Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith lessons learned

lessons learned

Written By Hedrick Smith

Students at KIPP 3D Academy

Students at KIPP 3D Academy in a tutoring session.

Most school reform programs have their own strategies, their own profiles. They tackle problem schools from different angles. And the track record demonstrates that there are multiple pathways to success, as shown in our two-hour documentary.

Success for All uses a highly scripted reading curriculum as its engine for improvement. Comer schools see a harmonious school culture and holistic child development as the avenue to student gains. The main formula at KIPP – Knowledge Is Power Program – is tough-love discipline for street kids, plus an extra-long school day and school year. High Schools That Work motivates drifting teenagers with hands-on learning.

Yet while many flowers bloom, what struck me in three years of off-and-on reporting, was that underneath these different formulas for success, you see common threads, common ingredients of reform.

High Expectations For All Students: No idea is more central to success than the rock-solid expectation that all children, not just the fortunate minority, are capable of learning at high levels. “We need to believe that all children can learn,” declares Mike Feinberg, co-founder of KIPP. “But then what we need to act on is changing the word ‘can' to ‘will.' So we need to act on the fact that all children will learn.”

Eric Smith, former superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, echoes that view. “People who say that low income children, minority children, can't excel at extraordinary levels are flat-out wrong,” asserts Smith. “They just haven't seen the evidence.” To Smith, that not only means boosting inner city elementary students from way below grade to high proficiency, but pushing inner city teenagers through four years of high school math and into Advance Placement courses.

Jerry Brown, principal of Spaugh middle school in Charlotte, N.C., confesses a personal epiphany. When Brown's school turned overnight from a high performing multi-racial magnet math and science middle school to a nearly all-black school in a poor neighborhood, Brown found that seeing was believing. “What I know now is based on research, is based on learning and is based on evidence that I see every day,” says Brown. “Kids can excel, even kids from poverty – given the right framework, given the right tools – can excel as fast or faster than any other kids. So is there a direct link between poverty and ability? No.”

Improving Teaching: Finding ways to improve the quality of teaching is the second most universal ingredient of success. Tony Alvarado, former superintendent of New York's District 2, compressed his core philosophy into a succinct mantra: “We have this very simple theory – kids learn from teachers. If the kids need to learn more and more powerfully, then the teachers need to know more and their teaching has to be more powerful.”

To promote strong teaching, Alvarado redefined the function of principals. Instead of having them worry about managing the school and the building, Alvarado told them their top priority was working every day to improve the quality of teaching.

Both in District 2, and later in San Diego, Alvarado put enormous resources into retraining, coaching and mentoring teachers. He believed so strongly that teachers, like athletes, need constant coaching, practice and more coaching, that he was willing to take money away from smaller class sizes in order to dramatically increase his district's spending on teacher training, from $1 million to $65 million a year.

Other reformers, such as Bob Slavin, the architect of Success for All, seem to stress some other factor, such as a scripted curriculum, but that is merely the method for improving teaching. Slavin, who minces no words in voicing his frustration with well-meaning teachers who do not know how to reach failing readers, seeks nothing less than a revolution in teaching through his program. Every step in his scripted lessons plans is carefully choreographed to help teachers deliver maximum learning.

In Charlotte, former Superintendent Eric Smith took Slavin's approach to a larger scale. Smith used specialists in his district office to write lesson plans and pacing guides, sent in SWAT teams of experts, poured in extra tutoring – all to help struggling schools and teachers improve the quality of learning in the classroom.

Clear Standards and Regular Testing: Eric Smith's real trademark, however, was another essential ingredient of reform – clear articulation and relentless pursuit of high standards for all children. Under pressure from the state of North Carolina to rescue failing schools and deliver better student performance, Smith used regular testing, at least four times a year, as his vehicle to make certain that students were held to state standards and not left to fall through the cracks.

“It's the old model of education in America versus the new model,” Smith explains. “The old way, we'd wait a year and we'd retain a child, give him another year at it, then retain him again…But if we know we're not doing the job in week one, we have an obligation, I think, to move immediately and correct that …Kids' lives and their academic success depends on our ability to be fluid and dynamic and responsive to their success or their failure.”

“People say we test too much, we actually test too little,” affirms Kati Haycock, Director of The Education Trust. “Periodically, the best teachers have always jumped in and checked what their kids are learning. The best schools and districts do the same thing. Every four to six weeks you check: ‘Are the kids learning the things they're supposed to learn?'…When you know that they lack a skill, provide them help.”

Time and Buy-In: These two ingredients go together. Our research, our interviews, our on-location reporting made clear time and again that there are no shortcuts and no quick fixes to school reform and that no reform effort can succeed without buy-in from all the important stakeholders and sufficient time to introduce the reform, train the teachers and new leadership and then implement the reform.

All the successful models have requirements for buy-in. Success for All requires an 80% vote from teachers in a school before it will introduce its reading program. The Knowledge Is Power Program mandates that parents, students and teachers all sign a contract, called a “Commitment to Excellence,” before students can be enrolled in a KIPP school. Students and their families commit themselves in advance to KIPP's rigorous program.

District-level reform cannot achieve its potential without a consensus around the reform strategy from the district leadership, the school board, the teachers' union and a large majority of principals and teachers in a system, as well as activist parents. In San Diego, Superintendent Alan Bersin never won the full support of his divided school board and never achieved a working relationship with the teachers union. Thus, while San Diego's reforms made gains for elementary and middle school students, they were less than hoped-for. Both advocates and critics blamed adult wrangling and dissension over reform for the shortfall.

Charlotte and New York's District 2 experienced broad support for reform and the successes were far greater. But they took time – a decade, in District 2; six years, in Charlotte - far longer than the typical tenure of most school superintendents in America, whose average time on the job is under three years. Experts on school reform, as well as the architects of reform, estimate that it takes five to eight years to introduce and implement a comprehensive school reform and build steadily rising student achievement.

Structure: Across the board, effective reforms provide structure. That is a core concept of the school and child development strategy created mainly for elementary schools by Yale University child psychiatrist, James Comer, and of the program that KIPP's founders, Mike Feinberg and David Levin, created for middle schools.

In Comer's case, structure involves principals sharing power; schools developing programs through collaborative decision-making; parents, teachers, social workers and psychologists working together on child behavior problems – all working together like an enlarged family. In KIPP's case, structure means combining almost boot-camp discipline and a rigorous academic program within a nurturing environment of teamwork and close teacher-student relationships.

But structure can also come from common school-wide and district-wide curriculums and lesson plans, and razor-sharp clarity about the objective of each day's lesson so that struggling students know what they are expected to learn every day and teachers know what they are expected to teach. To reformers like Eric Smith in Charlotte and Bob Slavin with Success for All, clarity and focus provide structure.

“One of the things that I learned about poverty is that kids that come from poverty thrive in structure,” says Jerry Brown, principal of Spaugh middle school in Charlotte. “So that's one of the things that we had to do very quickly, is build structure into everything that we do – the way we organize lunches, the way we organize class changes, the way we provide instruction. It has to be structured, it has to be consistent.”

Resources: Everywhere that we witnessed dramatic student gains in problem schools or neighborhoods, we saw that a commitment of resources was essential to success. It took a fresh input of resources to level the playing field and to put schools in high poverty neighborhoods on a par with affluent suburban schools.

Most low-performing schools are short on resources to start with. The biggest handicap of the weakest schools is that they are generally staffed by the least experienced teachers and principals, those least equipped to educate struggling learners. Quite often, they use watered down curriculums, less challenging textbooks, poorer methods of testing and interpreting tests and less individualized or small group support for failing students.

That was one of Eric Smith's first discoveries on taking over as superintendent in Charlotte in 1996. “We found that the expectations were different for inner city kids versus the suburban,” says Smith. “We found that the pace of instruction, the speed with which content was being delivered was different. Totally different expectations.” (In New York's District 2 and in San Diego, Tony Alvarado found much the same.)

Smith made “equity” a cornerstone of his drive for improvement in Charlotte – equity meaning the need to provide inner city schools with the same quality of teaching and resources enjoyed by the best suburban schools. Both the district and the state of North Carolina sent teams of master teachers and educators into failing schools to show principals how to run them better and to model good teaching for the staff. Smith's district specialists created special programs for low-performing schools and for brand new teachers to help them get traction on student learning – and when Smith's staff totted up the costs of all these additional service, they found that the Charlotte school district was still spending more per capita on students in suburban schools.

We found similar stories elsewhere. At Centennial Elementary School in Mount Vernon, Washington, Principal Alan McDonald reported spending $100,000 a year for individual 20-minute daily tutoring sessions in reading for about 100 students. The academic payoff, said McDonald, is worth the investment. At KIPP, teachers make about $10,000 a year more than their regular public school counterparts, but they put in longer days, Saturday classes and summer school – all extra time and extra resources to lift students who begin KIPP below grade level. At Corbin High School, special computerized re-teach courses and early morning tutoring before school are among many extra efforts the school targets at borderline students.

"Children who have education needs need more time and they need more support and that's more money," explains Susan Agruso, assistant superintendent for Instructional Accountability in Charlotte. "And as a society that's the thing that I hope that we will move towards – recognizing that we can be successful with all children, but we do have to have the resources to do that."

To which, Kati Haycock of The Education Trust, adds: “The vast majority of our kids are in the public system and we need to make it what it can be, And the evidence suggests we can do this - if we don't get distracted, if we learn from the high achievers, and if we act with dispatch.”

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