Sunday, September 19, 2010

What works in education

The Dallas Morning News is doing a series on charter schools. They know that some charter schools in Texas are extremely successful and some aren't. The important question is what do the successful ones do and can other schools duplicate their approach. And time and again, the answer is clear. The successful schools demand more of their students, teachers, and parents. It's not some mysterious alchemy that drives the success. It's heightened expectations of everyone.
Common traits include:

More classroom time. Houston-based KIPP schools, which include KIPP TRUTH Academy in Dallas, run from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, with four hours on some Saturdays and three extra weeks in the summer.

Rigorous classes. North Hills School, part of Irving-based Uplift Education, and Westlake Academy, run by the town of Westlake, offer the International Baccalaureate program from elementary through high school. It's one of the most demanding courses of study a student can undertake.

Extra commitment from families. KIPP, Yes Prep and Uplift schools are among college-prep charters that ask parents and students to sign pledges. For instance, students promise to finish all homework on time. Parents agree to attend all parent-teacher conferences. And while charter schools cannot legally expel students if, say, their parents skip a school meeting, those pledges make a school's expectations clear.

Extra demands of teachers.
Teachers in charter schools often work longer days. Many college-prep charters encourage students who need homework help to call teachers on their cellphones. Charter schools also have more leeway to fire teachers.

Private donations. Unlike traditional public schools, Texas charter schools receive no state money for buildings. But big donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and the Communities Foundation of Texas have given millions of dollars to help promising charter systems build schools and cover other expenses.

School culture. "The culture of the school is the most important factor that teachers, principals and students talk about," said Robin Lake, associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. "The curriculum or teaching style might vary, but the mission is the same. It's about norms and expectations.

Clear and concrete missions. Devora Davis, research manager at Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, said effective charter schools have goals that can be measured, like sending every student to college.

Slapping a catchy slogan on school letterhead doesn't count.

"It's in the conversation on a regular basis. It's not just something that's in the mission and gets buried," said Davis, who spent two years with KIPP as an information analyst.
The strange thing is that more schools don't have high expectations of everyone. Shouldn't we be asking why the great majority of public schools don't have those high expectations? Why do they ask less of teachers, students, and families? Aren't their students worthy of the challenge?