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Whitney Tilson

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Do Schools Matter?

Posted: 09/18/11 05:20 PM ET

I recently had a conversation with a friend who is just beginning to engage on the topic of education reform and he asked me the following:

I've looked at the data for the schools in my city and there's a lockstep correlation between the percentage of children who receive free lunches and academic failure, so I guess the solution is to stop giving kids free lunches, as it's obviously impairing their ability to learn.

He was kidding, of course, and we both laughed, but then he continued:

Seriously, the poverty level of children correlates very highly with their academic performance, however you measure it: test scores, grades, dropout rates, college completion, etc. In addition, if one looks at the international results on the PISA reading test of 15-year-olds, while the U.S. overall ranks 15th in the world, U.S. Asian girls rank #1, beating even Shanghai, Korea and Finland, and girls as a whole rank #8. It is boys, low-income students, and black and Latino students who drag our average down. So, is it really fair to blame our educational system? Isn't the real issue poverty plus the problems boys and minorities are having?

It's a fair question -- and a point made often by the teachers unions and others who defend the current educational system in our country. So I look the time to answer him. Here's what I wrote:

You are correct that today, demography is destiny for most kids. In my slide presentation, A Right Denied, page 46 shows that virtually all kids from high-income families earn four-year college degrees, while few other kids do -- a mere 8% of kids from low-income families -- and the gap has widened dramatically over time.

In an increasingly knowledge-based world, getting a good education -- in particular, earning a four-year college degree -- has become more and more important (see median real earnings over time on page 5 of my presentation), yet only children in high-income families have responded by earning more college degrees -- everyone else, especially the poor, have largely stagnated.

The key question is why? Are poor kids (especially poor black and Latino kids) failing our schools, or are schools failing our poor, minority kids? At first glance, you might think the former, given the tight correlation between family background (most importantly, wealth/income) and educational outcomes.

But not so fast. The story is much more complex.

First of all, even our highest-scoring and wealthiest students do poorly when compared to their international peers, ranking 23rd of 29 nations in math among 15-year-olds (see pages 190-91).

As for the poor academic performance of low-income and minority students in the U.S., there are many reasons for this -- most beyond the control of schools. There is no doubt that children from troubled communities and families, in which few people have completed high school, much less college, are a challenge to educate. So let's be clear: parents and family background matter -- a lot! So much so that today, sadly, demography is destiny for most children.

In fact, if I could fix either all of the parents (broadly defined, meaning ending childhood poverty, making sure every child had plenty of books and both parents in the home, etc.) or all of the schools in America, I'd choose the former in a heartbeat. But I'm not sure it's possible to fix the parents -- and I know it's possible to fix the schools.

Here is the key thing to understand: if you take 1,000 disadvantaged kids and put them in mediocre (or worse) schools with mediocre (or worse) teachers, they will follow their parents' life trajectory in lockstep. However, if you take the same 1,000 kids and put them in a high-quality school with excellent teachers, you can dramatically improve the life outcomes of a large number of these children.

20 years ago, I couldn't prove this because, other than a few classrooms with teachers like Jaime Escalante, there were no examples of a large number of disadvantaged kids doing well thanks to their school.

But today I can prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt, both with statistics and with my own eyes, as I've visited over 100 schools that are generating extraordinary academic success with the most disadvantaged children. Most are public charter schools that select students by lottery, have comparable students and spend roughly the same per pupil as nearby chronically failing schools, and, in fact, sometimes share the same building.

For example, I've been on the board of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) in New York City for a decade. Over that time, KIPP has grown from two schools to 109, educating 32,000 students -- 95% black or Latino, 85% poor -- in 40 communities in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Approximately 95% of our 8th grade completers nationwide finish high school and over 85% enroll in college. These numbers far exceed the national averages for all students across all demographics. Additionally, 33% of the early KIPPsters have earned their bachelor's degree and another 5% have earned associate's degrees -- the rate earning bachelor's degrees is 4x the rate for students from low-income families and above the national rate for students across all demographics. There are now over 1,800 KIPPsters in college -- and by 2015, there will be over 10,000.

How do KIPP and a handful of other (mostly charter) schools succeed with the same students who are failing in regular public schools?

  1. They identify and train top-notch school leaders who are empowered and held accountable for building outstanding schools
  2. The school leaders focus on recruiting, training, motivating and retaining top teachers
  3. There is an extended school day and school year (KIPP students get 60% more class time than they would in regular public schools)
  4. There is an intense focus on character (as discussed in this recent NYT Magazine article). One study showed that grit and determination were twice as powerful as IQ in predicting life success. At KIPP, work hard, be nice, there are no shortcuts, we're climbing the mountain to college, etc. aren't just slogans

Given that we now know with certainty that very high quality schools and teachers can raise the academic performance of poor, minority kids to almost the level of wealthy kids, why isn't it happening more broadly?

The answer is that it's really hard. Money isn't the biggest obstacle -- some of the worst school districts in America spend nearly twice the national average per pupil. Rather, it's the way the system is structured -- largely to serve the needs of the adults, rather than the kids. There's nothing that KIPP is doing that couldn't be done by every school and school district in America, but it would really disrupt a system that, while failing millions of children, works very well for the adults. Witness, for example, the current fight in Chicago to extend the ultra-short school day by 90 minutes.

Over the past 40+ years, there have been five clear trends for the adults in the system: more jobs, higher pay, better benefits, fewer hours worked, and greater job security. And it's not just teachers who are benefiting; it's principals, administrators, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc. In addition, the school system is the largest employer in most cities, so it's a huge source of jobs, money, patronage and political power.

Another major issue is teacher talent. Places like Singapore and Finland only select teachers from the top 10% of college grads, while increasingly, our teachers are drawn from the bottom 1/3 (see pages 65-69).

A related problem is that teacher quality isn't random, which explains in part why poor, minority kids are doing so poorly. Wealthy kids get the best teachers, both based on which schools they attend, but also which teachers they get within each school, whereas poor kids get the short end of the stock (see pages 72-77). On average, poor, minority kids are much more likely to be taught by teachers who:

  • Didn't major or minor in the field they are teaching
  • Are inexperienced
  • Did poorly on SATs and other standardized tests
  • Got poor grades in high school and college
  • Attended noncompetitive colleges

Thus, we must reject a "blame the victim" mentality: children are not failing our schools; rather, our schools are failing far too many children.

However, given that many low-income, minority children enter school with two strikes against them, they need the best schools and teachers to change their life trajectories -- but instead our educational system gives them the worst. They overwhelmingly get the lowest quality teachers and schools.

In summary, the color of your skin and your zip code are almost entirely determinative of the quality of the public education this nation provides. This is deeply, profoundly wrong and is contrary to everything this nation stands for.