Leveling The Playing Field

I really enjoyed Sunday’s magazine article on the education gap. It brought together a number of interests of mine – education politics, parenting, class. The article begins with NCLB’s goal of improving education in lower income areas, of ending the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” No matter what you think about the implementation of NCLB, you must admit that is a worthy goal.

The article points to research by Annette Lareau and other sociologists who find that parenting styles of working class families has an impact on their later success in schools. Poor and working class kids enter Kindergarten at a huge disadvantage from middle class kids and they never catch up.

Aware of these deficits, a number of charter school leaders are working to give those poor kids the tools to succeed that they weren’t receiving at home. They increased time in school and are teaching them how to behave in a classroom. The KIPP schools have been particularly successful and that model is being replicated across the country. Scaling up these small schools led by charismatic leaders is always tricky, but the new KIPP schools are also managing to bring up the test scores of new groups of poor students. These KIPP programs are significant, because they show that schools can make a difference.

Why aren’t the KIPP schools being replicated in public schools? Why was NCLB so ineffective in bringing up test scores? Politics.

NCLB has relied on sticks and tests to bring up poor schools. The philosophy was that poor kids aren’t doing well, because their teachers are lazy and stupid. Force the teachers to get advanced degrees and not waste time doing fluffy stuff in the classrooms. Without funding and other support for these schools, kids are still doing poorly on the national tests. To save face, the education department allowed the states to define their own weak standards to match the poor test results.

NCLB also didn’t bring about the fundamental restructuring of public schools that is needed to really bring about change. KIPP schools succeed, because that they bring in the best teachers from Teach For America and lengthen the school year. These measures would also have to be applied to public schools to bring about major change. NCLB didn’t do that, but any federal program that tried to do such things would face strong resistance. The teachers’ unions would fight lengthening the school year and changing hiring practices. Middle class parents would bristle at the tough measures that are so effective in the KIPP schools. There aren’t enough good teachers to go around. Tax payers resist sending more money going to schools, particularly to ones not in their backyard.

Education is the great promise for creating a society where people are able to succeed not based on their on their background or privilege, but one where people succeed based on their ability and hard work. The education gap is a major roadblock in creating a just society. The failure of NCLB shouldn’t deter us from working harder to change things.

UPDATE: For a nice summary of the article, check out a new blog, The Psychology of Education.

27 thoughts on “Leveling The Playing Field

  1. KIPP can outscore even ritzy suburban NY schools, at least in math. For more details, see Catherine Johnson’s kitchentablemath.net. It’s a rickety website, very hard to get on to, but CJ’s one-woman crusade against suburban mediocrity is must-reading for anyone interested in US schools.

  2. Wait a minute though, there’s another reason that KIPP can’t be scaled up into the public schools, which is far more intractable. In the article he says that KIPP depends on teachers devoting 60 or 70 hours a week to the work (and my understanding from other studies and from chatting to people is that a 60 hour week just on the site is completely standard). You can get this out of energetic TFA graduates who expect to do it for a limited amunt of time before they take up other career opportunities. But there just isn’t a large supply of talented people willing to do this at a low-ish wage as a career in itself.
    In a way the NCLB method makes a lot of sense; supplementing existing public school with summer and after-school programs does not confront the unions, and it also is more realistic about the size of the available talent pool.

  3. So what is the NCLB method, and does it actually work? I know I’ve heard in the past that its tutoring provisions are not being effectively implemented. That would actually help to explain why NCLB hasn’t had a more positive effect on test scores. If I recall correctly, the failing school was supposed to administer the tutoring for the failing child. That was not a very bright idea!
    By the way, school until 5 PM or later would probably be extremely popular with working parents, especially if it meant built-in extracurriculars and/or no homework left for the evening at home. I know that there are also schools (including at least one in Alexandria VA) that go year-round, scattering vacation time throughout the year. Kids who need remediation do academics during the breaks, while kids who don’t can either be with their families or go to school and do less academic “fun” activities. The year-round schedule kills three birds with one stone by providing time for remediation, dealing with the problem of summer knowledge loss, and serving families without a parent at home during those long summer months. I really like the sound of that, but don’t know how it works in practice.

  4. The biggest objection that I see to an extended day is that it may encourage inefficient use of instructional time, increasing the risk of boredom and kiddie burnout. “School is boring,” says my pre-K daughter, as I pull her out of bed and shove her into her clothes in the morning.

  5. You’re pinning the blame on Republican ideology, when Teddy Kennedy is a much more plausible culprit.
    All the stuff that KIPP does could have been read right out of an article on teaching inner city kids in National Review or the Weekly Standard or Reason or American Enterprise . . . ten years ago. Every single thing cited in that article is standard cant among conservative education wonks. It’s the stuff that the Republicans wanted NCLB to force the teachers in normal public schools to do . . . and that the teachers ardently do not want to do, since
    1) It is insanely structured and boring for the teachers (the teacher’s manuals for many of these programmes are scripted down to “raise your hand”–which is how the teacher signals the kids to begin reading aloud.) Boooooooring. It works, and what is fun for the teacher generally doesn’t. But the teachers, not the kids, are politicaly active, and their parents don’t know why they can’t read
    2) It requires much longer hours, and much shorter vacations, both of which are major attractions of the job.
    3) It guts the seniority system that allows good teachers to transfer to middle class schools, where the successful, pliant, engaged students are.
    WHen NCLB was passed, Bush needed Teddy Kennedy’s support. Thus, we got testing, but no significant change in work practices for the teachers. The testing may be watered down, but at least it’s being done . . . and the Bush administration’s major triumph was forcing school districts to test all the kids, so that they couldn’t bump up their scores by declaring all the poor minority kids “learning disabled” and excluding them from the test group, which used to be pretty standard practice.
    (Incidentally, I note that the article does not correct for the fact that the testing pool is now larger, and includes more disadvantaged kids; staying even — which statistically is what happened in reading, while math scores improved — is much better than it sounds, given that fact.)
    Yes, teachers would have to be paid more to implement this sort of programme, if we wanted them to stay longer than a few years. But it’s at least a 50% shot that the politically salient fact is that a huge number of today’s teachers, possibly a majority, would quit or be fired under the new system. The teacher’s union’s job is to prevent that, and Teddy Kennedy thinks his job is to make Randi Weingarten happy. Given that, all the Bush administration *could* do is make a blind stab at exposing the dark underbelly of the system.

  6. I think that NCLB is a step in the right direction, but to really make a dent in the education gap, there has to be some very intensive changes like happen at the KIPP schools. The article says that the KIPP programs have been much more effective than NCLB, because they have the longer school day and do the intensive drilling. The afterschool and tutoring programs in NCLB has also been riddled with problems. Melissa Marshall had a good paper on that at APSA this year.
    How scalable is the KIPP model? I think it’s important that they’ve gotten over the hump of having a few small local school that rely on the charismatic leader. Their problem may be that they rely on the TFA personel. That doesn’t bother so much. We could increase the TFA people by throwing money at them. More student loan forgiveness. More outreach. Better salaries. Incease the number of ordinary teachers who put in less hours, but do the same quality of work.
    I don’t know. I just see some glimmer of hope here. It holds back the demons who say that schools don’t matter.

  7. I blamed the teachers’ unions, too. If i didn’t do it enough in this post, I have certainly done so elsewhere. There are no heroes here.
    I do like NCLB. I think it could have been better, but oh so many problems. Including the fact that this is a major education policy enacted on the federal level, which doesn’t have the bureaucracy or the political support to really make things happen. Education is still a state and local function in this country. The Republicans could have also funded this baby better.
    The article does make your point that the KIPP philosophy is aligned with conservative views of education, which surprised the leaders who call themselves progressives.

  8. Here’s an idea:
    What if there were a one-time non-taxable financial incentive for various academic achievements for households earning $45K and under? We might give parents $200 for a child who can recognize and name the letters of the alphabet, $2,000 for a child who can read at a beginner level, $200 for recognizing and naming numbers and counting up to ten, $500 for being able to add single digit numbers, $1,000 for knowing the multiplication table up to 10 times 10, and perhaps a dollar for every word the child knows in Spanish. I don’t think these incentives are excessive if one considers how much we pay for children to go to school, whether or not they learn there. Wouldn’t it be nicer if they did learn?
    The details would be hard, but not impossible. You’d need advertising and a separate (perhaps highly individualized) scale for special ed kids. Most importantly, the program would be open to all families–public school, private school, homeschool, etc. The idea is that we want children to learn lots of stuff, and we don’t particularly care how they do it.
    There are probably a lot of objections to this proposal.
    Objection 1: This is just a voucher in disguise.
    Answer: Not exactly. Vouchers pay for process, whereas this idea pays only for results.
    Objection 2: The program would make homeschooling more appealing and financially feasible and would lead a lot of good families to leave schools that need them.
    Answer: That’s true. On the other hand, there would be substantial savings to the public school system.

  9. So…let’s say we could snap our fingers and do away with the teacher unions. What would we have left? Who would be willing to put in the 60-70 hours of week of hard work at the current public teacher wages? Even if we can upgrade starting salaries after getting rid of the higher paid older teachers? Would the market “correct” with higher salaries to attract and keep good, hard-working teachers, or would we get even worse teacher and much higher turnover? It’s still a money problem. We are nowhere near putting enough resources into public education, with or without unions.

  10. Granted our kids attend some of the best schools in our state, and have access to some of the best teachers, I’m still continually startled by the pervasive belief that teachers are only self-interested when they evaluate teaching methods. Our teachers are critical of testing-driven curricula not because they make more work (in our suburban context, drill-and-test would lower the after-hours workload) but because almost all of the district’s teachers have advanced degrees in child development, education, their particular fields — they prefer certain pedagogical methods because they have read research and seen in the classroom which methods work best.
    Is this level of concern for students and learning true of all teachers? Of course not. But true for far more of them (my MIL, my SIL, my aunt, my favorite teachers in high school) than some of these “the unions just don’t want to work longer hours” comments would suggest.
    Plenty of teachers already have to work second summer jobs to pay their bills. If the districts wanted to hire and pay them for 11 months out of the year instead of 9, they’d be thrilled. And in case no one has noticed, year-round schools are already one of the fastest growing trends, heartily embraced by many teachers (because it eliminates a substantial need for review every fall) and parents.
    Check out the summer learning loss research at RIF: http://tinyurl.com/yhjyp9
    Who turned me onto this research? My aunt and my SIL, who are both union teachers, and a friend getting a PH.D. in education (who plans to homeschool her kids BTW, because she knows too much to trust any public school in the teach-to-the-test world of NCLB). All three of them think year-round schooling should be the norm.
    As for the cultural differences that would make KIPP unacceptable for middle-class parents, well, it seems to me that KIPP’s organizers themselves would say it’s not a useful or efficient methodology for middle-class kids. Why devote tons of hours teaching skills that kids already have?
    Luckily (snort), there’s already so much income and racial segregation in this country, the public schools that most need to adopt these programs are least likely to be serving the middle-class populations who don’t want (or need) that sort of instruction anyway.

  11. The article said that the method that worked best for lower income kids in the KIPP schools wasn’t drill and test stuff or even the basic skills that Amy proposes, but more basic ways of behaving in a classroom. I’m too bleary eyed to look up the details right now, but they taught the students how to follow the teacher, look her/him in the eye, and to sit in the front row. The KIPP schools believe that these kids need different methods than middle class kids, as Jody says. The problem with scaling up the KIPP programs in a public school system is that you can’t say that certain methods are okay in a poorer school, but not in a middle class school. And the middle class parents would fight those methods being applied across the board.
    I’m sure that there are many teachers who would be willing and even eager to teach a longer school year in exchange for more money. However, I’ve never heard of state or national level teachers’ union representative make that proposal. I could be wrong, but it hasn’t popped up on my radar. The article also quotes a union representative who was fighting against scaling up a particularly good charter school method.

  12. Sam,
    I suspect that there are a number of options that we haven’t even considered. For instance, what if we were to use a teaching-hospital style classroom arrangement? A highly-paid master teacher would do the work requiring a lot of skill and responsibility, while delegating as much work as possible to several aides (perhaps lesser-paid junior teachers). Depending on the population, the class might be quite large. (I was in a 50 or so student class in fifth grade that was team-taught by two former nuns and the large class size worked brilliantly. It was a rural public school, incidentally, and it was the best classroom experience I had before entering high school.)
    I’m not saying that that would work, I’m just saying that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and we shouldn’t get too locked into the way we’ve “always done things.”
    This arrangement would solve one problem that comes up with teaching: the fact that if you are a teacher, there’s no way to move up without also leaving the classroom, so that no matter how good you are and how much you enjoy it, it’s a dead end.

  13. Jane Galt, Laura, I wish you would consider teaching for a few years before you go posting things like you did above. There are some very complex reasons why teachers have doubts about expanding the KIPP model – one Sam mentions above. How are you going to get teachers to work the demanding hours for the pay they receive? I love what I have personally seen at the KIPP schools in San Francisco but most if not all the teachers there are young, with few family responsibilities. Even with the higher pay that KIPP gives them, (and it is not that much pay) do you expect them to stay on when they have children? Would you work from 7AM to 6PM then come home and be on call at night to help with homework when your own children were there wanting you? KIPP teachers essentially work hours like my physician friends for a third of the pay. One study found that KIPP schools had higher rates of teacher turnover than other schools, though since these are mostly new schools it may be too soon to say whether retention is a problem.
    As for lenghthening the school year, again the issue is who will pay for it? Not only does this increase teacher’s salaries, but there will be increases in costs for utilities, maintenance, transportation, and all the costs involved with keeping schools open. Most school districts currently do not have all their schools open in the summer for example, as their entire population does not attend summer school.
    As for all those conservatives out there, I have one question: If you are committed to free market solutions for our schools (competition, vouchers) why don’t you apply it to both sides of the equation, and make the schools compete with the rest of the labor market for highly qualified teachers? Demand that they only hire teachers with degrees in their fields, high GPAs and test scores, and then let the market set the price for their salaries?

  14. From the NEA Website:
    A 2005 Report, Closing the Gap, acknowledges the gap between teacher support for and NEA skepticism re: year-round schools:
    “If teachers were in charge, they say they’d do even more: shrink classes and hire more teaching assistants, develop year-round schools, provide laptop computers to low-income kids, and help parents help their children. In Shona Trumbly’s ideal world, teachers would spend less time “teaching to a test” and more time “engaging students in wanting to learn,” says the New Jersey media specialist. … NEA encourages teachers to increase the amount of time that kids spend on task (no easy thing, especially as the appetite for mandated testing grows), but research on year-round schools specifically is mixed. A recent Duke University study did find students on traditional schedules were more likely to forget their lessons over the summer, especially kids from low-income families.”
    Year-round schools are being adopted especially in the fastest growing parts of the country, precisely because the tracked year-round schedule is cheaper than building new schools. Year-round schools are sometimes a pedagogical choice, but where they’re taking off, it’s for economic reasons.
    Here in NC, the Wake County schools are adding 5000 new students a year — it was actually 7500 this fall, 2500 more than anticipated. The only way Wake County — along with Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and other rapidly-growing school districts — can keep up with student numbers is to adopt a tracked year-round system. The students don’t in fact end up spending that much more time in the classroom, but they get much shorter breaks between sessions.
    For an explanation of tracked year-round schools, see
    Although community resistance is often high when tracked schools are first offered, parent and teacher response is largely positive once everyone adapts to the new system. There are really very few parents of elementary students who find the traditional calendar useful or even functional for their families. And being able to vacation in the off-season turns out to have financial advantages when you’re this close to DisneyWorld and the beach.
    The main issues involved have less to do with cost than with maintenance — there is less time to keep the buildings cleaned and maintained on the tracked year-round schedule.
    Given the general trend of education reporting — the idea that privileged parents shouldn’t drive educational policy when the current system is failing at-risk kids and perpetuating income inequality — I’m surprised more attention isn’t paid to the fact that the only solid blog opponents of year-round schools are privileged parents.
    I wanted to second what you’re saying, Laura, about how KIPP is not just “skill and drill.” Also, it’s a middle-school remedial program. I’d love to see what the quoted leaders might do with early learners (K-3 especially, when the patterns for future achievement are being set) — the research is pretty clear that the earlier we start teaching basic concepts in a context that promotes life-long learning, the better off we’ll be.

  15. MAK,
    There is a lot of teaching experience among the commenters. Laura has taught, I’ve taught (although not children in the US–children in Russia, and adults in the US), lots of people have teaching experience.
    Also, I think that if you ask around all those discontented school critics, there is support for merit pay and professional pay for teachers who work professional hours. Critics would by and large be delighted to pay more for more, but not more for the same. They also don’t want to pay the same salary to Mr. Deadwood (who hasn’t done a lesson plan since the late 80s) and Ms. Gogetem (who ought to have a movie made about her).

  16. I didn’t mean for this post to become a referendum on teachers’ unions. And I was certainly not talking about vouchers. I was talking about reforming public schools.
    The teachers’ unions are a mixed bag. They differ from state to state. Many Southern states doesn’t even have unions, but have associations instead. Within states there is even variation between the more moderate, suburban based NEA and the UFT, which is based in urban areas. The NEA and UFT have had major battled over such issues as merit pay. Probably most unions are fairly reasonable balancing the needs for reform and the needs to protect teachers. But there have been some examples of the unions which have derailed serious, good reform efforts by preventing bad teachers from getting fired. Philadelphia comes to mind.
    But what I think is most interesting about the KIPP example is that it shows that public schools can make a difference. If extra hours and a longer year makes a difference in the education of poor kids, then that’s a major finding. How do we get that applied across the board to other schools? If the teachers unions are willing to do it, then great. It would require more money, which is reasonable. And here’s where we get the most serious roadblock. As Sam points out, there is little will among taxpayers to fork over the necessary dollars. I can see that in my own town, where the town council gives long speeches about how they don’t want new kids moving into the town because it would cost them money. My suburban town is fighting sending more money to urban schools, which needs it most.
    In recent years, there have been many articles and books written that schools can’t improve things in poor areas. Poor kids are doomed by a variety of factors that are outside the bounds of the school room. I think that this article flies in the face of that research. Schools can make a difference. It’s politics that are holding kids back.

  17. What would you do if someone asked you to work 50% more for no extra pay? The same thing the teacher’s unions do, dig in your heels, and say no way.
    I think it’s a bit odd to bemoan the plight of overworked graduate students and adjuncts, and then suggest that public schools would be better if we could just treat teachers like expendable labor (let them pursue their passions until they burn out, and then replace them with a new crop of young’uns). Is that the great plan for public education?
    I am unconvinced about the KIPP model for educating our future workforce (though I can’t argue that the current system does better). I don’t know a lot about it, but I think the KIPP model seems to succeed at getting children to pass a particular kind of test, but I’ll be more excited when there’s evidence that it produces someone who I would like to have in my classroom (or working in my lab).

  18. Laura
    The problem I see in this article is that it implies that the whole KIPP package is required to make the best inroads. Even though the Wake County schools, by making sure that no school has more than 40% of its students receiving free/reduced cost lunch, has seen test scores rise as peer effects changes classroom environments. (The political solution: create county-based instead of city-based schools and pursue aggressive economic integration to spread middle-class achievement culture around. Good luck with that one, it would be easier just to adopt KIPP in urban schools. Teacher turn-over is already miserable there, so the “it would burn people out” argument is moot.) Even though all sorts of schools are already turning to the year-round calendar out of desperation (The political solution: fund year-round schools to diminish or eliminate the summer learning loss issue while also increasing the time at-risk kids spend in a more enriching environment.) Even though the KIPP program doesn’t address the deficits created during early childhood education. (The political solution: fund public preschools.)
    I think we more or less agree about the message — that the situation is not hopeless, even if there is no political will to alleviate poverty or improve the home environment — but I think the danger in highlighting programs like KIPP is that you get huge opposition to the enormity of their endeavor. When in fact, if you break it into small pieces, KIPP is trying to promote middle-class learning values and make more efficient use of kids’ time via a longer school day and year-round calendar.
    Let’s be honest, no parent like me is going to trade after-school trips to the library or the science museum — not to mention just being able to send my cooped-up kids out in the backyard for an hour after their full-day kindergarten program — for another two hours of school. There’s a reason why more parents are opting for non-religious homeschooling. But I think there’s more room for more non-charter based innovation than the reporting here suggests, because I don’t think we need to be as drastic as KIPP to have an effect.

  19. Charter schools come in all shapes and sizes, philosophies. There are a good number of them succeeding. Ours is very different than the KIPP Schools. We teach kids to think critically and love learning. We do no kill and drill. Most of our kids (though not all) are middle-class. This works for us. It wouldn’t work in at-risk population where there are fewer parent and community volunteers. This is truly the beauty of school choice, not every method succeeds for every student. In a dream world, parents could choose the method that works best for their lives and their children.
    Our teachers do work 11 months of the year. They come in early and leave late. Not only is our program interesting to them, it is to our students. Our test scores prove it. You don’t have to kill and drill to get results.

  20. Is there a link to what republican’s wanted NCLB to do before the compromise with Kennedy? All I could find was that they wanted vouchers.

  21. MAK: As for all those conservatives out there, I have one question: If you are committed to free market solutions for our schools (competition, vouchers) why don’t you apply it to both sides of the equation, and make the schools compete with the rest of the labor market for highly qualified teachers?
    We do. We want private schools to hire whomever they want and pay them whatever they want. The rationale being that the schools that hire the better teachers and create good incentives for them to perform well will get a good reputation for good teaching and thus will attract more students (and voucher money). Meanwhile, schools doing a bad job will copy practices from the better schools (KIPP or otherwise) to avoid losing students.

  22. “The Republicans” didn’t want anything before the compromises with Kennedy, and compromise is a misleading phrase here. There were lots of different ideas floating around, lots of interest groups playing, and its not right to suggest that Kennedy played some special blocking role (though it is right to connect him to the AFT particularly). Kennedy, the AFT, and a lot of Republican players, wanted to establish some sort of Federal level set of acccountability measures, scaling up experiments that had been being conducted in several States and a handful of cities (most notably Chicago). The basic idea is to use the promise of Federal money to get States to start monitoring performance and introduce incentives to improve, and levers to punish. Vouchers were barely on the agenda (republican politicians rarely like them), and school choice was always going to marginal to the reform (as it is). So, there’s so much wrong with NCLB its not worth going into — Kennedy bears some of the blame, whoever advises Bush some more, etc. The really radical reforms that might change things significantly for the better, though, such as radical devolution of control to the school level, with weighted student funding, were never really on the table, and that’s neither Kennedy’s nor Bush’s fault.
    Like Laura my evaluation of the law is basically positive, though, both compared with the pre-existing status quo, and with other likely reforms. A lot of the bad stuff that people blame on NCLB is more properly blamed on State departments of instruction. The Feds have been very forgiving of the States in how they have designed their accountability systems, and many of them have done it exceedingly badly. But, again, there were powerful political limits on what the Feds could do.

  23. NCLB is part of the gradual increase of oversight of education at the federal level that’s been going on since Bush I, but there hasn’t been the necessary increase in bureaucracy at the federal level to oversee everything. There’s no muscle behind this law. Nothing to really force Mississippi to make proper standards or to help the schools meet those goals. Still, there’s a lot to like in NCLB. Even the testing component doesn’t bother me.
    You know what does bother me, harry? There’s no center in education politics. The unions are either portrayed as evil monsters or angels. Vouchers are either magic pills or the kiss of death. Ideology really destroys rational discussion.

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