Sunday, May 31, 2009

An Educational Revolution In California?

Not many schools in California recruit teachers with language like this: "We are looking for hard working people who believe in free market capitalism. . . . Multi-cultural specialists, ultra liberal zealots, and college-tainted oppression liberators need not apply."

Mitchell Landsberg, LA Times, Spitting In The Eye of Mainstream Education, May 30, 2009

And the schools to which the author refers, the American Indian Public Charter and its two sibling schools near Oakland, are apparently producing some of the top test scores in the state. That is really not suprising at all the more you read about the very welcome policies of these schools. The only real criticism seems to come from . . . surprise, the teacher's union.

This from the LA Times:

. . . These small, no-frills, independent public schools in the hard-scrabble flats of Oakland sometimes seem like creations of television's "Colbert Report." They mock liberal orthodoxy with such zeal that it can seem like a parody.

School administrators take pride in their record of frequently firing teachers they consider to be underperforming. Unions are embraced with the same warmth accorded "self-esteem experts, panhandlers, drug dealers and those snapping turtles who refuse to put forth their best effort," to quote the school's website.

Students, almost all poor, wear uniforms and are subject to disciplinary procedures redolent of military school. One local school district official was horrified to learn that a girl was forced to clean the boys' restroom as punishment.

Conservatives, including columnist George Will, adore the American Indian schools, which they see as models of a "new paternalism" that could close the gap between the haves and have-nots in American education. Not surprisingly, many Bay Area liberals have a hard time embracing an educational philosophy that proudly proclaims that it "does not preach or subscribe to the demagoguery of tolerance."

It would be easy to dismiss American Indian as one of the nuttier offshoots of the fast-growing charter school movement, which allows schools to receive public funding but operate outside of day-to-day district oversight. But the schools command attention for one very simple reason: By standard measures, they are among the very best in California.

The Academic Performance Index, the central measuring tool for California schools, rates schools on a scale from zero to 1,000, based on standardized test scores. The state target is an API of 800. The statewide average for middle and high schools is below 750. For schools with mostly low-income students, it is around 650.

The oldest of the American Indian schools, the middle school known simply as American Indian Public Charter School, has an API of 967. Its two siblings -- American Indian Public Charter School II (also a middle school) and American Indian Public High School -- are not far behind.

Among the thousands of public schools in California, only four middle schools and three high schools score higher. None of them serve mostly underprivileged children.

At American Indian, the largest ethnic group is Asian, followed by Latinos and African Americans. Some of the schools' critics contend that high-scoring Asian Americans are driving the high test scores, but blacks and Latinos do roughly as well -- in fact, better on some tests.

That makes American Indian a rarity in American education, defying the axiom that poor black and Latino children will lag behind others in school.

. . . "They really should be the model for public education in the state of California," said Debra England, of the Koret Foundation, a Bay Area group that has given more than $100,000 in grants to American Indian. "What I will never understand is why the world is not beating a path to their door to benchmark them, learn from them and replicate what they are doing."

So what are they doing?

The short answer is that American Indian attracts academically motivated students, relentlessly (and unapologetically) teaches to the test, wrings more seat time out of every school day, hires smart young teachers, demands near-perfect attendance, piles on the homework, refuses to promote struggling students to the next grade, and keeps discipline so tight that there are no distractions or disruptions. Summer school is required.

Back to basics, squared.

"What we're doing is so easy," said Ben Chavis, the man who created the school's success and personifies its ethos,. . . He began by firing most of the school's staff and shucking the Native American cultural content ("basket weaving," he scoffed). "You think the Jews and the Chinese are dumb enough to ask the public school to teach them their culture?" he asks -- a typical Chavis question, delivered with eyes wide and voice pitched high in comic outrage. There is no basket weaving at American Indian now -- and little else that won't directly affect standardized test scores. "I don't see it as teaching to the test," said Carey Blakely, a former teacher at the school who is writing a book about it. "I see it as, there are certain skills and knowledge that you're supposed to impart to your students, and the test measures whether your students have acquired those skills and that knowledge."

. . . Under Chavis, the school also relied on humiliation to keep students in line, ridiculing miscreants and sometimes forcing them to wear embarrassing signs. When one boy was caught stealing, Chavis shaved his head in front of the entire school. (The boy, Jeremy Shiv, now a straight-A student at American Indian High, considers what Chavis did "pretty cruel.")

A framed poster in a hallway quotes Chavis: "You do outstanding things here and you'll be treated outstanding. You act like a fool and you'll be treated like one."

That concept isn't dead at American Indian, but it has been toned down.

All American Indian students have 90 minutes of English and 90 minutes of math a day.

. . . American Indian's administrators believe that one of the secrets to success in middle school is having one instructor teach all subjects except physical education. The goal is to have that teacher stay with the same children all three years -- a policy that seems to be more theory than reality, given high teacher turnover.

. . . All students at American Indian take Algebra 1 in 8th grade, and the school prides itself on its math achievement. Last year, every 8th grader scored "proficient" or better on California's state algebra test. Statewide, only half the 8th graders even took algebra, and fewer than half of those scored "proficient" or better.
. . . One of the most common questions about charter schools is whether they "cherry pick" the best students and most motivated families.

Charters are required to take all applicants -- or, if they have more students than seats, to hold a lottery. American Indian has never done this, and was denied a charter to open a new school last fall in part because school district officials said administrators were "unable to describe" the selection process.

Both Roberts and Chavis say they have never had more applicants than seats, which is why they never held a lottery. They also say that they attract a representative sample of students from local elementary schools.

But Ron Smith, the principal of nearby Laurel Elementary, who sent both of his own children to American Indian, says that's not the case for students from his school.

Of those who go from Laurel to American Indian, "I'd say 70% are academically strong, and 30% are a cross-section. . . . They have kids who I know could go anyplace in the state and succeed."

. . . "They've had a reputation among the local public schools as being very interested in kind of recruiting kids who are going to do well, and getting rid of kids who won't," said Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Assn., the teachers union. Both Chavis and Roberts strongly deny this, and say their method works with all children. "Give me the worst middle school in America and let us run it," said Chavis. "I guarantee it will improve." . . .

And is there anyone who wouldn't like to see precisely that?


cdor said...

...and this article from the LA Times, no less! It seems we are, as a country, on the same course as alcoholics and drug addicts. Must we reach absolute rock bottom before we wake up and take the cure? I am afraid so. We have spent 40 years dumbing down our population with unionized teaching, illegal immigration, and multi-cultural, non-assimilating, diversity held to a higher value than imparting the basic skill sets of math and language( english in our case) and history (civics) which enable a young individual to be able to actually think, solve problems, and succeed. In other words, to become unique, productive individuals rather than drones. Young people thirst for discipline and order, without which they cannot learn.

I am sure, GW, that you read this article published in Pravda (would be funny if it weren't so sad):

"...Those lessons were taken and used to properly prepare the American populace for the surrender of their freedoms and souls, to the whims of their elites and betters.

First, the population was dumbed down through a politicized and substandard education system based on pop culture, rather then the classics. Americans know more about their favorite TV dramas then the drama in DC that directly affects their lives. They care more for their "right" to choke down a McDonalds burger or a BurgerKing burger than for their constitutional rights."

To those who haven't, read the article. Sometimes it's easier to see the forest when one is not surrounded by all of the trees.

Anonymous said...


For all the paper and ink that's been devoted to the failures of our public education system, it continues to amaze me that the Catholic parochial school system is so rarely included as a role model.

Amidst all the propaganda concerning Judge Sotomayor's nomination for the US Supreme Court, we see another "minority" who was prepared for the intellectual rigors of the Ivy League in the Catholic elementary and high schools of the Bronx.

As someone who benefited from 13 years of Catholic education (also in the Bronx and not a whole lot earlier), there's not much in this article's ballyhoo that wasn't going on during my education.
Back to the future?

Dinah Lord said...

"Basket weaving"

Oh dear God.

I say lets give Mr. Chavis some Middle Schools and let's start with my niece's.

And while I didn't go to Catholic School, I worked at a Catholic Hospital when I was fresh out of nursing school and had a Nun as Head Nurse. She was an excellent teacher and I was a better nurse because of her.

I was bummed when I learned that she left the order.

Great post, GW. Makes me think there might be some 'glimmers of hope' and 'green shoots of recovery' out there, after all.

KG said...

Great post! And how cheering. :-)