NOTE: The views expressed here belong to the individual contributors and not to Princeton University or the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Making Butter Without the Cream of the Crop: Overcoming the bimodality of urban school choice

Drew Haugen, MPA

In the education reform world, charter schools have been garnering a lot of attention. Schools like KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), started in Houston in 1994, have achieved tremendous gains with students from underserved communities and have taken their model nation-wide.

Charters like KIPP also usually endure a barrage of criticism and scrutiny. Common critiques range from charges that they take the “cream of the crop” of available students to accusations of being quick to expel students with behavior, language, or disability issues. Others argue that their model is financially unsustainable.

My critique of charter schools like KIPP is through a different lens—what I call the Commitment Dilemma.

Commitment to a school like KIPP, with its longer days, Saturday school, longer academic year, hours of homework every night, and a rigorous behavioral culture, is a hefty commitment for a child of any ability level to make. Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston, my boss this summer and former principal of a high school that dealt with at-risk students, explained the Commitment Dilemma to me using the following analogy.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that all students have 100 “Free-time Commitment Points.” These 100 points represent the available free-time a student has for the activities to which they can devote their energies outside of mandatory requirements (sleeping, the seven-hour school day required by law, etc.).

Students can allocate their Free-time Commitment Points however they like, divvying them up between activities like studying, family time, organized sports, time with friends, and so forth.

For the purposes of this example let’s say that to graduate in the middle of her class at a KIPP school the average low-income urban student, Shirley, must allocate 80 of her total 100 Free-time Commitment Points to KIPP and the additional time, activities, and homework KIPP requires.

In contrast, Shirley’s local school, which is not as academically rigorous and does not yield the same high probability of college acceptance for Shirley as KIPP, is nonetheless a safe and moderately performing school that many of Shirley’s friends attend. To graduate from this school in the middle of her class requires 40 of Shirley’s Commitment Points.

Now let’s pause for a moment and inject some self-reflection into this analogy. Say I give you two options for the undergraduate institution you will attend: Vanderbilt or CalTech. You must choose one of these two options.

If my intuition is correct, a number of my capable and intelligent readers will choose Vanderbilt and a number will choose CalTech.

Applying our Free-time Commitment Points analogy, my guess is that readers who want to devote a large portion of their Points to academic extracurriculars like course reading, studying, and so forth in exchange for a more rigorous academic experience will choose CalTech. I’d also guess that readers who want to spend more of their Free-time Commitment Points on activities not directly related to school, such as social events, sports, and so on, will choose Vanderbilt.

This is a rough analogy, but the gist is this: students that are equally capable and intelligent (my readership) will choose different schools for different reasons and some of these reasons have little or nothing to do with academic pursuits.

Luckily for us, CalTech and Vanderbilt are both academically rigorous institutions that yield intellectual development and professional readiness for their students and a baseline of required academic proficiency in order to receive a diploma.

The same cannot be said of Shirley’s choices in our example. Even if Shirley is an above-average student with 60 Points to commit to academic enrichment, she falls short of the extraordinary commitment required to succeed at KIPP and will most likely end up in her neighborhood school. Shirley becomes a cautionary tale. This is the Commitment Dilemma.

It is true that KIPP achieves extraordinary results. But KIPP also enjoys extraordinarily committed administrators, teachers, parents, and students. The portion of our society willing to devote this much free-time and energy to schooling is a small minority.

If we can assume normality of student free-time commitment levels, then ideally there should exist a normal distribution of school options for students like Shirley to pick from. It would be a relatively easy endeavor for Shirley to find a school to match, or come close to, her 60-Commitment Point level.

All schools in this distribution would require a baseline academic proficiency of their students equivalent to a high school diploma or GED. As schools increase their academic enrichment activities (longer days, school years, more homework, AP and IB courses, advanced diplomas, etc.), so would their Free-time Commitment requirement.

Near the top of this distribution, we would find schools that prepare students for entry into elite higher education institutions. Near the bottom of this distribution, we would find schools that prepare students for success in community and junior colleges and entry-level four-year institutions.

Unfortunately, the reality of what most poor urban students encounter is a bimodal distribution of school options. Their first option is a low-commitment school, usually a failing public school that graduates them unprepared for success at a community college. The other option is a high commitment school, usually a rigorous charter school that prepares them for success at a mid-range four-year college.

The education reform movement must devote more energy to “building out the middle” of this currently bimodal distribution of school options. The development of rigorous and challenging schools for administrators, teachers, parents, and students of all commitment levels must be a much stronger priority.

A fitting model is the California higher education system, which was reorganized under the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education.

The Master Plan organized California’s higher education system into tiers. Tier 1 is comprised of the state’s marquee institutions—the University of California (UC) system. The California State University system makes up Tier 2, and the state’s community and junior college system rounds out Tier 3.

In California, the top 12.5% of graduating seniors are guaranteed a spot at one of the UC schools. The top 33% is guaranteed a spot at a Cal State, and California Community Colleges are to admit “any student capable of benefiting from instruction.”

This diversification of higher educational opportunities in California has yielded tremendous results: enrollment has increased ten-fold since 1960, while the California population has only approximately tripled. What’s more, there are avenues for advancement and enrichment between tiers: Santa Monica Community College in Los Angeles is the #1 institution for transfers to UCLA and UC-Berkeley.

By providing a similarly wide array of school options for public K-12, all of which afford students rigorous opportunities for academic proficiency and enrichment, our school system will yield higher retention levels, better academic fits for students, and more robust achievement on a large scale. Our education system must adapt itself to make butter with all types of milk—not just the cream.

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