"Just Do It" won't do it

The No Child Left Behind Act has 7 more years to meet its incredibly ambitious goal of educating 100 percent of U.S. school children to no less than "proficient" in reading and math. The odds are good we won't hit that target, at least not in an honest way. Even as too many states lower the bar for proficiency and artificially inflate the number of students hitting the mark, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress lay bare a stark reality: among the poor, less than 20 percent of students (and often far less) are reaching that goal in either subject.

It's not that we don't know how to bring such children to proficient, at least one school at a time. In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Paul Tough took a close look at a handful of schools (run by KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools) that are, in fact, educating large percentages of their poor students to proficient and beyond (see here). So why aren't more schools having the same success?

According to Tough, it's all a matter of determination, resolve and, perhaps, money. "We could," he writes, "...decide to create a different system, one that educates most...poor and minority students to high levels of achievement. It is not yet entirely clear what that system might look like...but what is clear is that it is within reach." In other words, we need to "just do it."

Tough has seen what is possible, and, like one marveling at a harvest moon on an autumn night, believes he can grab it. But is it really within reach?

The equation for getting low-income kids to learn isn't all that complicated, as Tough points out. The formula used at KIPP, Amistad, and kindred schools boils down to three practices, executed well:

  1. Students are required to be in school longer-much longer-than their peers in traditional public schools.

  2. Pupils are tested, and re-tested, to measure achievement. Lesson plans, teaching strategies, even whole curricula are adjusted based on how well, or poorly, students are learning what they should. Moreover, teachers are closely monitored and constantly working to improve their skills.

  3. Students' behavior and values are aggressively shaped by school leaders and instructors.

What is complicated, however, is implementing these changes within today's rule-bound, bureaucratic system, with its collective bargaining constraints, bureaucratic regulations, and the inertia of 100-plus years of public education. It's no coincidence that all of Tough's profiled schools are charters, and as such have the freedom to do things differently and take control of their own destinies. In turn, this greater autonomy allows them to attract many top-notch, talented, and energetic teachers who are willing to work long hours for mediocre pay because they yearn for a results-oriented, break-the-rules environment. Replicating this atmosphere in the traditional system would be hard-maybe even impossible. But expanding charter schools--and getting more good ones-is no easy feat, either.

In the latest issue of Education Next (see here), Joe Williams records some of the barriers (many of them illegal) that districts erect to prevent innovative schools from entering or expanding in their districts. In New Hampshire, for example, the Franklin school district got rid of Franklin Career Academy by simply refusing to pay it the meager per student funding owed to the school ($3,340 required under the New Hampshire charter law). The sleight of hand was made possible because the state gives the money to the district to pass on to the school. The district said the funds were needed elsewhere, and simply refused to pay.

In Albany, New York, the local zoning board played the role of charter spoiler. Albany Preparatory Charter requested a variance on a piece of property it wanted to house its school, but charter opponents turned out en masse at public hearings and urged the zoning board to say no. Their arguments, Williams notes, were not only against Albany Prep, but against charters in general.

On the back of their flimsy arguments-alleging that the property was unsuitable for a school--the variance was denied. Funny, considering that for 70 years that exact property had served as Albany's Public School 3. (A state superior court intervened, ordering that the variance be granted.)

Were such stories anomalies, Tough might have reason to be confident that creating a system of schools to reach all poor children is "within reach." But they are not.

For the resistance to charter schools is not simply one district impeding the growth of one school; it's more often the combined forces of hostility toward charters by those in the education establishment and state charter laws that reflect this animosity.

Connecticut's Amistad Academy, for example, did what the professional educators said was impossible. Led by Dacia Toll and Doug McCurry, Amistad opened as a New Haven middle school with a class of students, many of whom were two or more years below grade level. By grade 8, these students were earning some of the best scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test.

Toll and McCurry wanted to replicate Amistad across the state, but laws limiting the number of charter schools and charter students have made it next to impossible to ramp up significantly in Connecticut. So they launched the Achievement First management organization and began opening new schools in New York City, which was more welcoming (though the state's cap on charters is an issue). "It's very frustrating," Toll told the Associated Press. "We would love to grow in Connecticut, but we can't be suicidal."

Similar tales emerge in many states. So even if you're Amistad, breaking a monopoly mindset takes years. (Ask Southwest Airlines, Sprint, or any of a number of once-upstart automakers.) In part because monopolies are so effective in limiting challengers. This is especially true in education. In addition to the examples above, there are caps on the number of charters that most states will allow (and these tend to be low--100 in all of New York, 60 in Illinois, and 50 in Tennessee); ten states don't even permit charters; and many charter laws are so poorly constructed that actually starting charters is near impossible (Virginia, for example, which has just 5 charters for a million-plus school-age children).

Tough finishes his essay with this challenge: We know what it takes to get poor children to succeed in school, so it's not too late for us to meet No Child Left Behind's lofty goal. "If in 2014," however, "only 20 or 30 or 40 percent of the country's poor and minority students are proficient, then we will need to accept that its failure was not an accident and was not inevitable, but was the outcome we chose."

What Tough doesn't fully acknowledge is that choosing a different outcome will require us to wrestle power from the education establishment, giving room to the KIPPs and Achievement Firsts and other stellar models to grow. On that front, the key resource needed is not money, but political will.

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