A toxic mist of ideology and self-interest blinds Americans from seeing the kinds of schools that actually succeed in educating disadvantaged children. Free-market ideologies argue that choice is the answer. Corporate managers push incentive pay for teachers, while teachers’ unions promote smaller classes and increased opportunity for teacher development. Although there is some merit in all the proposals, the success of the schools I’ve examined can’t be explained by any of these theories. Rather, their achievement is best understood by viewing schools as social systems with essential interacting elements. These successful schools are not all alike. Some are charter schools. Some are unionized public schools. What they share are strong leaders who gain enthusiastic collaboration from teachers, students, parents, and boards of education.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested, mostly by idealistic business leaders, in charter schools licensed by public school systems. Some operators, like Adventure Academies and Edison Schools, promised to give venture capitalists a big return on their investment, but didn’t. The most successful charter schools in terms of results have been the not-for-profits. At the top of the list are the 48 middle schools, five high schools, and four prekindergarten/elementary schools run by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a foundation that trains school leaders to open up schools and practice the KIPP approach to education for disadvantaged children.
I have visited KIPP schools in Houston; New York City; Oakland, Calif.; and Washington. At each of those schools, I was inspired by the students’ and teachers’ energy and spirit. The kids were fully focused on their work, moving back and forth between independent and collaborative tasks. I read well-written essays and research reports pinned up on the walls. I heard spirited musical performances. At KIPP Academy Middle School in Houston, there are pictures on the wall of the original class. Over 80 percent have gone on to college.
What successful schools share are strong leaders who gain enthusiastic collaboration from teachers, students, parents, and boards of education.
How does KIPP succeed where other schools fail? David Levin, who together with Michael Feinberg developed the KIPP approach, cites three interrelated factors. The first is “talented” leadership, selecting promising leaders with classroom experience to become principals—called school leaders—who then go through an extensive year of apprenticeship and five weeks of training, starting with a two-week workshop at Stanford University. Contrast this with most public schools, where principals are not academic leaders, but rather administrators who have had little leadership training. An essential element in the KIPP system is the school leader’s “power to lead”; power in both senses—authority and ability to gain full collaboration from all stakeholders.
The second factor is more time at school, more time in classes and for teachers to finish their work before leaving. There is also more time for sports and music, Shakespeare and salsa, subjects that spark creative fires in the kids. Students and parents sign up to come to school by 7:25 a.m. Monday to Friday, staying until 5 p.m., and some Saturday mornings for sports and arts.
Levin’s third factor is quality of instruction, including a set of best practices with proper scope and sequencing, especially in math. Teachers have some freedom to innovate in the humanities and social studies. Levin claims these three elements are what get KIPP parental and community support. Parents promise to check their children’s homework and encourage them to call a teacher if there’s a problem. There is no excuse for not completing homework or not seeking help when needed. The KIPP motto, “Work hard and be nice,” translates into behavioral norms, and there are incentives for doing the work and being respectful. If kids are disrespectful in class, they have to sit apart from others and still do the work. If they meet their commitments, they receive scrip that they can use to buy KIPP notebooks, shirts with logos, and so forth. These incentives strengthen behavior, but I doubt they are essential to this very effective school social system. Unlike schools where principals struggle to enforce bureaucratic rules, KIPP succeeds by instilling shared values that strengthen agreed-on practices.
According to Susan Schaeffler, the executive director of three KIPP schools in the District of Columbia, the effectiveness of the approach depends on leaders who accept authority and don’t shy away from conflict. They are not detail-obsessed, but they do demand accountability. Yet, they haven’t forgotten that they were teachers, and are able to inspire collaboration.
Can regular public schools learn from KIPP? Some skeptics say that KIPP parents are more motivated than most parents of disadvantaged children. This is hard to prove one way or another, since the parents may become more motivated once they join the KIPP family. Levin points out that entering students have the same low test scores and disciplinary problems as kids in other inner-city schools; at KIPP, their scores rise year by year, well above the average.
Many supporters of charter schools argue that teachers’ unions will resist change, that collective bargaining and union rules promote bureaucracy and distrust, undermining the power to lead and a culture of collaboration. No doubt this is the case in some districts, but there are examples of superintendents and union officials’ collaboration in creating effective schools for disadvantaged kids. In fact, Levin gained agreement with the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, to accept KIPP practices and values.
A notable example of such collaborative leadership can be seen in the ABC Unified School District in three California cities—Artesia, Cerritos, and Hawaiian Gardens—south of Los Angeles. Here the superintendent, Gary Smuts, and the AFT local’s president, Laura Rico, are working together in a partnership that Smuts says has shifted the union-management relationship from conflicts over work rules to improving education.
Let’s recognize people with the potential to be collaborative school leaders, develop them, and support them.
Smuts and Rico meet weekly, and union representatives and principals meet periodically to review progress or participate in leadership training. Teachers benefit from opportunities for professional development and the union’s focus on competence. “If you belong to the union,” says Rico, “you never have to be afraid. There is someone there for you, for help in coaching or improving skills. We won’t let you fail.”
The district has also instituted a common, coherent math sequence, but as at KIPP, teachers have the authority to vary the curriculum in the humanities and social sciences. The result: continual improvement of scores on the California state English-language and math-proficiency tests. The district’s scores are 10 percent higher than the state average.
The two social systems, ABC Unified and KIPP, share these essential elements: strong collaborative leadership, parental involvement and community support, high quality of instruction, common practices, and shared values instead of bureaucratic rules.
Schools can learn from these models. It’s not a matter of copying them, but of recognizing that educational success depends on key interacting elements of a sustainable social system, not on one or another mechanism or scheme. There is no excuse for schools of education, foundations, school boards, superintendents, and teachers’ unions to ignore the evidence of what succeeds. We can see the kinds of leaders we need. Let’s recognize people with the potential to be collaborative school leaders, develop them, and support them.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2008 edition of Education Week as Schools Need Collaborative Leaders