Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Knowledge is Power, People

On this rainy morning, I went to visit the KIPP Charter School in a nearby town.  Charter schools are THE hot topic around here, partly thanks to Waiting for Superman and partly because Massachusetts has dropped the cap on charter schools.  Next year will see many new charters in Boston, and the city school system will be losing a lot of money to them.

The big question is, with fewer restrictions on budget, hiring, work hours, and curriculum (and more money than most schools have access to), will they achieve better results than the city schools?

I know people who think that all charter schools are the work of the devil.  Others think they are the answer to education's troubles.  The answer probably lies somewhere in between, as is the case with most complex issues -- neither black not white, but instead found in shades of gray.

Here is what most stood out for me at KIPP, which bills itself as a "no excuses" school.  As in, being poor is no excuse for poor achievement. 


Tight Systems

They obviously have their systems and operations down.  This is something many public schools struggle with, because of a lack of administrative time and know-how.  Because most charter schools have more administrators than do traditional public schools, and because those administrators divide the workload, they tend to have a lot of systems ironed out.  Traditional public schools could do this if they had the funding to divide administrative tasks into operations, curriculum and instruction, and student affairs, the way charters do.

Because expectations are so clear, there is no wiggle room.  Students transition from one classroom to another silently.  There are few teachers policing transitions -- it just seems to happen that way.  I'm sure it took work on the front end, but now it works like clockwork.  There are consistent routines for how you raise your hand to answer a question, track the speaker with your eyes, get your homework checked, and put your materials out on your desk.

So much teaching time is lost to messy transitions.  That's why good teachers put a lot of time and energy into teaching smooth transitions at the beginning of the year.  When the school runs the systems, instead of the individual teacher, it gives the teacher one less thing to worry about.

All of this is implemented with a tight system of rewards and punishments.  Or, oops, I mean, incentives and consequences.  I have a lot to say about running a classroom with rewards, so that will have to be another post.  Actually, I've written about it before.  This post outlines my basic philosophy, and how complicated it can be in practice to stick to your guns.  Running schools with rewards has a lot of complicated implications, and my wish is that schools would use rewards sparingly.  But enough for now about that.

Still, teachers don't have to come up with their own behavior management systems or expectations at a KIPP school because it is all figured out for them.  On the plus side, this allows teachers to focus on teaching.  On the minus side, if you don't buy into their system hook, line, and sinker, it's not going to work out for you at KIPP.

More Time

I have mixed feelings about having kids in school for ten hours a day.  But it doesn't seem crazy the way KIPP does it.

Students have 2-3 hours of reading per day, and one hour of writing several times a week. They have 1-2 hours of math, one hour of science, and one hour of social studies.  They also have one hour of electives each day, when they can do dance, needlepoint, Taekwondo, or karaoke, to name a few.  They have recess every day, which is pretty unusual for middle school in this day and age. 

Honestly, as a teacher, I am always running out of time to teach things as well as I would like to.  I am not sure when it is developmentally appropriate to have kids in school that long.  And I don't think they should be sitting still, listening to teachers, all day.  But if they are engaged in a variety of activities, including arts and sports, I am not necessarily opposed to it.  Especially when you think about what it means for teachers.

The teachers are there for 10 hours a day, but they only teach 3-4 hours per day.  And, they teach only one subject, to only one grade.  So they teach the same thing 3 or 4 times in a day, and only have one class to prepare for.  They also have at least 3 hours of planning time each day at school.

On the face of it, 10 hours at school sounds kind of awful.  But I almost always spend 10 hours a day at school.  Then I do more work at home in the evening.  If I had more time to plan at school, and were teaching fewer subjects (which isn't really a model that's used in elementary school), maybe I wouldn't have to work so much at home.  And maybe it's more honest to say, you will work 10 hours a day here, rather than pretending teachers only work 6 hours a day.

(With 10 hours, you could have teachers doing all kinds of interesting, collaborative projects too, not just teaching.  It gives you a lot of flexibility both for students and teachers.  That's one key to keeping teachers in the profession longer.)

Relationships and Success

The Executive Director told us that after their first few years, they analyzed the data about students who left their school.  They found that there were three main reasons students leave KIPP: 1) a lack of success in school outside the classroom; 2) a lack of a meaningful relationship with at least one adult in the school; 3) a lack of buy-in from families.

As a result, they increased advisory time and had every teacher offer an elective in the afternoon.  This builds relationships between teachers and students, and allows students to experience success outside the classroom.  Their building stays open until 9 pm three days a week so they can offer English and computer classes to the families of their students, and they reach out to families in other ways.  They have addressed the three major causes of student attrition, and have a stronger school because of it.


Teacher Turnover

Interestingly, although they have worked hard to decrease student attrition, they do not seem to have placed as much emphasis on teacher retention.  On average, their teachers stay for a few years and then move on.  Their teachers are young and on the whole inexperienced.  It is widely acknowledged that teachers in their first or second years of teaching are generally ineffective, especially when compared to more experienced teachers.  So if teachers only stay for 2-4 years, that's a problem for instruction.

The director was vague in terms of why people leave, except for mentioning that people who don't buy into their way of doing things are asked to leave.  He said he would rather have teachers stay longer, and expressed an interest in helping staff maintain a work-life balance.  But we didn't really find out what's pushing the teachers away. 

Quality of Teaching

So here's the most interesting thing I saw.  In about 3 hours of observations, I saw five teachers.  I watched a writing class, two math classes,  a science class, and a social studies class.  All were classes of fifth or sixth graders.

The first teacher we watched was good at what he did.  He had a clear learning target that he presented to the students at the beginning of the lesson.  (They all do that; it's part of the KIPP way.  Teachers work on one target per day, so everyone theoretically knows what they are aiming for during the lesson.)  He returned to the target as he taught, giving examples of writing that met the target and writing that didn't meet the target.  When students gave a wrong answer, he didn't tell them they were wrong, but instead asked them to expand on their thinking, and asked what other students thought.

It was downhill from there.  The other classes we saw were taught by what seemed to be inexperienced teachers (which isn't surprising, given their turnover rates).  Students mostly sat at desks, filled in blanks on worksheets, and were called on to give one-word answers.  The instruction was dull.  A couple of teachers responded with, "Really?" when a student gave a wrong answer, thus prompting the student to quickly say, "I mean..." and change his answer.  This gives the teacher no insight into the student's thinking, and gives the student no chance to think more deeply about the question.  Math seemed to be drill of very specific skills (they have one "problem-solving" period per week, the rest is more skill- based).  "Science" involved filling in blanks on a worksheet while the teacher lectured.

Of course, all teachers teach in this way sometimes, in front of the class, explaining things the students must learn.  But this is just one of many, many pedagogical tools at our disposal.  My sense at KIPP was that this is the rule, not the exception.  The few times I saw kids moving around or talking in small groups, it seemed more like a gimmick to get students' attention than true quality instruction.

In each class, some students had incorrect work on their papers, but the teachers didn't notice.  In fact, while students worked, teachers by and large watched the clock, calling out frequent reminders: "Two more minutes!"  I saw few instances of teachers conferring with students.  I wondered how they knew who had met their learning target for the day and who had not.

(I may be wrong; maybe they know quite well who has met the target and who has not, and maybe they address it later during a tutoring time.  They clearly monitor their standardized test scores quite closely.  But if a student is doing something wrong in class, and no one catches the mistake and corrects it, how useful is that class time to the student?  No teacher catches every misunderstanding of every student, but if you don't talk to your students while they work, you are unlikely to catch many errors.) 

The emphasis was very much on management.  Order and discipline.  And hey, in that environment, you could get all kinds of amazing learning done, with so few seconds spent redirecting students.  I am all in favor of classrooms where behavior is not a problem, where systems and expectations are clear.  Once you have those things ironed out, though, you are free to do innovative, thought-provoking academics that teach higher-level thinking skills.  It was disappointing to see that opportunity wasted.

In the end, at every school, it all comes down to teacher retention.  You don't get quality instruction unless you keep and continually coach teachers.  They've got their systems down at KIPP, and some of them are good.  Like most systems, though, in the hands of good teachers, they work well.  In the hands of poor teachers, they work only somewhat, or not at all.

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