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An IDEA Whose Time Has Come

from the magazine

An IDEA Whose Time Has Come

In the Rio Grande Valley, an innovative charter school network is getting stellar results with at-risk kids. Winter 2019

The Rio Grande Valley in Texas is not the first place that policymakers look for solutions to America’s most enduring problems. But from this region of chronic poverty comes a charter school network so good at teaching the poor that it has attracted nearly $1 billion in bonds, as well as bids from leaders around the country eager to help finance its expansion into their cities.

IDEA Public Schools is the fastest-growing school district in America. Founded in 2000 by two Teach for America alums on the second floor of a church near the Mexican border, IDEA today comprises 79 schools, 45,000 students, 5,100 employees, and a budget of $500 million. It opened 18 schools last year and will open 18 more in 2019. It has expanded into El Paso and Baton Rouge, Louisiana (its first location outside Texas). It will open schools in Fort Worth in 2019, Houston in 2020, and Midland and Tampa in 2021. By 2022, it expects to have 173 schools and 100,000 students, almost all from poor homes.

Cofounder Tom Torkelson thinks that IDEA can become the biggest district in the country and the nation’s largest source of college graduates. He’s determined to be the first to build a bottom-to-top system that gets students from poor homes through college on a large scale. His success so far suggests that the low upward mobility of the American economy stems more from faulty teaching and a broken education system than from the globalization of labor or other external factors. The best way to reform that system, IDEA shows, is to open it up to competition.

IDEA stands for Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement. It has lived up to its name. It won the Broad Prize in 2016 for best public charter school network in the United States. Six of its high schools appear in the top 1 percent of the nation’s most challenging high schools, as ranked by the Washington Post, and among the top 500 high schools as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. Every IDEA graduate has been accepted into college every year since the first graduating class in 2007—including 849 seniors who graduated IDEA last spring. As of mid-November, 50 percent of the 2012 class had earned four-year degrees—a rate more than five times the national average for poor and minority students. Three out of four students are the first in their families to go to college. (Torkelson and his cofounder, JoAnn Gama, were the first college grads from their families, too.) Nine out of ten students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a concentration likely to increase because the district launched a means-tested, state-funded pre-K program in 2017. Ninety-three percent are Hispanic.

IDEA is a threat to conventional public school systems, whose allies on the left have savaged it at every turn. As a lure to Mexicans who slip across the border and use its schools—taxpayer-funded schools with long waiting lists of U.S. citizens—it also can discomfit conservatives opposed to illegal immigration. And as an advocate of college for all, IDEA can be faulted for not preparing at least some students for work in the trades. But IDEA has a powerful case to make against its critics: it works.

IDEA was made possible by Texas’s 1995 charter school law. Tuition-free and open to all students, charter schools are more “public” than conventional public schools in that students need not live in a defined geographic area. (If a campus attracts more applicants than it has slots, a lottery determines admission.) Charters are less public than public schools in that they are typically nonprofit corporations, governed by boards whose members are appointed, not elected by the public.

Entities like IDEA that run multiple schools are called charter-management organizations (CMOs). The state treats CMOs as individual districts, even if they operate campuses in disconnected regions. The IDEA district is based in Weslaco and comprises schools in Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, and 20 communities in the Rio Grande Valley.

Charter funding is based on average daily attendance, as it is for other public schools. Charters receive between 10 percent and 20 percent less than conventional public schools from the state. They get no public money from local taxes and little for facilities. Philanthropy covers startup costs. Still, average state funding exceeds $9,000 per student per year, enough to enable a well-run charter to generate an operating surplus and borrow money through the sale of tax-exempt bonds to pay for facilities. IDEA budgeted $9,000 in state revenue per student and ran a $30 million surplus for the 2017–18 school year.

The most persistent criticism of IDEA, and of charters generally, is that they get their results by taking the best students and driving off the rest. But IDEA’s students are actually poorer than students at nearby public schools, and their dropout rate is lower, even though IDEA’s academic demands are much higher.

The most common complaint from charter schools is that they get less taxpayer money than conventional public schools. IDEA has been uniquely adept at raising funds. It has received more than $150 million in competitive grants from the U.S. Department of Education, but its most remarkable success has come in the commercial bond market. It floated a $176 million bond issue in 2017, the largest ever by a CMO. It expects to sell another $235 million in bonds in 2019, bringing its total bond debt to $950 million. It has a BBB+ bond rating, the highest a charter has received. “Institutional investors wait for us to come to market,” IDEA’s chief financial officer, Wyatt Truscheit, says. “We’ve been very well accepted.”

Consumers have accepted them, too. “We can’t grow fast enough to meet the need,” IDEA’s chief operating officer, Irma Muñoz, says. As of mid-November, the district had a waiting list of more than 42,000 names. The more schools it opens, the bigger that number gets—and parents aren’t the only ones beating down the doors. When IDEA expanded into San Antonio in 2012, NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson recruited the district to take over the private Christian elementary school that he had founded, the George Washington Carver Academy. IDEA’s chief advancement officer, Samuel Goessling, says that suitors beyond Texas include groups in 11 cities, from Tampa to Seattle.

IDEA is not the only high-performing charter-management organization. What makes it unique (beyond its growth rate) is that it uses a teaching method scorned by other educators for more than 50 years. The approach, Direct Instruction, is the brainchild of Siegfried Engelmann, who pioneered the field of instructional design in the mid-1960s and went on to write more than 100 curricula, covering all major subjects from preschool to high school.

More scientific evidence validates Direct Instruction’s effectiveness than any other mode of teaching. DI programs have been shown to accelerate learning in the poor, in different racial and ethnic groups, in students with disabilities and in special education, and in children with above-average IQs. DI has also been shown to reduce dropout rates, discipline problems, and referrals to special ed.

Thousands of field-tested details go into a DI program. The most conspicuous are concise teacher scripts and “choral” student responses. The scripts specify a precise sequence of examples, exercises, and wording that teach a subject quickly and clearly. Whole-class unison responses maximize every student’s opportunity to practice. A teacher trained in DI methods will hear it when students answer late or incorrectly—just as an orchestra conductor hears a violinist who comes in late or out of tune. Lessons include as many as 15 commands and responses per minute—many times the teaching rate of most programs. Mastery tests, given every five to ten lessons, ensure that no child’s struggles go unaddressed.

Direct Instruction is anathema to many educators because it gives them less freedom in the classroom and because it defies their stake in wrongheaded theories about how children learn. IDEA is the first school system to implement Engelmann’s programs on a large scale, a fact that shows the power of the education establishment to resist progress as well as why IDEA is such a threat: it attracts parents by doing things to help their kids that conventional school districts won’t do.

The approach is not for the fainthearted: it takes time to learn and is often unpopular at first. When Torkelson announced its adoption to his board in 2011, he warned that IDEA would lose students and teachers the first year. IDEA was already outperforming the competition. When a board member asked why he bothered, Torkelson replied: “Because ‘better than’ is not the same as ‘good enough.’ ”

The drive to keep getting better is uncommon in conventional public schools because the leadership to sustain it is fleeting and rare. The average superintendent’s tenure lasts less than four years; Torkelson, in his nineteenth year at IDEA, has no plans to leave. He is his own CEO and can handpick a strong board. Unencumbered by unions, he has more control over staffing and more freedom to innovate with labor and compensation strategies. He can’t afford the complacency and cronyism that afflict the field—he’ll lose students (and go bankrupt) if he fails to serve them well. He started IDEA when he was 24, the youngest founder ever of a charter school in Texas. An accomplished triathlete, he is fiercely competitive. He did not absorb the myths about learning that infect education schools—he graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in economics.

Torkelson has high hopes for everyone. He expects all children at IDEA to read by the end of kindergarten, including the thousands who arrive speaking no English. (He taught his two sons to read when they were three by using Engelmann’s book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.) When Teach for America assigned him to teach fourth grade, at Donna Independent School District, next door to Weslaco, he was stunned to discover that students could barely read, and appalled that no one could tell him how to catch them up. He found a DI program, SRA Corrective Reading, opened an after-school academy with his TFA colleague Gama, and got good results for two years. He quit and launched IDEA after the district refused to let them use DI during school.

Torkelson wants IDEA to be more like a well-run, well-liked corporation than a school district. His two most indispensable senior executives come from the private sector. A graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, COO Muñoz—brought illegally into the U.S. as a child—was Senior Director of New Markets at GMAC Financial. CFO Truscheit was Vice President of Finance at Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

Muñoz came on board when IDEA had just eight schools. Now she’s head of construction, maintenance, school operations, student recruitment, transportation, child nutrition, marketing and communications, information technology, and data management. She had to learn the details of all those operations from scratch as they evolved. Take building design. School size has stayed the same—120 students per grade—but DI requires students to be grouped by ability, for efficient instruction. IDEA’s early schools had standard 400-square-foot open classrooms, so the advanced and low groups within a class often wound up in hallways or closets. New schools have rooms of different sizes and “intervention centers” with retractable walls to accommodate many more groups.

IDEA has also devised strategies to improve student health. Forty percent of its students are significantly overweight—the Rio Grande Valley has among the highest obesity rates in the world. The district has integrated aerobic activity throughout the school day. Students do 60-second bursts of exercise outside gym class and are given wristband heart-rate monitors to motivate them to set personal fitness goals. Classes on healthy habits are part of the curriculum. Parent volunteers monitor what gets eaten and survey students whenever nutritious items are added to the cafeteria menu. When it seemed as though kids weren’t drinking enough water, the district added purifiers to water fountains to make it taste better, and gave students canteens.

Academics have changed as well. The half-day pre-K program uses DI and has yielded big gains in reading, language, and math. AP for All, launched in 2014, requires all high school students to take at least 11 advanced-placement courses. In grades three through eight, IDEA identified 5,000 students at least two years behind their peers. The district pulls them out of their regular classes and teaches them with the same DI remedial programs that Torkelson used 20 years ago, plus new programs that Engelmann wrote to teach writing, spoken English, and pre-algebra. DI summer school for the early grades was added to give struggling students more instructional time and new teachers more practice. Summer at college was added for high school juniors to acquaint them with campus life and give them a leg up on applications.

IDEA University, a new partnership with Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, aims to give IDEA alumni who dropped out of college—and IDEA employees who never went—another chance to earn a degree. The program combines the social support and accountability of a classroom with the flexibility and affordability of an online university. Students do course work and take exams at their own pace via the Internet, but they must also attend a summer academic boot camp and then spend at least 13 hours on IDEA’s 14,000-square-foot “campus.”

IDEA is obsessive about goals. The most important are referred to as “Bathroom Goals” because they are posted on the bathroom stalls. They range from the percentage of prekindergartners at or above grade level by the end of the school year in reading, language, and math (goal: 90 percent) to the percentage of graduating seniors who matriculate to a Tier I or Tier II college or university (goal: 25 percent).

A key goal for staff, met last year for the first time, is 85 percent teacher retention. IDEA has attacked turnover by recruiting better teachers and by training principals to be better managers. It also increased pay and created rewards for good performance and for staying at IDEA for at least three years. Staff last year began doing friendly “pulse-check” conversations, mostly with first-year teachers, who are the most likely to leave. The district hired 629 new teachers and 362 co-teachers for the 2018–19 school year. “Our volume allows us to pilot things in a controlled setting,” Muñoz says. “When you don’t have the volume, you don’t have the playground to innovate. You don’t have the talent pool. Getting bigger has helped us get better.”

“Good manners, courage, and other virtues are taught and reinforced with 55 school rules.”

Student enrollment costs have declined 20 percent, thanks to targeted marketing and social media. The district hired a market-research firm to test messages in focus groups and found that different places value different things. In the Rio Grande Valley, parents care most about academics; in Baton Rouge, they care most about character development.

IDEA rates its schools on various metrics and encourages collaboration and friendly competition among them. South Flores Academy in San Antonio is one of the best. Principal Hailey McCarthy knows exactly where she stands: Number One in teacher retention and student persistence in central Texas; and Number One on DI programs district-wide. She knows that her lowest-performing third-grader reads 85 words per minute on grade-level text and that the norm is 112. She knows that every second-grader who reached Level 3, Lesson 70 in Engelmann’s Reading Mastery passed the state’s third-grade reading test the next year and that the best way to ensure that everyone got that far was to add pre-K to her school, which she did in 2017. (The program is optional.) Her other key decision: putting her best teachers in kindergarten. Many principals put their best teachers in third grade, when state testing begins.

“At first I made a lot of mistakes,” McCarthy says. “I knew nothing about DI. It took me a while to learn that fidelity to the program matters.” She arrives at school by 6 AM and leaves after 6:30 PM. She follows the typical IDEA schedule: morning huddle with grade-team leaders at 7; breakfast for students at 7:30; Morning Meeting at 8, when teachers read stories aloud and ask questions to build social and language skills; 30 minutes of science; three hours of DI reading and language; lunch and recess (30 minutes each) for kids, DI script practice for teachers; 90 minutes of math; 90 minutes of electives; dismissal at 3:45; after-school tutoring and clubs; and Saturday school for kids who are behind.

IDEA students wear uniforms. Good manners, courage, and other virtues are taught and reinforced with 55 school rules. Rule 4: respect other students’ comments, opinions, and ideas. Rule 47: no Cheeto fingers on library or textbooks. Rule 49: stand up for what you believe.

IDEA is a good horse on a muddy track. Compared with the industries that COO Muñoz and CFO Truscheit came from, teaching is in the Dark Ages, so it’s not surprising that buildings and bond issues have improved faster than student learning. The district has no clear understanding of how to create or evaluate curricula, and it has often been led astray by the trainers, funders, and regulators who dominate K–12 education.

State tests, for instance, tell teachers much less about their students than the mastery tests built in to DI programs, but they drive instruction because the states fund the schools. Even mavericks like Torkelson find it hard to resist. He dropped DI in grades three through five and DI math altogether for a mix of unproven materials that he hopes will improve his state scores. Gama says that she would have stuck with DI had the district been allowed to choose its own tests. Student learning would have improved if she had.

Bad training is an even bigger problem. IDEA spends tens of millions of dollars yearly on training because almost no one starts out knowing how to teach poor children or kids speaking little English. Resistance to doing what works is long-standing. Teach for America, which failed to teach Gama and Torkelson how to teach reading in the 1990s, warned them in 2012 that it would stop sending teachers to IDEA’s elementary academies because the schools had started using DI. IDEA still gets teachers from TFA but uses Engelmann’s firm, the National Institute for Direct Instruction, to train them.

Gama, the chief of schools, says that her greatest challenge is finding good principals. The U.S. system does not prepare them, so IDEA created an on-the-job Principal in Residence program to develop its own. Just ten of the district’s 76 principals come from conventional public schools. The rest are homegrown, at a training cost of more than $100,000 each.

Philanthropists with their own ideas about education have been another distraction. The Gates Foundation gave IDEA $3.5 million to open three high schools serving poor communities. But ninth grade is too late to begin closing the achievement gap, and the students struggled. IDEA now launches new schools with grades K–2 in elementary (or pre-K–1) and grade six in college prep, and then adds a grade each year.

Can IDEA be replicated? There is no replicating leaders like Torkelson, but policymakers can make room for them. CMOs are proven forges for leadership. With their growing waiting lists, superior results, and cost-effectiveness, the good ones are becoming more politically palatable. The goals should be clear: identify high-performing charters and give them as much funding and freedom as possible; minimize barriers to entry and don’t try to regulate quality. The experience in Arizona, the gold standard for light supervision, shows that parents with lots of schools to choose from are quicker than the state to punish poor performance. Bad charters in Arizona suffer dwindling enrollment long before regulators get around to closing them.

Hope must face reality. Even if Torkelson creates the biggest and best school district in America and inspires a host of emulators, our education system is so vast, blinkered, and broken that it will be slow to notice the revolution, except to complain. So far, no conventional public school has adopted anything of substance from IDEA.

Even so, IDEA’s overnight rise is a boon to the children it serves and a fresh sign that America’s genius to create a more perfect union endures.

In addition to providing strong academics, IDEA schools inculcate good manners, courage, and other virtues. (PHOTO BY MITCH IDOL, COURTESY OF IDEA PUBLIC SCHOOLS)

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