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Don’t Tweak Failing Public Schools—Destroy Them
© Jack Cashill
In an effort worthy of Sisyphus, the Missouri State Board of Education has agreed to invest $385,000 to study ways the Kansas City school district can get its accreditation back.
On the plus side, the Hall Family Foundation and the Kauffman Family Foundation are paying to roll that rock up the hill. As to the rock rollers, they go by the perfectly meaningless name Cities for Education and Entrepreneurship Trust—among friends, CEE-Trust.
I am sure the CEE-Trusters mean well, but an operation that feels the need to alliterate its mission—“convene, collaborate and consult”—worries me out of the chute. Besides, well-meaning people have been convening and collaborating about the district for the past half-century, and it is still totally FUBAR.
The problem lies in the numbers. Although the general population of the district is more than 50 percent white, the school population is more than 90 percent non-white. Applying national trends to the local population, roughly 10,000 of the 16,700 students who attend school in the district were born without fathers in the home. In no small part as a result, nearly 90 percent of them receive free or reduced lunch.
CEE-Trust can convene and collaborate until the Chiefs win the Super Bowl, but without the creative destruction of the whole danged district, these students will have no more chance of succeeding academically than they did last week. They will have less, actually, as family demographics are trending badly. Worse, if I know my conveners and collaborators, they will ignore the numbers and celebrate, as the cliché goes, “the modern family in all its diverse shapes and forms.” Yes, people actually say that.
To make any real progress, the CEE-Trusters will need to get medieval on the unions, the bureaucrats, and the schools of education that produce teachers. Of course, that won’t happen. Conveners and collaborators know who butters their bread. At best, they will goose the district up to the shamefully low bar of accreditation and call it success.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A few years ago, I had the chance to visit with the all-around coolest guy I have met in public education, Ben Chavis, then principal of the American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS), a middle school in Oakland, Calif.
Chavis sees the breakdown in family as part of an ongoing American tragedy that a school has to address if it hopes to succeed. “I create an extended family for my class,” he told me. Knowing that many of these kids’ parents were useless, he involved their grandparents and aunts and uncles and did not hesitate to call whomever it took to get a rogue kid’s attention. “I’m big on embarrassment,” he laughed, but he meant it.
To reinforce the sense of kinship, the students stayed together as one class for three years with the same teacher, no rotation among classes. “At this school, we are like a family,” wrote one of the students proudly in a charter-school publication. “We work through things because we care for each other.”
Chavis scoffs when he sees school districts trying to buy their way out of societal problems far too basic to be papered over, even if the paper is green. “Money’s not the problem,” he said. “Schools have too much money.”
When Chavis took over, the school was blithely preparing its students for a life of welfare, low-wage service jobs and/or prison. “They were play-ing Indian when I got here,” said Chavis, a Lumbee Indian himself, this despite the fact that the student body was almost exactly equal parts African American, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian. “The school was total chaos.”
Chavis got them to play American, as in success story, and the results affirmed it. In its first five years under Chavis, the school went from worst to best performing public middle school in the Bay area. To be sure, he made enemies every step of the way.
The school was in a tough, humble neighborhood in Oakland’s flatlands. Leased from a small church next door, the school building had a large cross on the front when I visited. “How do you get away with that?” I asked Chavis. “I tell [the authorities] that it represents the four directions of the wind,” he joked, “and I haven’t gotten around to putting the feathers on yet.”
If he kept the cross, he did not keep the teachers he inherited. “I got rid of every last one of them,” he boasted. Using the personnel freedom inherent in the charter system, he began to hire smart, ambitious people who did not have degrees in education. Given the unhappy state of teacher training, he looked at the education “credential” as a liability.
Chavis also paid the teachers $5,000 more to start than they would have earned in other public schools. Since this figure would have disrupted the union pay scale, the unions did not want his teachers. This was fine with Chavis. Although a charter school gets less money per pupil than a regular public school, Chavis saved money by avoiding all the trainers and consultants and assistant what-nots that clutter public school payrolls.
“Squawkers, multicultural specialists, self-esteem experts, panhandlers, drug dealers, and those snapping turtles who refuse to put forth their best effort will be booted out,” read one of the 16 rules Chavis posted on his office door.
“Chavism” works pretty simply. Along with the teachers, he got rid of the computers. Every class, every day, began with 90 minutes of no-nonsense language arts. Nothing pre-empted it. The math was just as serious and intense. Every eighth-grader, including the special-ed kids, took algebra. “I have high expectations,” said Chavis. “I don’t want excuses.”
“Our staff does not subscribe to the black-swamp logic of minority students as victims,” read another of the 16 rules. “We will plow through such cornfield philosophy with common sense and hard work.”
Chavis insisted on punctuality and attendance. Other inner city schools actually boast of 8 percent daily absentee rates. The inner city norm runs at least twice as high. At AIPCS, the daily absentee rate ran at less than 1 percent.
Although Chavis recently lost his charter—no matter whose story you believe, no one denied the results—he knew that Chavism was scalable and planned accordingly. His acolytes have repeated his success elsewhere.
To even try his system, however, requires far more freedom than Missouri allows its charter schools. It is much safer to contract with squawkers, multi-cultural specialists, self-esteem experts, and snapping turtles and just tweak.
Much safer, that is, for everyone but the kids.
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