No-Excuses Middle Schools?

Fixing the education system.
Sept. 17 2008 11:00 AM

No-Excuses Middle Schools?

In my post last Friday on the Harlem Children's Zone (the subject of my new book ), I referred briefly to the difficulties that the organization's charter middle school, the Promise Academy, faced while I was reporting in Harlem. On Sunday, I received an e-mail from a reader, a teacher named Derek, who had just finished the book and asked if he could "see more reporting if possible on the middle school at the HCZ; the book seemed to end with it hitting a real rocky road."

Then Diane Ravitch, a respected education historian who is a part of the Broader, Bolder Approach group I mentioned last week, wrote about Whatever It Takes on her blog for Education Week. She wrote that she found the book as a whole "very hopeful"—except for the middle-school chapters, which she found "depressing."

All of which made me think that there might be some gaps that I should fill in here regarding the Promise Academy middle school. To summarize those chapters briefly: The Promise Academy middle school opened in Harlem in the fall of 2004 with a class of 100 sixth-grade students. That first year was difficult, and the school's results on the citywide tests in the spring of 2005 were quite poor despite a lot of arduous preparation. Over the next two years, things improved gradually, but not quickly enough to prevent Geoffrey Canada from making some major changes to the school.

Each one of those first three years in the life of the school gets a chapter in my book. What I wasn't able to report there, because of my book deadline, was that in the fourth year (2007-2008) things improved significantly at the school. Test scores were up, and, from what I'm told, there were fewer behavioral problems and less antagonism between students and teachers. And after a year's hiatus in admissions—Canada decided that the middle school wouldn't bring in a new sixth-grade class in the fall of 2007—a new grade was admitted last month.

This week, the New York City Department of Education released their annual "report cards" for every elementary and middle school in the city, and the Promise Academy received an A , the highest grade, for the second year in a row. (Once you click on that link , you have to choose "Manhattan" and "District 84" to find the grades for charter schools.)

To me, though, the real point of those chapters wasn't to judge the success of Geoffrey Canada's middle school. It was to give readers a chance to ponder some of the most difficult questions in urban education today.

The first has to do with age. One of the main conclusions I reached in my book was that educational and social supports that start early in a child's life are much more effective than those that start in middle school. (Those are the "very hopeful" chapters Ravitch referred to.) Early interventions work better and faster, they involve less stress for both students and teachers, and they have the potential, I believe, to propel students to a higher level of success.

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So, if we want to improve outcomes for poor children and eliminate the achievement gap, should we devote more of our resources toward preschool and elementary school, where interventions are arguably more efficient? Or should we devote more of our resources toward middle schools, even if it takes more work and more money, because that might be our last chance to rescue failing students? (My preference is to spend more money earlier, though, of course, I think you need a balance.)

The second question is one that Ravitch raised in her blog post yesterday:

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Do poor black and Hispanic kids really need to be in "no excuses" schools that insist on rote learning and rote behavior? That take control of their lives and change their culture? Should this be the model for education for children of color in big cities?

Ravitch is referring to middle schools run by charter organizations like KIPP and Achievement First , which emphasize not only an intensive academic curriculum, but also "character" education, often establishing an elaborate system of rules, rewards, slogans, and punishments intended to better prepare middle-school kids to learn. She's not a big fan of those schools, and I wouldn't necessarily agree with some of her language above—I wouldn't say those schools take "control" of students' lives, and I don't think they insist on "rote behavior." But I know what she means.

And I think it's a big question. I wrote about those schools in the Times Magazine back in 2006, and since that article came out, I've continued to visit KIPP schools and schools modeled after KIPP in cities across the country. Though I try to be skeptical, I'm always impressed by the atmosphere of the schools, by the engagement of their students, and by their results. (Coincidentally, a giant report just came out evaluating the KIPP schools in the Bay Area. I've only read a bit of it, but Eduwonk says it's "overall good news.")

In fact, I think one of the big reasons for the early problems at the Promise Academy middle school is that Geoff Canada and the school's administrators and teachers weren't able to do what every new KIPP school tries hard to do, which is to settle very early on a coherent school culture and then stick to it and reinforce it at every turn. That school culture doesn't need to include KIPP-type chants and slogans, and it definitely doesn't need to involve "rote behavior." But it does need to go beyond the classroom.

I think students from low-income families in blighted neighborhoods who enter middle school way behind grade level need something more than just extended hours and expert teaching (though they need that, too). They also need adults around them who believe in them and care about them and who can guide them toward the behaviors and the mental habits that will help them succeed in school and in life. I'm not sure if I'd call that "changing their culture." But I'd certainly call it changing their minds.

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a speaker on various topics including education, poverty, parenting, and politics.

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