Reform in Action

Some of the most exciting school reform efforts are underway in New York City, spearheaded by Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein. Read what I have to say on Bloomberg and Klein’s reform plan along with Bloomberg’s brilliant speech to the Urban League.

I have visited dozens of schools-–mostly charter schools–-that have achieved extraordinary success in educating even the most “difficult-to-educate” students.  The New York Times Magazine explained what it takes to make a student. Read my comments on this article and on teacher burnout at these schools.

There continues to be a lot of mythology around charter schools:
  • A federal Department of Education study in August 2006 purported to show that charter schools were doing worse than regular public schools.  However, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools argues that only 150 charter schools participated in the 2003 NAEP, which was about 5 percent of the charters open in the 2002-03 school year.  I point out that the NY Times editorial about this study is misguided and the Wall Street Journal agrees that the study was flawed.
  • When comparing charter schools to nearby public schools (even when they share the same building), it is important to remember that charter schools are not always getting the most motivated parents with the “best” students. Often it is the most desperate parents, whose students are doing the worst, who apply.
But don’t take my word for it. The doors are always open for unannounced visits to the best charter schools in the nation. Here are photos of my own visits to these amazing schools: KIPP Academy in the South Bronx; KIPP AMP Academy in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; the Harlem Success Academy charter school; various charter schools in Newark; two charter schools in Boston; Achievement First/Amistad; Uplift Education in Dallas; and photos from more than a dozen schools I visited in September and October, 2009.

KIPP’s Team Academy leader Ryan Hill–a true reformer in action–gives one of the most powerful speeches I have ever heard.
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Acceptance Speech at City Lights Youth Theatre Benefit
Whitney Tilson, April 2, 2008

Thank you, Joel, for the kind introduction. I’d also like to thank City Lights Youth Theatre for this honor and applaud its wonderful work to bring the arts and theater to so many of New York’s children.


Before I even say a word, I already have two strikes against me: I’m the only thing standing between you and dinner, and I have to follow two of my heroes – and, as you’ve just heard, two of the most compelling speakers I know of. I tell you this because I’m reminded of something Warren Buffett once said about the key to a successful marriage: low expectations.


In addition, I’d like to thank the people most responsible for my philanthropic work: first, my wife, Susan, whose love and support (and doing the lion’s share of chasing after our three girls) makes it all possible, and my parents, who inspired me through their example. They were one of the first couples to meet and marry in the Peace Corps in the early 1960s and have spent most of their careers doing international development, so I lived in Tanzania and Nicaragua for much of my early childhood. They couldn’t be here tonight because they now live and are retiring in Kenya – my dad runs an educational program in Southern Sudan, but is based in Nairobi.


My parents didn’t just lead by example though – there was also a lot of lecturing from my mom. I remember the many times, going back to my teenage years, that she reminded me of all the good fortune I’ve had in my life and told me that I had a duty to give back and make the world a better place. It sounds sort of corny, but they believed it – and so do I.


Given that my parents are both educators, it’s not surprising that I was drawn to this area – and what began 19 years ago when I helped start Teach for America has become an obsession. As I think about it, there’s a pattern: the more I learn, the more outraged I get, and the more involved I become in various efforts to try to improve the situation.

Let me step back and give you a little background. We have two educational systems in this country. One has the following characteristics:

- Public, private and religious schools all compete fiercely for students

- No one type of school has dominant market share

- Students and their parents choose among a vast array of options regarding which school is best, depending on each student’s interests and needs

- Money in the form of scholarships and student loans – both public and private – largely follows students

- If students or their parents are dissatisfied with a school, they can easily switch schools

- It takes many years for teachers to earn tenure, and the process is generally rigorous and competitive

- There is tremendous innovation and specialization among schools

- Failing schools face severe consequences and/or go out of business

I’m of course referring to our system of higher education. It’s the best in the world and, as proof of this, the brightest students from all over the world come here to study.

Now let’s examine our K-12 school system:

- Public schools have 90% market share

- Students and their parents typically have little or no choice of school; they are assigned to one school based on where they live

- Money doesn’t follow students; if they don’t attend their local public school, they get nothing

- If students or their parents are dissatisfied with a school – well, tough luck, unless they’re among the lucky few with enough money to opt out

- Virtually every teacher gets tenure – often after only two years

- Very little innovation and specialization among schools

- For all the talk about accountability, No Child Left Behind, etc., the reality is that failing schools typically face few consequences. Even among the worst schools, it is extremely rare for anyone to lose their job, much less for a school to be closed.

Given the system that we’ve set up, it’s little wonder that our schools are doing poorly. Not all schools, of course. Many schools are excellent. But there’s tremendous variation – and the variation isn’t random. I’ll come back to this in a minute.

I don’t want to bore you with too many statistics, but our 15-year-olds are ranked 15th out of 29 developed countries in literacy and 24th in math. And here’s the scary part: the longer our students remain in school, the worse they do relative to our economic competitors. In math, for example, among 4th graders, only 25% of countries are ahead of us. By 8th grade, 50% are and by 12th grade, 70% are. There’s one area in which we do very well, however: 72% of our students agree with the statement, “I get good marks in math” – by far, the highest rate in the world.

I’ve just described achievement gap #1 – how we’re falling further and further behind other countries, not, by the way, because our schools are getting worse. Rather, our achievement hasn’t budged in the last 40 years, despite spending more and more money, while other countries are improving every year.

Now let me talk about achievement gap #2: the fact that the achievement of low-income, minority students is dramatically worse than their better-off peers. The statistics here are truly horrifying – I don’t think even well informed, well-read people have any idea how bad it is. The average black and Latino child enters kindergarten one year below grade level – and every year falls further behind such that, by 12th grade, the average black and Latino student is reading and doing math at the same level as white 8th graders – and this doesn’t even count the nearly half who’ve dropped out of school! As early as 4th grade, 58% of black and 54% of Latino children are testing Below Basic in reading. That means these 9 and 10 year olds are basically illiterate – they’re struggling to read “See Spot Run”.

Barring some sort of miracle, for many of these kids, it’s already too late. Statistically speaking, the children who can’t read in 4th grade account for nearly all of the high school dropouts, the girls who get pregnant as teenagers and end up on welfare, the boys who turn to a life of crime. 80% of America’s prisoners failed to finish high school and are functionally illiterate and 52% of black men who fail to finish high school end up in prison at some point in their lives. There are staggering human and societal costs when our youth don’t receive a good education.

So why does this achievement gap exist? There are many reasons – many of which are beyond the control of schools. There is no doubt that children from troubled communities and families, in which few people have completed high school, much less college, are a challenge to educate. But I’ve gotten tired of hearing the endless excuses and talk about “bad” kids and “bad” parents because I’ve seen lots of schools that are taking precisely these kids, educating them properly, changing their lives and sending nearly all of them to four-year colleges.

In fact, we have a team of educators here tonight from one of those schools, the KIPP Infinity Charter School. You may recall that the NYC Department of Education recently started giving every school in the city a letter grade. KIPP Infinity not only got an A, but was ranked the #1 school in Manhattan and #2 in the entire city of more than 1,400 schools! Entering KIPP Infinity in 5th grade, the average student was at the 30% percentile in reading and jumped to the 66% and 86% percentile over the next two years. In math, they were at 48% coming in and jumped to the 94% percentile in the first year! By the way, the students weren’t selected – by law, there was a lottery. By the time these students graduate from KIPP in 8th grade, nearly all will be well above grade level, attend rigorous college-preparatory high schools and go to four-year colleges – from a neighborhood in which maybe 20% of young men and women will attend any type of college and well under 10% will ever earn a college degree.

At the end of the day, great schools and especially great teachers make all the difference. Every study ever done shows that teacher quality far outweighs any other factor. If you give a group of the most privileged kids an ineffective teacher, they don’t learn very much. Conversely, if you give even the most disadvantaged kids a great teacher, they will learn and achieve at levels that would amaze you. To see this for yourself, I urge you come visit one of our four KIPP charter schools in New York. The most convenient is probably KIPP Infinity, which is on 133rd St. just a block away from the Uptown Fairway under the West Side Highway.

So the problem is not too many bad kids, it’s too many bad schools. To give you a sense of the magnitude of the problem, four million children today attended a school that has been identified as failing for six consecutive years. Nearly all of them are low-income black and Latino children – the children who most need the best schools and teachers, yet get the worst. Again, I could bore you with statistics, but to summarize the data, every study ever done shows that schools with a high proportion of low-income and minority students are far more likely to have teachers who are inexperienced, did not major or minor in the subject they’re teaching, who failed the basic skills test on the first attempt, who went to a noncompetitive college, and who had very low grades and test scores in high school and college.

It’s hard for me to think of anything more fundamental to what this nation stands for than the idea that every child, regardless of income, ethnicity, or neighborhood, has a fair shot at the American Dream. We are not living up to that promise. If you’re a low income, minority child in this country, odds are very high that you attend a mediocre school at best, and most likely a failing school at which very little learning is occurring. This is deeply and profoundly wrong. It offends me and, as an American, it embarrasses me.

So what needs to be done and what can you do? The first thing I’ll say is that there is no magic bullet. That’s what everybody looks for – the 100% solution – but there’s no such thing. We need 100 1% solutions. Broadly speaking, they fall into two categories: fix the system and create alternatives to it.

Regarding the latter, we need to create a marketplace of alternatives for parents and students, just like the one we have for higher education. When it comes to schools, one size doesn’t fit all, and there’s no reason to think that the best school for a particular child is the one that happens to be located nearby. Why shouldn’t parents be allowed to apply to any school in a particular city or district? And why do charter schools like KIPP get less money per pupil than regular public schools, and why is there a cap on their number? If we find schools that are working, we should be doing everything we can to encourage them to grow, rather than throwing up obstacles.

And if a school is failing to educate children, year in and year out, at what point do we stop telling parents to be patient and endure yet another failed turnaround effort and instead give the parents the money that’s being wasted and let them find a better alternative? Florida did precisely this a few years ago, passing a law that said if a school gets an F grade for two consecutive years, then every student at the school gets a voucher that can be used at any accredited school, public or private. A study of the program showed that student test scores went up by 2.4 points at schools that weren’t getting D’s or F’s, 4.3 points for schools that were consistently getting D’s, 9.2 points for schools that got an F the previous year and were facing losing students, and finally, 15.1 points at schools where the students had gotten vouchers and were free to transfer elsewhere. Competition is a remarkable thing, you know.

But competition, by itself, isn’t enough. Even if charter schools continue to expand rapidly and some students get vouchers to attend private schools, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of American students will attend regular public schools for the foreseeable future, so we need to fix these schools.

This will no doubt be a daunting task – there are more than 1,400 schools, 70,000 teachers and 1 million students in New York City public schools alone – but it can be done. I think a relevant model is the reform of the New York City police department over the past 15 years or so.  I recognize that this might be a controversial example for some, but the fact is that the NYPD, as a crime-fighting force, has transformed itself — and this transformation is a major reason why New York City has gone from the murder capital of the country to being one of the safest cities in America. At the peak in 1990, 2,245 murders took place in the city; last year, the number had plunged 75% to under 600, the lowest level in 41 years. New York City’s murder rate of 7.3 per 100,000 people is the lowest of any large U.S. city. As a Big Apple resident myself, this is indeed cause for celebration.

As recently as 1994, the NYPD was a politicized, patronage- and corruption-filled, unaccountable bureaucracy, with an enormous budget, tens of thousands of employees, and a powerful union representing them. In other words, it was just like the public school system in most large cities today. If the NYPD could be reformed so dramatically, I am convinced that public schools can be as well.

It’s a four-step process:

1) Empower principals, who today only have limited control over their schools, lacking full control over budgets, hiring, disciplinary procedures, testing, etc. In contrast, principals of successful schools almost always have a great deal of autonomy, most importantly in the areas of spending and hiring or firing staff.

2) Adopt the right approach. Good schools have a rigorous curriculum, set high expectations for students, carefully monitor behavior to create a safe learning environment and so forth.


3) Measure results. In today’s public school systems, while students are often tested regularly (depending on the state), resulting in plenty of data, it’s usually neither granular enough nor widely disseminated enough to have an impact. Principals need the data to evaluate individual teachers, the school system needs to be able to evaluate principals and parents need to be able to evaluate schools.

4) Create accountability. Once measurement systems are in place, the final critical step is accountability. Simply put, there must be consequences for failure — or even mediocrity.  Chronically failing schools should be shut down and the space should be turned over to proven successful operators like KIPP. And there need to be consequences for individuals as well. This doesn’t necessarily mean firing people — sometimes additional training or perhaps a transfer to another position will do the trick. But being a good teacher or principal is hard and some people are just not cut out for it, so it’s a terrible disservice to them and the children to leave them in positions at which they are failing.

What I have just described is not theoretical. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein are doing every single thing I just mentioned right now in New York City’s public schools – and it’s working! But they face enormous resistance and much of what they’ve implemented could be undone under the next mayor or chancellor, if the wrong people get those jobs. So, the single most important thing that could be done for our schools is to have the right political leaders, because schools are run by governments and governments are controlled by politicians.

But this is easier said than done, so the last thing I want to talk about tonight is the politics of education reform because, as I’ve come to realize over the past few years, it’s as important as everything else. Let me tell you a story: about four years ago, KIPP applied to open additional charter schools in New York City. At the time, the original KIPP school in the Bronx had been knocking the cover off the ball for many years and was one of the most widely acclaimed and successful schools educating inner-city kids in the country. As a board member, I naively assumed that when we applied for approval to open more schools, the immediate answer would be, “Of course! And won’t you please consider opening even more schools?” Instead, I learned that the process was an ordeal and it finally dawned on me that Teach for America could hire thousands of wonderful teachers and KIPP could open dozens of extraordinary schools – yet with the stroke of a pen, the state legislature could pass a law that could hamper if not shut down TFA or KIPP. We could win a lot of battles but still lose the war.

Given how bad things are and that we have a pretty good idea of what works and what needs to happen, why aren’t school systems around the country being reformed quickly? There are two big reasons: First, the system works really well for the adults, what I call “the forces of the status quo”. Second, the people it doesn’t work well for are the opposite: the most marginalized, powerless people in our society. Imagine for a moment that every person in this room was required to send their children to a NYC public school – but one that was randomly assigned, so your kid might end up at a school in the South Bronx. Do you think the schools in this city would improve dramatically, virtually overnight? You bet!

So there’s little counterweight to the forces of the status quo, which encompasses most importantly the teachers, but also the principals, bureaucrats, janitors, etc. The two primary teachers unions, the NEA and AFT, represent 2% of U.S. voters and are well organized and well funded, so I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that together, they are the most powerful interest group in the country.

They have been very clever in positioning themselves as the spokespeople for public education, but it’s important to understand that teacher unions exist to look out for the interests of their members – which is as it should be – but these interests don’t always overlap with the interest of children. For example, teacher unions generally oppose charter schools, make it difficult to remove even the worst teachers and oppose any type of differential pay, which is critical to rectifying the imbalances in teacher talent. Isn’t it sort of obvious that, as in any other profession, you want to pay bonuses to motivate and retain your best people, pay more for scarce talent like math and science teachers, and for teachers who are willing to, say, teach in the South Bronx vs. the Upper West Side?

As a lifelong Democrat, it saddens me to say that my party has been the primary obstacle to meaningful education reform. After learning this, my first reaction was shock and horror, then I got mad about it for a year or two, and finally decided to do something about it, so with a few friends, we created Democrats for Education Reform. Our goal is to create a counterweight to the forces of the status quo in the Democratic Party so that our party can return to its roots as a champion for our nation’s most vulnerable individuals.

I’d like to conclude with some ideas for how you can get involved and make a difference:

1) The cap on charter schools in New York state was just lifted from 100 to 200 schools, so there are going to be 100 new schools, at least 50 of which will be in New York City. Every one of these schools needs a board comprised of high-caliber people just like you, so if you’d like to learn more, please contact my friend Michael Duffy, who heads up the DOE’s office of charter schools. I spoke with him earlier today and he said he’d be delighted to hear from any of you. His phone number is 212 374-0204 and his email is MDuffy12@schools.nyc.gov.

2) To the extent that you are at all politically active, make sure every politician you talk to hears about this issue. Politicians by nature don’t change the status quo unless voters make a ruckus. And if you’re a Democrat, I hope you’ll go to dfer.org, the web site of Democrats for Education, and sign our statement of principles and get involved. We’re involved with many races, ranging from the city council and mayor’s races here in New York City, to supporting Cory and his efforts to reform Newark’s schools, to the Presidential race.

3) Finally, if you’d like to keep abreast of what’s going on day-to-day, I’d be happy to add you to my school reform email list, to which I send articles of interest and brief commentary every day or two. Just email me at WTilson@tilsonfunds.com.

I think in both a moral and practical sense, improving our schools is the most important domestic issue facing our country, but it’s not going to be easy. We need as many agents of change as possible, so I hope you’ll join me. Thank you!

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