I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Jonny Alter's Head Pops Off

I missed this clip at last weekend's Education Nation from MSNBC. It's well worth watching, if only for the entertainment value of seeing pundit Jonathan Alter lose his cool when someone who knows what the hell they're talking about calls him out:

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The best part is when Alter says, "No offense." Yeah, sure: why would Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig take offense at having his peer-reviewed study called "cherry-picking" and "bogus" on national TV?

Alter is part of the great mass of pundits who continue to write about education without having the first clue about the topic. The fact is that Vasquez Helig's study shows quite clearly that there is significant and serious attrition at KIPP's schools in Texas. This comports with others' reporting and research - see here, here, and here for starters - that shows KIPP regularly "counsels out" students as part of their program.

KIPP responded to Helig's study aggressively; they know their "brand" is on the line when they are called out on this attrition. Vasquez Helig handles their objections quite deftly, thank you very much. It's fine that this is under debate - fine, that is, to everyone but Alter, who decides to lose his freakin' mind and not even address the study.

KIPP has refused to take Diane Ravitch's challenge and manage an entire school district, and attrition is the primary reason why. A true public school does not have the luxury of "counseling out" students; if a kid is failing, they must continue to work with the kid, no matter how unmotivated he or his parents may be. It is perfectly legitimate - indeed, it's critical - to question whether KIPP's methods are replicable, due to their high attrition rates, in public schools.

Alter says that "successful" charter schools are laboratories that develop "best practices" that all schools can benefit from. Well, KIPP may well run fine schools; but if the kids who can't cut it there wind up leaving, how does that help a real public school? Public schools don't have the luxury of indulging in attrition; they must serve all students. What can a school that has such high attrition teach a school that can't get rid of kids unless they are severe discipline problems?

This is a serious topic, and it deserves a serious conversation. Give Melissa Harris-Perry credit for telling Alter to pipe down and let KIPP critics like Vasquez Helig make their points. If Alter has a serious rebuttal, let him make it.

But fake indignation isn't helping anyone; it isn't fooling anyone, either.


czarejs said...

Wow, Alter really got heated there. Almost seemed that he feared retribution from his corporate overlords if he allowed someone to counter his ridiculous statement.

Duke said...

Could be. although I think guys like Alter mostly get hot out of frustration for not being able to contribute substantively to the debate.

Unknown said...

Alter needs KIPP's lesson in SLANT.

Unknown said...

The powers at KIPP (& it's benefactor - the Eli Broad Foundation) are trying like the devil to portray KIPP as the Quality Charter School of the nation. (no need to mention Cerf's involvement in this)

KIPP ran out of Camden! Didn't bother to even try to salvage the mess they made.

Now they want to dictate to Camden people how a good school is run! This is arrogance at is absolute worst. Cerf's insistence on this is an insult to everyone. But then again, he is only interested in his self-serving agenda. Time will tell what plans Eli has for Cerf.

And they are not a model of high performing charters - NJ has many far better charters than the KIPP McCharter model.

Stuart Buck said...

"KIPP has refused to take Diane Ravitch's challenge and manage an entire school district, and attrition is the primary reason why. "

That's an absurd statement, as if anyone with the authority to do so had offered them an entire district. Anyway, the KIPP model seems to be working well so far with 9 of Houston's lowest-performing public schools, so that takes quite a bit of steam out of the anti-KIPP talking points. See http://www.houstonisd.org/HISDConnectEnglish/Images/Apollo/ApolloResults.pdf

Even Bruce Baker didn't dispute the academic impact; he was reduced to arguing that this merely shows that schools need more money.

be careful said...

Maybe Alter and his wife are friends with Wendy and Dick.

The kids call it Kids in Prison Program.

PRRHale said...

Sorry Mr Alter, I'm still not feeling touchy feely about the motives of hedge fund managers to pilfer public school funding. Forgive me if this career educator thinks you are lying.

Unknown said...

@ stuart buck

You reference Houston & that no one with authority has offered an entire district to KIPP.

You must not know NJ's Commissioner of Eduction, Chris Cerf! So we will excuse you.

Because Chris Cerf through his new "Portfolio Management" division at the Department, actually did try to offer KIPP an entire district to run!

Cerf's worker bees, who forge the way to the Broad privatization agenda which Cerf claims doesn't exist, looked hard for a district that had no less than 10,000 students (as they said, to keep a good profit margin), but not too big, with failing schools so that a high performing management company could take over the entire district. Some of the districts that were on the short list for takeover: Camden, Asbury Park, Atlantic City, etc.

One small thing stood in their way. It can't be legally done. Nevertheless countless hours were spent trying to maneuver this crazy idea into a reality. They wasted time and money and drove DOE people who actually know how the ed system works in NJ crazy with ridiculous time consuming demands and requests.

So even if there hasn't been such an offer, they tried.

Unknown said...

If you read the education blogs enough, you will see Stuart Buck's name pop up alot. He apprently is a shrill for the ultra-right.

Unfortunately, when you have a POTUS supporting non-union charter schools operated by the same bunch of robber barons that operate Wall Street's financial cathedrals, then the children really don't stand a chance.

What we need is a socialist running this country!

Unknown said...

Stuart B, are you a real person or a persona? Who do you work for, Kipp Cult or one if its investors?

Stuart Buck said...

Tiffany -- even if all that is true, the fact remains that KIPP was not offered a district, and therefore couldn't have turned down such an offer.

To the others:

I've been writing about education for about a decade, including a Yale Univ. Press book (2010). But whether you like me as a person is irrelevant to the question of whether KIPP's model actually has anything going for it. (Look up "ad hominem.")

Duke said...

Stuart, as I understand it, Diane suggested KIPP offer to take over a district. They refuse to even make the offer; they admit they couldn't do it. With all due respect, you are so busy trying to lay a semantic trap that you can't even see Ravitch's point. The KIPP model - by their OWN admission - is NOT replicable on a large scale.

I happen to agree with Matt DiCarlo & Bruce Baker that not all of KIPP's "success" can be explained away by attrition and demographics. I think the higher per pupil spending makes a difference, and I think you dismiss Bruce to your loss.

In any case, I have yet to see anyone make a serious case that KIPP is doing anything with its curriculum or discipline policies that is a game changer. You're welcome to try to convince me otherwise, but you know the rules: if there's high attrition, differing student demographics, or a large difference in spending... well, that really doesn't show us much, does it?

Everyone, Stuart is actually a knowledgable, smart guy who makes some valid points. He and I have gone a few rounds, and I've learned from some of those arguments. I think he badly mischaracterizes his go-rounds with Baker, but go to Bruce's blog and see for yourself.

Duke said...

BTW Tiff, great stuff - but if I can't confirm it, I can't report it. I have no objection, however, to you leaving other info like that in the comments.

Stuart Buck said...

Thanks, Jazzman! (If I might call you that.)

Look, the thing for me is this: From hundreds of studies in every realm of human endeavor (see Anders Ericcson and the like), we know that practice makes perfect. (As if the cliche wasn't good enough.) I know from personal experience -- whether it be learning Morse code as a kid, or playing classical guitar, or playing basketball on a high school team, or studying statistics at a graduate level, or studying anything whatsoever, or training for a marathon -- that if you do more of something, it's almost impossible not to get better at it.

So KIPP spends more time in school: longer days, longer weeks, longer school year, summer school. And they do this with a rich curriculum; the whole reason for extending time in school is to help kids get caught up in math/reading but not to sacrifice any of the music, arts, etc. If you browse Youtube, you'll find lots of videos of KIPP dance teams, choirs, etc.

So why would we even question for a second that kids who are taught more are going to learn more? How could school be the one exception to a principle that is true of everything else in human history, that more practice and study helps you improve?

That's not to say that attrition and selection couldn't be happening to some extent too. But to suggest that it's even a large part of the story both ignores the evidence (go back to the link I gave you on Houston public schools) and is quite cynical, as it suggests that poor kids are incapable of genuinely learning anything more, the way that the rest of us expect to learn more when we study more.

Moreover, if KIPP schools spend more in some cases, it's probably because either 1) they have to buy or lease buildings from scratch, or 2) providing all that extra instruction costs more. But the spending more money means nothing in and of itself (more money might be used for a $60 million football stadium, see http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/business/2012/08/60-million-high-school-football-stadium/, or a $105 million high school building, http://www.businessinsider.com/riverside-hillcrest-high-school-alvord-105-million-2011-5). More money would likely help, though, if it is used in a smart way to give kids extra hours of competent teaching, extra one-on-one tutoring, etc.

Stuart Buck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Duke said...

I try to follow this stuff carefully, Stuart, although I can't claim to have read all the studies - only so many hours in the day for a working teacher.

However - it is clear to me we have much evidence of high rates of attrition and selective populations in "successful" charters. And more spending per pupil. It is telling to me that KIPP and Rhee and Alter and the rest won't even acknowledge the possibility that this is the case.

As a musician, I will tell you there is a point of diminishing returns on practice time, and not all practice time is equal for all students. Can't tell you whether KIPP has hit that.

I thoroughly reject the notion that confronting the very real and well-documented correlation between SES and educational achievement is "cynical." It's far more cynical to reject Occum's Razor and try to deny it, as far too many charter cheerleaders do.

Stuart Buck said...

Attrition can't explain KIPP's success by itself. The good studies of KIPP have continued to follow the kids who drop out of KIPP schools, and have continued to count them as "part" of the KIPP school even after they're back in another school. That obviously tends to depress the amount of improvement seen in the KIPP group, but KIPP schools still come out ahead even with the departed kids still factored in.

As for the peer effects of the kids who stay in KIPP, there isn't much plausible reason to think that peer effects could be that high -- it might explain a small fraction of KIPP's effect, but certainly not all. See the end of this 9/2012 paper: http://www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/PDFs/Education/KIPP_Middle_Schools_WP.pdf

Stuart Buck said...

I absolutely agree that poverty and school outcomes are highly correlated. Where I think I might disagree with you is on what that means and what the solution (if any) is.

Why do poor kids do less well in school? There are a host of reasons -- lead paint, malnutrition, lack of seeing a dentist, etc., etc., etc. But I'd bet anything that the most significant reason is this: academic time at home.

There are plenty of studies (Hart and Risley is the most famous) showing that poor families spend much less time talking to children in intellectually stimulating ways -- so much so that middle class children might hear literally millions more words from their parents by the time they get to 1st grade.

So you can come up with all the anti-poverty programs in the world -- healthcare, better housing, more reliable food, etc. That's all great in and of itself. But it won't make that much difference to academic outcomes, because it won't turn the average poor parent into a middle class "Tiger Mother." Conversely, if you COULD somehow turn the average poor parent into a "Tiger Mother," I suspect that would make a much larger impact on academic outcomes than any other poverty program ever imagined.

I can't prove that, because I can't even imagine what such a program would look like or how it would actually work, but it seems intuitively obvious. If one group of parents is reading to their kids, giving them flashcards, teaching them colors and shapes, teaching them multiplication and other math skills, having higher-level conversations about why the sky is blue or where energy comes from or whatever, while another group of parents does almost none of the above, there's no amount of money you can give the second group of parents that is going to give those kids the day-in-day-out learning experiences that the first group has.

If poor kids' problem is predominantly due to the lack of academic stimulation throughout their home lives, the best answer to that might be extending school. That is, more time at school might in some way make up for the relative lack of intellectual stimulation at home. I don't see what else could possibly do that -- if you're dealing with a poor 6 year old who doesn't know the alphabet, giving him better food is a wonderful thing, but he still won't know the alphabet unless you put in the extra time to teach him. And like I said, if you could convince more people to be "Tiger Mothers," go for it, but I'm not sure that that's possible.