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    "Ben Chavis, the most politically incorrect person on the planet, is also, not coincidentally, one of the people most correct about inner-city education. Read this book by a man who gets results as a practitioner of the 'no excuses' approach to schooling."
    - George F. Will, The Washington Post columnist

    "…[T]here is much to be learned from this account. It is possible to restore public education to its mission of educating the nation's citizens. There is a message of hope and possibility in 'Crazy Like a Fox' that we should embrace."
    - Mitchell Kapor, The San Francisco Chronicle

    "Chavis [is] undeniably one of the country's finest educators…Thrust this book into the hands of all the parents you know and implore them to read it…Chavis is passionate, articulate, and entertaining. He's also right."
    - Mark Hemingway, National Review

    "American Indian [is] a rarity in American education, defying the axiom that poor black and Latino children will lag behind others in school."
    - Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

    "To get the kind of results Chavis does in Oakland is a work of stripped-down genius. Ben's book reads like Ben talks: forthright, funny, irreverent, and wise. For anyone who cares about American education, for anyone who cares about America, Crazy Like a Fox is an essential read."
    - Jack Cashill, author What's the Matter with California?

    CRAZY LIKE A FOX: One Principal's Triumph in the Inner City provides a hair-raising and inspiring account of educational achievement in Oakland, California.

    Before Dr. Ben Chavis took over as principal, American Indian Public Charter School was a litter-strewn, rundown mess with unsupervised students, horrible test scores and dismal attendance rates, all factors that brought the middle school rightfully to the brink of closure.

    Chavis, an American Indian raised in a sharecropper's shack with no electricity, came on the scene and said he'd like to take over the school, then referred to as "the zoo." Was he off his rocker?

    After being appointed principal, he raised the bar with an approach that would make most educators tremble and set American Indian Public Charter School apart as one of the finest middle schools in all of California.

    Carey Blakely's Blog

    Welcome! Please share your thoughts. Note that the opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Crazy Like a Fox writer, Carey Blakely.

    Jay Mathews’ Touching Tribute to Jaime Escalante

    Jaime Escalante, the inspiration behind the movie Stand and Deliver, passed away this week at the age of 79 after a battle with cancer.

    Jay Mathews provides a touching tribute to Jaime Escalante’s education legacy in the following article:

    Jaime Escalante didn’t just stand and deliver. He changed U.S. schools forever.

    By Jay Mathews
    Sunday, April 4, 2010; B02

    From 1982 to 1987 I stalked Jaime Escalante, his students and his colleagues at Garfield High School, a block from the hamburger-burrito stands, body shops and bars of Atlantic Boulevard in East Los Angeles. I was the Los Angeles bureau chief for The Washington Post, allegedly covering the big political, social and business stories of the Western states, but I found it hard to stay away from that troubled high school.

    I would show up unannounced, watch Jaime teach calculus, chat with Principal Henry Gradillas, check in with other Advanced Placement classes and in the early afternoon call my editor in Washington to say I was chasing down the latest medfly outbreak story, or whatever seemed believable at the time.

    Escalante, who died Tuesday from cancer at age 79, did not become nationally famous until 1988, when the feature film about him, “Stand and Deliver,” was released, and my much-less-noticed book, “Escalante: The Best Teacher in America,” also came out. I had been drawn to him, as filmmakers Ramón Menéndez and Tom Musca were, by the story of a 1982 cheating scandal. Eighteen Escalante students had passed the Advanced Placement Calculus AB exam. Fourteen were accused of cheating by the Educational Testing Service, based on similarities in their answers. Twelve took the test again, this time heavily proctored, and passed again.

    Whether they cheated was an intriguing mystery, but not the one that kept me hanging around Garfield. I wanted to know how there could be even one student at that school taking and passing AP Calculus, perhaps the hardest course in American secondary education. Garfield offered the worst possible conditions for learning: 85 percent of the students were low income, most of the parents were grade-school dropouts, faculty morale was bad, expectations were low.

    Yet the school had produced phenomenal results that would challenge widespread rules barring average and below-average students from taking AP classes. The stunning success at Garfield led U.S. presidents to endorse Escalante’s view that impoverished children can achieve as much as affluent kids if they are given enough extra study time and encouragement to learn. Read more »

    “Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers”

    Below are some excerpts from a great article in Newsweek called “Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers.” (By Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert;

    …Yet in recent years researchers have discovered something that may seem obvious, but for many reasons was overlooked or denied. What really makes a difference, what matters more than the class size or the textbook, the teaching method or the technology, or even the curriculum, is the quality of the teacher.

    …There once was a time when teaching (along with nursing) was one of the few jobs not denied to women and minorities. But with social progress, many talented women and minorities chose other and more highly compensated fields. One recent review of the evidence by McKinsey & Co., the management consulting firm, showed that most schoolteachers are recruited from the bottom third of college-bound high-school students. (Finland takes the top 10 percent.)

    At the same time, the teachers’ unions have become more and more powerful. In most states, after two or three years, teachers are given lifetime tenure…The percentage of teachers dismissed for poor performance in Chicago between 2005 and 2008 (the most recent figures available) was 0.1 percent. In Akron, Ohio, zero percent. In Toledo, 0.01 percent. In Denver, zero percent. In no other socially significant profession are the workers so insulated from accountability. The responsibility does not just fall on the unions. Many principals don’t even try to weed out the poor performers (or they transfer them to other schools in what’s been dubbed the “dance of the lemons”)…

    Over time, inner-city schools, in particular, succumbed to a defeatist mindset. The problem is not the teachers, went the thinking—it’s the parents (or absence of parents); it’s society with all its distractions and pathologies; it’s the kids themselves. Not much can be done, really, except to keep the assembly line moving through “social promotion,” regardless of academic performance, and hope the students graduate (only about 60 percent of blacks and Hispanics finish high school). Or so went the conventional wisdom in school superintendents’ offices from Newark to L.A. By 1992, “there was such a dramatic achievement gap in the United States, far larger than in other countries, between socioeconomic classes and races,” says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “It was a scandal of monumental proportions, that there were two distinct school systems in the U.S., one for the middle class and one for the poor.”

    In the past two decades, some schools have sprung up that defy and refute what former president George W. Bush memorably called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Generally operating outside of school bureaucracies as charter schools, programs like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) have produced inner-city schools with high graduation rates (85 percent)…

    It is difficult to dislodge the educational establishment. In New Orleans, a hurricane was required: since Katrina, New Orleans has made more educational progress than any other city, largely because the public-school system was wiped out. Using nonunion charter schools, New Orleans has been able to measure teacher performance in ways that the teachers’ unions have long and bitterly resisted. Under a new Louisiana law, New Orleans can track which ed schools produce the best teachers, forcing long-needed changes in ed-school curricula. (The school system of Detroit is just as broken as New Orleans’s was before the storm—but stuck with largely the same administrators, the same unions, and the same number of kids, and it has been unable to make any progress.)

    U.S. Education Slipping Behind Other Nations

    Here’s a recent New York Times article that looks at how America’s education system is falling behind other nations. I put in bold type the statements I found particularly relevant. Common-sense education reform needs to happen, not just be given lip service and political nods. Think of how much better off our society would be if our population became more educated. Think of where our economy is headed if we fail to do that.

    Do you agree with the statement made in the following article that American culture undervalues education? I believe it does in many ways but would really like to hear other opinions.

    Many Nations Passing U.S. in Education, Expert Says

    One of the world’s foremost experts on comparing national school systems told lawmakers on Tuesday that many other countries were surpassing the United States in educational attainment, including Canada, where he said 15-year-old students were, on average, more than one school year ahead of American 15-year-olds.

    America’s education advantage, unrivaled in the years after World War II, is eroding quickly as a greater proportion of students in more and more countries graduate from high school and college and score higher on achievement tests than students in the United States, said Andreas Schleicher, a senior education official at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, which helps coordinate policies for 30 of the world’s richest countries.

    “Among O.E.C.D. countries, only New Zealand, Spain, Turkey and Mexico now have lower high school completion rates than the U.S.,” Mr. Schleicher said. About 7 in 10 American students get a high school diploma.

    Mr. Schleicher’s comments came in testimony before the Senate education committee and in a statement he delivered. The panel plans to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main law governing federal policy on public schools.

    The committee also heard from Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union; John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, a group that represents corporate executives; and Charles Butt, chief executive of a supermarket chain in Texas, who said employers there faced increasing difficulties in hiring qualified young workers.

    The blame for America’s sagging academic achievement does not lie solely with public schools, Mr. Butt said, but also with dysfunctional families and a culture that undervalues education. “Schools are inheriting an overentertained, distracted student,” he said.

    Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who leads the Senate Committee, picked up on that comment. “Overentertained and distracted — that’s right,” Mr. Harkin said. “The problem lies with many kids before they get to school, and if we don’t crack that nut, we’re going to continue to patch and fill.”

    Mr. Schleicher based many of his international comparisons on data from the O.E.C.D. Program for International Student Assessment, which tests students in scores of countries every three years in math, reading or science.

    He said Finland had the world’s “best performing education system,” partly because of its highly effective way of recruiting, training and supporting teachers.

    South Korea, he said, which was in economic ruin after World War II, today is an economic dynamo partly because of its educational attainment, which, among other measures, has achieved a 96 percent high school graduation rate, the world’s highest.

    Poland, Mr. Schleicher said, is improving its education system most rapidly. In less than a decade, it raised the literacy skills of its 15-year-olds by the equivalent of almost a school year. “If the U.S. would raise the performance of schools by a similar amount,” he said, “that could translate into a long-term economic value of over 40 trillion dollars.”

    America’s system of standards, curriculums and testing controlled by states and local districts with a heavy overlay of federal rules is a “quite unique” mix of decentralization and central control, Mr. Schleicher said. More successful nations, he said, maintain central control over standards and curriculum, but give local schools more freedom from regulation, he said.

    “The question for the U.S. is not just how many charter schools it establishes,” he said, “but how to build the capacity for all schools to assume charter-like autonomy, as happens in some of the best-performing education systems.”

    “In one way, international education benchmarks make disappointing reading for the U.S.,” he said.

    Jaime Escalante, the inspiration for “Stand and Deliver,” battles cancer and has run out of money for his treatments

    I was sad to read this news in an email from education reformer Whitney Tilson. Below is the text from Tilson’s email. Information on donations is also below:

    KTLA News, 2:17 PM PST, March 1, 2010

    Jaime Escalante

    Jaime Escalante

    LOS ANGELES — Jaime Escalante, the Los Angeles math teacher whose inspirational career was made famous in the 80s hit movie “Stand and Deliver” is battling cancer. His family has run out of money to pay for his medical bills.

    The Bolivian-born Escalante is 80 years old.

    Actor Edward James Olmos who portrayed Escalante in the film is putting together a fundraiser to help raise money for his friend. Olmos posted this message on his website:

    “Anyone who has seen “Stand and Deliver” knows how much Jaime Escalante (Kimo) has done for this country. The love and dedication he gave to his inner city students, and his unfailing conviction that every one of them was “gifted,” brought out talent that had been untapped and unseen – by other teachers.

    The genius that he awakened in the “unteachable” commanded the attention of the entire world. It caused countless educators to reconsider what their students might really be capable of if, like Kimo, they could awaken the “ganas” (desire) in them. Jaime didn’t just teach math. Like all great teachers, he changed lives. Gang members became aerospace engineers. Kids who had spent their youth convinced their lives didn’t matter discovered they were leaders.

    Now, Kimo needs our help. He is seriously ill, and the treatment he needs has depleted all the funds his family can raise. They did not want to ask for help, but we took it upon ourselves to get the word out to all the country and around the world, to make his final days as comfortable as possible – and maybe even give him a chance to beat the cancer that has afflicted him.

    I have been moved to tears to hear of the circumstances of this great man and am calling for a last National Understanding of his selfless contributions to “making a difference in this world.”

    Together, we have a chance to make a real difference in his life. I could not bear to think that we would do any less for one who has given so much for so long. You have my deepest appreciation for any and all prayers and help that you can give.”

    Escalante taught math to troubled students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

    While some dismissed the students as “unteachable,” Escalante was able to reach them and help them live up to their potential. He started an advanced mathematics program with a handful of students.

    In 1982, his largest class of students took and passed an advanced placement test in Calculus.

    Some of the students’ test scores were invalidated by the testing company because it believed the students had cheated.

    Escalante protested, saying the students had been disqualified because they were Hispanic and from a poor school.

    A few months later, many of the students retook the test and passed.

    If you want to help raise money for Escalante, you can send a check payable to:

    “Friends of  Jaime”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                c/o FASE
    236 West Mountain Street
    Suite 105
    Pasadena, CA 91103

    Those who wish to make a contribution by credit card can call (626) 793-5300 or download a donation form at:

    Poverty is no excuse

    Regent Angus Davis, who helped to recruit State Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist from Washington, D.C., came to Gist’s defense among the heat she and Frances Gallo were taking for their decision to fire all the staff at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. (See my earlier post for the full story.) Davis’s words are inspiring, so I’d like to share them:

    “Where our real focus needs to be is admitting that this school has failed thousands of kids for so long. And I’m ashamed we let it go on for as long as we have,” Davis said.

    “For the first time, we have the courage, at the local level, at the state level, at the national level to say ‘this is not okay.’ Just because you were born in [Zip Code] 02863, that you’re going to get a lousy education. That is not acceptable, and we will not shrink from our responsibility to step up and say we are going to change this. We are going to have higher expectations for these kids.”

    Poverty is no excuse for a sub-par public education. That point is made over and over again in Crazy Like a Fox, but unfortunately it’s not a belief that many people share.

    Rhode Island rocks the boat and brings attention to education reform

    In a small, poor city in Rhode Island sits a low-performing high school with a graduation rate of 48% and a math proficiency rate of 7%.

    Within the same school sit teachers—many making over $72,000 a year—who do not want to take on reform responsibilities without significant pay increases. They have the union’s backing.

    Enter School Superintendent Frances Gallo, who is under pressure from Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist to reform Central Falls High School, which is one of the worst performing schools in the state.

    About a month ago, Education Commissioner Gist tells Superintendent Gallo that she has to use one of four models to reform Central Falls High School. Gallo chooses the “transformation” model, which allows her to work with existing staff members to improve the school’s abominable performance.

    Gallo lays out six conditions. She tells union leaders and staff that if she can’t adopt the “transformation” model by getting their cooperation, she will resort to the “turnaround” model, which means that everyone will be fired and the district will be able to hire 50% or less of the staff back for the next school year.

    The six new staff responsibilities Gallo presents are:

    25 more minutes added to the school day, some tutoring shifts before and after school, once a week eating lunch with students, undergoing more extensive evaluations, attending teacher planning sessions once a week, and 2 weeks of training during the summer.

    Gallo can only offer $30 an hour and only for some of the additional duties, but the union leaders say the teachers should earn $90 an hour and for all of the additional duties.

    As a result, the union leaders say no, we do not agree to your six conditions. They, I conjecture, effectively try to strong-arm Gallo and call her bluff.

    They find out that Gallo wasn’t bluffing because she fired them all. Every teacher and administrator.

    And from this situation a major media story erupts that asks a lot of fundamental education reform questions.

    Here’s a transcript on the subject from Anderson Cooper 360, which shows a classic battling of heads between an education reformer and a teacher’s union president: Read more »

    Recent Book Reviews

    Andrew J. Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, published a review of Crazy Like a Fox: One Principal’s Triumph in the Inner City in City Journal, which is published by the Manhattan Institute. The review is titled: “Tough Love: How Ben Chavis works education wonders”. Here are some excerpts:

    “Once, as a young boy, Ben Chavis wandered unwittingly onto the grounds of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke with some friends. In short order, a man approached them and shouted: ‘You darkies get out of here! You’re trespassing!’ For the past decade, Chavis has been preparing the next generation of poor minority kids to be welcomed through the front gates of top colleges around the country. He’s succeeding beyond everyone’s expectations, except his own.

    “When Chavis took over the American Indian Public Charter School in 2000, it was the worst-performing middle school in Oakland. Within seven years, it was the fourth-highest ranking middle school in the entire state of California. The other top-scoring schools are overwhelmingly wealthy and white; Chavis’s former students at AIPCS (he recently retired as principal) are low-income and mostly black, Hispanic, or American Indian.

    “Crazy Like a Fox is the story of their academic ascent, and it’s unlike any other book of its kind because Ben Chavis himself is one-of-a-kind—passionate, intense, and brutally honest. Like a character in a high-concept Hollywood film, he unabashedly tells whomever he’s speaking with exactly what’s on his mind. And his thoughts often tend toward the controversial. The reactions he inspires range from shock and outrage to admiration and awe.

    “All of this comes through in his book, in which Chavis unflinchingly skewers those he faults for ruining the educational hopes of generations of minority kids. Though a Democrat, he rails against ‘far-to-the-left liberals who in my opinion are worse than the Ku Klux Klan. . . . They love for minorities to have the illusion that we can make choices, but when families are given the chance to choose a public charter school, like AIPCS, these ‘saviors’ always find a way to interfere.’

    “It goes without saying that much of the education establishment finds Chavis infuriating. Yet several attempts to remove him ultimately failed. His incontrovertible success as a principal acted like professional body armor. And while Chavis is keen to document his school’s success based on statewide tests, the book has a conversational feel, interleaving the formative experiences of his youth with the exposition of his school’s methods, trials, and triumphs.”

    The full review can be found here:

    Coulson blogs at if you’d like to read more of his work.

    At Youthworker’s website, I found this review, which was short and well put in my opinion:

    “In the mold of such memorable films as Stand and Deliver and Freedom Writers, the cast of characters in Crazy Like a Fox live in the inner city, are part of an ethnic minority and are poor; but so is their hero. Dr. Chavis shares in his own words the journey that inspired Gov. Schwarzenegger to call his school an ‘education miracle.’ Not only in the villages of Africa, but also on the streets of Oakland, one of the greatest needs on our planet right now is primary education that gives underprivileged children a chance for a healthy and accomplished adulthood. Chavis is crazy; and he’s tough, too. This memoir invites you to walk the path of triumph that overcomes all odds.

    “The Dance of the Lemons” in Los Angeles Unified School District

    Warning: You may want to groan, throw up, or shout at your computer in disgust when you read this article about incompetent teachers and the back-room deals and special interests that keep them in the classroom in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

    L.A. Weekly took the bull by the horns with the fiery expose, “LAUSD’s Dance of the Lemons: Why firing the desk-sleepers, burnouts, hotheads and other failed teachers is all but impossible”. Kudos to Beth Barrett for researching and writing this excellent and shocking piece.

    LAUSD is so large that it “educates” one-tenth of all the students in California. In light of the information revealed by L.A. Weekly, it’s frightening to think that 10% of California’s children are shuffling through such a low-performing, inefficient school district.

    LAUSD is known for its “dance of the lemons”, which refers to the practice of transferring bad teachers secretively to other schools in the district, paying incompetent teachers to leave the system, and repeatedly placing teachers in retraining programs despite evidence that they do not show signs of improvement.

    The dance of the lemons stems from the school district’s inability to fire lousy, tenured teachers due to union rules and bureaucratic red tape. Because of the incredible cost and time involved in trying to get rid of incompetent teachers, administrators have resorted to shuffling the lemons around or paying them to rot somewhere else.

    Here are some excerpts from the article: Read more »

    The National School Lunch Program: Contributing to Childhood Obesity?

    Continuing with the discussion of the National School Lunch Program from last week, I found criticism of the nutritional value of the foods provided as well as steps the Obama administration is taking to curb childhood obesity.

    The National School Lunch Program is a federally funded program that provides reduced-price or free lunches daily to over 30.5 million American children.

    To qualify for free meals children must come from families “with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level”. To give you an example, 130% of the poverty level for a family of four is a total household income of $28,665.

    Participating schools receive cash subsidies for the lunches (and in some cases after-school snacks). The average cost for one free lunch for one student for one day is $2.68.

    According to the official website of the National School Lunch Program, the total cost of providing these free and low-cost lunches was $9.8 billion in 2008. That’s a big price tag, especially considering that many students find the food “nasty” and refuse to eat it. (See last week’s post.) And, as you’ll see below, the food may be contributing to the rising rate of childhood obesity. Read more »

    “Feeding Stray Animals”

    Here’s one way to get media attention. Run for government office and refer to poor people as “stray animals.” What state in the nation could this political hopeful possibly spring from? South Carolina is a good guess.

    South Carolina’s Lt. Governor Andre Bauer, who hopes to replace the missing-in-action, weeping lover of Argentine women, Mr. Mark Sanford, as governor, said during a recent speech:

    “My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

    Who was he referring to? Bauer indirectly compared people receiving government assistance, babies making babies, and parents with children who get free or reduced lunches at school with the feeding of stray animals. Yikes. Poor word choice?

    Bauer continued to claim that the government could not afford to keep doling out funds on behalf of its citizens without some kind of responsibility being shown on the receiving end, such as parents attending teacher conferences. He said, “We can’t afford to keep just giving money away.”

    Though I certainly don’t endorse Bauer’s idea that feeding the poor leads to unwanted reproduction, after reading about his foot-in-the-mouth experience, I wanted to do more research on the National School Lunch Program (one of the programs he targets) to see how much it costs, how many children it serves, and any criticism of the program.

    If you’ve read Crazy Like a Fox, you know that Ben Chavis didn’t have AIPCS take part in the National School Lunch Program once he took over. He thought that students generally found the food “nasty” (his word), so as a result they didn’t eat it and the school ended up with a lot of food waste. In addition, running the program would have required paying people (under union wages) an over-priced amount.

    Sure enough, right away in my Google search I found an article that claimed: “For decades, American students have tagged school lunch as ‘nasty.’” Read more »