At my school, we believe every child can succeed through hard work and determination. I teach my students that consistent, diligent effort pays off. I live by the credo that hard work, rather than natural born talent, or privilege, leads to success. So I push my scholars to work hard because I expect them to excel in every aspect of school, from math and writing to science and chess.
I also find great joy within my school community when students prove that their work has paid off. For instance, students who struggled to write a cohesive paragraph learning to write a beautiful essay or students who had trouble grasping algebra solving a complex equation from a tough word problem. Teachers celebrate, parents celebrate, and, most important, students gain a sense of accomplishment and increased confidence in their abilities (and they celebrate, too).
Recently, The New York Times published an in-depth story about Success Academy’s 32 high-performing public charter schools that serve mostly poor and minority children in New York City. The article caused a lot of buzz and many supporters of our work characterized it as overly negative.
The article begins by recounting the story of a fourth grade student who was struggling academically. His grades on weekly quizzes were posted, along with the grades of all students, for everyone to see. This public display of student performance might be uncommon in other schools, and may seem harsh to those students who perform worse than their peers, but the practice works well for us at Success Academy.
As the article mentions, when that fourth grader eventually earns a high grade the teacher announced the achievement to the class—as a teacher who has seen this scenario play out firsthand, I am confident the entire class reacted with genuine excitement. Also important to note: The boy’s teacher held meetings with his mom about her concerns as soon as they materialized and, when he was successful, the teacher’s first thought was to call and share the good news.
A reader who has not studied the epidemic of failing schools in America, or has not experienced the limited options of quality schools available to her own child, might read the story of this fourth grader and think Success Academy is wrong to draw attention to his low performance. She may think this anecdote, and the rest of the article, which focuses a great deal on what we do to prepare students to succeed on state tests, creates an overly intense environment for children.
Perhaps those are the same people who are satisfied with letting millions of children languish in schools that aren’t doing enough for their students. Under that mindset, a school or teacher may label the fourth grader described above as incapable of achieving at higher levels. His parents may see the grades on a report card a few times per year, but will likely lack the same level of contact and information from his teachers regarding both the need for improvement and reasons for celebration.
In truth, the main difference between our schools and schools with students from similar backgrounds, between schools where the vast majority of students excel versus fail, is high expectations.
We do not shame students for performing poorly; we do everything we can to prove to them that they can perform at the highest level and then give them the support and structure in which to do so. And it is the students who are proving that, beyond a doubt, success is possible.