GASTON, N.C. -- As I wandered about looking lost, I chanced upon a teacher who volunteered to lead me where I needed to be. When I told her why I was here -- a series of columns on What Works to change the culture of dysfunction that entraps too many African-American kids -- she told me I had come to the right place: KIPP Gaston College Preparatory and KIPP Pride, two charter schools serving 600 kids here in farm country. She said she believes so much in what KIPP schools are doing -- longer school day and year, higher expectations, more teacher freedom -- that she came from Iowa to teach here.
In my last column, I told you about KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program), a network of 57 charter schools across the country that are reporting stellar results with their 14,000 mostly black and Hispanic students. Today I want to talk about the role teachers play in that, and all, academic success.
I'm not unmindful -- a handful of readers brought this up -- that parental involvement is also a key ingredient in that success. Some sorry parents never meet a child's teacher until graduation day -- if then. But even the most involved parent is limited in his or her ability to make a difference when teacher quality is, in the words of GCP Principal Caleb Dolan, "a crap shoot."
"I understand how parents feel, " he said. "If my child gets this side of the hall, they're in great shape. If they get that side of the hall . . . " He doesn't finish the sentence. He doesn't need to.
Having spent the last year studying educational success stories, I find myself increasingly convinced that much of what ails American schools can be traced to a bureaucracy that: a) doesn't pay enough; b) does too little to encourage and reward creativity; c) doesn't give principals authority over who works in their schools; d) makes it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers.
As Dolan put it, "I don't think you can pay a good teacher enough, and I don't think you can fire a bad teacher fast enough."
"Teachers are generally very optimistic, " said KIPP co-founder Dave Levin. "Unfortunately what happens is, you don't have a lot of examples in this country of systemic success and success at scale. You might have a good teacher there or a good teacher here, but you don't get enough concentration within a school or a district to have a cycle of success."
Spend enough time pushing boulders uphill, and it wears you out. Enthusiasm becomes indifference, energy burns out like candles, and success is defined down. Said Levin, "What you see in too many neighborhoods when people talk about schools, they want to talk about these tiny, incremental changes -- which are necessary. But for individual kids, when you gain two or three points on a reading test, it doesn't necessarily change your life options. As their teachers, we can't just go blindly celebrating that without saying that we expect more."
No one becomes a teacher to get rich. You become a teacher because you want to give back, you want to shape future generations, you want to change the world. But the reality of our educational system and the grimy culture in which it operates is that that prime directive often winds up subordinate to the directives of a creativity-choking bureaucracy that seems less interested in educating disadvantaged kids than in warehousing them.
And then, here comes a program that's educating such kids so effectively a woman moves halfway across the country to be a part. The lesson could not be clearer.
You want to fix American education? Step one: Empower principals to hire good teachers. Step two: Require raised expectations.
Step three? Get out of the way.