Lessons from Eighth Graders

I’m in this really awesome national organization called Students for Education Reform. I started a chapter at my university. Our mission is to educate the next generation of leaders about the achievement gap so that we can close it. Because it needs to be closed.

This is our first quarter at OU, and it’s not been terribly easy. A lot of our plans have fallen through, but throughout the quarter, there have been some really great things that have kept me excited. Today, I had an experience that will keep me excited about ed reform for the rest of the year. I got the chance, with a couple of other students, to visit KIPP Journey in Columbus. The school was, simply put, kick ass.

KIPP Journey is a charter school for fifth through eighth graders. Most students enter KIPP well below grade level in both reading and math. By the time they leave, though, they are not only testing better than most of their peers in Columbus but also than most KIPP schools around the nation. That’s incredible!

One of the most notable things about the school was that in most of the classrooms we observed, the teachers had visible and public graphs, tracking each student’s test scores. I have heard stories about teachers doing this, and I’ve always been skeptical. I know in my own public schools, public information like that would have been toxic. Those at the top would have been ridiculed for being nerds and those at the bottom would have been ridiculed for being stupid. At least I thought so until today.

We got a chance to talk to a couple of outstanding eighth graders. I asked them about the charts. They smiled at me, knowingly. The following is a paraphrase of their answer:

Of course we like knowing where we are. It’s important to know where we have come and where we are going. And plus, we can see where other kids are. So we can help the ones who are beneath us. And we can ask for help from the ones who are above us. It’s not really about being smart or dumb. Sometimes certain subjects are just easier for some people. I may be better at math. But she might be better at science. It doesn’t really matter. In fact, it’s better that way. It makes it easier to help each other. We have a goal here of everyone scoring Proficient on the OAA. That’s a tough goal, but we are helping each other get there.

I still don’t know if the chart thing would be successful in my junior high, but I do know that the culture at my school was completely different than that. At my school, being an A student was important in and of itself. I didn’t really care about learning as long as I was getting A’s. A lot of this was my fault, but a lot of it was also that I didn’t know what else to base my academic goals on. If someone had told me, “Hey, you are reading at a tenth grade reading level. That’s great, but here’s what you could do to be reading at a college level,” I would have loved it.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in KIPP Journey. The culture isn’t about valuing the grade. It’s about valuing knowledge and learning. If a student masters a skill, s/he doesn’t say, “This is good enough.” Instead, s/he asks, “What else can I master?” And they realize there is always someone who is above them. That’s so so healthy. KIPP Journey isn’t about being the best. It’s about being the best you can be. And somehow, as the test results show, when kids/people concentrate on that, they become the best.

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