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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Editor's note: Anne O'Brien is our guest blogger today. She is a project director at the Learning First Alliance, a Teach for America alumna, and a former public school teacher in the greater New Orleans area.

Many times education reform debates are framed with an us versus them mentality. It doesn't matter what you are arguing for, there is always a clearly defined group working against you. The media also provides the reformers versus the establishment (never mind those members of the establishment who are doing innovative reform work all over the country). Teach for America (and other alternative programs) versus traditional teacher preparation programs (never mind that at a school level, in many cases, TFA teachers are learning great things from their traditionally prepared counterparts, and vice versa).

And then there's the no excuses crowd -- KIPP schools being one high profile example -- versus, for lack of a better term, the all excuses crowd. In other words, those who don't accept that poverty is an excuse for poor academic performance versus those who think that it dooms a child or school to low performance.

The Kipp Schools Model

Us versus them debates are always concerning in general; they both ignore and hide the large field of gray between two very opposing positions, and they can often prevent us from having fruitful conversations in which real progress in education reform could be made.

The no excuses debate has been particularly concerning recently. KIPP is getting lots of press thanks to a Mathematica study that found in general KIPP schools improve the academic performance of their largely disadvantaged student populations. While some concerns have been raised about the study (and I have my own thoughts -- both positive and negative -- on the study, its findings, and the KIPP model in general), Mathematica is not a fly-by-night organization. It is a well-respected policy research group.

Why the concern? In the no excuses versus all excuses debate, when no excuses seem to be working, why not call for it? Why not use it to judge all public schools?

Even if you ignore the differences you may believe exist between KIPP schools and traditional public schools in terms of students, teachers, parents, and funding, calling for the no excuses model at the expense of the all excuses model is concerning because of a little secret I learned in personal experiences with KIPP and other no excuses schools. A secret that could throw a wrench into a debate that recognizes only two extremes: that poverty is not an excuse for poor academic performance, or that it is.

The secret? No excuses schools address the same conditions of poverty that their counterparts in the reform debate claim must be addressed. People at KIPP know, for example, that students who cannot see the blackboard won't succeed, so they help students get glasses if they need them. If a student has trouble getting to school on time because her parents leave for work early and are not there to wake her -- or worked the night shift and are asleep when it is time for her to get up -- they help her get an alarm clock (maybe purchasing one for her, or maybe suggesting she use good behavior credits to purchase one from the school store/treasure chest). Clearly, in this situation, there aren't any room for excuses.

People at KIPP know that to ensure the continued success of students after KIPP, given the often limited capacities of the communities they serve, they must provide extra support. So, for example, they offer high school placement counselors to help their middle school students navigate the transition to the next level (see KIPP Through College for details on this and other supports).

By Any Means Necessary

They know that when working with under-resourced populations, students need nonacademic services, and the majority of KIPP schools have counselors or social workers to help connect youth to services available in the community. They invite mentors into their schools. KIPP is beginning to open early childhood education centers, recognizing the importance of getting kids on track early and the disadvantages of those who miss out. The list goes on.

Of course, the beauty -- to some; for others, part of the problem -- of the KIPP model is that no two schools are necessarily the same. Each has its own identity. So these are generalizations. But as Mathematica points out, in general, KIPP schools achieve good results with students who attend for their entire middle school experience. And the nonacademic supports they offer are part of that success.

But despite the praise we hear for no excuses schools, we rarely hear about these nonacademic supports, in part because of how the debate around these schools is framed. This is especially concerning right now, given the press surrounding the success of KIPP and the fiscal crisis most municipalities are facing. The call for no excuses sounds great, especially as opposed to the call to put additional resources into public schools to address kids' nonacademic needs.

But when a district lays off a social worker to save the job of a teacher and then tells the teacher to adopt a no excuses attitude, it has taken away some of the supports that allow the no excuses model to work. As an added insult, it blames the teacher when a child's nonacademic needs get in the way of her learning.

If at a political, policy and popular level we are recognizing the accomplishments of the no excuses model and calling for its replication across the country, we have to stop ignoring the additional supports that many no excuses schools offer. We must acknowledge that they address the needs that their all excuses counterparts argue must be addressed. And we should celebrate examples in traditional public schools and districts where some of these same strategies are working. City Connects, a Boston program for example, places a trained professional in high-needs schools to connect each student to the community services he or she needs. The schools where it works have seen great results.

Of course, we should not say that the only thing we can learn from KIPP is the importance of offering nonacademic supports to disadvantaged students. Extended learning time, for example, another key feature of the KIPP model, is well worth considering on a broader scale.

But until all traditional public schools can offer supports similar to those offered in no excuses schools, we must continue to call for them. Getting these supports is vital in developing a public education system that will help students perform at high levels -- regardless of their socioeconomic background. There are no excuses for ignoring the nonacademic factors that can influence a child's learning.

(If you are interested in this topic, consider joining the Edutopia group Reform Starts Here.)

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