EconTalk — Robert Pondiscio

On: How the Other Half Learns

Episode: N/A

Date: May 2020

Background: Author and teacher.

Key Subjects:

  • Discussion about the Success Academy Charter School in New York City.
    • Charter school = public school (no tuition, open admissions).
    • Government funded, privately run.
  • Factors driving Success Academy’s uniform culture and student out-performance:
    • Select the parents.
      • First step is a lottery.
        • Only motivated parents enter.
      • Followed by more explicit “parent” selection process.
        • Mandatory meetings, paper work, reading requirements, etc.
      • Process requires high level of parent commitment.
        • Mostly selects parents that are married, employed, religious, ambitious.
      • Creates culture of motivated parents and high expectations.
        • Similar edge as in more wealthy neighborhoods.
    • Discipline the kids.
      • No excuse culture.
        • School uniforms, classroom behavior.
        • Demonstration of high expectations (“We’re serious about this”).
      • Broken window theory.
        • Small disorder leads to large crimes.
      • Creates the conditions for learning.
  • These factors (parent selection, no excuse culture) are difficult to scale.
    • Not all parents have enough time or are sufficiently motivated.
    • Not all kids are suited to a disciplined learning environment.
  • Generally, a consistent culture is difficult to scale.
    • Almost always requires above average leadership.
    • Sometimes requires above average employees.
      • Would be easier to scale if employees with “average” skills are sufficient.
        • McDonalds: requires a reasonably skilled manager to expand franchise, not an exceptional one.
        • Teaching: often requires above average skills (no set curriculum, little guidance on what or how to teach).
  • Other factors that may be easier to scale:
    • Curriculum.
      • What to teach.
      • Having an established curriculum saves teachers a lot of time and effort.
      • In most other cases, teachers have to construct their own.
    • Teacher training.
      • How to teach.
      • How to run a class-room, planning to teach the lesson instead of planning the lesson.
    • Test prep.
      • Championing mastery.
      • Mastery in one domain may lead to mastery in other domains.
    • Engagement.
      • Kids need a reason to go to school.
      • Balance reading and math with arts, music, etc. (subjects that kids tend to care more about).
    • Exposure.
      • Broad versus narrow knowledge.
        • Narrow: reading is learning to decode words on a page, etc.
        • Broad: reading is about shared background knowledge, and vocabulary.
      • Window versus mirror.
        • Directing attention out the window, instead of reflecting on what they already know.
        • Exposure wide variety of topics to pique interest, curiosity.
    • Reading.
      • High volume reading (background knowledge, vocabulary).

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