And the Last Shall Be First

Ten years ago, the American Indian Charter School scored last among Oakland’s public middle schools. Today it’s the top-scoring public middle school in all of California, according to the state’s own Academic Performance Index ranking.

What changed? It wasn’t the school’s demographics. American Indian’s enrollment is still almost all low income and minority, and contrary to almost everyone’s expectations, these inner-city kids now outperform their age-mates in even the wealthiest districts in California. And the school accepts all applicants, so, no, they don’t cherry-pick. The only cherry-picking that happens at American Indian is when elite East-Coast boarding schools recruit their middle-school graduates, offering them full board and tuition–perhaps a way of diversifying their socio-economic makeup while also raising their academic performance.

The success of American Indian is due to the no-holds-barred management and academic culture created by its former principal, Ben Chavis, and now perpetuated by the principals to whom he passed the baton following his retirement in 2007. Ben brought this school from last in Oakland to 4th in the state, and his successors have raised it to #1.

There are no cell-phones, no jewelry, no pants-saggin’. Show up late and you have to come to school on Saturday… and you’ll be expected to WORK. Assiduous effort is expected always and from every student, and the teachers and principals will do everything conceivable to encourage that effort.

The students come to feel–rightly–that they belong to something exceptional and important. They develop ties to one another and to the school, and work not only for their own success but to ensure they don’t let down their comrades. It’s impossible to really describe this in a blog post, but the story is powerfully-captured in the book Crazy Like a Fox.

It is a model that is replicable, but one that will only be replicated on a massive scale if we allow the free enterprise system to take hold in American education. When entrepreneurs have the freedoms and incentives to scale-up great schools, just as they now have the freedoms and incentives to scale up great coffee shops and cell-phones, we will see educational greatness proliferate. Until then, most of the children who would thrive in schools like Ben’s won’t have access to them. And that’s a tragedy.