Success Academy: Under pressure

It’s too easy to be shocked by the New York Times’ video clip of a Success Academy teacher tearing up a first-grader’s math paper and publicly chastising her, which is making the rounds on social media.

Who would think it is OK to humiliate a first-grader?

Who would support a school culture where, as one teacher said, “If you’ve made them cry, you’ve succeeded in getting your point across.”

Experts across the education spectrum have weighed in: Yes, it’s wonderful what Success Academy is accomplishing in test scores. No, it’s not OK to traumatize children.

The Times article makes it pretty clear that this was not an isolated incident. What it doesn’t explain — because no one from the school is really defending their practices — is why this kind of teacher behavior is happening.

It’s happening (and not just at Success Academy) because children are not perfect, but teachers are under tremendous pressure to get perfect test scores out of them, and they don’t know how.

No one should reasonably expect a first grader to answer math questions correctly every time. Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, makes a compelling case that first graders (and all young learners) should be encouraged to explore, make mistakes and learn from them — rather than simply trying to memorize and produce right answers.

When children make calculation mistakes, she says, their errors are not random. A good teacher needs to understand the kinds of flaws that hinder kids’ mathematical thinking — not just shut them down.

“What you do when you’re teaching is you think about other people’s thinking,” Ball said in a recent RadioWorks documentary on Teaching Teachers. “You don’t think about your own thinking; you think what other people think. That is really hard.:

Ball’s approach is engaging, but it is also time consuming, and at Success Academy and too many schools like it, they just don’t have that kind of time.

Nurturing intrinsic curiosity is one route to motivation, but fear works much faster. It’s particularly painful to see fear used to motivate a precious, cooperative first-grader — thank goodness we can’t see her face — but it should disturb us no matter where it’s happening.

Eric Toshalis, author of Make Me!, has documented the way teachers use power and coercion in secondary schools — and the implications for student behavior and learning. He also advocates letting students explore their mistakes.

“Entertaining a student’s incorrect assumptions or errant calculations can often inspire much greater interest and engagement than simply offering a correction,” he wrote.

We as a society — not just Success Academy — need to slow down and think about how we are engaging our students in the learning process.  

We might be able to force basic literacy and numeracy skills on our children, but we can’t possibly build 21st Century skills like collaboration and critical thinking that way.

We can’t beat a love of learning into children, either. For that, we need a better approach.