Chicago Charter Schools

I wrote this blog post back in February, but before I managed to post it the world changed rather dramatically. Now we begin to settle into our new normal, I’m revisiting what has formed the way I think about education. We will return to our schools (whenever that may be) I hope with a renewed vigour to improve the educational chances of our students. We should always be asking: what does great look like? This post is about a time when I was sure I was seeing “great”.

In 2012, I was granted a week’s leave by a kind Headteacher to be able to take part in a visit to see Chicago’s Charter schools with the charity Teach For All. It’s a visit I come back to again and again, often with the sad corollary question: why can’t we replicate the extraordinary success of the US Charter schools?

I started to teach in 2010, the same year that the documentary “Waiting for Superman” came out. As such, I was exposed from the early days of my teaching career to the incredible feats of learning happening in schools like the KIPP schools; I was exposed to the thinking of the short-lived but much-lauded chancellor of DC public schools, Michelle Rhee, and I was introduced to the British version of this in my training weeks with Teach First: King Solomon Academy.

I’ve frequently heard educators say that America is always five or ten years ahead of the UK in terms of education, and so a visit to their leading schools was likely to become a formative event.

An attitude that all the schools we visited seemed imbued with was success at all costs. We visited three schools – one elementary, and two high schools – all of which massively outperformed the local public schools, all of which had incredibly deprived in takes.

At the elementary school, in the middle of an estate strewn with boarded up and broken windows, an intake which was 96% free or reduced lunches moved around the building silently and were taught traditionally. Flags celebrating their teachers’ universities adorned the hallways, a feature notable across all the Charter schools we visited. Even the Maths examples were linked to university (“if you have a college degree, you earn 20% more than someone who does not. Work out what your take home salary would be with or without a degree for the average state salaries of these ten states”).

Yet I also witnessed heart breaking bullying of a child with clear special educational needs, who on the particular day I visited appeared to receive no specialised support at any point – not even a teacher giving her extra help in the lesson. When the teacher in one class asked the children to choose their partner, she tried in vain to get someone to work with her as her peers pretended she didn’t exist, before turning to me – the observer – and saying: “can I work with you please?” In terms of the ethos and culture of the school, the messaging seemed to begin and end with: we’re going to get to university.

Of course, it is unfair to judge a school on a one-day visit, but school culture inevitably pervades. This culture was evident in our next visit, to a high school where 75% of students received free or reduced lunches. The mission of university for all pervaded the school – though students were “tracked” into three streams, the expectation was that all would make it to university. One student told me that they were learning to be more independent (for example, students picked up work from a central area to complete if they had missed any school) because: “in college no-one will hold your hand.” What shone through most at this school, though, was love – the children we met absolutely loved their school. They proudly showed us their “anti-bullying pledge wall,” and were incredibly loving and accepting towards one another. This was most touchingly revealed when we saw lockers that were covered in wrapping paper, sometimes with balloons tied to them – a tradition that happened for student birthdays (we even, sweetly, found they had “wrapped” a teacher’s door having found out it was her birthday).

The final school we visited had an intake where 84% of students had free meals, 10% reduced lunches. The school mascot was this big cat, which they coloured in every time someone won their university place along with posting a copy of the acceptance letter.

Incredibly, on our visit day our staff orientation was interrupted to announce that the final member of the senior class had won their university acceptance: the cat was complete. 100% of that class had been accepted to a four-year university course, the most prestigious kind in America.

At this school, they didn’t just talk the talk of university – they also managed the practicalities. Students had three hours of classes a week on university: how to apply, how to get funding, how to study, how to live independently, how to balance work and university.

The students described incredibly tough discipline, starting with demerits and detentions, and escalating to Saturday detentions. If a student received more than four Saturday detentions, they would be held back a year in school. As you can imagine, this was quite a deterrent.

It is clear that the challenge for schools in England is tough: our system necessitates some children leaving our institutions at the age of 16, so we have more limited control over university acceptances. We can’t hold students back a year for poor behaviour. In other ways, of course, Americans face a far steeper challenge: excessive university fees, as well as access to healthcare and other benefits being more challenging.

This trip was formative for me though. Until you actually see it, you don’t truly believe it is possible – or else, I didn’t. I thought I had high expectations, but what I saw in the Charter school classrooms exposed these as frighteningly low.

And while the details differ, this visit taught me some overarching eternal truths about schools.

For example: the building doesn’t matter. Charter schools often open in the actual building of a failing school. Technology doesn’t matter. These schools all used blackboards and the occasional overhead projector (I might be the last generation of teacher who remembers these in their childhood classrooms!). Class size doesn’t matter. These schools are often widely oversubscribed, and classes were much larger than the state averages.

But culture matters. Parental support matters. Quality teaching – and all the attendant concerns like teacher development – matters. Curriculum matters. And belief matters. That core belief: it is possible, it is being done, we can do it too.

Why can’t we replicate the extraordinary success of the Charter schools? We can, we just haven’t yet.

Mission Possible

I started teaching in 2010, the same year the documentary Waiting for Superman came out. If you haven’t seen it, you should: it’s a polemic on the American school system, starring the Charter school superstars. You hear from Geoffrey Canada, of the Harlem Children’s Zone, along with Michelle Rhee (ex Chancellor of Washington DC’s schools; proponent of performance pay) and the founders of the influential KIPP Charter Schools. The message of the documentary is that the school system is broken, but there are ways we can fix it.

When I first watched this documentary, I remember feeling that our school system was ‘at least not as bad as America’s.’ But I’ve come to see that working in London schools for eight years blinded me to the challenges of rural communities who cannot choose their school; schools who are dependent on one bus a day to transport children to it (making any kind of detention system extremely challenging to implement); the impact of grammar schools on student self-belief; and the funding of small-town secondaries.

But mostly, I’ve come to think that we probably are failing children, on a system-wide level, in a similar way. We don’t have the annual benchmarks of success, but in the schools where we have run the NGRT (a nationally standardised reading age test), the results have been damning. The amount of children not achieving a basic pass in English and Maths GCSEs at 16 is damning. And the number of children leaving school at 16 is damning. I remember being horrified about the ‘drop-out rate’ of American schools, thinking ‘at least we get everyone to the end.’ But 16 is not the end, so we don’t. In fact, allowing children to leave the school system at 16 (and I know colleges and apprenticeships exist and I know these have their benefits) is deeply troubling to me.

In this post, I’m not going to tackle these monumental system problems. I used to worry a lot about the education system, and what we could do to improve it. Now, I look at what we can do in schools to improve the lot of the children we work with, in spite of those poor systems (something The Teacher Gap has really convinced me of). And what Mission Possible does is to examine what goes on in a successful school, in this case the Success Academies in Harlem, New York.

The defining principle of the authors, shared by many in the charter movement, is that the quality of the school and the quality of the teachers are what make the difference to children’s results. The book opens with the impetus to make schools a ‘magical place’ to be, which I found an interesting word to use. While I wouldn’t prioritise some of what the authors consider important (notably, expensive trips and impressive classroom displays), I would totally agree with their other aim of encoding success for students so they want to come to school every day and succeed (and what is continual success in academics if not ‘magical’?).

The writers make much of the rigour of the curriculum, and the urgency required to ensure children catch up with their wealthier peers. Furthermore, the pages on letting children ‘do the thinking’ I ultimately agree with – not in terms of guessing answers or discovery learning, but certainly ensuring they do the bulk of the work in the lesson. In general we are moving, in so many schools, towards teacher-led lessons (something I wholeheartedly endorse); yet it is crucial this does not result in children sitting passively. It is too easy for children to tune their teachers out. Rather, our teaching must be continually asking students questions to ensure they work hard.

This book has helped to shift my thinking on parents. Of the two extremes on this view – shut parents out at the gates versus give parents autonomy to influence the day-to-day of school – I leaned in the past towards wanting parents to let teachers teach, smiling on from a distance. Yet this book is persuasive in the possibility of parents really transforming their child’s academic success. I’m always amazed by how much parents are willing to do to support their child’s learning if you only ask them.

The book also ranges over rigour, reading and pace, but the chief takeaway for me was on the professional development of teachers. Again, the authors implore us to focus on the adults, and begin by asking school leaders: how often do we fix the children when we should fix the adults? I’m certainly guilty of this: walking into a lesson and using non-verbals to remind the students of their teacher’s expectations, or even just standing there (when you’re senior enough), waiting for the class to behave perfectly and then leaving… Only for the class to immediately start to murmur again.

Instead, at Harlem Success, leaders practise live coaching. Instead of ‘fixing’ the children, the observers whisper to the teacher, or hand them a note (‘Ali is doodling; Tommy is looking out the window’) and then watch how the teacher ‘fixes’ their own classroom. They don’t intervene at all – or, with training teachers, they model the first two ‘fixes’ and then watch how the teacher does it. After the lesson, they feed back on how effective the teacher’s actions were and where they might improve. Doing this would require huge teacher buy-in, but I do think it would be far better for the overall quality of teaching.

The book goes into significantly more detail on teacher development, and I’d recommend reading it for those chapters alone. Although not everything in Mission Possible chimes with my beliefs, there is much to admire here.