A Crazy Idea for Middle Schools
When education pundits like me talk about the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, Calif., the conversation is always about the middle school's leader, Ben Chavis. He is very different from us data-sifting eggheads. It is not an exaggeration to call him a wild man. He delights in upbraiding lazy students, outraging inattentive teachers and making wrong-headed visitors to the school wish they had stayed home.
He has the independent spirit of someone who had a successful career in construction, teaching and business before the then-woebegone AIPCS board asked him to rescue the school. He didn’t need the job. He did it mostly as a favor to fellow Native Americans--he was born into a Lumbee Indian family of sharecroppers in North Carolina--and as a challenge. He has many of the habits of some of the best educators I know--a wicked sense of humor, a weakness for shocking the conventionally wise and a deep love of children, particularly those who have had difficult lives.
I was not initially surprised when I read his new autobiography, “Crazy Like A Fox: One Principal’s Triumph in the Inner City,” written with Carey Blakely, a teacher and administrator who helped him launch the American Indian Public High School. His story was much like those of other ground-breaking educators I have known.
There was, at first, official resistance to his ideas, then astonishment when they took hold and then gradual and grudging acceptance of his spectacular results. He is now chief executive for training and implementing the AIPCS model in the new high school and a second middle school, plus other schools that are adopting his methods.
Under California’s Academic Performance Index (API) a school ranking system that uses test scores, the original AIPCS, which has sixth through eighth grades, is the fifth ranking middle school in the state, and the highest ranking in Oakland.
That is impressive, but not what interested me most about Chavis' story. I can’t reach final conclusions about what he has been doing until I see his schools for myself. Some Oakland officials have reacted negatively to Chavis's outbursts, including a tongue-lashing, laced with racial terms he often uses, that he gave a visitor from a local college.
What drew my attention was something about the school I had never heard discussed before, something that I have never seen another middle school do. The teacher assigned to an AIPCS child in sixth grade teaches him all subjects--reading, math, science, social studies, the works--and continues to be that student’s only teacher for all three grades.
If you want the jargon for this, Chavis refuses to "departmentalize" his school--which would ensure that each subject is taught by a different teacher skilled in that subject--even though that is the national standard. Go to any middle school, in the worst ghetto or the best gated community, and usually you will find each grade’s students taught by four-teacher teams--one for reading, one for math, one for social studies and one for science.
Also, again in the standard jargon, Chavis' teachers are "looping" all three years. They accompany their students from grade to grade, so that Johnnie has Ms. Brooks for sixth grade, seventh grade and eighth grade, all day--unless Ms. Brooks leaves. That happens fairly often at the American Indian Public Charter school because, as Chavis often says, it is a challenging environment.
I suspect most middle school teachers would cringe at this idea. And yet, this is the fifth-highest achieving middle school in the state, even though 81 percent of its students come from low-income families. At the four middle schools ahead of it on the API list for 2008, low-income students comprised 3 percent, 3 percent, 27 percent and 2 percent of the school's enrollment. About half of AIPCS students are Asian, but Chavis says their state test scores are no better than his black and Hispanic students.
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.
I asked some middle school experts what they thought of this. Elizabeth Useem, senior research consultant for the Research For Action organization in Philadelphia, said the data she has seen indicate that teachers certified as experts in the content they are teaching produce better results.
“For many years, until No Child Left Behind,” she said, “Philadelphia had teachers with a K-6 certification teaching all kinds of subjects in the 7th and 8th grades, even though they did not have particular content expertise in the subjects they were teaching. Once the NCLB rules were enforced--i.e. the teachers had to have middle-level certification or pass the middle-level Praxis exam in the subjects they were teaching--middle grades test scores went up. The jump in 8th grade math scores has been particularly noticeable. For years, reformers have argued that 7th and 8th graders needed to be taught by people who actually knew what they were teaching.”
But, she added, “maybe with very stressed kids who are seriously below grade level it might make sense to do the Ben Chavis approach.”
Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program charter network, which is comprised mostly middle schools, said “I haven’t heard of middle schools doing this, but anything that helps build stronger long-term relationships between teachers and students, I like. I imagine the challenge with this model is finding teachers who can comfortably and knowledgeably teach multiple subjects at a secondary level. That’s a challenge as it is at the elementary level and is just tougher starting in middle school. Also the stakes are raised at what a school needs to do in the event of a poor performing teacher--beyond messing up one subject in one year, a bad teacher can make a more horrible mess that would need to be cleaned up the following year. However, if a leader can find a grade level full of teachers to pull this off, God love him or her.”
I am eager to hear from anyone who knows other schools that have tried this. Chavis’ book makes clear the approach is hard on teachers. When I get a chance to visit the school, I plan to ask those classroom heroes how they pull it off.
Chavis uses the one-teacher-for-three-years method only in middle school. His high school has the usual departments, with specialists teaching English, math, science and social studies.
Schools like AIPCS, so out of kilter with the rest of American education, are fascinating. Let me know if you have some ideas about why the Chavis method works, and whether other schools should try it.
| October 2, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Save & Share: Previous: One Reason Why Risky D.C. Teacher Evaluation Might Work
Next: School Rules Stifle Gifted Student
Posted by: vonfleck | October 2, 2009 7:54 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: ericpollock | October 2, 2009 7:58 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Bruce25 | October 2, 2009 8:23 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: boblee1 | October 2, 2009 9:13 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: boblee1 | October 2, 2009 9:28 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: newageblues | October 2, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: joe_b_stanley | October 2, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Seamus2 | October 2, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 2, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: timpay14 | October 2, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | October 2, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: demondmoy | October 3, 2009 3:48 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: demondmoy | October 3, 2009 3:59 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: demondmoy | October 3, 2009 4:00 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: ivspam1 | October 3, 2009 5:53 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: ivspam1 | October 3, 2009 5:54 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: harry4 | October 3, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: bsels | October 3, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: pondoora | October 3, 2009 8:25 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: pondoora | October 3, 2009 8:26 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: edthinker | October 4, 2009 12:18 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: jlm22 | October 4, 2009 12:50 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 5, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 5, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: momof4md | October 6, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: joe_b_stanley | October 6, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: momof4md | October 8, 2009 5:14 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.