Category Archives: Charter schools

Trenton’s role in addressing threats to American public education

On April 22, the last Trenton Board of Education meeting to be presided over by outgoing board president Toby Sanders, I made a brief statement during the public participation part of the meeting. Motivating my comments was an ongoing concern about what Trenton graduates do not know when they start taking courses at the local community college where I teach. Despite my regard for district leadership and considerable sympathy with the pressure teachers are under, something is missing in the preparation district schools are able to provide for their students. Further, the academic deficiencies revealed by these students’ performance on statewide tests are being used as an excuse to dismantle American public education. Less its introductory remarks, my comments appear below.

 . .  . Despite all the good work I have seen in this room, I am very concerned about public education here in Trenton and in many other communities nationwide. The public school, free and open to all, is one of America’s gifts to the world, and it is the basis for our middle-class democracy. I realize that many Americans have been deprived of this right, or provided it only grudgingly, and I know that many of the problems Trenton’s schools face today are a heritage of that deprivation.

But that does not absolve us of responsibility for doing better, as Rev. Sanders would repeatedly remind us.

Over the past two decades or so, we as a nation have seen our public education system assaulted by those who seem more interested in redirecting into private pockets the vast amounts of money states and municipalities invest in public education. The rationale for this disservice is the poor academic performance of schools in cities like Trenton. Closing the achievement gap, meeting the global challenge, whatever, are all, to my mind, distractions from less honorable motives.

But that does not mean that all is well in Trenton’s schools. As a teacher at a local college I note with great sorrow what your graduates do not know; they do not have the knowledge base that they need for success in the workplace or for discharging their duties as citizens.

Too many students cannot write a simple sentence, cannot conjugate a verb, do not know the difference between a preposition and a possessive. They cannot fill in a map of the United States or put the Emancipation Proclamation in the right decade. According to my math-teaching colleagues, they cannot line up numbers on the decimal point or add fractions with different denominators.

This is a tragedy – and it bodes ill for the future of American democracy. Many of these educational deficiencies are common to graduates of other Mercer County high schools; less common are behavioral barriers to success in school. And I do not believe we can effectively address the former without addressing the latter first.

As some of you know, I have recently written about what is widely known as the KIPP method and a local charter school that employs it. And this school been getting far better academic results from many of the same students as the regular district schools have. And, though I recognize that this is a contentious point, these results are not just the outcome of “skimming” the best students.

The KIPP methods work; I have been using some of them in my college classes. Students are paying more attention and doing better on quizzes. So, I am appearing here today to urge Trenton’s regular district teachers to try using them as well.

Trenton, along with other urban districts in New Jersey, wants to get the state off your back. But until the academic performance of your students improve, that isn’t going to happen. And I worry that if you cannot take up this challenge more effectively, we will continue to witness the decline of American public education. And this, too, would be a tragedy. Thank you.



Why I like KIPP — or it’s instructional methods at least

Two months ago, I had my first opportunity to visit a school based on the KIPP / Knowledge Is Power Program, and after three hours of hearing about its methods and observing their effectiveness, I went to teach my community college history class with new conviction — no foolishness.

When Charlie nodded off in the back of the room, I walked over to his seat and told him to wake up — or leave the class. When Cheryl took out her cell phone and started reading a text — a clear violation of rules I’d established on the first day — I walked over to her and put out my hand. She got the hint, gave me the phone, and noted that I put it at the front of my desk, where it stayed for the rest of the period.

Before observing KIPP methods in action, I might have ignored Charlie’s nap — motivated by a desire to not embarrass either of us. As for Cheryl’s phone, I might have just told her to put it away — or ignored it as well. After all, the class was almost over, and the girl had given me a sob story about a recent illness.

The following week, distressed by how poorly my 20-odd students had done on a simple test, I told them of my visit to the KIPP-like school and wrote its SLANT rules up on the board.

Sit up straight             Look and listen             Ask questions             Nod your head (when you understand)            Track the teacher with your eyes

I told them where the rules came from and that they’d be enforced in our classroom as well. Since then, marks have not much improved, but self-discipline has.

Like a lot of other teachers, I’d tended to ignore behavior that got in the way of learning. My students are legally adults, after all. At 20, they should know better. In class I’d often cited the correlation between students who paid close attention, did homework — and got good marks. But few changed their habits in response to my sermons.

A somewhat similar story is told in Work Hard, Be Nice, a 2009 book subtitled “How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America,” which was written by Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews. A decade after the two teachers — Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg — had started their now widely lauded KIPP schools, one of them was called in to address the problems of a failing, sixth-grade math teacher at a school in New York City.

Though well-educated and well-recommended, this young teacher was a poor manager and motivator. After just three months, his students had already fallen behind. Had his principal been at a regular public school, as Mathews wrote, she would likely have called him in for a pep talk and sent him to observe some veterans. And, if he hadn’t learned to be more effective at the end of his probationary period, she might have let him go (or let someone else hire him).

But this was KIPP. That approach would not work for them. This principal called in Dave Levin for some help. Levin’s first task was to do some quick behavior mod with the classroom troublemaker, which he did in private while the regular teacher kept the others in the hall. Having secured the problem child’s cooperation, Levin had the rest of the class return — and for the next 40 minutes he had two-dozen students focusing intently on long division.

First he got their attention with a brief introduction; “no whining” he said when they responded languidly to his initial greeting. The students took note: authority was in charge. Then he moved on to the lesson. “Okay,” he said, “I am missing one person’s eyes.”

Levin cajoled, inspired, persuaded every child to participate, and reminded them that “smiling keeps your brain awake.” A great salesman, instantly responsive when he knew the class was not following him, Levin employed all the tricks he’d learned over a dozen years. He stimulated them with a challenge, kept their names straight, wrote a mistake on the board, and kept reminding them “eyes up, please.” Though the teacher Levin had come in to help had taken copious notes, it was soon clear that he was meant for something other than being a KIPP teacher, so he was transferred out of the classroom and encouraged to find another line of work.

Having known of KIPP for several years, I was somewhat surprised at my own reaction to its methods: that once seeing them in action at a Trenton high school one morning, I would be employing them myself that afternoon. As a staunch supporter of public education, I was suspicious of charter schools to begin with and tended to distrust KIPP’s reports of vastly improved test scores. Too authoritarian. And likely good at teaching to the test,  manipulating results, and self-promotion.

Nevertheless, I got a copy of Mathews’s book and started reading it. Soon, I was sold.  Several years of teaching community college students in Chicago and New Jersey have convinced me of a couple things: (1) Poor self-discipline is the major cause of poor performance, and (2) teachers — myself included — are more inclined to complain about students’ lax attitude toward learning than doing something about it.  In sum, I’m thinking that the most cost-effective means of improving performance in troubled urban schools would be for teachers unions to start urging their members to adopt as many KIPP methods as they can. I’ve already begun doing so with my community college colleagues.


What’s to be considered when considering school choice?

So, January 27 ushered in National School Choice Week and that Sunday I attended a session organized by staunch proponents of “choice,” on Monday I interviewed the author of a book on charter schools, and on Wednesday I visited one here in Trenton. And what comes to mind is an observation I recall from a noted educational psychologist of years gone by – you don’t have to know everything in order to understand something.

Many advocates of school choice support the Opportunity Scholarship Act and contend that it’s currently languishing in the New Jersey legislature. OSA’s goal, according to my understanding, is that students in low-performing schools would receive state funds to attend a school in a higher-performing district. Sounds fine, you might say – students from Trenton could attend a school in the neighboring Lawrenceville district, for example, at no additional cost to their parents.

But this raises more complicated issues: for one, I read somewhere that some Mercer County students have had that option for the past few years and few thus far have taken advantage of it. For another – and this is the point that aggravates supporters of public schools – OSA could also allow Trenton students to attend not only a charter, but a private school, a virtual school, or some combination thereof. Should Trenton Public Schools, which receive over 80% of their funds from the state, be subsidizing a school that offers a religious-immersion curriculum (an issue recently in New Brunswick) or one that focuses on the Italian Renaissance (to use an example given — in jest, no doubt — by commissioner of education Christopher Cerf at the Sunday school choice event)?

Is the reason OSA hasn’t made progress because too many legislators are indebted to support from teachers’ unions, which the bill’s advocates claim?  Or is it because legislators question whether a virtual school run by a profit-making educational management organization is a worthy recipient of NJ taxpayer dollars? Could OSA – or the state’s charter school law — be devised in such a way that the privileges it grants would not be misused? Or might OSA instead operate as a voucher program, a scheme (or scam) that’s been largely discredited as a means for improving academic performance in troubled urban districts? (See, for example, the 20 years of experience with vouchers in Milwaukee.)

Trenton students – or those who apply early enough — currently have the option of attending the Foundation Academy, which appears to be the most stable and successful of the many charter schools established here since New Jersey authorized charters in 1995. Foundation, which opened in 2007, currently serves nearly 400 students in grades five to 11, at two sites, both located in former Catholic schools, one about 10 blocks south of the Statehouse and another further south. Results from the 2011 NJASK (the state’s assessment of skills and knowledge) indicate that the school’s eighth graders are performing on par with students statewide (circa 80% proficient) and nearly twice as well as eighth graders in Trenton’s other public schools.  And they do it with roughly 75% of Trenton’s per pupil spending.

Foundation Academy is operated unabashedly on the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power) model pioneered by two Teach for American grads 20 years ago. Most simply, the schools focus on changing behavior, summed up by the acronym SLANT: Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod, and Track the speaker with your eyes. Overly authoritarian, some might say, but having had graduates of schools that don’t emphasize these behaviors in my community college classes, I know their value.

Foundation calls its program prescriptive, and I saw that in action while visiting two classrooms. Power Points reiterating the teachers’ instructions were on screens at the front, a large clock in the corner measured time for tasks. In one class, students were moving from one learning activity to another; as they passed their papers in, the teacher counted down from 10. Then she reminded students to “track the screen,” while she gave instructions for the next. They had three minutes to analyze characters from stories they had read. “Talk to your partner,” she said, followed by “Go.”

According to Paul Tough’s new How Children Succeed, this tough teaching approach is what works – he’d earlier written a widely acclaimed book on Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. But, per the CREDO report from Stanford University – acclaimed, by some, for its methodological rigor – only 30% of students in charters statewide have made any gains when compared with students in regular district schools.  And this only in eighth-grade reading, likely a cherry-picked figure, too.

Foundation claims it doesn’t “skim” higher performing students from the district – nevertheless, parents do have to choose to apply and then commit themselves to seeing that their children do assigned homework and show up for school on time – and that’s at 7:15 in the morning. But it also expects more – a lot more – from its teachers, who can expect 60-plus hour workweeks in return for somewhat more generous salaries than other Trenton teachers.

And that brings me to my interview with a Montclair State professor who has edited a book on charters nationwide.  She noted that charter schools have to be looked at in the context of their community. We both agree that the quality of these schools varies widely. On the other hand, students at some charters seem to be doing better. So, the question is “What can we learn from these schools?”

Well, apparently we can learn that the Foundation approach appears to be working at its schools in Trenton. And, the schools’ supporters (a combination of local educators, funders, and some concerned residents) hope to expand their reach to include 10 percent of Trenton’s 14,000 students. Even if Foundation manages to do that – and keep up its standards – over the next decade or two, Trenton’s schools will still be far from their past position as among the state’s preeminent ones. But it’s a move in the right direction. Combined with the oft-stated intentions of the district’s current leaders to improve academic performance, perhaps Trenton’s other schools will discover they have a few things to learn from Foundation Academy, too.

And that would be a choice that won’t “deform” public education, which some of the ill-advised “School Choice” proposals, including OSA, might well do.