Urban Schools That Work

Since the 1960s, education reformers have struggled to find education models that work in urban areas. Various plans went in and out of vogue from community-based education to principals with baseball bats. Every now and then, a school would decrease dropout rates and increase test scores. Education specialists would study and examine the school and its inspirational leader, but efforts to replicate those schools always failed.

The failures to improve urban schools and the persistent race gap in test scores have led many to say that schools can't make a difference. Good teachers give up and lower expectations. It's all environment they say; schools don't matter.

The charter school movement has been a mixed bag of horrible failures and notable achievements. Two programs in particular seem to have made some headway in dealing with urban schools. The KIPP programs have consistently done well over time and scaled up across the country. David Brooks writes about another program, the Promise Academy in Harlem, which shares the basic philosophy as the KIPP academy.

To my mind, the results also vindicate an emerging model for low-income students. Over the past decade, dozens of charter and independent schools, like Promise Academy, have become no excuses schools. The basic theory is that middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads: what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from poorer, disorganized homes don’t have these internalized models. The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values….

Basically, the no excuses schools pay meticulous attention to behavior and attitudes. They teach students how to look at the person who is talking, how to shake hands. These schools are academically rigorous and college-focused. Promise Academy students who are performing below grade level spent twice as much time in school as other students in New York City. Students who are performing at grade level spend 50 percent more time in school.

I'm quite convinced that intensive, resocializing programs can make a difference. The big question is whether these programs can be scaled up. I hate to be the baddie, but I see several problems:

1. The kids who choose to enroll in these charter school programs are exceptional. Their parent or parents are educated and motivated enough to hear about these schools, fill out the paperwork, wait on lines, handle bureaucrats, locate birth certificates, make their kids go to school every day, and make education a priority. This parental support is not found in every household. The students in these schools are outliers from the very beginning. There's no evidence that these programs would work among the general public.

2. The teachers who work in these schools work longer hours than regular public school teachers. They may not enjoy the same union benefits as their non-charter school peers. They have chosen to work in a high intensity environment, because they're unusually committed towards the goal of educating city kids. They have the zeal of a religious convert. It may be difficult to spread the zeal among battle-weary urban teachers.

3. Part of the success of these schools is due to the fact that they double the amount of time in school. How would New York City be able to pay their entire staff over time? Where would they put all those students?

Still, I am a big fan of this model and have been very impressed with their efforts. I think we could overcome problems 2 and 3, but problem 1 seems insurmountable to me.

UPDATE: Great post by Elizabeth on this topic. She looks at the actual study and discusses the findings. She says the findings do show gains by the students in the schools and refute the claims that schools can't make a difference. However, she has nearly the same concerns as I do about scaling up this program.

9 thoughts on “Urban Schools That Work

  1. I might post on this… but I’ll give away the thought now. I share your feelings. EXCEPT I disagree with 1). The issue is not that these kids are exceptional, it is that the exceptional kids are excluded. The problem is, if you like, not cream skimming, which is not really what is going on, but dregs-sifting, which is definitely going on (same as KIPP and all of the schools that beat the odds about which I know). Sifting out the most disruptive and difficult-to-deal with 10% or even 5% makes it very hard to evaluate these programs well, and in one sense impossible to scale them up. I haven’t seen the Fryer study, so don’t know how he deals with this, but I don’t know of any sure-fire way of dealing with it, and nor do the folks I’ve asked about it.
    None of this is a criticism of Canada, or KIPP, or what have you. Just of people who are too optimistic about what can be done in scaling.

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  2. Season 4 of the Wire has a sociologist who comes into the urban schools and sets up a program aimed at the tough cases. In this ficticious reform, the tough case class actually does work and doesn’t become a holding cell for delinquents. The regular students benefit from the absense of the tough cases, and the tough cases improve, too.
    Were there any real-life programs like this, harry?

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  3. “…locate birth certificates…”
    Doesn’t every school (even your neighborhood one) require a bit of hoop-jumping? Remember Wendy’s residency issues?
    “Sifting out the most disruptive and difficult-to-deal with 10% or even 5% makes it very hard to evaluate these programs well, and in one sense impossible to scale them up.”
    I was reading a book called “Lost at School” this spring (it’s by the guy that wrote “The Explosive Child”) and I have some concerns about “disruptive.” Ross Greene thinks that schools have very poor disciplinary methods and to hear him tell it, a lot of bad behavior is a cry for help. Correctly interpreted, it means: I’m in sensory overload, this assignment is over my head, I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be doing, etc. Greene goes pretty far with that (he says that kids behave when they can). I’ve also been reading Howard Glasser’s stuff on “Transforming the Difficult Child,” which is about positive reinforcement. Glasser says that “difficult” kids are often only noticed when they are acting out. I was reading another book yesterday that said that autistic children should get 8 positive reinforcements for every 1 negative reinforcement. I ask myself, do “disruptive” kids at school get 8 positive reinforcements for every 1 negative reinforcement? No way. At this point, I start wondering, do we have this the wrong way around? Is the kid disruptive, or is the school set-up disruptive?

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  4. I watched that, and wondered if they were drawing on something real, but haven’t bothered to investigate. I’ll ask.
    I’m inclined to think Amy P is onto something. The question for me is whether institutions have the patience for the sort of intervention that would be required, even if they could figure out how to design it.

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  5. My mom and one other teacher tried to implement the Glasser method at her middle school. She had support from the administration, but the parent reaction was mixed. Unfortunately, the parents that pitched a fit were the parents of the top achievers (because Glasser’s method takes away competition, reserves A grades for beyond mastery of material, etc). They were the parents with the most school capital as it was, so they pretty much overturned my mom’s efforts after she moved (a change up in administration did not help either). This was in a fairly affluent neighborhood, though, and perhaps those sorts of parents wouldn’t be a problem elsewhere. To Glasser’s credit, my mom saw big improvements in behavior, and noticeable improvements in understanding. And not negligible, she enjoyed that year of teaching much more.

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  6. “They were the parents with the most school capital as it was, so they pretty much overturned my mom’s efforts after she moved (a change up in administration did not help either). This was in a fairly affluent neighborhood, though, and perhaps those sorts of parents wouldn’t be a problem elsewhere. To Glasser’s credit, my mom saw big improvements in behavior, and noticeable improvements in understanding. And not negligible, she enjoyed that year of teaching much more.”
    That’s interesting. Glasser says that a lot of difficult kids don’t really even know what “good” behavior means, since nobody’s ever pointed out to them when they’re doing what they ought to be doing. I’m a very big fan of Glasser and I’ve been passing his stuff (and Greene’s “The Explosive Child”) along to my daughter’s 1st grade teacher this spring.

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