Sunday, May 02, 2010

Learning from the successful charter schools

The New York Times looks at charter schools today in their front section. In a long article they come to the conclusion that, despite all the high-power celebrity and political support for charter schools, some charters are doing fabulous jobs educating poor and minority students and some...aren't.

Well, what a shocker! The important thing is that there is a model out there that is successful with the same sorts of students that the regular public schools haven't had success. That model can be duplicated if there can be found enough talented administrators and dedicated teachers who want to put in the long hours and hard work. As the article recounts a visit to one fifth grade teacher's classroom at Williamsburg Collegiate in Brooklyn, you can get an idea of what is working to make this a successful school.
At Williamsburg Collegiate, whose middle school students annually outscore the district and city averages on state tests, Jason Skeeter stood before his math students the other day as tightly coiled as a drill sergeant. He issued instructions in a loud, slightly fearsome voice, without an extra word or gesture. “Five minutes on the clock,” he told the 26 fifth graders, as they began a “Do Now” review sheet on least common denominators.

On the whiteboard, an agenda told students precisely what to expect for the 60-minute period. Mr. Skeeter placed his digital Teach Timer on an overhead projector so the countdown was visible to all. When the buzzer sounded, he announced, “Hold ’em up,” and students raised their pencils.

“Clap if you’re with me,” he said, clapping twice to snap students to attention. The class responded with a ritual double-stomp of the feet and a hand clap.

Mr. Skeeter, 30, a stocky man in a dark blue shirt and tie, moved swiftly to a second timed exercise, the “Mad Minute,” 60 multiplication problems in 60 seconds.

“Pencils down,” he ordered after the minute was up. “Switch papers with your partner.”

The teacher read aloud the 60 answers. “Hands on your head when you’re done counting” correct answers, he told students. He started the timer again as he called students’ names — DeAndre, Alejandro, Nakeri, Lyric — typing their scores into a laptop. He announced the class average: 37.86.

“Brian Leventer,” he said, making what the school calls a cold call to one student rather than looking for a raised hand, “what does it round to?”


“Thirty-eight is correct,” Mr. Skeeter said. The class had fallen two points shy of fifth graders in a rival class. “Close, close, close,” the teacher said.

At Williamsburg Collegiate, everything is measured, everything is compared, graphed and displayed publicly. Besides academics, students compete for merit points for good behavior and receive demerits for absent homework or disrespect. The school drills students on posture and clear speaking, known as SLANT, shorthand for “Sit up straight. Listen. Ask and answer questions. Nod for understanding. Track the speaker,” meaning follow with your eyes.

“I will give merits to the first group to stop what they’re doing and track me,” Mr. Skeeter said at one point.

A rigidly structured environment is part of the formula the school believes produces success. Another is “the use of data to inform everything we do,” said Brett Peiser, the superintendent. If tests reveal that 70 percent of students do not know how to add fractions with like denominators, teachers reteach it. The curriculum is constantly adjusted.

Although half of Mr. Skeeter’s fifth graders began the year, their first at the school, below grade level, his goal is for all to pass the state exam. It is a goal that eludes most schools statewide with populations like Williamsburg Collegiate’s, which is 99 percent African-American and Hispanic, with 83 percent eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Yet last year all 78 of the school’s fifth graders who took the math exam passed. “If our goal is to close the achievement gap and prepare students for college, obviously we’re trending in the right direction,” Mr. Peiser said.
Williamsburg Collegiate is part of the Uncommon Schools network which places an emphasis on high standards and data-based instruction.
All of our schools are predicated on standards-based instructional models, proven curricula driven and informed by assessment, and highly structured environments.
How much of this approach is practically anathema to many public school teachers? I've sat through so many education workshops where the leader and other participants pooh pooh such ideas. The emphasis is strongly on discovery learning. They want to engage all sorts of learning styles and get away from the drill and learn approach. They don't believe in lots of testing or holding teacher and students accountable to standards and testing.

And for some students that is just fine. If you're teaching students who come in with a strong foundation in reading and math, you have the time to devote to discovery experiences. But such lessons take more time and can be more hit and miss, especially if the class discipline is not strong. With students coming in to a fifth grade classroom who are already below grade level in reading and math, there isn't the time for constructivist learning experiences. They need to master the basics quickly so that they're ready to move on.

The wonderful thing about charter schools is the flexibility they offer school administrators to figure out what they're doing wrong and turn it around.
“I think many people settle and tend to let themselves off the hook,” said Perry White, a former social worker who founded the Citizens’ Academy charter school in Cleveland in 1999 — na├»vely, he now recognizes — and has overseen its climb from an F on its state report card in 2003 to an A last year. “It took us a while to understand we needed a no-excuses culture,” he said, one of “really sweating the small stuff.”
Sweating the small stuff and not letting themselves off the hook: those are lessons all schools could learn from.

And what is even more difficult to measure is that parents may prefer a charter school that isn't doing well to putting their students back in the regular public schools. So in the contrasting school in Cleveland that the NYT article describes, what stands out for me is that the school is trying to turn around its poor performance and that the parents don't want to leave.
As fifth graders one year ago, only 20 percent of the school’s students passed the state math exam, results that contributed to the school’s overall grade of F. The principal, Debroah A. Mays, was disappointed by the results. She introduced a yearlong improvement plan that included Saturday tutoring and teacher training.

“We are determined to become a school of excellence,” Mrs. Mays said.

Even though the school did worse on the Ohio math and English exams than the average Cleveland public school, families did not flee Arts and Social Sciences Academy. On the contrary, enrollment has doubled in each of the past two years. It is a phenomenon often seen in academically failing charter schools when parents perceive them as having better discipline than district schools.

“Families love the feeling of community; they walk in and say they feel safe,” Mrs. Mays said. “They don’t worry about bullying. My kids are just a bunch of marshmallows.”
Hey, don't downplay the value of having a school where the students feel safe and where there is better discipline.

And now that there are models out there like the Uncommon Schools and KIPP Academies of what works, schools like this one in Cleveland can adapt and learn. And hope that they'll find more teachers who are willing to put in these long hours for the toughest job they'll ever love.
Mr. Skeeter of Williamsburg Collegiate is what advocates mean when they talk of human capital. A former public school teacher in the Bronx, where he lives, he works from 7 a.m. to 5:30, nearly three hours longer than his public school day. The charter school says it pays teachers about 15 percent above union scale, though there is no tenure. “I have more say in what I teach and how I teach, which is important to me,” Mr. Skeeter said, adding that in a traditional public school he felt “handcuffed” to the assigned curriculum.
Imagine that. He teaches in a highly structured school where there is a strict emphasis on data and assessment. Yet Mr. Skeeter feels that he has more personal control over what he teaches than in the traditional public schools.

There's a lesson there. And it's a wonderful thing that there are these billionaire philanthropists who are willing to invest in funding such schools and, as importantly, paying for the research to find out what works and what doesn't and how the successful models can be duplicated elsewhere.