Scaling Up Charter Schools

In Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Kevin Huffman writes that charter schools have brought up much closer to understanding how to educate kids from high-risk environments.

There
has never been a more innovative time in modern American education,
particularly in high-poverty school districts. In Washington, D.C. the
public charter school KIPP DC: KEY Academy, founded by Teach for
America alum Susan Schaeffler, requires students to be in class for an
extended day (7:30 am to 5 pm), week (two Saturdays a month), and year
(mandatory summer school). Through inspired teaching, a focus preparing
children for college, and constant access to teachers who carry cell
phones so that they can be reached with homework questions at any time,
KIPP students make impressive gains in learning, despite coming from
the same high-need communities as those students in Washington’s dismal
public school system. KEY Academy students enter as fifth graders
scoring at the 24th percentile in reading and the 26th percentile in
math but jump to the 65th percentile in reading and the 91st percentile
in math by the end of eighth grade.

Huffman wants to scale these programs up. Replicate what works and chuck out what doesn't. The main problems are political, he writes. Though states are increasingly chucking out the rules regarding caps on charter schools, it is still too hard to replicate these great programs. He also wants to fire or retrain the worst performing teachers and tie money to performance.

I found it amazing that Huffman never actually wrote the words "teachers union" anywhere in this essay. Remarkable self-restraint.

I'm not sure that the KIPPS program can be replicated. How many teachers would be willing to walk around with cell phones for instant homework help? How many kids would go to school on Saturday? Where would the money come from to pay those teachers for all that overtime? Still, I would like to see more effort to nudge the public school system to innovate in real ways. Paris Hilton book reports don't count.

19 thoughts on “Scaling Up Charter Schools

  1. How long is the school day in your schools? I found out recently that the schools where my sister lives (Nassau County, NY) run from 9 am to 3:30, while ours in SE Mass run from 9 to 3.
    The bus stop is next to my house, so I know the high schoolers get on the bus at 7 and are home at 2, and the middle schoolers seem to get a 7:30 bus and are home by 2:45.

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  2. That’s J’s current school? What about last year?
    I think the school day should be longer and/or should start later, particularly in high school. It’s one of my pet peeves.
    I’m also fond of year-round schooling, but I think it should be creatively done (ha!). Teachers can still have 9-month schedules and a long break. They can just rotate the breaks they take. I would take March to June off in a NY minute. My husband, were he a teacher, would take off September to November.

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  3. We’re 8:30-2:50 (K-3), and 8:15-3:10 (4-8).
    I like the early end time for our school, because it leaves time for afternoon activities. Our neighborhood public elementaries have switched to a 9:30-3:30 time, and that’s making afternoon activities complicated for people.

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  4. The longer school day is a great idea IF the school day includes help with homework (for those who need help and/or clarification), time for some physical activity and the time to work on projects using materials AT SCHOOL (no more sending mom on a search for materials from Michael’s).
    I don’t think the answer is to lengthen the school day AND add more stuff. As a parent one of my frustrations with such a short school day is the amount of learning crammed into the day. The kids are then sent home with a load of homework and not enough guidance on how to do it. It’s then up to the parents to sort it all out with their kids. Parents are expected to “teach” at home. This may not seem unreasonable for those of us lucky enough to have the skill and time to help, but think of the difficulties this presents to students whose families do not have the education to help their kids or the students going home to less than ideal environments. A longer school day/year, particularly for at-risk youth, is a great idea because of the additional support it provides for the students.

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  5. The longer school day is great for parents who work. My neighbor doesn’t get back from her job in NYC until about 6. Her daughter walks home after school. By the time she gets home, her middle school daughter has been alone at home for over three hours. My neighbor is stressed because it means that her daughter is either lonely and isolated or sneaking out and getting into trouble.
    Jonah is home a full hour earlier than he used to be. It also means that my work day has to end an hour earlier, which sucks, but that’s neither here nor there. Right now, that feels like too much time. He doesn’t seem to have as much homework as last year, so he’s done too quickly. Nobody, including myself, is in any sort of rhythm right now and things just feel out of sorts.

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  6. The main reason KIPP isn’t replicable on a large scale is that not all “high need” students are alike. KIPP requires both students and parents (and teachers) to sign pledges to do “whatever it takes,” including the longer day, Saturday classes, summer school, parents supervising homework and reading nightly with their children; kids’ pledges include promises to behave and do as they are told by the teacher. If they don’t perform or if they have behavior issues, they’re out. That skews the results wildly.
    What KIPP does do is offer an alternative to highly motivated kids and parents who live in areas with underperforming schools, and gives them access to a good college-prep program. KIPP weeds out the kids who are disruptive or who don’t want to do the work it takes to succeed. The real question is how to effectively educate the kids who don’t fit this motivated student profile and/or don’t have supportive families.
    And yes, the extended time is really valuable. I read half of a book called Intelligence and How to Get It that claimed most of the achievement gap in the US could be closed by having year-round school.
    Good, dedicated teachers are clearly part of the equation too, though I think that round-the-clock availability is ridiculous; teachers should be allowed their own family life and downtime.

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  7. “Good, dedicated teachers are clearly part of the equation too, though I think that round-the-clock availability is ridiculous; teachers should be allowed their own family life and downtime.”
    Particularly since the school has an extended day already.

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  8. But we don’t know how KIPPs will scale up, because nobody has let them try it. Make 3 out of 4 schools in the Bronx a KIPP school and see what happens. Wouldn’t that make a great experiment? I bet there are more highly motivated students out there who could definitely use this program. There are also a large middle group that may get pushed into a highly motivated group, by having this type of support system. And then there’s the poorly motivated, at-risk groups that wouldn’t benefit from the KIPPs program. But the public school system is failing them all miserably right now anyway, so why make them an excuse for not scaling up KIPPs?

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  9. But we already know that KIPP schools have VERY high attrition rates (I looked at KIPP in ed school and have considered teaching at one). If 60% of your “motivated” (for lack of a better word) population isn’t making it in your school, why would you scale it way up and think it would do better with those who didn’t even want to be there (there’s a good SRI Int study on KIPP). You’ve already shown with attrition this model is not for most people. And it’s the low performers who leave or are booted out.
    It also raises the question of what a typical urban public school would look like if you only kept the top 40% of performers.

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  10. Well, my idea is that if it works really well for 10% of students, and we let them do it, maybe someone will come up with something that works really well for a different 10% of students–and eventually, we’ll have the number of students for whom school is more about warehousing than education down to 10% instead of 80% (or whatever it is in a bad urban school).
    We won’t ever, IMO, have a perfect one-size-fits-all model of schooling; I’d like to see a move away from that.

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  11. It seems like there’s two kinds of scaling up being talked about here. One is whether the school is over-subscribed, that is, more people want it than are able to get it. Are KIPP schools over-subscribed? And what does over-subscription mean when a school has a 60% attrition rate?
    The second is whether the model can be scaled up to fix the general ails of public education, and the requirements of KIPP & the attrition rate seem to argue pretty strongly against that assumption.

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  12. An article in The American Prospect, Can Separate Be Equal?, might interest the commenters on charter schools.
    From the article:
    “During the Democratic presidential primary campaign, candidates Barack Obama and John Edwards neatly embodied the two approaches. Edwards proposed expanding housing vouchers to allow low-income families to move to better neighborhoods while Obama called for increasing funding for the Community Development Block Grant program. In the education arena, Edwards proposed giving middle-class suburban public schools a financial incentive to recruit low-income urban students trapped in failing schools. By contrast, Obama supported creating 20 versions of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides pre-K, parenting classes, and extra social services to low-income, inner-city residents. Edwards called for doubling funding of magnet schools, which have the purpose of integrating students from different backgrounds, while Obama called for doubling funding of charter schools, which are agnostic about integration, and some research suggests may actually increase both racial and economic segregation.” [my emphasis]
    Maybe charter schools aren’t such a good idea after all.

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  13. I’m not sure that the KIPP attrition rate is that terrible, considering the population served. I believe I’ve read that some high poverty schools can have something like a 100% turnover in the student body over the course of the year. A high-poverty school population is in constant motion, which is part of the challenge of that population.
    Also, the fact that a child leaves (for whatever reason) doesn’t mean that they haven’t benefited in some way. One of the success stories in Joanne Jacobs’ book Our School was a child who had been at a KIPP or KIPP-like school before starting at the Downtown College Prep charter. I don’t have time to look it up in the book, but as I recall, the child was successful at DCP because they had learned good work habits at the previous school.

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  14. Speaking of attrition, I’m pretty sure there was at least 20% attrition in C’s private 1st grade last year. This year, I think there are already 2 kids gone from the original 13 that started, less than a month after the start of school.

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  15. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a bit about KIPP in his book on superstars. He estimated that kids on the KIPP program worked hours akin to CEOs and top Manhattan law firms. It makes one wonder about the program’s broader applicability.
    That said, it seems that modifying the goals for broader appeal might be a way to expand the vigor of the school systems.

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  16. “I’m much much much more concerned about life outcomes than about school integration.”
    Amen. I’d also argue that less diversity in a classroom or a school is at least in some respects a good thing because it allows the school to specialize on how to help a particular kind of student succeed.
    I was just reading a comment from a thread on an Alfie Kohn article (I think the commentor is named Paul Hoss):
    “I was scheduled to start my class on the next math unit in the book, multiplying fractions. Of the 32 fifth graders in the room, eight were deficient on their multiplication facts. Three of these same kids were also still pretty weak in addition and subtraction facts. At the other end of the spectrum four students had taken it upon themselves to learn the new skill on their own. In between there were kids all over the map in terms of their levels of readiness for the upcoming chapter.”
    I read that and think, what on earth are those 8 kids and those 4 kids doing in this math class? They shouldn’t be there. A less academically diverse class would be a more effective class.

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