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K-12 Blues
Why Is No One Paying Attention to This Roaring Educational Success?

In 1997, the Chicago public school system embarked on an unusual experiment. It implemented the IB (International Baccalaureate) program—a rigorous, test-based curriculum with specially trained teachers that is usually only available at high-achieving high schools—at 13 Chicago schools serving overwhelmingly poor and minority students. University of Chicago researchers tracked the outcomes for the students involved, and published their findings in a 2012 paper, and three Johns Hopkins education policy experts have summarized the findings in a new review essay, “An Education Success Story That Didn’t Travel.” In short, the program was a stunning success:

The CPS students who completed all four years of the IB program were 40% more likely to attend a four-year college, 50% more likely to attend a selective four-year college, and significantly more likely to persist in college than their matched peers outside the program. The program influenced not only their academic success but also their self-regard and confidence; in-depth interviews showed a strong academic orientation and high sense of self-efficacy. There were no negative results for the students involved, even for those who began the program in 9th grade but did not complete the program.

But despite these stellar results, according to the review essay, comparable school districts have shown virtually no interest in implementing the IB program themselves:

We highlight this particular study because it meets two criteria that matter: the research is driven by sound methodology and design, and the researched program shows strong positive effects for students, in this case many of whom were disadvantaged. But we also highlight the study because the aftermath of its publication fits with a familiar pattern of very modest influence. Why haven’t urban school districts across the country taken note and in some cases at least chosen to build their own system-wide implementations?

The failure of other schools to even experiment with the model that proved so successful in Chicago doesn’t say anything good about America’s K-12 education system, or its capacity for reform. The authors speculate that one reason that school districts haven’t responded to the Chicago program is that district superintendents would be unable to “persuade the necessary stakeholders that this particular intervention—unfamiliar and strange sounding—is worthy of attention.” This is a feature of blue model education—stagnant, unaccountable bureaucracies that resist changes to the status quo, and that favor the interests of government employees over the interests of the students they are supposed to serve.

Charter systems and reforms oriented towards school choice might create more competitive pressure on the people running schools to be on the lookout for the best ideas. After all, the Chicago study shows that there is buried treasure even in America’s most underperforming schools. It’s not necessary, as some interests in the education establishment would have us believe, simply to lower expectations for low-income students and resign ourselves to poor outcomes. Smartly implemented back-to-the-basics reforms—good teaching coupled with a demanding curriculum—may be able to unleash tremendous potential at relatively low cost. It’s time for the K-12 establishment to start paying attention to the ideas that work.

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  • rheddles

    The author of this article is so unaware of the realities of public education that s/he thinks they are operated for the benefit of the students instead of their rightful beneficiaries, teachers.

    • Andrew Allison

      And administrators — as I recall admin costs more than teachers in CA.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Depends. Unions are for teachers. Charter schools have a mixed history of being “for administrators”. And then there are the “for-profit” curriculum and testing companies. They are for neither students or teachers.

        • Andrew Allison

          Which has what, exactly, to do with my comment, or the thread? The discussion is about public schools and why the wildly successful IB method hasn’t spread.

          • FriendlyGoat

            How was your comment more relevant than mine? As for the article, I have one simple theory why IB hasn’t spread, and I stated it separately here.

          • Andrew Allison

            The subject of the thread is PUBLIC EDUCATION.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Duh? As if we are not all talking about public education. Quit griping.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “Charter systems and reforms oriented towards school choice might create more competitive pressure on the people running schools to be on the lookout for the best ideas.”

    I have pointed this out repeatedly, and I expect to continue doing so. The Government Monopoly like all Monopolies suffers from the same disease, the lack of the “Feedback of Competition”. It is the “Feedback of Competition” that provides both the information and motivation which forces continuous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price, in free markets. Since the Labor Gang Monopolies (Teachers Unions) and the Government Monopoly are both responsible for providing the education services our civilization requires. No improvements will be implemented, not because they are bad people, but because they lack both the information and motivation the “Feedback of Competition” provides. The International Baccalaureate program is just one of the many ways that the K-12 school system could be improved, and finding the best way would best be left to the free market. This is why so many support a voucher system which would allow Parents to put their children in any school they prefer. If the teachers and schools had to compete for students or lose their job or go out of business, then the “Feedback of Competition” would force improvements.

  • Fred

    at 13 Chicago schools serving overwhelmingly poor and minority students

    Well, that’s a bit misleading. My son was an IB student, so I know a bit about it. It is a fantastic program, and my son got an exceptional education. The program is rigorous and encourages independent research and critical thinking. However, it does not primarily serve poor and minority students. In my state at least, locating the IB program in the worst school in the county was primarily a dodge to keep the school open despite the lack of academic achievement of the majority of its (poor and minority) students. The IB kids were overwhelmingly white, Asian, and middle to upper class. Their academic achievement brought the school average up enough to get it a “passing grade” from the state agency that grades schools.

    • wigwag

      The International Baccalaureate program from Chicago has also been recapitulated in New York; one of the high schools that uses the program is just two or three miles from Professor Mead’s home town of Jackson Heights, Queens; plenty of kids from his community go there. The school is more integrated than most New York City Public Schools; whites, blacks and Asians all attend.

      The article is wrong; the IB program has been tried elsewhere and tried successfully.

      Why isn’t it more well known; the reason is the opposite of what Via Meadia and many of the commentators on this thread think. The program has no public profile because it is not a charter or a private school, it’s a public school. Charters and private schools are the rotten flavor of the month, and supported financially and otherwise by hordes of hedge fund billionaires.

      Who exactly is it that has the resources to compare this program with the charter school and voucher movement that salve the conscience of the mega rich?

      • clazy8

        Who has the resources? You can’t be serious. That the teachers’ unions do not do so proves Mead’s point.

  • Andrew Allison

    Here’s a theory: rigorous teaching requires special training, dedication to students and administrations willing to support that; all conditions in very short supply in public schools.

    • Jim__L

      However, the best way to match trained, dedicated teachers with supportive administrators to intelligently designed programs is to *get the teachers to design the program themselves, tailored to their own individual strengths*.

      That’s why these things don’t travel — a combination between differing strengths, and a feeling of alienation from their own professional integrity by having someone else’s program forced on them.

      Of course, many teachers aren’t qualified or motivated to make these sorts of innovations. That holds things back too.

  • Dan

    “persuade the necessary stakeholders” i.e. teacher’s unions

  • FriendlyGoat

    I suspect that one little reason why IB may have been under-reported and under-emulated is the fact that the word “International” appears in the name.

    Seriously, a lot of state governments would find the title questionable for their mostly-red constituents who are clinging to this crazy notion of “local control”, as though “locals” always know better about education. Branding matters. “International” is probably a slow sell in Texas, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas and any number of other places.

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