This week I visited one of the Mastery charter schools in Philadelphia as part of a project on teacher and principal quality I’m doing for the Philanthropy Roundtable. A few years ago, Philadelphia elected to turn over some of its worst performing schools to Mastery, a charter network. Mastery has been good about improving discipline and raising test scores from some depressingly low levels in the schools it operates. This is no small thing in a world in which some people still believe that children from disadvantaged circumstances are inherently ill-behaved or incapable of learning.
But a few years into this experiment, these schools are figuring out ways to move beyond discipline and grade level test scores to get at deeper questions of how we learn and how we can keep learning as we start to perform on larger stages.
This is actually a question I’ve seen a number of high performing charter schools taking on. They can boast close to 100% high school graduation rates, and even close to 100% enrollment in 2- and 4-year-colleges. But then college completion is a different matter. At KIPP (another high performing network), for instance, the college graduation rate is about 40%. This is much, much higher than the rate for minority children who grow up in poverty, generally, but people who go into this sort of work would like to get it higher. Sometimes basic economic and logistical matters keep people from graduating, but sometimes it’s about academic problem solving, too. When someone isn’t closely observing you, and pushing you through, how can you develop the academic grit to keep at stuff that’s really tough?
In the 9th grade English class I visited at Mastery Charter’s Shoemaker campus, one attempt to get at this is “structured struggle.” As a regular exercise, students get excerpts from challenging texts with little by way of introduction or explanation. They learn to mark up what they do understand on one side, and questions they have on the other. They hash out with a partner a short summary of what happened in the excerpt. When I was there to see this, the teacher went around and selected 3 examples of different ideas of what was going on. The particular passage was the first few paragraphs of the short story The Sniper. The first paragraph is this:
“The long June twilight faded into night. Dublin lay enveloped in darkness but for the dim light of the moon that shone through fleecy clouds, casting a pale light as of approaching dawn over the streets and the dark waters of the Liffey. Around the beleaguered Four Courts the heavy guns roared. Here and there through the city, machine guns and rifles broke the silence of the night, spasmodically, like dogs barking on lone farms. Republicans and Free Staters were waging civil war.”
So these children were born after the IRA was particularly in the news (the story is from the 1920s); “Republican” is a word they know but is incorrect in the familiar sense. And Dublin? A reasonable proportion thought Dublin was a person, perhaps the name of the sniper, which would then make the story a placeless dystopian tale. It’s a fascinating idea, if not what Liam O’Flaherty was tilting at. So much depends upon knowing that Dublin is a real and historically war-torn place in Ireland. The teacher chose 3 ideas from the class, which the children could then debate and try to figure out. For example (alas, the bell rang, so we didn’t quite get to this!) with specific words like “Liffey” and “Four Courts” it seems like we are probably in an actual place…? The goal is developing strategies for figuring out something you are unfamiliar with, and learning to weigh if something is right or wrong without someone telling you it’s right (the teacher jokes to me later “If Dublin is a person to you, it’s a person to me!”)
Stuff is hard, and we might be wrong, but we keep at it. The teacher told me that she learned to put examples of student work up on the board, but in the past, she used to put the good work up. Now she puts “erroneous” work up — because everyone can learn from the mistakes and it’s also good to see that everyone does make mistakes. She once wrote an essay up on the projector with the class on the fly, changing words and sentences around. Writing does not emerge in perfect form. We construct our knowledge in messy ways.
And that’s what happens in the more independent learning world of college and life too. Sometimes there are no right answers. And sometimes there are right answers, but we’re not going to be able to immediately see what they are. We struggle, but we can learn to structure our struggle to stretch our minds as we go.