“Cracking the Code,” or Ed Reformers on Crack?

Hubris alert! My friends in the education reform community are feeling triumphant, now that Waiting for Superman is about to hit the theaters with its “to the barricades” message. Count me as worried; just consider what happened to Adrian Fenty when he got over-confident and morally righteous. Here’s an example of what concerns me, from Dom Giordano in the Philadelphia Daily News:

Guggenheim told me that we now know what to do to educate and advance every kid. He said, “In recent years, we’ve cracked the code. The high-performing charter schools, like KIPP and others, have figured out the system that works for kids in even the toughest neighborhoods.”

I echo this. And my mantra is – it’s a mystery? We know what to do. The only question is do we have the will to do it?

We’ve “cracked the code”? We “know what to do”? Look, what KIPP, and Achievement First, and the other high-flying charter schools are achieving is extraordinary, worth celebrating, and worth replicating. But let me offer three sobering points that we fans of school reform ought to ponder seriously nonetheless:

1. Maybe we’ve “cracked the code” on making high-poverty schools more effective, but we’re far from cracking the code on how to scale them up to serve lots more kids. We have a few hundred excellent urban schools when we need tens of thousands.

2. There’s little doubt that one of the reasons these schools succeed is that they bring motivated kids from motivated families together. We know from decades of “peer effects” studies that kids learn more when surrounded by high-achieving, striving youngsters. This part of “the code” can’t be replicated everywhere.

3. Even these amazing schools aren’t “closing the achievement gap,” as some of their supporters claim. Yes, a few of them are getting the same proportion of students to the “proficient” level as their suburban counterparts. But “proficient” is a very low bar. It doesn’t mean that KIPPsters, for instance, are going to produce SAT scores that are as high (on average) as kids from Scarsdale or Bethesda or Marin County.That’s not a knock on KIPP–it would be foolish to expect any school to overcome all of the advantages that affluence brings with it. But it is a knock on overselling what KIPP can accomplish.

It’s great that more Americans are going to learn about promising education reform strategies, and the various ways that the teachers unions and the rest of the education blob tries to strangle them in their crib. But let’s put that “we know what works” talk back in the bottle, where it belongs. We’re a few steps into a long journey, and the more humility we bring along with us, the better.

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