Thursday, June 17, 2004

"Of course we're conservative" 

The new issue of the American Experiment Quarterly is out, and it focuses on school reform this time. Abigail Thernstrom's speech from Januaryleads the issue. Thernstrom and her husband have written the excellent No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, which they call a national crisis. Inner city schools with students of color are succeeding, she says, through old-fashioned formulae.
The process of connecting the typical black child to the world of academic achievement isn�t easy in the best of educational settings. But good schools show that it can be done. Terrific schools�the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academies in D.C.and elsewhere, among others�provide a road map to academic success.

The best inner-city schools have greatly extended instructional time with more hours in the day, longer weeks, and longer years. They have terrific principals who have the authority and autonomy to manage their budgets, set salaries, staff the school with fabulous teachers and get rid of those
who don�t work out. These principals are constantly in classrooms, giving feedback to teachers�the best sort of professional development. The schools we describe focus relentlessly on the core academic subjects, insisting that their students learn the multiplication tables, basic historical facts, spelling, punctuation, the rules of grammar, and the meaning of often-unfamiliar words. They provide safe, orderly environments in which to teach and learn. But they also aim to transform the culture of their students, as that culture affects academic achievement.

�Are we conservative here?� Gregory Hodge, the head of the Frederick Douglass Academy in New York�s Harlem, once asked me rhetorically. �Of course we are,� he answered. �We teach middle-class values like responsibility.� The KIPP Academy�s David Levin has echoed Hodge. �We are
fighting a battle involving skills and values. We are not afraid to set social norms,� he has said. The best schools work hard to instill the �desire, discipline, and dedication� (KIPP watchwords) that will enable disadvantaged youth to climb the American ladder of opportunity.

Figuring out what great schools look like is not difficult. But how to get there on a massive scale? That is the question to which no one has a good answer�given the structure of public education, with its built-in obstacles to the sort of fundamental reform that will be needed.

In companion pieces, Jon Bacal discusses the racial gap in Minnesota and suggests an open sector of charter schools to compete. Curtis Johnson and Neal Peirce agree.

UPDATE: Oops, I failed to remember Dave Huber's discussion a few days ago on the same point. Go there.