match students to the schools
that are best for them and
either improve or eliminate
the least-effective schools as
parents begin to shun them.
But there is no evidence that
vouchers result in better
scholastic outcomes for kids
How about charter schools?
They can design their own
programs and hire and fire
teachers without necessarily
having to deal with unions.
But the best evidence we have
indicates that most charters are
little better than regular public
schools, and perhaps slightly
worse during their start-up
periods (Gleason, Clark,
Tuttle, & Dwoyer, 2010).
So-called “whole school”
interventions sound ambitious. Corporations go into a
school with a new curriculum,
lesson plans, special teacher
training, reorganization of the
administration, and so on. But
there’s not much evidence that
they improve things (Rothstein, 2004).
Schools undergoing such makeovers
are often only a little improved by the
experience—and such interventions are
very expensive, so the bang for the buck
But again, some really big K– 12 interventions do make a huge difference for
poor and minority kids. Uncommon
Schools, Achievement First, Harlem
Children’s Zone, and KIPP (Knowledge
Is Power Program) provide as much as
60 percent more time in school than
regular public schools do.
In the best-researched program,
KIPP, students start as early as 7: 30 a.m.
and stay as late as 5:00 p.m., attend
school on some Saturdays, and continue into the summer for a few weeks.
Kids get experiences that are typical of
what upper-middle-class children get—
museums, sports, dance, art, theater,
photography, and music lessons.
scoring at or above average
on a nationally standardized
language arts test rose from
25 percent at the beginning of
the school year to 44 percent
in the spring. In math, the
proportion was 37 percent in
the fall and 65 percent in the
spring. Progress continued at
a good clip through middle
school (David et al., 2006).
Again, big-seeming interventions sometimes fail to have
big effects, but really big interventions can have huge effects.
How about high school?
There are no KIPP-type programs for high school yet,
but we do have a pretty good
idea of what can be achieved
with poor minority students
in math. You may have seen
Stand and Deliver, the movie
about math teacher Jaime
Escalante’s achievement in
getting his East Los Angeles
barrio students to pass
advanced placement (AP)
calculus at higher rates than
students in most elite U.S. high schools.
© SUSIE FITZHUGH
But is the story true?
There’s good news and bad news
about Escalante’s feat. It’s perfectly
true that it happened. But it didn’t
happen in the way the movie implies.
Escalante didn’t just suddenly announce
to unsuspecting seniors that he was
going to make them into math whizzes
that year. He built up math programs
at junior high feeder schools, which
brought highly prepared students into
his three-year high school. Then, he
made sure his students had excellent
courses in high school math before
he ever got them as seniors (Jessness,
2002). Once again, ambitious interventions can make a real difference.
Teachers visit parents and children
in their homes, insist on kindness
and civility, and hand out rewards on
the spot for good behavior and aca-
demic achievement. One KIPP teacher
described the atmosphere:
We’ve never had a kid talk back to a
teacher, and we’ve never had kids fight.
I don’t attribute this to the discipline
system. It’s from setting expectations from
the start. . . . It’s because kids believe that
this is an extraordinary place, and we’ve
taught them that. I don’t think they don’t
tease because they are afraid of the bench
(for bad behavior). It’s just something that
they would not do at KIPP. This is the
one school they’ve been to where there’s
no teasing. They feel safe, and they are
learning more. (David et al., 2006, p. 16)
And KIPP gets results. A Stanford
Research Institute study found that
students who entered 5th grade in
KIPP schools in the San Francisco Bay
area achieved marked improvement
in a year. The proportion of students
The Potential of Thinking Small
I started out by saying that big interventions don’t always have big effects,
but small interventions can have big