Tag: ben chavis

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.

Ben Chavis to Charles Murray: “Bring it”

In an exchange I had with Charles Murray earlier this month, he complained that there was no bulletproof scientific research documenting miraculous improvement in student achievement attributable to great schools like those of Ben Chavis.

At the time, that objection was beside my point, which is that there is copious evidence that competitive market education systems yield very substantial (if not “miraculuous”) improvements over the status quo government monopoly. We don’t need miracles to prove that there is a much better way of organizing and funding schools.

But that wasn’t enough for Ben Chavis. He called yesterday to pass along a proposition to Charles: come perform the research yourself. In fact, Ben offered to put Charles up in his own house.

I don’t know if Charles will go for this, but I wish he would (or find a grad student who will). And here’s why: I think Charles is so skeptical of the results of great schools and teachers because he has not come across any mechanism in his studies that could adequately explain those results. But I contend that there is such a mechanism: a school culture so strong and conducive to academic effort that it can overcome the absence of an academically supportive culture in the home.

If you read Jay Mathews’ wonderful book Escalante, or Ben’s Crazy Like a Fox, this becomes immediately clear. The school environment in these rare cases becomes a much more powerful influence on students’ willingness to work and expectations of success than is normally the case. These great schools tap into a fundamental human desire to belong to a team that offers them support and to which they feel an obligation to be supportive in return. It’s the same impulse that leads soldiers to put their lives on the line for their buddies in combat, and that sustains the insane work ethic in high tech startups.

This is one reason why free enterprise education systems excel all others: they offer the greatest freedom and most powerful incentives for excellent schools to replicate their cultures on a grand scale.

We Are not Seeing the Bell Curve’s Toll

Ben ChavisLast week, I posted a chart on this blog showing the percent change in federal education spending and student achievement since 1970 (achievement has been flat while federal education spending has nearly tripled).

After laughing out loud when he saw it, IQ expert and Bell Curve author Charles Murray mused that “such a huge proportion of a child’s educational prospects are determined by things other than school (genes and the non-school environment) that reforms of the schools can never do more than produce score improvements at the margin.”

But consider the accomplishments of Ben Chavis, who spoke at Cato last Friday. When he took over the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland in 2001, it was the worst school in the district. Under his leadership (imagine a hybrid of Socrates and Dirty Harry), the school’s scores rose dramatically year after year. Within seven years, it had become the fifth highest-scoring middle school in the state – though continuing to enroll a student population that is overwhelmingly poor and minority.

It was not a freak occurrence. Chavis did it again, and again: creating a second AIPCS middle school as well as a high school, both of which are also among the top schools in the state, and both of which also enroll chiefly low income minority students.

Murray has made a compelling case over the years that IQ is real, strongly tied to academic achievement, and determined in significant measure by nature and home environment. But academic achievement is also powerfully determined by schooling. Typical U.S. test score data camouflage the significance of schooling because so many schools are so amazingly bad at maximizing academic achievement – especially for poor minority students.

But Chavis – and others before him and alongside him today – have shown how to do it: instill in the school environment those cultural characteristics necessary for academic success that are missing in the home.

In a free enterprise school system that would automatically disseminate and perpetuate great schools like Ben’s, average test scores would rise dramatically above their current levels. The Bell Curve would be shifted dramatically to the right.

From MSNBC to Cato — America’s Top Models

Next Sunday, MSNBC will feature a sort of townhall meeting on how great schools can pull kids out of poverty. Though headlined by Bill Cosby, perhaps the most electrifying panelist will be charter school principal Ben Chavis. On October 2nd at noon, you can come to Cato to see Ben live, and ask him how we can replicate his stunning success. Also joining us will be Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, who’ll talk about the growing KIPP network of (now 82!) charter schools. Other than perhaps KIPP’s founders, nobody knows more about them than Jay. I’ll be simultaneously acting as cheerleader (I love these schools) and devil’s advocate (I’m skeptical that they can be brought to the masses within the charter sector).

To register, just visit the event page here:  “America’s Top Models: Can the Nation’s Best Charter Schools Be Brought to Scale?”

Incidentally, Ben has been called the most politically incorrect man in America, so Cato disavows all responsibility for any heads that explode during the course of his presentation.