Standards and common assessments were introduced 15 years ago.  KIPP took the expectations expressed by state tests seriously and made numerous process improvements to the old model of school.  At the middle school I visited Monday, 100% of the Kipsters had passed the state math test.

This KIPP school gives uniform weekly quizzes in every state tested subject and relentlessly evaluates the data from every classroom and student.  The school only hires new teachers, trains them on data-driven instruction, and expects hard work (e.g., to go along with their bonus plan, a sign in the principal’s office read, “New Incentive Plan: Work or Get Fired”)

This is the best of the batch-print model. Kids sit obediently in rows in classrooms of 25 students. One teacher per subject per grade yields direct accountability for results.  Their homegrown curriculum is mostly worksheets.  Quizzes are paper based. Scores are tabulated on a spreadsheet.  No fancy learning management system at work here—they just figure out what the state wants, teach it and test it.  They are fantastic executors—a critical innovation in a sector that is commonly sloppy and uneven in delivery.

However, I came away from the visit feeling bipolar.  This was obviously a great school and its students would be well prepared for high school.  But I wondered if the state tests really defined optimal outcomes for students.  And I wondered if the heroic effort model is scalable and sustainable.  I also wondered, given the lockstep approach, about the kids in the upper and lower quartile.  And while there was value in the homegrown approach, the thought of the principal building excel spreadsheets of quiz results seemed inefficient.

As someone thinking about opening schools in similar neighborhoods, I take their success seriously and want to learn everything I possibly can.  But I can’t help but believe that there’s an even better way to meet the needs of every student with an engaging personalized curriculum in a technology infused school model that is scalable without philanthropic support.  I guess we’ll know in a couple years.

1 COMMENT

  1. I also know I would not want to be one of the students. No exploration, no discourse, no engagement. I wonder how these students will do as citizens and employees. I don’t want employees who can memorize for multiple choice tests. I need employees who can collaborate, communicate, and solve for rapidly changing variables. I don’t see that in a worksheet-driven curriculum.

  2. I agree with Dean.

    Also, I keep thinking about the sign in the principal’s office: “New Incentive Plan: Work or Get Fired”. It would be interesting to know the principal’s reason for choosing this particular motivational device. What is meant by work? Seriously, what does that mean? Work longer? Work louder?
    Is work gauged by test scores? By classroom deportment?

    What would a teacher make of this?

    As a non-teacher, I can’t imagine a worse way to recruit excellent staff (and represent the School) than to have that message hanging on the wall during the interview.

    To my way of thinking, the principal’s sign is a potent symbol of a simplistic management approach which doesn’t promise effective professional collaboration or staff development.

    The School is supposed to be building scholars, not widgets.

    • The sign was a joke. The school had a positive culture for kids and adults. Teachers have the opportunity to start in March so they get several months to experience a data-driven environment–they make an informed decision to work at the school. Within the framework of weekly quizzes, they have lots of instructional flexibility. The staff is committed to the success of every student and they all work very hard.

  3. A great post, raises some terrific questions. In contrast to Dean’s about the value of memorization (especially in “solving for rapidly changing variables”) I once heard an MIT professor attribute the heavily-foreign demographics of engineering schools (i.e., problem solving schools) to the poor memorization skills of American students.

    Only hiring new teachers raises alarms every time I hear it. In “Money Ball”, Michael Lewis quotes a team manager (don’t recall who right now) as saying “Baseball is a game of attrition, and what we attrit is pitcher’s arms.” The charter school model attrits teachers the same way, and there are ethical questions in their failure to take responsibility for the resulting high turn-over. Medical residents know they will be worked hard, but then go on to new phase of their career. Associates at law firms know they will do 80-hour weeks but hope to become partners. Wall Street traders go through similarly tough years, but plan their accordingly. Teachers are recruited with visions of lifelong careers of serving and nurturing, and are always shocked when they are used up and tossed out like a tired horse on the pony express.

    The effects on student values are additional concerns: students always know what’s going on, and learn what is modeled far better than what is taught.

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