Friday, November 11, 2011

Steven Brill - Vol 2 -- The Unsustainable KIPP Model

In this ongoing series, I’ll break down Brill’s presentation in the Microsoft Auditorium at Seattle Central Library on November 1st, 2011.  Brill teaches journalism at Yale, used to work on Court TV, and wrote about the New York school district’s infamous “rubber rooms” early last decade.

(In this installment of the series, read about Brill’s charter school obsession and my counter arguments, as well as why the KIPP model is unsustainable.  Finally, read about Brill’s not-so-funny joke made to the panel, revealing much about his disdain for teachers)

Brill is a charter school advocate to the nth degree.  Several times during the presentation, he extolled the virtues of them, and cast aside any shortcomings they may have, blaming them on “poor accountability” from the state.  Two of the three panelists were in lock step with him. 

Brill’s opening argument for charters is that teachers in public schools are lecherous and incompetent.  He supported this with three stories of New York teachers, all of whom had been sent to the rubber room because they were deemed incompetent, but the district couldn’t fire them due to stringent union opposition. 
  • In one case, the teacher set his alarm for 3:15 so he could wake up and go home from school.  Here, Brill interjected these questions: Why is school only from 8:15 to 3:15?  Why is it only for 32 weeks a year in New York?  (It’s 38 in Seattle, so don’t ask me about NY)
  • His second case featured a teacher whose defended her incompetence by saying there was no manual telling her she had to pass out homework or grade papers, so she couldn’t be fired for not doing these things, even though they are basic parts of teaching.
  • Finally, his third opening salvo concerned a teacher routinely found drunk and asleep in the classroom.  The principal found a water bottle filled with vodka on her desk.  The teacher herself said she was sent to the rubber room because she was a drunk who needed help. 
Brill concluded his opening remarks by asking this question: Why is teaching the only profession where performance doesn’t count?  And this led to all his flowery charter school stories, where he told of great teachers, including some from Teach for America (TFA), sent to work in horrible schools and valiantly fighting for their maligned students, only to give up in a couple years because the struggle was too much to handle.  Those teachers included Michelle Rhee, future and now former superintendent of Washington D.C. school district. 

‘Real Insights’ Responds
First off, as a journalist, Brill should know something about sample sizes.  Taking a few cases of obviously wacky New York teachers, and using that to generalize about the entire nation’s public school system, is disingenuous at best.  Surely there are more cases than just these three, but are we getting a fair picture of the typical teacher in America? 

The answer is no.  I know this because, unlike Brill, I teach in a public school.  I’ve also met lots of teachers from other public schools, and when we interact about curriculum, students, lesson ideas, and assessment, it’s pretty clear most of them are perfectly competent.  Some seem more innovative than others, because, as in any profession anywhere in the entire world, there will always be some people more skilled than others.

Brill seems to think all teachers need to be outstanding in every way, and if they aren’t, they are failing the nation’s students and need to be retrained or fired.  Around this point he said probably only about 5-15% of teachers actually need to be fired for incompetence.  But, he followed this up by saying that most of the rest (so, we’re talking about 80% of over 3,000,000 teachers) need to be retrained.

How would we retrain that many teachers?  And what do we need to train them to do? 

Brill wants them all to be trained according to the KIPP model, and admits this would take about 25 years to accomplish nationwide.  25 years...yes, you read that right.  We better be darned sure that anything we spend 25 years doing is a good idea.  So, what is this KIPP model he’s talking about?

KIPP Model
KIPP is a charter school.  There are KIPP schools around the nation in various cities.  Like any charter, it has its own philosophy and methods, and some evidence to support that its methods work better than others.  We’ll get to their methods in a bit.

Unfortunately, there are several issues with any charter school that call any numbers they spit out into question.  The most obvious one Brill denied early on when he said “everybody is allowed in” to charter schools.  This is not true. 

All the drama in the documentary Waiting for Superman was based upon the fact that this is not true.  Charters are “public” schools, which means they accept public dollars but are not beholden to as many regulations, and exist outside union contracts.  But they have to accept anyone who applies.  Unless more people apply than can fit in the school.  Thus, as the movie shows, these schools hold lotteries.  Every applicant gets a number, and they draw numbers until all the spots are filled.  Then, the dejected families who don’t get drawn mope back home in the doldrums of their public school plight.  (That’s how the movie shows it, anyway).

But not everyone is allowed in.  Only as many as it can handle.  And only the ones who want it.

This is the second main issue charter schools have in their favor.  What kind of parent will take the time, effort, and energy required to enroll their kid in a charter school? 

If you don’t know the answer, it’s a good thing you’re reading this.  The answer is, a parent who values education and cares about their child’s future.  And this separates all the students in charter schools from many of those in regular schools.  In America, we force our children to go to school.  Not attending is against the law.  It’s called truancy.  We even have truancy court.  So, some kids go to school only because they are forced to.  I’ve had students tell me this directly, when I ask them why they’re here.  This question usually arises around the middle of the term for students who come every day but do almost zero work, despite stubborn attempts on my part to exhort them.  They tell me they come because they have to, because they don’t want to go to court again.  It doesn’t enter their mind to consider why this law exists.  (Because education matters, maybe?)

On the contrary, no one is forced to attend a charter school, and this conversation never happens in one.  If it did, the one forcing them to attend is not the state, but the parents.  Because they don’t have to go to this school. 

So charters are pulling students only from families who care about education.  Thus, like private schools to some extent, they will face fewer issues in terms of behavior, attendance, discipline, and motivation, than a regular school will.  And, if they do face these issues, they can much more easily kick those students out than a regular school can.  (Read my in-depth study of charter schools here: The Charter School Delusion).  Arizona has a law allowing charter schools to refuse to admit any student who was expelled from another school.  That’s nice.  One school (Voice Charter, in NY) has an attendance policy allowing a principal to withhold credit to students who miss more than nine days per year, excused or unexcused.  Nine days per year!  This kind of radical idea is impossible in a regular school.  If we did this, our graduation rates would plummet. 

And before you say, “See?  That’s why charters are better, because they can make more strict rules,” consider that these rules are only possible because there are other schools out there that don’t have them.  If every school had this nine-absence rule, then no student could avoid it.  And I’m telling you from experience, attendance policies like this don’t work for some students.  Especially considering it includes excused absences. 

Every year at my school, almost every teacher will have at least one student, usually Filipino, whose family takes a three week trip back to the Philippines in the middle of the school year.  As of this writing, I have one student there right now.  She’s been gone seven days, and will be gone another two weeks. 

Right there, she would be withheld from getting credit at Voice Charter.  Now, would her family decide not to take this trip if it meant losing credit?  Good question.  The point is, who decides to take this educationally-unwise excursion?  The family does.  Not in my control.  Don’t hold me accountable then, when her grade plummets a whole level and never recovers. 

See, charters can avoid all this, because they pick students who don’t have these kinds of issues.  And they can kick out the ones who do.  It’s a distorted sample, and therefore, so are their test scores (although many are still lower than regular schools).

The Panel–KIPP is Unsustainable

The KIPP model is a significant departure from what most of us are used to.  Brill asked the question about why school only goes from 8:15 to 3:15.  At KIPP, school goes from 7:30 to 5.  Yes, students are in school for almost ten hours a day.  That means teachers are there for about twelve, depending on how much grading they have. 

Brill and his ilk want kids in school longer than a traditional work day.  They also want teachers to be working half their lives. 

I ask, how many other jobs require regular work days of 12 hours?  Name two.
If there are any, how many of those jobs only pay 50-60K per year?  I’d bet my salary there are zero. 

This is where the panel discussion got interesting.  One teacher was on it, named Nathan Bowling, who teaches at the Lincoln Center in Tacoma.  It is a public school that operates using the KIPP model, although it is not a charter school, since these are not allowed in Washington. 

Bowling enthusiastically supports the KIPP model, and touted the solid results his school has produced in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Tacoma.  Leaving aside again the idea of which students apply to these schools, this still shows that the model must work, to some extent.  Of course, it’s not that hard to imagine that spending more time in school would help students learn more.  Kind of obvious, really.  Maybe we should just keep them there all day and night.  Like boarding school.  Non-stop school.  I bet scores would go up, so it must be worth it, right Mr. Brill?

<Sidenote: What’s wrong with our society today?  Why is it necessary to teach kids for ten hours straight just to get a regular education? A cultural shift has taken place if something this extreme is really necessary.  Anyone care to investigate that question?>

But Bowling then said something very interesting.  He said he supports the KIPP model, but that it is unsustainable.  He elaborated on this by talking about his twelve hour work day, that it is hurting his marriage, and that he won’t be able to do it much longer.  I asked him afterward how long he’s taught at Lincoln.  He’s taught three years, and said “I’ve probably got one more year in me.”

So, four years and out.  That’s what we can expect for the life of a teacher in the KIPP model.  For this reason Bowling said it’s not only unsustainable, but even harder to reproduce and expand.  Yet Brill has this fantastic notion that we can expand this model nationwide

Preposterous!  Think about this.  If teachers can only work four years before they burn out (and remember, Bowling supports this model.  He told me he would keep working there if they could make the hours better), and we have 3,200,000 teachers in the country (Brill’s number), let’s do the math. 

Every four years, we’ll need 3,000,000 new teachers (we’ll assume there’s a couple hundred thousand with no families, or who hate their spouses).  3,000,000 times 5 is 15,000,000.  Thus, every 20 years, you’ll need 15,000,000 people to go through teacher training, learn how to do it well, mentor the new teachers, and then burn out and find another job. 

There are about 300,000,000 people in the whole nation, including retirees, the disabled, and children.  Of employable adults, then, we’ll need about 10% of them to be teachers every 20 years.

Is this possible, in any universe?

And let’s not forget, Brill only accepts excellent and outstanding teachers.  Some of these 3,000,000 new teachers won’t cut it, probably, and will have to be let go early.  Are 10% of us capable of being outstanding teachers?  Only around 25% of adults have college degrees at all!

We’ve got no time for average, here, folks.  Come on.  You’re all going to be the best, all at the same time.  As the villain in The Incredibles says, “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”

Brill comes from the school of thought that wants to ban recess from elementary schools.  This has happened in a couple schools in Washington.  They’ve banned recess because they need to get ‘test scores’ up.  They need to ‘meet standard,’ and darn it, we don’t have time to play around!  Come on Johnny, stop whining about sitting inside all day!  The playground is for dropouts.  Do you want to be a dropout, Johnny?  Or do you want to meet standard? 

Yet, Brill thinks the model is sustainable. 

Clearly, it’s not. 

Paul Hill, one of the other panelists, made a pretty goofy statement about this.  Hill is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, part of the PeWKoB, and likely yet another policy wonk who has never taught in his life (I don’t know this for sure, but all the evidence supports it). 

Hill commented on how the young and energetic teachers are fine working twelve hour days.  Then, he said that when people get in their 50's, after their own kids move out, now they can work longer days again. 


Is he serious?  Do you realize that people like this are in charge of whole institutions devoted to reinventing education?  What kind of person thinks it a perfectly reasonable idea that an entire profession be expected to work twelve hour days?  That this be the norm, but that exceptions can be made for special circumstances, like say, having a family? 

For what pay, Mr. Hill? 
And on top of working twelve hour days, you also want us to have our pay determined by how well our students do on some standardized test? 
So I work twelve hours, my family life suffers, and at the end of it all I get a pay cut? 
Why are we expected to work this long, but no other jobs are? 
Who are you to tell us that we don’t mind working this long when we’re young and single or old and empty nested?  Do you work this many hours? 
What if we want to, like, do other things with our lives? 
Are you telling us teaching is such a noble and valiant sacrifice, that we must willingly give up every other dream and aspiration we might have, all for the good of the desperate, bleeding, hungry and dying children who stagger into our “Emergency Room” schools, as Brill calls them?

Maybe, actually, it’s not so dire a picture.  Maybe these guys would know that if they had taught more than zero days.  (Again, Mr. Brill, teaching at Yale doesn’t count).

Wrap Up
It’s really easy to sit around and point out everything that’s wrong with someone else.  Brill trots out these extreme, obvious examples of bad teachers, and generalizes the entire nation based on them and others like them.  He admits this is probably only 5-15% of teachers, but then says the other 80% need to be retrained according to a model that demands half the lives of its teachers, and then spits them out after four or five years from exhaustion. 

It’s also pretty easy to demand things of others you aren’t willing to accept yourself.

When the panel discussion began, Brill joked to Hill about how long Hill has been doing this work.  “Why aren’t you more effective?”  The audience laughed. 

Real funny, I thought.  Isn’t that the exact same question you are asking teachers all the time?  Only you aren’t joking then.

So, why don’t we hold Hill accountable for his work?  How much has education improved under his organization?  Why isn’t it more effective?  I think he should be paid based on how many of his “reinvented” schools outperform the national average (if there were a valid measured one, which there isn’t...but you get my point). 

Why isn’t Hill’s salary tied to his performance?  Why isn’t Brill’s?  Why isn’t anyone’s in the “reform” movement, for that matter?  They like to spew merit pay and accountability at us.  Why don’t they take it themselves? 

Anyone know the answer? 

Let’s go ask this kid over here.  He went to a KIPP school, so he must know the answer.


Danielle LeSure said...

I personally feel it is wrong to make it seem as if it is alright for teachers to work 12 hours as a norm. This is why teachers are experiencing burn out and using their experience in a hard pressed urban neighborhood as a step towards a leadership role in education. It is time to keep more teachers IN schools that need them and to support them by not making the norm 12 hours. There has got to be a way to address this differently.

Seattle Teacher said...

One suggestion was to have flexible hours. So if school goes from 7:30 to 5, you could have some teachers work until 2 or 3, and others not come in until 9 or 10.

This isn't a bad idea, but I still wonder why kids need to be in school for ten hours a day, when that was never even considered in all of history until now.