Monday, April 26, 2010

When the Educrat professors run a school

Joanne Jacobs has a marvelous column about what happened when Stanford University undertook to run a charter school in a poor minority neighborhood of Palo Alto. The education department of Stanford opened up Stanford New Schools, which are also known as East Palo Alto Academy, in 2001 in an attempt to put into practice all their theories of how to run a school right. First they opened a charter high school and then, in 2006 opened a school for the elementary grads. Now, after both schools made California's list of the lowest-achieving five percent in the state, it has been announced that the elementary school will close in June. The high school has two years to find a new sponsor before the school district will shut it down.

So what went wrong? They did everything according the latest research big in education schools.
Stanford New Schools hires well-trained teachers who use state-of-the-art progressive teaching methods; Stanford’s student teachers provide extra help. With an extra $3,000 per student raised privately, students enjoy small classes, mentoring, counseling and tutoring, technology access, field trips, summer enrichment, health van visits, community college classes on campus, and community service opportunities. The goal is to send graduates to college as critical thinkers, lifelong learners, and “global citizens.”
And they had the superstars in the world of academic education on their board.
But Stanford New School has the best of credentials. It was founded by Linda Darling-Hammond, a leader in the school reform movement and President Obama’s adviser on education during his transition. Its blueblood board includes Stanford administrators and professors and Silicon Valley royalty with connections to Google and Cisco. It also includes Maria de la Vega, the superintendent of the Ravenswood City School District — who recommended that her board deny the charter extension.
Darling-Hammond blames the student population for the lack of success.
Ms. Darling-Hammond — who told the board that the school “takes all kids” and changes their “trajectory” — was angered by the state’s categorization of the charter as a persistently worst-performing school. “It is not the most accurate measure of student achievement,” she said, “particularly if you have new English language learners.”
But, as Joanne Jacobs points out, other charter schools in the same area with the same population of students have had much more success.
But other schools with demographically identical students are doing much better. The top-scoring school in the district is East Palo Alto Charter School (EPAC), a K-8 run by Aspire Public Schools, Stanford’s original partner. An all-minority school, EPAC outperforms the state average.

Rather than send EPAC graduates to Stanford’s high school, Aspire started its own high school, Phoenix, which outperforms the state average for all high schools. All students in the first 12th grade class have applied to four-year colleges.

Aspire co-founded East Palo Alto Academy High with Stanford, but bowed out five years ago. There was a culture clash, Aspire’s founder, Don Shalvey told the New York Times. Aspire focused “primarily and almost exclusively on academics,” while Stanford focused on academics and students’ emotional and social lives, he said.
And therein lies the problem. The charters, like the ones Jacobs talks about, or the KIPP schools, have succeeded with all sorts of disadvantaged students by setting high academic standards and focusing on those rather than following the line coming out of the education schools that downplays those academic criteria rather than focusing on emotional and social considerations. The results don't support the idea of downplaying knowledge in favor of other aspects of a student's life.
EPA Academy students are graded on a five-dimensional rubric, based on (1) Personal Responsibility; (2) Social Responsibility; (3) Communication Skills; (4) Application of Knowledge; and (5) Critical and Creative Thinking.

Only 20 percent of the grade is based on knowledge, notes Michele Kerr, who taught an ACT prep course for disadvantaged students at a nonprofit from 2007-09. Compared to district high school students, East Palo Academy tutees had “the lowest skills and the highest grades,” Kerr recalls. Students with high A averages turned out to have very poor reading and math skills, though their writing was relatively strong.

EPA Academy students got into CSU on their grades, while much stronger students with lower grades were shut out, says Kerr, now a Stanford-trained high school teacher.

On CSU’s test of college readiness, no EPA Academy 11th graders were deemed ready for college English; only 11 percent were deemed ready for college-level math. Of course, they might catch up in 12th grade. But the state exam shows 11th graders are far behind. In English Language Arts, 54 percent are below basic, 40 percent basic, and only 6 percent proficient. No students tested as proficient in Algebra II or chemistry, 9 percent in biology, and 6 percent in U.S. history.
Jacobs contrasts the Stanford approach with the approach at a San Jose charter school whose population comes from poor Mexican immigrant families.
However, I couldn’t get the access I needed — the inexperienced teachers didn’t want a writer taking note of their mistakes — so I ended up at Downtown College Prep, a charter high school in San Jose designed for underachievers from Mexican immigrant families.

As at East Palo Alto Academy, DCP started with a progressive philosophy and very high ideals. But the two high school teachers who started the school had no trouble acknowledging mistakes. When things didn’t go as they’d hoped — which happened a lot — they tried something else. No time or energy was wasted blaming the students’ poverty or the tests. The unofficial motto was: We’re not good now but we can get better. And they did.
You can read Joanne Jacobs' book, Our School:The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea, and the School That Beat the Odds, about the experiences of this successful start-up charter school. I'd also recommend Jay Mathews story of how the KIPP charter schools got started, Work Hard, Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America. Both books will inspire you and give you a sense of optimism that there is a model out there of how to educate those same sorts of students that Linda Darling-Hammond is making excuses for.

We were just at a quiz bowl competition this weekend where two teams came from a high school in Gaston, North Carolina, KIPP Gaston College Preparatory. Although their two teams finished at the bottom of the pack, that isn't strange for teams coming to their first quiz bowl tournament. I was impressed with the students' polite and enthusiastic attitude. And what also impressed me was that the assistant principal from the school had traveled with the teams and was eager to learn more about how to prepare students to compete in quiz bowl activities. Last year Bob Herbert profiled the success of GCP where 100% of the first graduating class got accepted in college.
Most of the students were black, and many were from low-income families. Most of the other schools in the region were struggling. When I spoke to Shanequa during that visit, one of the first things she told me was, “We don’t have any fighting here or any of that picking-on-people stuff.”

The original plan was that Gaston Prep would grow naturally into a school that encompassed grades 5 through 8, which is the normal KIPP model. (KIPP is short for the Knowledge Is Power Program, an effort that started in Houston and has become one of the most academically sound public school programs in the nation.) The goal was to lift the students out of the academic doldrums that handicapped the life chances of so many of their peers and get them onto a solid college track.

I remember being struck by how quiet the school was. It was a disciplined environment, and the schoolwork was approached with the utmost seriousness. I wrote: “The school lasts from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., which allows time for additional classroom work and extracurricular activities. After that, there are two hours of homework. The kids also attend classes every other Saturday. And there are three weeks of summer school.”

The school flourished. The youngsters worked so hard and did so well, so quickly, that the founders of the school felt they needed to create an academically rigorous high school if the hopes raised by the middle school were to be fully realized.
Of course, the Democratic leadership in North Carolina refuses to raise the cap on charter schools here so, despite their desire to spread their success, KIPP can't open up more such schools across the state.

What is clear is that there is a model out there of success for schools for low-income, minority students. It involves much hard work, dedicated teachers, and high standards for the students' academic achievement. It is not the model pushed by the Stanford education department. Will they learn from their failures with East Palo Alto Academy and adapt their model? Instead of making excuses, they should admit that they had the wrong approach and start studying what works and copying that model.