Thursday, April 4, 2013

Crazy Like a Fox?

Today I just finished reading Ben Chavis' book, Crazy Like a Fox. It describes how he, as principal, took the failing charter school (American Indian Charter School) and turned it into the top charter school in California.

It was a really fun book to read. I am always interesting in hearing about what is working in education and based on test scores, what Chavis was doing was working. Not all of his methods were politically correct or even popular, but he was able to get results.

American Indian Charter School is a middle school - which we all know is a tough time for kids.

Here are some things that I really liked about Chavis' educational model...

He used self-contained classrooms so that the same teacher taught every subject. I really like this idea because (1) you become a family as a class, (2) you don't waste time moving kids around from room to room, (3) kids can't get away with a lot of the junk they pull at other schools because the same teacher is always watching them, and (4) I love all of the subjects equally and I would love to be able to explore them with my students.

He corrected student behavior with logical consequences. For example, giving detentions (more school) when students were late to school or skipped school. It has never made sense to me that we punish kids by keeping them out of school. I also liked that he would have students do manual labor. Everyone helped out a little bit to keep the school clean and tidy, but those students who didn't want to work on academics were given manual labor to do - the kinds of jobs they would have if they didn't get a good education. The kids figured out pretty fast that it is a lot easier to sit in a desk and work than mop floors and clean toilets.

He created a culture at the school that accepted nothing less than excellence. There are too many excuses today in education - bad parents, not enough time, not enough money... I really like that at AICS no excuses were made - everyone just got to work.

I was about to make a list of things I didn't like about the school, but there was really only one thing I didn't like at that is the public humiliation. Yes, Chavis advocates humiliating students to get results if that is what it takes. Maybe I am a soft-hearted liberal (like the ones who run so many failing schools), but I just couldn't humiliate a kid. I feel so much empathy for them - I remember what I life was like at 13. I was so insecure without someone berating me.

Of course I do come from a middle class white family with lots of parental support. Chavis makes the point to say that humiliation works with the minority student he works with in Oakland. This could be a cultural thing. Plus, if I tried everything I could to get a student to stop being a fool then I would rather humiliate them than see them get killed doing something stupid...

Anyway, as I said I just finished reading this book today. After finishing it I went online to find out more about the school and educational model. (Chavis opened three more schools using the same American Indian Model of Education.) What do I find? Just a couple of weeks ago the Oakland school board decided to close three of the AIM schools.

The decision to close the schools was based on alleged financial impropriety by Ben Chavis. He paid himself, his wife, and companies he owned significant amounts of the school's money. He is also currently a landlord for one of the schools.

I didn't get a lot of details about what was wrong with these transactions, although hiring your wife as a "consultant" does seem a bit fishy to me.

What hit me was that many schools and educators that have amazing results, like American Indian Charter School, end up scandalized. I don't have to think too far back to remember Michelle Rhee and the cheating scandal that followed her from Washington D.C. Are these people really unethical or are they targeted because they are so successful despite going against traditional educational institutions? Maybe both.

It would just be nice, for once, to have an educational leader who finds a way to educate students effectively without any baggage. Is that too much to ask?

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