Written By Hedrick Smith
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”