Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Rigor Revolution, Revisited

First of all, I recently learned that I have twice increased the readership of this blog over the last two days. Most recently it was doubled, which was nice, but the day before it became INFINITELY more popular than it had been. Sorry; you just can't do any better than that. So to all (both) of my dear readers: Thank you for reading.

This article from Popular Science details the story of Taylor Wilson, a young genius (or, in Workaholics parlance, a "human genius") who managed to achieve nuclear fusion at age 14. My favorite quote from the article is the last line of this paragraph:
The Davidson Academy is a subsidized public school for the nation’s smartest and most motivated students, those who score in the top 99.9th percentile on standardized tests. The school, which allows students to pursue advanced research at the adjacent University of Nevada–Reno, was founded in 2006 by software entrepreneurs Janice and Robert Davidson. Since then, the Davidsons have championed the idea that the most underserved students in the country are those at the top.
First of all, I know I'm looking for confirming evidence, not taking my own advice from this last post. That notwithstanding, I'm increasingly convinced I am on the right track. Before laying out my best arguments, let me first provide a little background into what I see as the heart of the issue and a proposed solution:

We currently expend the vast majority of our resources (time, money, and energy) pursuing the ends of teaching as many of our kids as possible something that will further their education (AKA "teaching to the middle") and teaching the kids who need the most help as much as possible, with the hope that they will eventually join the middle and be able to learn alongside them at a similar pace (AKA "bringing up the bottom.") The goal of this is to provide as many kids as possible as good an education as we can muster, which is noble, but which I believe ignores some of what we have learned about teaching and learning over the last hundred years. I honestly think we stick to this model both because we care about test scores (and test scores are measured by 'percent proficient' or, at best, a mean level of performance) and because we are good people with good hearts, and we got into education because we believe we can make a difference. Nothing tells you you're making a difference like helping kids who couldn't read learn to master difficult texts, or taking a kid from 3x4=No idea to creative problem solving and factoring polynomials. Plus, if we really want to put kids on a better life path, we owe it to them to bring them up to speed as quickly as possible, right?

All true.

I just don't believe this is really the most worthwhile goal to pursue. Yes, it's noble, and yes, it feels like the right thing to do, but it's not what I think we're all really trying to do.

Part of our mission (my favorite part, by the way) states that we aim to "serve as the next generation of leaders in our communities." Though I definitely believe that leadership happens at all levels, and that even mundane tasks offer us all a chance to lead by example, this is not what is meant by our mission statement. We aim to help our kids become the people who will change the world for the better. In science, we want to influence the Taylor Wilsons of the world. In politics, we aim for incredibly bright, thoughtful, caring people at the top, like Barack Obama (one of the benefits of a limited readership is that I can post this and you will both know what I mean...and neither of you will yell or break your monitor.) Consider the extent that the Obamas and Wilsons of the world can make real change happen. Now consider the change that is going to be created by people who nobly put their nose to the grindstone and managed to earn an Associate's Degree before working at a job that allows them to provide for their families. Both are doing a lot of good, but only one of these groups can truly be considered to be the next generation of leadership.

We don't even have to wait that long for the positive effects of better teaching our kids at the top. They can continue to learn at an increased rate, once they are provided some direction and the freedom to keep learning. They can help illuminate concepts that other kids may not understand as easily. They can bring expertise in a single area to help other kids make connections that are currently absent from our classroom discourse.

I'm not talking about creating another Davidson Academy. And I'm definitely not talking about pulling support away from the kids who are the furthest behind. What I'm talking about is changing the ratios a bit. The way I see it, two things have to happen at the same time. The first is that we need to start teaching in a more constructivist way, and in a way that allows our kids to all learn from each other and benefit from the collective wisdom in the room. As long as the teacher is the keeper of knowledge, we're not going to benefit as much as we could (at least not for a long time) from a small group of kids suddenly knowing a lot more things.

If we group our kids into Rafe Esquith's three groups (Kid As are the 20% at the top, Kid Bs are the 60% in the middle, and Kid Cs are the 20% at the bottom), I'd say we currently allocate about 10% of our resources to Kid As, 50% to Kid Bs, and 40% to Kid Cs (or, in my case, 10% to A, 30% to B, 50% to C, and 10% to blogging about it.) I think we have it backwards, and I think our Return On Investment (ROI) for energy spent on Kid As is much more than our ROI spent on Kid Cs, both in the short term (through their contributions to the learning of Kid Bs and Kid Cs) and in the long term (through their contributions to society.) In fact, I think we can lose no net learning from Kid Bs by fixing the formula so we're still allocating 20% to Kid Cs, but now 40% to Kid Bs and 40% to Kid As.

Can you imagine if our top kids actually got twice as much attention as our kids at the bottom? I don't mean the kind of attention they already get more of, in terms of getting not-so-cold called for tough questions in class that we know they can supply the correct answers to. I mean actually designing tasks that will push them forward academically...planning separate lessons for our high flyers, creating projects tailored to their interests, allowing more time for individual 'tutoring' to push their thoughts on certain issues and give them feedback, which they are more likely to take and run with anyway.

I'm not the first one to think of this. This idea is often championed by misguided teachers who just want kids who are super compliant, get all the right answers, and require little-to-no teaching in order to reach whatever minimum bar of proficiency has been set by the state. These are the teachers who just wish all their kids were like little Jamie, smart girl that she is. These people should probably not be teachers.

But this idea is also at the heart of what makes the Success Academies across New York so impressive. I don't mean impressive like OMG LOOK AT THEIR TEST SCORES (though they're super high); I mean impressive as in THIS IS THE SCHOOL EVERY PARENT WISHES THEIR KID COULD GO TO. When I visited Success Academy Bronx 2 in December 2012 (last month), the principal told us that she had to talk her teachers (most of whom, like her, have backgrounds in special education) out of spending most of their time with the most struggling scholars. Instead, she had them push the kids at the top. Once those kids were set and learning faster than ever before, the teachers had much more time to work with the kids who struggled the most - now unburdened with the idea that they were stagnating the kids at the top so that they could help those who needed the most help.

This is my real hope. I don't know that it's sustainable to spend half of our energy on the 20 percent at the top. But what if we did this for 2-4 weeks? Could we get kids at the top learning, and set up to keep learning for another 2-4 weeks while we intensively helped the kids at the bottom? What would we lose if we tried and failed? What would we gain if we tried and succeeded?

To me, this seems like a risk worth taking. Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes this situation as antifragile, and  posits that we have much more to gain than we do to lose from taking this risk. I personally don't think we have much to lose from trying this out, but we do have a lot to lose if we try this without thinking it through: We could potentially lose the permission to try again.

If you have any ideas about how we could go about designing this experiment, or how you could see us allocating our resources differently for a short burst of time, I'd love to read about them in the comments.


  1. When you say "I'd say we currently allocate about 40% of our resources to Kid As, 50% to Kid Bs, and 10% to Kid Cs," you have that backwards, right? You really mean we allocate "10% of our resources to Kid As, 50% to Kid Bs and 40% to Kid Cs."

  2. Good catch, Andy. This has been fixed.