Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Jonathan Alter blusters about KIPP and merit pay

Jonathan Alter blusters in a column in Newsweek about what Obama should do to reform our schools:

…. we know what works to close the achievement gap. At the 60 KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, more than 80 percent of 16,000 randomly selected low-income students go to college, four times the national average for poor kids.

Here is the response of Caroline Grannam, a SF parent and blogger who is one of the few people to independently assess KIPP’s claims:

In the current Newsweek, columnist Jonathan Alter earnestly claims that 12,800 alumni of KIPP schools have gone on to college. Here's what Alter wrote: At the 60 KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, more than 80 percent of 16,000 randomly selected low-income students go to college, four times the national average for poor kids. The actual number, according to KIPP itself, is 447.

It turns out that that 80% figure was derived from calculating the matriculation rates at only two KIPP schools.

Alter also omits to mention the self-selection process involved in applying to KIPP, well as the rigorous interview process the school uses that discourages less motivated students from enrolling, including making them promise to attend school six days a week and most of the working day. Nor the high attrition rates, with some schools losing 50 percent of their students over three years.

Yet Alter continues to spin wildly:

[Obama] …hasn't been direct enough about reforming NCLB so that it revolves around clear measurements of classroom-teacher effectiveness. Research shows that this is the only variable (not class size or school size) that can close the achievement gap. Give poor kids from broken homes the best teachers, and most learn. Period.

Where is the research base for this? Don’t bother to ask, as there is none.

We don’t even know how to identify potentially effective teachers, not to mention how to make them more effective once they’ve been hired. Aside from treating them like professionals, giving them a smaller class and persuading them to stick around in the profession longer.

More from Alter:

To get there, Obama should hold a summit of all 50 governors and move them toward national standards and better recruitment, training and evaluation of teachers. He should advocate using Title I federal funding as a lever to encourage "thin contracts" free of the insane work rules and bias toward seniority, as offered by the brilliant new superintendent in Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee. He should offer federal money for salary increases, but make them conditional on differential pay (paying teachers based on performance and willingness to work in underserved schools, which surveys show many teachers favor) and on support for the elimination of tenure.

What? Surveys, including this one from Education Sector, which generally favors such proposals, show that teachers overwhelmingly oppose basing salaries on performance (read test scores.): “…one in three teachers (34 percent) favors giving financial incentives to teachers whose kids routinely score higher than similar students on standardized tests. Most teachers today (64 percent) oppose the idea, up 8 percentage points from the 56 percent who opposed it in 2003.”

Nevertheless, Alter continues in this same vein:

And the next time he [Obama] addresses them, he should tell the unions they must change their focus from job security and the protection of ineffective teachers to higher pay and true accountability for performance—or face extinction.

Good luck with that one. I’m sure the NEA and the AFT are quaking in their boots.

As Grannam points out about Alter’s error in reporting the number of KIPP students that have gone to college that could also be applied to his false claims about teacher surveys and class size:

It's ironic that Alter made that rather significant error in a column mostly devoted to blasting and blaming teachers for troubled schools and calling for getting rid of problem teachers, along with eliminating tenure and increasing "accountability" for teachers. I wonder how he feels about more accountability for journalists.

In case you’re interested, Alter lives in Montclair NJ, where no doubt the class sizes are small, and teacher tenure reigns supreme, along with high salaries, and performance pay is nowhere in sight.

But in a school district like NYC, with lots of immigrant and poor students, it doesn’t matter what class sizes they are crammed into or what overcrowding exists. All will be well and teachers will magically be able to reach all thirty plus kids per class, as long as the people in charge crack the whip loud and hard enough and can threaten them with losing their jobs if they don’t deliver.

A sure fire formula for success if ever I’ve heard it.

I’ll end with Grannam’s conclusion in her SF Examiner blog:

I suspect that anyone more familiar with the inside of a diverse urban classroom than Jonathan Alter is (it’s evident that such a setting is as familiar to him as the surface of Mars) would have the same reaction I did: Send that man to teach in an overwhelmed inner-city school for a few months, and then let’s see how he feels about blaming and bashing teachers for the challenges such schools face.”

Comments? Write to webeditors@newsweek.com; copy to jalter@newsweek.com


Anonymous said...

I'm really disappointed in you, Leonie. You don't know ANYTHING about KIPP other than what your fellow status quo fetishists have made up, but you feel OK regurgitating their concocted vitriol. It's a shame, because you'd probably like KIPP schools if you visited them.

KIPP schools don't actually have a rigorous admissions test, or ANY admissions test. So that's a bald-faced lie.

There is no evidence of selection bias at KIPP schools, but you choose to write of one like it's verifiable fact. I consider that the equivalent of lying.

I'm very familiar with urban classrooms, including those in KIPP, and I can state without lying (something you should try) that Grannan's accusations are either completely fabricated from thin air or are the result of extrapolating to all of KIPP her experience in one KIPP school. Which would be like tantamount to me saying I had a bad teacher once, so they must all be bad.

Why don't you give up the lying and fabrication and actually do some research of your own?

Anonymous said...

anonymous above said: "KIPP schools don't actually have a rigorous admissions test, or ANY admissions test. So that's a bald-faced lie."

Umm, it could be a lie if she'd said it. She talked about "self selection" and "rigorous interview process" -- where do you see a claim for an admissions test?

No comment on the number going on to college though, I see. That seems like more of a "bald-faced lie."

caroline said...

The admissions test situation at KIPP is a little more nebulous than Anonymous would have it. Kids applying to KIPP schools ARE all given a test -- to determine their grade level based on the results.

I got curious a couple of years ago after a happy KIPP parent posted proudly on the sfschools discussion listserve that his daughter had "tested into" KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy. So I went over there with my own real-life child, who was just starting 7th grade, to inquire about enrolling her.

What they said was that she would be given a test to determine her grade level and then entered into the lottery for the grade she tested into. (That's if there WAS a lottery. San Francisco's two KIPP schools get fewer applicants than seats for their transition grade, 5th, but they say they have to hold lotteries for 6th grade.)

My understanding is that these tests are widely believed in the community to be entrance tests that the student has to pass to be accepted -- as the happy KIPP parent's comment on the sfschools listserve would indicate.

(However, KIPP says it would admit the student (assuming the child and parents would commit to KIPP's requirements) no matter what the outcome of the test. And, according to KIPP spokespeople, applicants to 5th grade are admitted to 5th no matter what grade level is shown by the test results. I'm striving to be accurate here.) -- Caroline Grannan, San Francisco

Anonymous said...

In the vast majority of cases, Caroline is wrong about admissions tests. KIPP schools do not give entry tests, ever. They do in some - not all - cases give placement tests to kids who have already been admitted in grades above the entry point (in most cases the entry is 5th grade).

As Caroline said, 5th graders get admission to 5th grade if they win the lottery, no matter what their grade level. So 5th graders are not tested. Since the majority of kids enter in the 5th grade, the majority of kids are never given a placement test.

Anonymous said...


We're getting a little tired of the anonymous pseudo-spokespersons for KIPP. We NYC public schools parents are see through the hype riddled with glaring omissions and blatant falsehoods used to promote charter schools here. For instance, we don't often hear that charters cap their classes at 20 while surrounding public schools are at 35. The real champions of the status quo are to be found in the Bloomberg administration who are only to happy to fund hudreds of thousands of stadium seats while their abject failure of urban planning leaves our schools increasingly overcrowded.

We welcome anoymous parents and especially teachers who are subject to retaliation but if you are going to represent KIPP, you will need to demonstrate some semblance of conviction and leave your name. I can't imagine you will as you are probably just a high-paid mouthpiece for charters funded by a bunch of hedge fund guys who would never let their own kids within 100 yards of a public school.

Anonymous said...

"We NYC public schools parents are see through the hype riddled with glaring omissions and blatant falsehoods used to promote charter schools here."

Really? Then why are 40% of Harlem kindergartners on Eva Moskowitz's lottery lists? Why do KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Village Academies, and so on have long waiting lists? Or do you mean "white" parents?

"For instance, we don't often hear that charters cap their classes at 20 while surrounding public schools are at 35."

Charters DON'T cap their class sizes at 20. Many charters have 30+ kids in a class. Maybe that's why you don't hear that. The class size myth is just that: a myth. Charters with huge classes and outstanding results prove it.

I love that any time someone supports a charter school, they are assumed to be paid by that school, but whenever someone takes the knee-jerk union stance, nobody claims that the union is paying them to do so. You guys are such hypocrites. Fine, if my name would help, it's Sam R. That's all you're getting. I'm a public school teacher in NYC who knows a thing or two about charter schools because I have close friends who work in them. I've been teaching for over 10 years, and I'm committed to the kids in my school, but I respect those who choose to go the charter route. I wouldn't be surprised if I do the same one day.

Anonymous said...

Sam R.

Parents choose charters because they provide what any parent would want for their child -- more enrichment, more athletics, more spending, dedicated teachers and smaller classes. It's important they have these choices but I fault the administration for denying these things to public schools while cheering when yes that 40% flees from the schools they are entrusted with managing.

As for class size, let's look at some facts, although they are hard to come by because charters don't release this information:

Ross Global Academy Charter School's board fixed class sizes of 20 in all grades including 7th and 8th effective this year. You can find the minutes of their 3/16/2007 meeting online.

On Inside Schools, I see Future Leaders Institute started as a public school, then converted to a charter because DOE "had sent many students to the school mid year forcing class size to balloon to 35"

As for the Moskowitz schools, she has a news article on her web site. A prospective parents tells the reporter why she applies: "I did some research, and being that it’s a public school, the classes are not so big."

Leonie Haimson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leonie Haimson said...

It is absolutely true that most charter schools have far smaller classes than NYC public schools. If you as a principal could cap enrollment and class size, wouldn't you? If you were a parent whose child had a chance to attend such a school, wouldn't you apply?

At the Carl Icahn charter school in The Bronx, where 100 percent of third-, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders met state standards in math, the principal "credited the school's performance - which ranked in the top seven among charter schools nationally - to a "no-excuses" culture, small class sizes and dedicated teachers and parents. " (NY Daily News)

On the school's website, it states: "The school’s program is based on the Tennessee Class-Size Study’s findings that small classes in the early grades have long-lasting benefits."

Too bad the DOE isn't interested in giving students who attend traditional NYC public schools the same opportunity to succeed.

Anonymous said...

No, I would not cap class size, since the class size effect is a myth. I would try to recruit the best teachers, which is easier to do when you need less of them. Some charter schools have smaller classes, but some very good charter schools also have very big classes. You're probably right that classes are on average smaller in the charter schools, though.

Of course, the charters can afford this in part because they don't have to hire the most senior teachers, so their salaries are lower on average even when their salary scale is higher than the DOE's.

Leonie Haimson said...

Sam R. -- you can propound that "the class size effect is a myth" but you are one of the very few to believe this.

In fact, class size reduction is one of only four, evidenced-based educational reforms that have been proven to increase student achievement through rigorous experiments -- the "gold standard" of research.

And this is not just my opinion.

This the statement of the US Dept. of Education.

See “Identifying and Implementing Educational Practices Supported By Rigorous Evidence: A User Friendly Guide, US Dept. of Education, December 2003 at http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/research/pubs/rigorousevid/rigorousevid.pdf

Melissa Westbrook said...

Well, well, hello from the Seattle Public School parents blog (saveseattle schools.blogspot.com). Good to see there are lively discussion going on in NYC as well as Seattle (and likely everyone in our country). (One similarity in our blogs, the number of people who like to criticize but then, not sign their name. We make everyone have at least a handle so that we can follow the discussions without 10 people calling themselves "anonymous".)

I had read this article in Newsweek and found myself shaking my head a lot. Where is the evidence for all these claims? And Patrick Sullivan posted this:

"Parents choose charters because they provide what any parent would want for their child -- more enrichment, more athletics, more spending, dedicated teachers and smaller classes."

Where is your proof? You can make this blanket statement about all charters in every state? I seriously doubt it. More sports? Again, I doubt it.

Luckily, here in Washington state, we have turned back charters not once, not twice but three times (the third time repealing a law that our legislature passed). Clearly, we don't see this great value that some claim in charter schools.

What would really help is if we had one national test. We really want to know how American schoolchildren are doing? One test. This would take the money that is being poured, literally, into creating 50 tests and grading all of them and put it back into the classroom. And one test would give us real information so you know how the kids in Minnesota stack up against the kids in Mississippi and Missouri.

Bottom line, charters are like public schools; there are good ones, bad ones and everything in-between and there is no research to say they work better than public schools overall.

Anonymous said...

Just saw good perspective on Alter's article at Edwize