those. It requires a good knowledge of the subject on the teacher's part, which of course can be acquired at any college.

So I think the Ivy League headline is a little bit of a distractor, although I think the issues raised in the article are on target: to keep effective, innovative educators in any classroom (charter or traditional public) there has to be thought about what is going to support and keep those individuals.

Posted by: ktwj | April 25, 2009 9:20 PM | Report abuse

In dealing with the most challenging urban school situations, being Ivy League grads is not such a plus. Your own book, worshipful of Feinberg and Levin, showed how they had to get out after just two years. They then set up application based schools. If you support these charters, why not vouchers? The Catholic schools do just fine in the inner city. Mr. Feinberg and Mr. Levin have had their best success with Hispanic students, and many of these families are Catholic, so why not give them help to go to parochial schools?

Posted by: JesseAlred | April 26, 2009 7:59 PM | Report abuse

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