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Educators shy away from approaches that work

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WASHINGTON — I haven't seen the highly touted KIPP academies in person. I did see a contingent of kids from Houston's KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) on C-SPAN during the Republican convention and, before that, a repeat of a CBS-TV "60 Minutes" segment on KIPP's success. But I've never actually visited a KIPP school.

But neither, in all likelihood, has the principal or staff of any unsuccessful middle school in your hometown, nor the superintendent of your mediocre school district nor any of the officials who say they want to improve the schools your children attend (and who prove their good intentions by demanding bigger school budgets).

Do me a favor; ask them why.

Maybe they simply haven't heard about KIPP, founded five years ago by two Teach for America recruits, David Levin and Michael Feinberg, who talked the Houston school district into letting them experiment with a rigorous, extended-day program. Well, tell them they've heard of it now.

Maybe they'll say they don't believe KIPP is all it's cracked up to be — though they'll have to admit the early results at two KIPP schools are impressive. Ninety-eight percent of the students at Feinberg's KIPP-Houston pass all segments of the state's standardized exam. KIPP-New York, run by Levin, outperforms every other middle school in the Bronx. Mind you, these are not children of the privileged suburbs; they are mostly black, brown and poor youngsters of the inner cities.

Maybe your local officials will tell you they'd love to visit a KIPP Academy but lack the budget to do so. (In that case, you ought to have a look at what else is being funded in your district.)

They are likely to tell you anything but what I fear is the truth: that they believe the children in their lowest-performing schools are so damaged, so distracted by social conditions and so poorly parented that nothing can save them.

That's a harsh indictment, of course, and maybe too harsh. But it isn't just their lack of interest in KIPP that prompts it. The more I look at Direct Instruction the more I am convinced that that highly scripted approach can help move poor children away from academic failure. But I keep running into teachers, principals and superintendents who wouldn't try Direct Instruction if you pulled a gun. Ditto with E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge approach, Theodore Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools, Success for All, and at least a half-dozen other successful models.

The one time I remember educators flocking off to observe success in action was 15 years ago, when every teacher and her brother were hopping planes to Japan, the academic model du jour. It must have been the trip, though, rather than the chance to learn a new approach to teaching. Some of those same educators who organized trips to the Far East won't venture across town — let alone to Houston or the Bronx — to observe their successful peers.

Ask your local educators why.

Two years ago, Constance Barsky and Kenneth G. Wilson suggested in an article in Daedalus that increased reliance on statewide or national test score averages may have the perverse effect of masking success, thereby reducing interest in replicating successful programs.

"Few educational reforms are widespread enough to be visible in statewide averages," they wrote. "In this situation, there is little incentive for national leaders to take any one reform seriously, no matter how much it has actually accomplished with students, unless it has reached every school in the state or nation."

Maybe. But if this is the problem — if success isn't copied because it tends to be too localized to show up in aggregate reports — then why are the leaders of the underperforming schools in your district so quick to adopt approaches that have had precious little success anywhere?

I have in mind not just the eager embrace of the ungraded primaries and open-space classrooms of a generation ago but also the more recent clambering aboard educational bandwagons ranging from "whole language" to so-called "fuzzy math" to Ebonics.

Can it be that some educators are more attracted to elegant-sounding phrases than to ap-

proaches that actually improve learning?

Ask the folks who run your school system. I'd really like to know what they tell you.


William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com