More on College Persistence: Texas Tale

This is my first post written by a guest: Spencer Blasdale (the guy in the photo). He was a teacher at a charter school called Academy of the Pacific Rim, then its leader for many years. Doug Lemov of Taxonomy fame led by PacRim before Spencer. Now he is CEO of a small company called Schoolworks. His work includes scores of school visits. I love this guy -- very reflective, unusually open intellectually. He writes:

Mike –

In your blog on December 28 you talked about Culprit # 3: Ability to “Deal with” Dense Nonfiction Texts as an additional factor in college persistence. Agreed!

When I talk to APR alums it’s not about money but about their ability to complete the work and feel satisfaction from doing so. This is mainly what leads to college persistence. It’s about having the skills, the tools and the mental muscle to persist with dense material.

Most of the charter public schools that I visit don’t teach this yet.

In December I spent a week in Texas. After completing a 3 day school review, I spent a day with a long-time friend who had a daughter in her freshman year in a charter school and a son in his senior at an independent school. So within 24 hours I spent time in the following three schools within a 10 mile radius. I rated each one on a 1 to 10 scale -- based on the legit college readiness of the average student.

Another correlation in the back of my mind as a I rate these schools: each point equals my guess of the % of kids who are legit ready. Thus, 3 out of 10=30% of kids college read; 5=50%, etc.

I'm beginning to see some data from some of the no excuses schools I visit. I think that the goal of 80% college completion is an ambitious goal. That's similar to what you remarked in an earlier blog.

I don't know where Academy of the Pacific Rim is right now (I'm curious!). But my guess is that if you take an 8th grader and look at college persistence it might be closer to 50% ... and that in part driven by great college counseling/matching.

Right. It's so important for high schools to develop transparent, simple-to-follow numbers about our kids college success and failures.

For example, here's a number from sports. 35%. Is that good or bad?

Well, it depends. It's amazing if it's baseball hitting percentage. It's okay if it's 3-point shooting in basketball. It's terrible if it's 3rd-down-and-short conversion rate in football.

So is 35% a good college graduation rate for a high-poverty charter school if the denominator is all kids who started there in Grade 9?

No idea. We know that a "ultimate college grad rate" for such a traditional open-admissions urban school would be 5% to 10%. This is according to studies in Chicago, Boston, and Hartford. 35% is much higher.

But 35% would be bad if there are schools with similar kids at 50%. Or schools with similar kids at 70%. Etc.

Here's the data we need:

Among charter schools where 90+% of kids proficient on state tests, and 90+% are admitted to college, and the mission is explicitly college prep -- what is the ultimate college grad rate?

Until the data is totally transparent, there's no way to ascertain which high-poverty schools are really the best at getting kids college ready.

So how do we know which folks are executing the best, and choosing the best strategies?

We don't.

Now back to Spencer.

Okay, what I saw in Texas:

School A: 3 out of 10.

No excuses charter middle school with 90% low-income students. They were incredibly well-behaved, walked silently in rigid lines while holding open books, and transitioned quickly to and from almost any activity in class or otherwise. At the same time, teachers mostly taught by fill-in-the blank smart-board activities. Students rarely asked questions.

School B: 8 out of 10

Charter school in the burbs complete with Escalades and Lexuses at drop-off and a campus worthy of a small independent school. There was an International Baccalaureate curriculum for grades K-12. The school leader told me that she continually had to tell parents that, “This is NOT an independent school and your child is NOT guaranteed a place in the Ivy League.”

In one art classroom, the silence was intense because each of the 22 eighth grade students was completely absorbed in a different creation - stretching canvass, etching a wood block, water coloring or reading about an artist, etc.

School C: 10 out of 10.

Independent school in Dallas with the name “Perot” on several of the buildings. Small college-like campus for K-12 boys. All the boys were mucking around at the end of the day, engaging in horseplay. When speaking to the head of the math department he told me that 83/83 seniors take AP calculus, and that 1/3 of them take BC calc. Results = 82 fives and 1 four. Two juniors engaged my friend and me easily as we walked into the ceramics lab (after they turned off the rap music) and talked to us about the multi-month process of designing, molding and firing their works of art.

I gave each of these visits a numerical value, based on my perception of whether the students would ultimately persist in college.

The first school was a “3” because it was significantly different from what the kids would receive in their district (a perceived “1” or “2”).

The suburban charter got an 8 because of the I.B. curriculum, my observation of student questioning, and the fact that teachers could easily get kids to delve into meaningful work, and to think, evaluate and create.

The independent school earned a 10 because 100% of their kids are seemingly fully prepared for rigorous thinking in college.

I know what you're thinking. Spencer does too. Of course he realizes that the prep school may have kids arrive at a 10. They may have arrived at an 11, who knows.

And he is a big charter fan. He knows that for a school to take kids who arrive at 1 out of 10, and get to 3 out of 10, requires an enormous amount of staff effort.

For this blog post, he's not thinking about school value-add -- which institutions actually help the kids the most. He's using an absolute scale. He continues:

The socioeconomic factors just smacked me. Can we ever get our schools, which serve mostly poor kids, from a “3” to an “8”? What would it take?

I get a chance to visit lots of no excuses schools each year and out of the 20 or so that I’ve seen I would estimate that they are mostly at the “3” level. They have the culture figured out brilliantly. Most of them are now focusing on instruction. (I can’t rate the Academy of the Pacific Rim because I haven’t spent much time there in the past 3 years but I can tell you that I did NOT lead on instruction while I was there and would give it a “3” in 2007.)

These schools are catching kids up and getting them to follow directions, learn vocabulary and math facts and how to write paragraphs. Many of them are now effectively using techniques from Doug Lemov’s book. This year I see a lot of “cold-calling” (which Doug labels technique #22), “100%” (technique #36) and “do it again” (technique #39).

There are a couple of no excuses charter schools that would earn a “5” on my off-the-cuff scale of college readiness. These are schools like KIPP King in the SF Bay Area, which teaches a method of critical thinking to trains students to engage in Socratic seminars and rigorous debates. They also teach kids to write critical essays with minimal teacher input.

I could also point to specific individual teachers in many other no excuses schools who have the ability to structure classroom environments and lessons in which the students engage and persist in challenging work.

The majority of schools, however, are not set up to sustain an environment in which students are asked to focus on dense material for extended periods of time. Much of the teaching in no excuses schools is urgent. But the pace often interferes with learning or with teaching students to persist.

This is the critique of Harvard professor Kay Merseth, in her book called Inside Urban Charter Schools: Promising Practices and Strategies in Five High-Performing Schools. Coincidentally, Spencer is guest-teaching her class this coming semester. Spencer continues:

I took another look at Lemov’s book last night. I was struck by the notion that kids can pay attention for “age + 2."

That means that a 12 year old 7th grader has a 14 minute attention span. That, in turn, means that you have to pace your 60 minute lesson in quick chunks.

If they are to succeed in college, however, students need to be able to concentrate for long periods of time and persist with difficult texts (and math problems and artistic challenges).

What no excuses school is creating this type of environment and these types of demands on students? Few, if any.

What can I learn from my own kids?

My first and third grade daughters are in a Montessori school. They have a three hour work period in which they are expected to concentrate on challenging tasks ranging from Mad Minutes and silent reading to writing an autobiography or an essay about three stories that they have read. The skill of persisting through challenging work is taught in different disciplines.

They can each talk about a “great work” that they are producing. My first grader is in love with writing stories. My third grader is trying to solve “the longest long division problem in the world,” for example.

If this independent school for upper middle class students had a “student attention metric” it might look like “age x 5” instead of “age +2.” That is, a 10-year-old could focus for 50 minutes, not 12 minutes.

What does this mean for no excuses teaching and schools?

What I typically see in no excuses schools is that less than 10% of teachers are able to get kids to think, persist, create, express, evaluate, etc.

There has to be some sort of ‘method’ that the schools use to get kids to persist in meaningful work. I also reread the latest Carol Ann Tomlinson book on differentiation (again, skimming) last night. This didn’t help me at all, nor do I think that it helps teachers.

I wonder, however, if there are methods that Rafe Esquith uses that might be the best to capture. (I couldn’t re-skim his recent book because I listened to them on my iPod.)

Perhaps a second or third year teacher is ready to launch a culminating project for her/his course –- one that would give students the opportunity to learn independence and struggle with a big challenge.

I know that most no excuses teachers need to get the basics of management, quick pacing and fundamental elements of student engagement down. I also know that it’s much harder to get to the next level of student thinking with a group of under-served kids.

When I was teaching I realistically had only a few good days of this. It is really hard to do. But it’s the capstone to all of the other work (such as teaching vocabulary and background knowledge). Kids won’t persist in college without experience in persisting with challenging work for extended time.

Perhaps there is a progression of understanding by no excuses school leaders over time. It began with a focus on school and classroom culture (where I was in the first half of this decade). Now it has dug a bit further into instruction (where I see many schools currently focusing).

The next step is to get the right structure and the right teaching methods and curriculum for sustained student thinking which will truly prepare them for college. I’d be willing to predict that Esquith’s big projects such as Shakespeare productions could be tied to high school and college persistence.

Stuff to think about.

- Spencer