What college prep charters can do

College prep charter school models like KIPP began as middle schools.  The idea was to catch kids before they went to high school and to ensure that they were brought up to levels of proficiency in basic math and literacy.  In other words, these schools focused on academic remediation.  The fastest way to achieve this goal was to have teachers deliver a lot of content quickly and efficiently.

Not surprisingly, schools developed highly prescribed and scripted curricula, and focused on behavior management and routines that ensured teachers used time efficiently and all students covered the same materials.  The push to expand these models was facilitated by an influx of enthusiastic but generally untrained college graduates into urban classrooms through Teach for America (TFA).  A highly scripted curriculum allowed TFA Corps members to teach because it reduced the need for planning lessons and facilitating student-directed learning experiences.

On the surface, at least, this remedial approach appeared to work – test scores rose, initially at rates that outpaced traditional district schools.  Spurred on by this success, the leaders of college prep models assumed that the instructional model they had developed was a strong one and expanded it into high schools.  The downside of this remedial instructional approach emerged around 2011 when KIPP took the brave stance of acknowledging the struggles of its high school graduates.  To many of us who had watched the growth of these networks since the late 1990s it was not surprising that once these students left the high-structured world of 12th grade, they struggled to take ownership of their own learning in college.  As one no-excuses leader noted:  “It’s the largest gaping hole with our kids in college.  They will constantly say, ‘You structured my life so much that I had to do very little thinking and structuring myself.

In the meantime, however, these high-performing charter school networks had been embraced wholeheartedly by funders, advocates and celebrities, and many had begun elementary school programs in the hopes of providing students a full K-12 college prep pathway.  Here is where mistaking a remedial instructional model for a strong instructional approach has really become an issue.  Remember that these charter schools began serving middle school students who were already three to five grades behind academically.  While not ideal, a remedial model of instruction brought students quickly up to grade level in some core content areas.  As efforts are made to work with children as young as three and four, a remedial instructional model is not only unnecessary, it is inadequate and damaging for students in their early years and as they progress through the networks’ K-12 pipelines.

Students from low-income backgrounds have often not had exposure to rich vocabulary and the types of social/cultural experiences that their more affluent peers have enjoyed.  They have not had as many opportunities to explore, discover and regulate their own learning.  As anyone who understands early childhood and strong early elementary classrooms knows, this is the prime age at which to allow students to be exposed to these opportunities and develop the emotional, social and self-regulatory behaviors that will serve them well later in school and life.  The remedial instructional model being provided to pre-K and lower elementary students through charter networks disproportionately focuses on “academic” skills in math and literacy at the expense of play-based and unstructured activities that research has shown is critical for young children.

I also strongly believe that remedial instruction is unnecessary for kids as young as three and four.  For the sake of argument, let’s say students from high-needs backgrounds begin preschool “behind” (an issue I will explore in an upcoming post).  Anyone who has spent time with kids this age knows that they are human sponges.  A highly-trained early childhood teacher is well-positioned to ensure that her students are exposed to learning activities that can erase any “gap” within a year or two at most.  If charter networks begin with students as young as three or four, these students should enter kindergarten demonstrating basic academic proficiency.  Even students starting in kindergarten should be able to achieve proficiency within two years.  The bottom line is that the networks should then begin to adopt the student-directed and enquiry-based instructional approaches that are necessary for students to own their learning.  If all goes well, the instructional model that served these charter networks so well in the beginning should become obsolete.

The challenge, of course, is that it is far harder to facilitate students’ learning than it is to deliver learning to students.  Good teachers do the former, but it takes training and practice to master the tools of the craft.  Remember that these charter school networks have built themselves in large part on a supply of teachers who have no training in either human development or pedagogy.  In urban districts like Chicago it is not unusual to have a majority of TFA teachers and alum working in charter networks as opposed to in traditional district schools.  Thus, the networks not only lack the human capital needed to serve their youngest students, their teachers are not prepared to work with older students who do not need to be remediated academically.

I understand the desire of many reformers and charter school network founders to push back at critics whose sole purpose is to attack charter schools and those associated with them.  However, that is not my aim here.  I acknowledge the role these schools played and continue to play in remediating students academically.  However, remediation is an intervention not a policy.  It is the equivalent of providing a heart patient whose heart valves are completely destroyed with heart valve repair surgery.  The surgery is a wonderful and necessary intervention for a needy patient.  However, we would never argue that general health policy should be to provide all patients with heart valve surgery as a default medical approach.

Similarly, we should see college-prep charter models as an example of an intervention that may be useful in remediating students.  At the level of policy, however, the goal should be to provide all students with learning experiences that allow them to grow into self-confident and self-directed learners.  As things stand, it is not clear that the networks can provide what students need after they reach academic proficiency unless they provide their teachers with appropriate training in other instructional approaches.

We must consider these issues as we think about where and how to open and replicate high-performing charter school models.  There should be opportunities to learn about strategies these schools have used to successfully improve basic proficiency levels and adopt these in other schools.  On the other hand, networks leaders should consider the need for their schools to embrace new and different ways of shaping learning for students once the original models have outlived the remedial role they were designed to play.

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