Thursday, March 19, 2009

How Regular Schools with Regular Teachers Could Replicate the Results of High-Powered Charters

Education Sector's Steven Wilson in an important AEI pamphlet (drawn from an earlier scholarly paper) looks at the talent that has contributed mightily to the success of high-performing charter schools. He then discusses how regular schools with regular teachers can achieve the same success.

First, Wilson asks, "Do the 'no excuses' schools depend on rare human capital?" He finds that they do:

I found that more than half of the...staff members [of the six high-performing Boston charter schools that he studied] had attended elite undergraduate institutions (Barron's "most competitive" rank), and fully 83 percent had attended at least a "very competitive" college (Barron's third-highest rank)....

I examined the educational background of the academic staff of eight "no excuses" charter schools outside of Boston....As with the Boston-based...schools, faculty members were most likely (37 percent) to have attended institutions in Barron's "most competitive" category; 56 percent had attended "highly competitive" schools or better, and 77 percent attended "very competitive" schools or better.

Wilson also looked at the qualities that "no excuses" schools seek in teacher candidates. One exemplary charter school looks for prospective teachers who graduated from a top-tier college with good grades and a major in an academic discipline and, moreover, who:

  • have a "history of getting high student achievement, tight discipline and culture";
  • believe that "measurable student achievement is the number one goal"; and
  • "[like] standards, statewide testing, and accountability."

Student achievement is a part of a teacher's evaluation at this charter school.

Wilson then points out that prospective teachers having "the educational credentials and commitment" sought by such charter schools are scarce.

How then to get the effective teaching that's needed? Of the two solutions that Wilson considers, one is the most promising. It is "making the job manageable."

Wilson asks us to consider the teaching force once again:

Imagine the broad swath of career educators who, though they may not have attended elite colleges and universities, are nonetheless committed to rigorous academic standards, the continuous improvement of their craft, and a path to college for every child. Could they be equipped with a powerful set of tools that would permit them to produce gap-closing results...?

Consider the job of the "no excuses" teachers....These schools often expect teachers to devise curricular and pedagogical systems largely for themselves....If teachers neither had to remedy years of prior failed schooling nor forge their own tools, then the job would be far more manageable.

In the course of Wilson's discussion of existing effective programs, the reader gathers what Wilson thinks is needed (as re-phrased by me) -- namely, schools with:

  • a solid, step-by-step curriculum;
  • a "no excuses" culture;
  • a focus on college-preparatory academics;
  • teacher-led, whole-class instruction;
  • clear lesson-plans aligned with state standards;
  • regular, frequent diagnostic testing;
  • classroom discipline;
  • explicit teacher accountability for performance; and
  • a school principal with the power to make key decisions.

All this has to reside, Wilson says, in an institutional setting (work-rule and pay flexibility, local district policy, state law) that allows such schools to thrive.

If these components are there, Wilson contends that regular schools can have KIPP-like results without Teach for America/Ivy League-grad teachers.

Wilson recognizes that a major obstacle to putting into effect this promising proposal for success is the"thought world" of K-12 education:
Ironically, such systematic approaches pose a challenge in recruiting teachers. Many career educators have a long-standing aversion, fanned by unions and schools of education, to external oversight. Powerful norms protect the teacher's "autonomous sphere of private discretion" and are more likely to celebrate teacher innovation than measurable effectiveness.
Waiting for enough Superman-teachers and Superwoman-teachers is waiting for Godot.

Instead, Wilson's proposal could give regular teachers the tools to succeed and the incentives to excel professionally.


  1. I'm a regular teacher in a regular school...

    The list you've re-phrased would be simple for any school to implement, especially in this digital age, if it weren't for the fact that "Many career educators have a long-standing aversion, fanned by unions and schools of education, to external oversight."

    Once a high-quality, step-by-step curriculum is established, relatively inexpensive technology could be utilized to support lesson development, create and administer formative assessments, and give students, parents and teachers a true measure of the child's progress.

    It all hinges on our ability to come together and create a high-quality curriculum.

    Do parents want their children to learn the content needed for success in college and life?

    Do national standards necessarily undermine local control?

  2. It's a great post! Thanks for sharing.

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