Tuesday, January 4, 2011

One-percent solutions

"There's not one big thing. There are one hundred one-percent solutions."

That quote, from a leader of a charter chain that's been successful with urban students, has been sticking in my mind as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools goes into the next round of budget-slicing.

It's from "A Chance to Make History" by Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America. She lays out a lot of thought-provoking ideas about what it takes to break the cycle of failure for low-income and minority students. Among them: The best predictor of teacher success may be such personal characteristics as leadership, resilience and high energy, rather than any combination of credentials and skills. One charter chain has given their teachers a battery of psychological tests, "searching for the disposition of teachers who are getting the best results," she writes.

One of her central arguments is to stop searching for "silver bullets and silver scapegoats," instead acknowledging that it takes a lot of small, difficult changes to make a big difference.

At first blush, that clashes with the sense of urgency that she and many others bring to the quest for better urban schools. "Incremental change" is almost a dirty word in such circles. And Kopp is not counseling anyone to be content with a smidgen of improvement each year, in hopes that kids will be doing fine by, say, 2030.

She does warn that no one approach -- not small schools or small classes, not more money or more technology, not charters or vouchers, not even Teach For America -- can turn the tide.

"The achievement gap in America is massive," Kopp writes. "If we think in terms of mapping student performance on a one hundred-point scale, the black-white achievement gap appears to be about thirty-five points. Meanwhile, virtually all of the strategies mentioned in this chapter, even if we accept only the most optimistic research about their impact, might close the gap by only one, two or three points."

That's sobering. New efforts and reform strategies tend to be sold as The Big Answer -- perhaps understandably, since their creators are trying to rally taxpayers, politicians and/or grant makers to invest millions of dollars. And yes, reporters also tend to be more captivated by silver bullets than one-percent solutions.

I'm remembering how back in the 1990s, CMS rolled out Bright Beginnings prekindergarten as something close to an inoculation against failure. Keep the kids from falling behind in kindergarten, the pitch went, and they'd sail through school on par with more advantaged peers, graduating from high school and going on to lives free of poverty and prison.

Now the first Bright Beginnings tots are in high school and hard data is scarce. But it's clear that the pre-K is more like a year of being fed -- it's far better than malnutrition, but it doesn't mean much if many more years of healthy meals don't follow. It may be more than one percent of the solution, but it's far from 100.

Starting this month, Bright Beginnings and a whole lot of other programs face scrutiny and possible cuts. It's sort of like a high-stakes game of Jenga. CMS officials say they've already pulled out all the easy blocks. Now they've got to slide out a lot more pieces -- and hope the tower doesn't collapse.


therestofthestory said...

Thanks Ann for your hard work in this area. It is difficult to balance the pressures of what to do for these kids, versus what is failing these kids, their families, versus what is fair to the other kids not in this category versus what is fair when the program is not working, why will you not stop it? verus what is fair to the taxpayer. I believe most of the taxpayers are willing to pay a little extra to help these kids if it really does help these kids but like their own household budgets, when you have to cut, you have to cut. And since what little spotty progress CMS is getting, it means it is time to wholesale cut these programs or whatever you call them.

Clearly, something has to change to help these kids. The only thing the "libs" have not tried is putting the responsibility and consequences back on the families.

Anonymous said...

Never thought that I would agree with any statement put out by Teach For America, but I agree with Kopp. There is no "1" solution to the achievement gap. I am not sure if we should even attempt to close it. What I mean by that is if we teach all students well, shouldn't that be enough? If not, why?

Don't allow the bright kids tred water and wait for the other kids to learn how to swim. Just teach all kids well. That includes the hard to learn, slow to learn, quick learners, the I don't want to learn, the "who cares if I learn?", the I learned this last year, the I learned this from my grandpa, the unlearned, all of them...just teach them well.

Another ingredient, don't put teachers where they aren't suited. Meaning, if they don't like a certain sector of kids and have palpable biases, they don't need to teach where there is a heavy population of those kids.

Affluent schools easily rid themselves of slacker teachers, but somehow they end up at high poverty schools...where it is evident that they do not care about the students.

Yep, you actually have to care in order to become an effective teacher.

I hope they do cut programs. Teachers teach students, not programs!