Monday, May 05, 2008


Twenty-five years ago, in 1983, the Nation At Risk warned us our schools were falling behind. The National Governors’ Conference in 1989 declared we would be first internationally in math and science by 2000. The warning was heard but not heeded. We were further behind than ever. Many countries have been surging ahead of us including Liechtenstein , Estonia , Macao-China , Finland , Singapore , South Korea , Taiwan , Japan , and HongKong.

We try. Chester Finn, Jr., started his career in the new U.S. Department of Education by investigating and reporting on all the good published studies on “what works.” The Department distributed over 500,000 copies, with little impact.

Is all lost? There are a few signs of resuscitation in “Going for the Gold, Secrets of Successful Schools,” by Barry Newstead, Amy Saxton, and Susan Colby in the Spring issue of EDUCATION NEXT, pp. 38-45. The authors analyzed the successful schools for the elements that make them successful. The schools are KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), YES Prep Public Schools, and ENVISION Schools.

Professional development is the key. Twenty-two year-old Wendy Kopp’s Teachers For America spends $19,000 per corps member for training, development, and on-going support for new teachers. Selected candidates spend five weeks in the summer in training, with opportunities for practice, observation, coaching, and study. They must pass subject-area tests before starting teaching.

Dave Levin and Mike Fineberg after finishing their terms in Teachers For America started a KIPP school in inner-city Houston in 1994. In 1995, Levin returned to New York City and set up a KIPP school in the South Bronx . KIPP has been seen twice on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and in an hour-long interview by C-SPAN. In a “60 Minutes” audience were the owners of Gap, who then gave KIPP $15 million to cover the high-need neighborhoods of the country with KIPPs. There are now 59 KIPP schools.

From their first year, Fineberg and Levin arrived at five tenets: High expectations for academic achievement and conduct. Choice and commitment (parents sign a pledge). More time in school. Power to lead; teachers have authority over budget, personnel and culture. Focus on results, measured by scores on standardized tests.

To Fineberg and Levin, leadership in a school is critical. Instructional strategy, funding, and curriculum are essential but don’t make or break a school. The leader does. The Leader motivates. KIPP focuses on recruiting, training, and supporting outstanding teachers to becoming school leaders. Their objective is putting a strong leader in each school.

In recruiting, F&L look first for passionate teachers. KIPP teachers, devoted, have cell phones which are never turned off. Students can telephone them at any time of the night. During the day they do not have to, as the students are in school from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (and have homework) six days a week, 11 months a year.

One of KIPP’s innovations is how to teach the multiplication table. Do students have a hard time memorizing it? They know all the words of every popular song, so why not set the multiplication table to music? It worked. The students memorize it as they sing it

KIPP schools start at the 5th grade. Students are predominantly poor and non-white. Some can’t read. But four years later KIPP is the best school in the district, and many students get full scholarships at prestigious multi-tear prep schools.

Compared to KIPP, which has been inexistence 14 years, the other two successful schools are young and small. Each of the YES Prep Public Schools is a part of a public school. In all, YES Prep serves 2,100 students predominantly low income and minority. All its graduates have been accepted in four-year colleges. There are five YES Prep schools in Houston .

YES prep schools have two coaches on staff who support ten teachers each. They devote their time and funds to resources for training and learning. They skimp on facilities, transportation, classroom size, and other non-learning expenditures. The coaches are on a regular schedule with all the teachers they support. They go to a single teacher for 3-4 days each.

ENVISION breaks up a school into learning communities and integrates learning among the several disciplines. The idea is that what students are learning in one class, say Science, be taught in other classes as in literature. Different classes are integrated in one subject, requiring teaching-teams to do rigorous lesson planning. In a class, pupils master content. They demonstrate that they understand the subject by giving exhibitions. They chart their progress by portfolios, journals, and observations.

Difficult as integrated teaching is, ENVISION now runs four high schools in the San Francisco Bay area. They serve first-generation college-bound low-income students. Since 2003 ENVISION schools have been highest performing in their district. They do not provide transportation or food.

The quality that differentiates excellent schools from schools that do not excel are, besides professional development, student learning and school culture. Leaders devote more than half their time and resources to these goals and values. Less successful schools spend only a quarter of their time on them.

The seriousness of the deteriorating state of our schools cannot be overstated. With fewer students majoring in math and science, technology will inevitably suffer and we will have fewer engineers, scientists, and mathematicians. National growth will decline. Newt Gingrich and others have termed declining national growth our second most serious national problem.

By Natalie SirkiN
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