There are no miracle schools, but there are a lot of really good ones


(Photo by Marvin Joseph/ The Washington Post)

For two decades,  Ellie Herman was a writer/producer for television shows including “The Riches,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Chicago Hope” and “Newhart.” Her fiction has appeared in literary journals, among them The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection. In 2007, she decided “on an impulse” to become an English teacher. She got a job at a South Los Angeles charter school that was 97 percent Latino and where 96 percent of the students lived below the poverty line. She taught drama, creative writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition at a charter high school in South Los Angeles until 2013. That’s when she decided to stop teaching and spend a year visiting classrooms and learning from other teachers. She is chronicling the lessons she is learning on her blog, Gatsby in L.A., where the following post appeared. Here’s an earlier post of hers, titled “Seven things kids need to read better (and raising standards isn’t one of them)”.

 

By Ellie Herman

Over this year, as I tell people about my project visiting schools across Los Angeles to try to understand education in real time, they often ask me if I could sum up what I’ve learned in a headline or two. What do I take away? What’s really surprised me?

Here’s what I find myself saying over and over: “There are no miracle schools.” All those books I bought with titles like “Schools That Succeed” and “Education That Makes A Difference”? Forget about it. The authors either have an agenda to promote a particular form of education or they haven’t spent enough time in a school to notice the cracks in the surface.

Here’s what I’ve seen over this year: a lot of really, really good schools. I know there are terrible ones. I haven’t visited them (yet). As far as I can tell, all terrible schools are alike: chaotic and without strong leadership. The good schools I’ve seen, by contrast, are each unique, reflecting the differences in the communities they serve. But none of these are “miracle” schools, schools whose philosophy and teaching methods, if replicated elsewhere, would automatically provide an excellent education for all. All of these schools will work for some students and—whether intentionally or by default, be inaccessible to others. There is no one perfect model.

Part of the problem is that when we talk about the dream of “miracle schools,” schools that might solve the problems of education, we’re actually having two different conversations:

One conversation is about education in affluent, middle-class or socioeconomically mixed communities. In these communities, though there may be students living in poverty, the student body on the whole is not coming in far below grade level or suffering from trauma or dislocation. Many parents have finished high school; many have finished college. Families often own homes and there is usually at least one employed, stable parent on the scene.

Because of the relative stability of the student body, these schools are much freer to try academic innovations like project-based learning or interdisciplinary studies, and these innovations are much more likely to succeed. Schools like High Tech High can give students a tremendous amount of freedom and autonomy because students there are more likely to have a solid foundation, both from previous positive experience in school and from the resources they have at home. A school like Cleveland Humanities Magnet can have an extremely fast-paced, demanding curriculum because by and large the students will be able to keep up with the reading. I hear of other schools that sound terrific, including a very progressive program where students only go to school two and a half days a week, then take projects home and work independently.

I also visit schools in affluent communities with a traditional rigorous academic curriculum that, because of excellent teachers and a committed community, are doing an excellent job for those students.

I’m excited about what I see at these schools. I wish I’d known more about Cleveland Humanities when my own children were in high school. But it needs to be said that these schools are relying heavily on the resources of the community, both now and going all the way back to the moment each student was born. This point may be obvious but I’m surprised at how often people tell me about schools like these and ask why we don’t just replicate them everywhere, solving the problem of the achievement gap.

But these schools, excellent as they are, are not set up to deal with the issues of large numbers of students in poverty. They are inaccessible to students with very low reading levels who don’t have access to transportation, books, technology or a quiet place to do homework. It is not useful to point at the high test scores and graduation rates of these schools and say that the methodology or “high standards” of these schools has caused those scores and graduation rates. Those students came in, for the most part, without the emotional baggage that causes students to drop out in the first place. So yes, these schools can be terrific. But they are not working miracles. However brilliantly they work for many students, they are not a solution to the problems in education for all.

The second conversation is about education in high-poverty communities of color. This conversation is focused on closing the achievement gap that is a legacy of generations of institutionalized racism that has historically blocked African-American and Latino/a students from education and opportunity, a system that remains starkly segregated even 60 years after Brown vs the Board of Education.

Today we have many school systems purporting to have solved the problem with a variety of methodologies, or to be working to solve the problem with the best methodology yet discovered. The most visible of these are the “no excuses” charter schools generally characterized by strict discipline policies, incredibly detailed dress codes, rigidly prescribed classroom routines that cover not only student behavior but teacher actions as well, and above all a belief that what students need can be known, described, quantified and then controlled for their own benefit by a system designed by well-intentioned people who are for the most part white.

There are a variety of objections to these “no excuses” systems, which vary in intensity among charter organizations. The first is that it has colonialist overtones.  I’ll never forget a super-bright student of mine who, having learned the expression “white man’s burden” while studying the settlement houses of the early industrial era, yelled “hey, that sounds like our school!”

The second objection is more practical: it doesn’t work for all students and is—whether intentionally or not—filtering out the highest-needs students, children in foster care or with parents who do not have the wherewithal to transfer their kids to charter schools. This last is debatable, by which I mean that people debate it hotly.

After visiting schools all over Los Angeles, here’s my take: I don’t see as many really, really out of control kids in classrooms at charter schools and as far as I can tell, skill levels at charter schools are slightly higher. (This is not a question of teaching methods; many of these schools are currently using similar methods.) Any teacher I’ve talked to at a district school will tell you that the most high-functioning students have left the school over the last few years, leaving them with the most struggling kids. On the other hand, based on my own experience and what I’ve seen at other charter schools, there are plenty of very high-needs students in charters, students who live in very chaotic conditions and who come in with very low skill levels.

And here’s the thing: in high-poverty communities, I’ve seen many schools that are really good, both district schools and charters, using a wide variety of methods. I’ve seen “no excuses” charter schools like Animo Leadership and Animo Pat Brown that are terrific. I’ve seen district schools with a nearly opposite philosophy of student empowerment and community engagement like Augustus Hawkins and Cesar Chavez Social Justice Academy that are equally terrific.

I’ve visited Youth Opportunities High School in Watts, an alternative charter for students who’ve dropped out or flunked out of one or more schools, where principal Jessica Hutcheson’s personal passion, commitment and love infuses the whole school with a level of caring that is transformative for students who have been unable to make it anywhere else. I’ve volunteered at Venice Youth Build, a wonderful, caring continuation school for young people who didn’t finish high school, where academics are combined with afternoons of work training. Every one of these schools is philosophically different, but they have one thing in common: the staff cares deeply and personally about every one of their students, believing in them unequivocally.

But even in these transformative schools, there are students who for whatever reason, just can’t do it. No matter how wonderful, no matter how loving the faculty or how incredible the principal, I have yet to see a school in a very high-poverty community that does not start with a freshman class that is at least 25 percent larger than the senior class that graduates, and that’s a really, really conservative estimate. As far as I can tell, the deeper the poverty, the lower the graduation rate no matter where the school is or what its teaching methodology is. Anti-charter people frequently cite these rates as evidence that charters are pushing kids out, but as far as I can tell, in very high-poverty communities, no matter how great the school is, there is a significant segment of the student body, anywhere from a quarter to a third or more, that for whatever reason, despite everyone’s best intentions and unceasing work, is just not being reached by the academic program.

That’s what I wish we would talk about instead of dreaming about miracle schools. I wish we could sit down and say right now that there are a lot of really good schools out there, district and charter, with more similarities than differences. Can we talk? An open conversation, a sharing of methods without anyone taking the moral high ground, would benefit students even more. And then let’s all come together and talk about the students none of us are reaching. Let’s talk about the resources, both financial and socioemotional, that affluent and middle-class students have had from the moment of their birth and how real educational reform will begin with at least some redistribution of those resources.

I know—sounds crazy, right? But if we want a miracle, that’s the one to hope for.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | June 9