Friday, September 17, 2010

KIPP and the Teach(er) for America (or you don't know Jake)

Sometimes the most instructive passages are the most painful to read. This account from the New York Times had me wincing every third word (though I will admit to a little schadenfreude at seeing the top of her class at Stanford being outmaneuvered by Jake from Two and a Half Men).

Time permitting I'll do a post on why this was such a disastrous lesson and how a better, more experienced teacher would have done things differently. For now, though, let's approach it from the other side: what would happen if we kept Ms. Nguyen and lost Jake. Putting aside for a moment peer effects, assuming no one else steps up to take the role, how would the Jake-less class be different?

The lesson plan would still be weak, but this is a math class and most of the actual learning in a math class takes place after the lesson when the students start on their worksheets and homework. With more time and a less adversarial relationship with the class, the teacher can go from desk to desk, checking to make sure that problems are being done correctly and helping the students who are having trouble.

Now let's add in the peer effects. Jake has reset the norms of behavior for the class. He has also established that it is possible to jerk the teacher's chain and create great entertainment value with few negative consequences. In a Jake-less class this wouldn't be an issue. The inability to assert authority is only an issue when someone questions it.

In short, losing Jake should produce a substantial gain in student performance and classroom metrics.

Charter schools are designed to be Jake-free zones but none of the effects of removing Jake are likely to show up in the lottery-based analyses so favored by charter school supporters. This creates a fatally flawed set of metrics.

Worse yet, it creates a system of reforms that have, too often, based their claims of success on leaving behind the very students who needed the most help.

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