The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”
This is PART 6 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe I have “charter envy”.
Maybe we just haven’t figured out all the things that The American Indian Charter School in Oakland has discovered to drive up their test scores. With an API of 967, they are one of the very highest performing public schools in California. Moreover, 88% of their students qualify for free an reduced lunch, so they have somehow managed to overcome poverty.
In fact I wondered if they had found the Holy Grail. I wondered if maybe my ideas about insuring that kids mastered the standards before they moved to the next grade level… might be a little draconian; maybe even unnecessary.
A donor from the Koret Foundation in the Bay Area was adamant in her praise for The American Indian Charter School:
“They really should be the model for public education in the state of California,” she said.
And she also said: “What I will never understand is why the world is not beating a path to their door to benchmark them, learn from them and replicate what they are doing.”
So short of “beating a path to their door” I decided to at least read the recent LA Times article wherein these quotes were found, along with a general description of just what is happening to engender such astounding results at The American Indian Charter School. The reporter, Mitchell Landsberg, was clearly impressed and even amused by the leadership there. But perhaps surprisingly, he seemed a little conflicted on whether what was happening at The American Indian Charter School– not withstanding an API of 967– was actually good for kids.
But we steal good ideas so I read on:
I read that the school administrators take “great pride in frequently firing teachers”. Ok. But we don’t do that at El Milagro. We choose to not give up on people whether they are students or adults. So I’ll leave that plan to Oakland and keep reading.
I read that they hand-pick their students and that as one administrator (and parent of a student in the school) confirmed: “They have kids who could go anywhere in the state and succeed.” Well that’s good for them. We have kids like that at El Milagro too. Except they didn’t start off that way. We didn’t get to cherry pick them. We worked hard and the kids worked hard and their parents worked hard to achieve a level of proficiency. We don’t choose our students… they choose us!
I read that they have, by design, no lab equipment, no computers, no televisions, no games at PE. They mock multicultural curricula (“the demagoguery of tolerance”) and reject efforts to build children’s self esteem. It shows. The director refers to students of color as “darkies”!
Anyway, the tools of instruction at The American Indian Charter School are textbooks and worksheets. It is teacher talk and drill and kill. Hmmmm. Disappointing.
Then I read how discipline is so strictly enforced. After school and Saturdays. They are not above calling kids out, humiliating them, punishing them, forcing them to wear embarrassing signs. One student had his head shaved in front of the school for stealing! “Classes are preternaturally quiet and focused” writes Landsberg. “They have been told to keep their attention on their work. They do as they are told.”
Now I am aghast. So I checked on the website and it is indeed a school in California and the year is indeed 2009 and The American Indian Charter School is indeed a school lauded by the likes of George Will as a model that could close the achievement gap in America. And admittedly, they do have that amazing API.
Then I read that attendance is mandatory (as it is at El Milagro, too. To an extent.) When an African American student took a day off from the rigors of The American Indian Charter School to watch the historic inauguration of President Obama with his family, he was punished with extra work and the principal’s recommendation to a private high school he wanted to attend was rescinded. His mom was justifiably outraged and removed him from the school. The principal defended her actions: watching the inauguration, she argued, “is not part of our curriculum.” Now I am outraged too.
So what is the curriculum? This reads like a horror story. Where is the magic that explains 967?
I read that the curriculum is, in essence, the California Standards Test. The American Indian Charter School” relentlessly and unapologetically teaches to the test.” They teach almost nothing that does not directly affect standardized test scores.
And so, taking all of these strategies together, the best practices of the American Indian Charter School– teach to the test, military style discipline, drill and kill, no computers, humiliate the kids– their students score well on the CST and it all adds up to an API that we should all aspire to and “replicate.” Is that the story?
Well no thank you. If George Will wants to hold out models of schools for others to replicate he can. But there is nothing about this story or this school that reflects the kind of excellence I would seek for my own children. Good enough for the “darkies” though, hey Mr. Will?
So now I have lots of questions:
Where is the commitment to children, the passion, the love of teaching and learning? Where is there room for creativity and innovation. Where is the intellectual integrity? How do children become technologically literate in places like this? How do they learn to write and solve problems?
And is this really the price we have to pay to bleed high API numbers out of communities that are already struggling? Is the California Standards Test a legitimate measure of school success if somebody can produce these results using such outdated and oppressive instructional approaches?
I like the Bay Area and I like Oakland. I like the rain there. And I am sure I would like the kids and the teachers of the American Indian Charter School. But you cannot rise to the heights our children deserve by riding on the wings of Icarus. This is not the Holy Grail. So if you don’t mind, we will keep looking.