Jay Mathews is a shameless and unceasing promoter of KIPP, the modern-day solution to what liberals referred to early in the previous century as the "Negro problem." The KIPP classroom sweatshops are viewed by Mathews and his circle as the best way to solve the ills of urban and rural poverty by changing the minds of children, rather than changing the conditions of poverty.
With concern growing among humanitarians about the growing acceptance of eugenicidal KIPP model, Mathews has obviously been on the prowl for some evidence that KIPP schools are something other than than the "work hard, be nice" re-education camps that they are. Well, he found something, something very interesting, in fact--a KIPP teacher who uses accepted suburban methods based on thinking, rather than the anti-thought that characterizes the direct instruction abuse that is heaped on poor children (Mathews refers to such poor-child curricula as "no frills approach that often works well with students whose parents did not go to college").
And guess what--her kids are showing much greater gains as measured by test scores.
In D.C. KIPP has been using the Saxon math series, a no-frills approach that often works well with students whose parents never went to college. Suben said she did not have anything against Saxon. She still has copies of Saxon books and a rival program, Everyday Math, in her classroom. But she thought all the textbooks she had seen had flaws.
"I've found that most traditional textbooks oversimplify and isolate concepts, and yet, are still too difficult for non-readers to use. They don't generally push students to think, but offer repetitive, and boring, practice," she said. She started writing each lesson nightly. This was a remarkable feat of youthful energy when you consider that KIPP teachers work 10 hours a day, and Suben was putting in another three hours each night at home composing the next day's lesson on her Dell laptop.
Suben said: "My primary goal as a teacher is to help my students understand the reasoning behind math rules and procedures. I have several core beliefs about this: (1) Understanding is constructed by the learner, not passively received from the teacher. (2) Understanding is built by making connections between as many strands of knowledge as possible. (3) Understanding is galvanized through communication. (4) Understanding is only valuable when you reflect on it and question it."
The core of her method is the workbook she produced last year on the fly. It "lets students build their own notes and create their own examples. It is incredibly active learning," she said. They were encouraged to write down the meaning of important terms and strategies they used that worked with certain kinds of problems.
"I certainly refer to traditional textbooks for ideas and guidance as I write," Suben said. "My sequence and pace are set by a long-term plan that I have designed to catch the students up on second-, third- and fourth-grade material as well as introduce every single D.C. public schools fifth-grade standard by testing time. I model my word problems after the eighth-grade text that I used in Louisiana because those problems require the level of understanding that I am looking for. I focus on non-traditional problems so that students are forced to think."
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But there is no question of the importance of what Suben is doing, and what is happening in other schools, like KIPP, where teachers are convinced their disadvantaged students can learn a great deal if given the time and encouragement to do so.
Suben's efforts to encourage students to think about, discuss and write down their best strategies gave them confidence. They knew when they got the right answer, it was because of their intellectual ability, not because they memorized something.
Suben said when her class corrects homework, she hears little whispers of "YES!" from kids who got a hard one right and feel like giving themselves a quiet cheer.
"Basically, there's ownership," Suben said. "That's the key. It's not that my lessons are so dramatically better than anyone else's lessons. It's just that we, the students and I, own our lessons."
Kozol once expressed his skepticism about the voucher advocates' support of school choice for poor parents by saying that the moment that voucher advocates are willing to give every poor child a voucher to go to Exeter, or a school of its quality, that is the moment, he said, that he would become a Republican. I have a similar skepticism about Mathews' good-news news: the moment that KIPP offers the same content, instruction, and assessments to its chain-gang charter kids that kids get regularly at Dalton or the best publics of Westchester County, that is the day I will become a KIPPster.