Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Revolution #1: The Rigor Revolution

A couple guys at school and I have this game, whereby we change one letter in a movie's title and create a plot to go with it. The other guys has to guess the new title. Here are a couple:

1. A mafia leader decides that his life would be more meaningful if lived in service to his country, and finally overcomes his fear of flying to become a helicopter pilot.

This one is Black Hawk Don.

2. This work, reconstructed from historical documents, chronicles the last days of an infirm William Shakespeare, as doctors try desperately to save the dying playwright.

Ill Bill.

If you think this is a great new game to play with friends, welcome! If you think this is one of the dumbest things you've ever heard, you're probably not going to enjoy this blog much. Hooray for free markets!

So in the spirit of this game, instead of New Year's Resolutions, let's play New Year's Revolutions, starting with Revolution #1: The Rigor Revolution.

As a math and science coach, the revolution I want to be a part of is the Rigor Revolution. For the past 9 years, I feel like I've been working to make sure every child is successful with every problem. We have all tried to make our curriculum accessible. We came up with songs and chants, and supplemented with some more difficult variations, but we always set the upper bound of our variations to align with the rigor of our most difficult assessment items. This is the "teaching to the test" that can be good or bad, depending on the rigor and complexity of the test. In Florida, this was a good thing, since it greatly increased the rigor of what we would have taught. In California, as in Connecticut, this has had mostly detrimental effects, since the rigor of our state assessments has been so low, and the scope so wide, that we have been essentially flying through material, "covering" it to the minimum acceptable level of rigor and complexity.

Enter the Common Core. These standards seem to have been created for a system like ours, with our legacy of teaching to the minimum acceptable level. I don't expect this new set of standards to immediately transform every classroom in America, and I'll leave the debate about the Common Core for another post, but I do think it will work wonders for No Excuses schools like ours.

Some will read this and only understand that Aha! They DO just teach to the test. Really, I think the philosophical genesis is a little different - our schools have always aimed to help everybody in the class get to a certain level of proficiency, since they began as a response to the fact that vast numbers of kids were essentially learning nothing, year after year. It was a reasonable response - come to OUR school, and we will make sure you learn this really basic stuff. The good news is that it worked - kids in Houston (at the first KIPP schools) did incredibly well on the various state tests they took. In North Carolina, kids smashed through barriers. At KIPP Fresno, our small school in California, our kids even did better on the 6th grade math test than the gifted and talented school across town. Sure, we learned a year later at a MathCounts competition that our top kids were among the bottom of all top kids in the city, but...results!

Another data point from KIPP Fresno: In our first year, based on the Stanford-10 test, we lost 9 of the top 10 kids. For a system of schools that takes a lot of flack for attrition among the lowest-performing students, I think it's worth noting that we lost most of our high-performing kids. This correlates with our approach at the time, which, sadly, is still close to the norm for No Excuses schools today: Allocate resources so that 100% of kids can meet a minimum bar, which necessarily implies that the top kids get very little attention.

The main problem with all of these results is that, in places with statewide proficiency rates of 80%, getting to 100% passing doesn't really tell you much. The other problem is that it can take your focus off of the goal of "excellence for many", instead focusing on "mediocrity for all." And I don't think all kids actually contribute equally to the learning that happens in a classroom. Anecdotally, I learned a lot more when I was surrounded by brilliant classmates, who were genuinely interested and engaged. All of this points to a case for more attention to the top than we're currently allocating.

As a teacher, this is a huge shift. It means pitching things much higher than before, which means pushing the limits of how well you actually understand what you're teaching. It means asking for connections, asking for creativity, and stretching beyond the limits of what has already been taught this year or last.

Beyond a teacher's own comfort with the material, there is also the issue of being comfortable pitching tasks that many kids won't know how to approach at first. You will feel like a failure. You will feel like you are setting kids up for failure. You will question why our school exists, since this is the problem you imagine left so many of your kids so far behind.

To all of this I say: Our schools exist to provide choice to families, to provide a safe place for kids to learn, and to teach the kids we have in the best way we know how. One of the benefits of being a charter is that we can "fail fast" - we can ditch what is not working as soon as we realize it's not working. What we currently have is not working. Many of our kids are not really being challenged, and that's a huge problem.

So let's do this. This year, let's make sure all of our kids are challenged. Let's make a lot of mistakes with it. Let's challenge ourselves to make our classes difficult enough to make high school and college less daunting. Let's make our school much harder, and watch our kids all benefit from the top half of our student body becoming far more engaged and challenged.

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