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These hybrid schools are blowing up the public education model

The Jay Mathews Band

Jay Mathews. Photo courtesy of Vroman's Bookstore.

Jay Mathews. Photo courtesy of Vroman's Bookstore.

One big question at this conference is about replication–not whether, but how to replicate successful charter models like KIPP in other struggling public school districts.

A panel of heavy hitters in the charter school world led by Jay Mathews, Washington Post education columnist, set out to tackle that issue head on.

Mathews, not surprisingly, was undaunted by the notion that the KIPP model could and should be replicated. He is known for writing about inspirational education leaders who beat tall odds. His latest book about KIPP and its founders, Work Hard, Be Nice ,  fits that mold.  (Twenty years ago, Mathews wrote about the math teacher, Jaime Escalante, the subject of the Hollywood film “Stand and Deliver.” Many students, myself included, were compelled to watch that film in high school math classes, probably as a way of shaming us into learning our calculus).

Another panel member, Harriet Ball, the role model for the two KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and David Levin,  gave a rousing and sometimes hard-to-follow speech about teacher training and how it needs to improve. One Oregon teacher in the audience, Dacia Loeung, told me she felt Ball’s chant ideas were a great way of using kids ‘cognitive skills to enhance learning.

With all that’s known about how far public schools need to go to serve underprivileged kids, it’s amazing people like Mathews and Ball seem as unfazed as they are. There are 66 KIPP schools and 55 million public school students. An untold number are in public schools that are considered failing by the standards set by the No Child Left Behind Act.

James Forman, a former public defender, current law professor at Georgetown University, and founder of the D.C.’s Maya Angelou Public Charter School, said he has no problem singing the praises of high performers like KIPP. But, he added,  he was most concerned about all those mediocre schools that the vast majority of kids attend. He recently wrote about this disconnect between great schools and well-meaning but mediocre schools in a review of Mathews’s book.  To quote his review:

[T]he hard truth is that many mediocre teachers and administrators do not have the capacity to improve to anywhere near the standard required to achieve KIPP-like results. As much as it thrills us to read about extraordinary people succeeding with poor children, I want to see how ordinary people can do the same. Until then, we should hesitate before assuming that successful models will change the field.

Steve Barr , founder of Green Dot charter schools, is someone who has actually converted low-performing schools to charter schools. He said that if a guy like him with no teaching experience can run some good schools, then there’s no stopping other talented people who can do the same. He also said that charter schools had to be willing to work with teachers’ unions if they want to expand.

Finally, Jay Mathews called Superintendent of Schools Michelle Rhee and KIPP founders David Levin/Mike Feinberg “essentially clones,” because of their backgrounds teaching in fellows programs for recent college graduates. They are the “Teach For America insurgency” as he put it, which he believes is a good thing.

News 21 will explore later in the summer what it means that the New Orleans teacher corps is mostly young, white and part of one or two-year teaching fellows programs.

Filed Under: National Charter Schools Conference CoverageWashington, D.C.


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