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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.

By Jay Mathews  | October 2, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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I think Chavis's ideas make a lot of sense for middle school, a particularly volatile period of life, where stability and an intimate setting are really important. Subject matter rigor can always be addressed in high school; what middle schoolers need is help in maturing. The worst middle schools that I have seen are the huge factory-like schools with thousands of students. Students of this age are not ready for such an impersonal setting.

Posted by: vonfleck | October 2, 2009 7:54 AM | Report abuse

Why doesn't every school in the country use the Ben Chavis approach? I have always taught more than my subject(AP English Lit) to students, when they tell me they have a problem in any class. I even help them with their math. But the best thing I teach them after school are the keys to get into any school of theit choice after high school.

Posted by: ericpollock | October 2, 2009 7:58 AM | Report abuse

My understanding is that in Italy, a student will have the same teacher in grades 1-8.

Posted by: Bruce25 | October 2, 2009 8:23 AM | Report abuse

Don't ever knock or argue with success in education. Just because a method is different, doesn't mean it can't be superior. Look at these results! The rest of the country should look at this man. Hats off to him!

Posted by: boblee1 | October 2, 2009 9:13 AM | Report abuse

Don't ever knock or argue with success in education. Just because a method is different, doesn't mean it can't be superior. Look at these results! The rest of the country should look at this man. Hats off to him!

Posted by: boblee1 | October 2, 2009 9:28 AM | Report abuse

well said, vonfleck

Posted by: newageblues | October 2, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse


My example of other schools who have tried the process comes from our history. This from "In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most American students attended a one-room schoolhouse. A single teacher would typically have students in the first through eighth grades, and she taught them all. The number of students varied from six to 40 or more. The youngest children sat in the front, while the oldest students sat in the back. The teacher usually taught reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and geography."

Sounds to me that Mr. Chavis has taken on elements of a classroom concept from the era before the "factory model" of education -- and that could well be a very good thing.

Do the experts really know where the breakpoint is for students between "integrated learning/integrated teaching" and "subject matter expertise"? Particularly for the younger kids -- and in the Information Age -- isn't it more important for them to "learn how to learn" than achieve subject mastery? Having a single teacher -- who can both assess strengths/weaknesses across learning areas as well as integrate learning across subject areas -- would seem to be a very beneficial situation.

Of course, this would assume a certain skill set for such a teacher; one probably not currently valued in our school systems(except maybe by Mr. Chavis).

Posted by: joe_b_stanley | October 2, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

The Chavis model seems closer to the home-schooling model than standard public or private school models. Interesting. I am not a home-school advocate but if something works then it is worthy of attention.

Posted by: Seamus2 | October 2, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

I am on a panel with Chavis today. I will share these comments with him. I am certain he will find them very interesting, and encouraging. I wish I had thought of Joe_B_Stanley's apt one-room schoolhouse analogy.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 2, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

This is certainly a model that is used in Out-of-School programming. There is no questions about the power of a relationship with a caring adult. Interesting to see it a school day and very interested to learn more about the long term outcomes for these kids...

Posted by: timpay14 | October 2, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

I definitely like the idea of one teacher teaching all subjects. In middle school, I have a hard time believing that much depth of knowledge--beyond what appears in the textbook--is required. If we're asking a 12-year-old can learn the stuff, I think it's safe to expect the same from the teacher.

Regarding having the same teacher for all three years, I'm not sure I buy into that. Different kids learn better from different teachers and teaching styles. I'd hate to be the kid who gets an incompatible teacher for all three years of middle school.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | October 2, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Interesting article.
@ericpollock - Research shows that there is not a model that will work for every student, so it wouldn't be wise use Chavis's method at every school. This mentality is a part of the problem - something works in one environment and then admins want to adopt it everywhere :(

Posted by: demondmoy | October 3, 2009 3:48 AM | Report abuse

Just went to the APICS website and Chavis is no linger there. He has been gone since 2007.

Posted by: demondmoy | October 3, 2009 3:59 AM | Report abuse

Please excuse my typos.

Posted by: demondmoy | October 3, 2009 4:00 AM | Report abuse

Nice! More info in

Posted by: ivspam1 | October 3, 2009 5:53 AM | Report abuse

Nice! More info in

Posted by: ivspam1 | October 3, 2009 5:54 AM | Report abuse

Why choose grades 6-8? Why not 5-7? Oh, it's because someone defined "middle school" as grades 6-8. But that's totally arbitrary. In some areas, the intermediate school is grades 7-9 or 8-9.

This question is important because you must decide when to split subjects among separate teachers. You definitely do not do so in K-2 and definitely do so in 10-12.

Todays' 8th grade curriculum is more like the 9th grade of 50 years ago. Separate teachers for 8th grade may really be necessary.

Chavis has broken a barrier. Perhaps, we should break some others as well, such as the one that says elementary school is K-5, middle school is 6-8, and high school is 9-12.

Posted by: harry4 | October 3, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps there is a hybrid model that combines the Chavis "one-room-schoolhouse" approach with the subject matter specialist approach evident in most our "factory-model" middle schools and high schools. The blended approach would have 2-3 subject matter specialists working as a team to achieve each subject's objectives but with a larger class in a longer class session (2-4 hours). The team would be assisted by courseware that would increase the ability of instructors to give multiple assignments to students at different levels of ability and achievement. The specialists would help and learn from one another and become cross-trained in the process, but they would still be accountable for student achievement in their subject or area of expertise. An example of such a program is the Fast Break Accelerated Learning Program that targets young adults and high school students. For more information, go to

Posted by: bsels | October 3, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Chavis is a master at pulling in high performing, low income Oakland students. Take a look at the changing percentage of students who belong in one of the following subgroups: American Indian or Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, Filipino, Hispanic or Latino, or African American. This is for the 13 school years from 1996-97 to 2008-09. All figures are from DataQuest at the California Department of Education’s website.

· 1996-97 = 100.0

· 1997-98 = 97.0

· 1998-99 = 93.8

· 1999-00 = 100.1

· 2000-01 = 97.0

· 2001-02 = 100

· 2002-03 = 98.7

· 2003-04 = 74.3

· 2004-05 = 55.4

· 2005-06 = 65.3

· 2006-07 = 51.1

· 2007-08 = 50.5

· 2008-09 = 42.3

The school’s American Indian or Alaska Native percentage in 1996-97 was 100%. This year it is 1.1%.

Now look at the changing percentage of the school’s students who are either Asian or White.

· 1996-97 = 0.0

· 1997-98 = 2.9

· 1998-99 = 6.2

· 1999-00 = 0.0

· 2000-01 = 2.9

· 2001-02 = 0.0

· 2002-03 = 1.2

· 2003-04 = 25.7

· 2004-05 = 44.6

· 2005-06 = 33.7

· 2006-07 = 22.4

· 2007-08 = 38.4

· 2008-09 = 54.4*

Ben Chavis took over the failing school in 2001-02. It only took him a short time to figure out how to maximize his school’s test scores. One of his primary methods was simply to change the demographics.

In 2006-07, the school had an unusual spike in the number of students reporting “multiple or no response.” The spike appeared about the time questions were being raised about the school being demographically engineered by Chavis. The percentage had averaged 0.29 for the previous 10 years. In 2006-07 it jumped to 26.4%. In 2007-08 it fell to 11.1%. This year, it is 2.7%. In a school which prizes itself for having an extreme sense of order, such an unusual sequence was probably his attempt to confuse the facts.

By the way, when the figures of his three American Indian Model schools are combined, their average enrollment of students w/disabilities was 1.3% in 2007-08. The district average was 10%. Their combined enrollment of English Learners in was 3% in 2007-08. The district average for that subgroup was 30%.

As for the high performing AA students, on his roster at one time were the two children of the local elementary principal. What principal wouldn't want those kids in their school?

Chavis talks about how more money isn't needed in public schools, and then takes hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Walton Family Foundation to supplement his per pupil spending.

Posted by: pondoora | October 3, 2009 8:25 PM | Report abuse

Check this out, too.

Posted by: pondoora | October 3, 2009 8:26 PM | Report abuse

Yup...Chavis has clearly cooked the books on this. When you look at the data on who is a sub-pop it doesn't make sense for there to be no ELL students in a city like Oakland? Moreover, if you have no AA's, Latino's or ELL's in your subpop then we should laud your progress? Really?

Posted by: edthinker | October 4, 2009 12:18 AM | Report abuse

@pondoora: The difficulty of responding to the comment you pasted in from the blog entry you also posted is that you posit no mechanism by which Chavis (or any other principal, for that matter) could "simply change the demographics" of a school. Telling us that "questions were being raised" about "demographic engineering" doesn't give us any facts.
Moreover, your statistics don't bear it out: you show that by the year 2002 (at which point AIPCS was already outperforming other schools in the area), kids in your first set of racial groups still amounted to 100% of the population, and white and asian kids still amounted to 0%. If your statistics are correct, your conclusion is wrong.
If you want to prove that the sort of "creaming" you allege is actually occurring, you'd have to look at the whole ecosystem -- here, the Oakland public schools -- and show that AIPCS's increasing scores were balanced out by corresponding decreasing scores in the schools those kids came from. In other words, if it's just a matter of selecting the "right" kids who are already doing well, the scores of the schools those kids left should go down, and the overall test scores for Oakland should remain flat in the period you're concerned with. But given that AIPCS's increased scores are at least prima facie evidence that what they're doing is working, the burden is on you to actually show that the demographic change is what caused the test score jump, if that's what you want to argue. What you've presented here doesn't do that.

Posted by: jlm22 | October 4, 2009 12:50 AM | Report abuse

for demondmoy---Chavis now describes himself as the chief executive for training and implementing the model at other schools, including some non-AIPCS schools that have adopted it. He lives in Oakland, with his wife and three small children, and doesn't take a salary---I gather he owns a lot of apts in Arizona. He no longer runs any of the three AICPS schools.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 5, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

I appreciate pondoora's data on ethnicity and learning disabilities. Chavis says since his is a school of choice, he has to take whatever students apply, and have a lottery if there is a surplus. I looked for data showing massive expulsion or dropouts on the Cal dept of ed site, and there did not seem to be any, or not very many. That would seem to be the only way he could keep spec ed kids out of the school. As for the ethnic change, he says that his Asian kids do not score as well on the STAR as his black and Hispanic kids, but the Cal dep of ed site does not seem to yield, at least to me, any data on that. It is, however, believable. These are demonstrably low-income students, the Cal dep of ed site does show. Assuming that all Asian kids, of whatever background, always test at the top is one of the biases we should try to avoid.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 5, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

As a parent, I am very disappointed in and frustrated by the comments that assert that content can always be addressed in high school, but help in maturing is more important in middle school and that kids don't need content;they just need to learn how to learn. I strongly disagree with both ideas. High school success and college/career readiness requires real knowledge in subject areas and "how to learn" cannot be taught independent of subject-area content. These ideas, and the touchy-feely, content-deprived curriculum they inspire make a big contribution to the declining number of kids ready for REAL high school work, let alone college or workplace readiness.

Posted by: momof4md | October 6, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

I felt that I had to address momof4md's comments -- since they are the opposing arguments to some of mine.

I can respect the position of a parent on this issue; I'm one, too. Also, I recognize that high school is a much different (harder, more demanding) academic environment today than it was 30+ years ago.

I'll readily concede that there are a number of "foundational" knowledge elements -- and that the content presented at high school (and later) assumes these have been assimilated by the students. I recognize that a school system's programmed progression through the grades attempts to build this foundational knowledge in absorbable, serial increments.

What I'm uneasy about is about is the difference between imparting "knowledge" (or developing knowledge building skills) and tranmitting "data". The largest roadblock to learning that I've seen with my kids is boredom; not necessarily due to the subject matter but to the "push and assess" nature of the experience. Frankly, they were/are a little burned-out by the time they got to high school.

Today, information is relatively cheap and accessible. What's valued is an individual's ability to integrate information in such a way as to increase our knowledge base. Since we're all "wired" differently for learning purposes, it seems to me that allowing the younger kids to get comfortable with their own learning style -- coupled with how to gather information -- is more important than learning "facts". Would facts/data get absorbed in the process -- sure! But that shouldn't be the be-all/end-all purpose.

I know it's a tall order to buy-in to this approach, but just think of the huge leaps in information accessibility we've seen in our lifetimes -- and imagine what it will be like during our children's lifetimes. We should be building our educational programs for the day when the chip in their sunglasses can give them the monthly average rainfall in Idaho juxtaposed with the option prices on potato futures. It's just around the corner.

Posted by: joe_b_stanley | October 6, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

While I believe that SOME high schools are harder and more academically demanding (at least for the top kids)than in the past, I feel that the opposite is true in many, if not most schools. Homework used to be expected for most and most did it, including reading and writing assignments. I have a relative teaching high school in an affluent suburban area and the non-honors classes typically have no homework, with significant teacher cooperation on the issue. Even if there are occasional assignments, not all do them. The honors and AP classes are very different, with homework routinely assigned and done.

Posted by: momof4md | October 8, 2009 5:14 PM | Report abuse

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