It’s all (or mostly) about the teachers

December 9, 2006

I recently returned from an education conference with a number of charter school true believers. My table was abuzz with talk of KIPP schools and their high achievement with low-income minority students. More and more folks are arguing that KIPP’s success comes from pedagogical practices that teach poor kids ways of being that middle-class and rich kids have already unconsciously internalized from their parents. So, to use David Brooks’ formulation, the key is to replace slouching in chairs and staring vacantly off into space with the “KIPP-approved posture: upright, every head swiveling toward whoever was speaking.” On the other side, progressive educators like my step-father, who teaches at New York City’s Urban Academy (which also achieves great results with kids who have struggled in traditional schools) argue that success comes from project-based learning, portfolios instead of tests, and teaching kids critical thinking skills rather than drill and kill. At Urban the desks are not all lined up in a row, and lots of kids slouch. But they learn–a lot.

Let me clear about one thing–there is lots I love about both KIPP and Urban, and schools in Washington, D.C. and the nation would be much better off if the KIPP and Urban folks ran more of them. But how to resolve the debate between the KIPPs and the Urban Academys on whose approach is better?

Here’s my hunch: while pedagogy and curriculum matter quite a lot, both KIPP and Urban Academy are highly successful because both schools are able to recruit and/or retain the best teachers. KIPP does it through recruitment. As its leaders will admit in private, their brand has become so powerful that the best candidates (many of them Teach for America alums) apply to teach at KIPP schools. More proof that teachers drive the KIPP results: the number one obstacle to KIPP expanding more rapidly is the the quality of the teaching pool. They can’t grow any faster because they can’t find enough high-quality teachers. For its part, Urban Academy does it through retention. They already have a core group of highly skilled educators, virtually none of whom leave.

If I’m right, it means the answer to creating more KIPPs and Urbans is harder than simply saying it needs to be done.


One Response to “It’s all (or mostly) about the teachers”

  1. […] leaders, and salaries (which are the biggest driver of any school’s costs) have to rise. As I’ve said before, a few charter operators with great brands may be able to consistently recruit superb young […]

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