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"Never sit down" is not a sustainable model

Kristin Klopfenstein is the executive director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado.

There’s an education reform issue I’ve been thinking about lately that brings to mind the Henry Higgins song from My Fair Lady, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man.” Call it “Why can’t all schools be more like a KIPP.”

KIPP, of course, is the charter school chain that has attracted widespread praise and financial support for getting enviable academic results with disadvantaged students. It and a core of other similarly high-achieving schools insist on longer school days and years, greater parental involvement, school-wide expectations of success and the freedom to dismiss teachers who don’t measure up.

Such schools are often held up as the secret to closing achievement gaps. If we could only clone those schools and their playbooks a hundred thousand times demography would no longer be destiny, all children would achieve to their potential and America would once again lead the world in educational attainment.

If only universal excellence were so simple. Just as Professor Higgins had blind spots — about himself and women, for starters – people who think they can close the achievement gap just by providing more hours of class time, better school-home communication and tougher standards are missing an important element.

You can’t scale selfless dedication

The real secret is to find a building full of teachers and administrators who are driven to work those long hours, take calls from parents day and night and embrace a culture of constant scrutiny. Replicating that level of commitment is much harder. In fact, replicating it on a national scale is probably impossible.

Steven Brill addresses this labor-pool point in his new book Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. One of his featured models of reform is Jessica Reid, an assistant principal at Harlem Success Academy I, a charter school in a network that, like KIPP, has achieved strong results with disadvantaged students. It’s the kind of school where the energy and dedication to kids are so high that, in Brill’s words, “the adults never sit down.”

For Reid, that meant taking over the classroom of a teacher who quit while continuing to supervise 10 other teachers — a commitment that made her long hours even longer and inevitably ate into her personal life.

But giving 1,000 percent – or even 150 percent – all day every day is more than exhausting, it’s unsustainable. It is reasonable to expect teachers to have personal lives and to plan for a decades-long career. However, odds-beating schools typically have high faculty turnover as idealistic (and often young) teachers burn out after a few years of extraordinary effort. Brill reveals in his final chapter that Reid quit Harlem Success saying, “This wasn’t a sustainable life, in terms of my health and my marriage.”

Is “just” solidly good good enough?

American public schools employ more than 3 million teachers. Is it realistic to expect all the low performers to be replaced with overachieving stars? Brill quotes one urban superintendent who estimates it would take a decade to retrain or replace the bottom third of his teaching staff. Moving faster would require him to find an annual supply of talented recruits willing to forgo sitting down for the long haul. And that’s just in one district.

I agree with Brill that these facts mean that the secret to transforming American schools lies with supporting and investing in mere mortals — teachers who are “just” solidly good – instead of demanding extraordinary talent, idealism and energy. This will require us to dedicate the necessary resources to motivate, energize and continuously develop all teachers, rewarding the exceptional ones both financially and with career ladders that keep them in front of students. (And while all examples of success in this essay happen to involve charter schools, I know traditional public schools also employ tens of thousands of great teachers.)

Brill lays a lot of blame for educational mediocrity at the feet of teachers’ unions. I think the problem runs deeper. Interpreting the results of KIPP and other schools of its ilk as if their success is scalable by simply training others in their methods puts too much responsibility on individual teachers and not enough on the structural failings of current education systems.

Even for teachers who maintain high expectations and a strong belief in the ability of all young minds, the waters are rough. Individual teachers often provide the only source of support for disadvantaged students tackling difficult work. And in the current system, teachers in many high-needs schools cannot meet odds-busting expectations unless they are willing, single-handedly, to meet with students before and after usual school hours, unflinchingly dish out consequences when kids don’t work hard, demand buy-in from parents and keep coming up with creative, energetic lessons until the spark catches.

Teachers who show such devotion often pay a price, as Reid felt she did. Why do we tolerate a system that requires teachers who care to pay such high costs?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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