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Carefully sliding the bar of success

By the Notebook on Jan 4, 2013 01:58 PM

by Chris Low

It had been a while since I had seen such an unusual reaction to failing a test. Adam, one of my 5th-grade students, had fashioned his two-page score report into makeshift ice skates. Sliding around the back of the room, he declared, “I don’t care about this stupid test! I don’t care! This test was stupid!” It’s an unorthodox strategy for analyzing the data, wearing your report on your shoes.

In my role as a learning support teacher at KIPP Philadelphia Charter School, I had pulled students with learning disabilities into a smaller, more accommodating space during interim testing. Adam was one of those students, and I had worked closely with him during the week leading up to testing. I felt invested in his success. So I was hit with a mix of shock and disappointment to see him behave this way.

On a couch in the back of the classroom, Adam and I sat down to cool off and talk through the numbers. When he was ready to listen, I told him something that clearly surprised him. I pointed to Adam’s first interim score, which was a 53, then I pointed to his new score, which was a 68. I told Adam that I didn’t think he had failed at all.

There is a delicate balance at play in many Philadelphia schools. At the heart of the issue is the idea of expectations. How can teachers keep the bar high without giving in to the constant disillusionment of failed endeavors and unrealized goals? This past summer, during my training as a teaching fellow, my eyes were opened to the limitless potential of students unhindered by the boundaries of low expectations. For many Philadelphia students, the biggest barrier to success lies in the belief that great accomplishments are beyond their grasp. The goal of the teacher is to be a figure that pushes students past the limits of what they think they can do.

But it’s never that simple.

I found early in my first year of teaching in Philadelphia that maintaining high expectations carries a price. I was disappointed all the time. I was disappointed in my kids for not trying harder, and I was disappointed in myself for not being a better teacher. I hesitated to celebrate success with my students, because their success never measured up to the standard we were trying to reach.

That’s where the balancing act begins. That’s where the bar needs to slide.

When kids feel successful, they try harder. Like when I learned how to ride a bike. The bike I learned on happened to be a girl’s bike that was embarrassingly small. I felt ridiculous, but my dad celebrated my small achievement anyway. That feeling of success helped me find the courage to try on something a little more impressive, a bigger bike. My dad had lowered the handlebar, but as soon as I proved myself capable, he quietly slid that bar a little higher, and I was back to reaching again. I’m learning how to do that for my students.

During my conversation with Adam, his face had lit up a bit. I explained that an increase of 15 points in just six weeks was impressive. We did some quick math and figured that he would have a B on the next interim if he kept increasing his score by the same interval. It was a sweet moment, and I think it was just what Adam needed to hear in order to press on.

“Will you call my mom and tell her?” Adam asked. “She’s not going to believe me that this is good.”

Adam was right. Keeping the balance between celebrating small achievements and maintaining high expectations is a tricky business. I said I would be happy to call if he agreed to look at his scores with me to see where he could improve. He peeled the test off the soles of his shoes, and we got started.

Chris Low teaches learning support at KIPP Philadelphia Charter School and is a 2012 Philadelphia Teaching Fellow. 

The opinions expressed in this guest post are solely those of the author. The Notebook invites readers to submit posts on current topics in education. Send submissions to


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Comments (18)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 4, 2013 6:22 pm
Beautiful. Thank you.
Submitted by Susan Crawford (not verified) on January 5, 2013 2:10 pm
Mr Low -- Congratulations on your efforts with Adam, but here are a few more things to keep in mind. As a "learning support teacher," are you able to test Adam appropriately for his reading skills? Four out of ten children in the US struggle with learning to read. Two out of ten are dyslexic. If Adam isn't screened for these possibilities, and given the appropriate help, he will always struggle in school. Another thing is that as a fifth grader, Adam is probably under great pressure from home and school to succeed so that he won't be pushed out of your school for sixth grade, as happens at many KIPP schools. In NYC, for instance, we hear of KIPP (and other charter school) students being told they will either have repeat a grade, or can move on if they go back into a mainstream public school. So, while you are expected to brook "no excuses" in KIPP schools, there are still plenty of explanations for why children struggle and feel stressed out! Susan Crawford, Director, The Right to Read Project Author of "Help! My Child Isn't Reading Yet--What Should I Do?"
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 5, 2013 10:00 pm
As an NYC Teaching Fellow, this is just what I needed to read to remind myself how to keep these kids motivated and moving forward. And to give myself a break sometimes, while savoring small successes. Thanks.
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on January 6, 2013 1:01 pm
Sometimes, the tests are "stupid." If KIPPs goal is "student achievement" or test scores, we should be asking if the tests are measuring learning. What else does "Adam" learn at KIPP? Is anything else valued as much as the interim or benchmark test? The overemphasis on standardized tests isn't unique to KIPP but it is cloud that hangs over public schools. Aren't there other ways to measure / honor learning and demonstrate high expectations?
Submitted by tom-104 on January 6, 2013 2:58 pm
There is a comment about this article on the website Teach for Us. Given Mr. Hite's comment in today's Inquirer, ""Everybody who goes to that school(Masterman) is exposed to high expectations.", about the top SAT schools, he should read this article: KIPP Teacher Loses Mind. Publicly Denounces ‘No Excuses’ Philosophy. from Gary Rubenstein’s Teach for Us “Poor guy. Maybe because he was feeling like an inadequate new teacher, maybe because he didn’t “get the memo,” maybe because there wasn’t an all-night confessional open. Whatever the reason, a KIPP teacher has snapped and ‘gone rogue’ publicly denouncing the ‘no excuses’ pillar of the reform movement. On a blog for Philadelphia teachers and parents, Chris Low wrote a post called Carefully sliding the bar of success. Now the fact that he thinks this way is not surprising. The fact is that all teachers, despite the cries for ‘more rigor’ for ‘higher expectations’ and for ‘no excuses,’ know that high expectations are not the solution to anything. Good teachers are the ones who set the bar just a bit beyond what the students think they are capable of, and then continue slowly raising the bar. And Chris Low is not the only charter school teacher who feels this way. I visited a KIPP recently and found that all the teachers there had ‘appropriate’ expectations, which were just as high (or low if you want to see it that way) as they have in the nearby ‘failing’ school. So this post isn’t really that newsworthy in that sense. But it is newsworthy, I think, since it is an example of something sorely missing from the ed reform debate — honesty. The fact is that schools are lying when they say that their success, if they really have genuine success, is because they make the big teaching mistake of setting unreachable goals. I applaud this teacher for being brave enough to express something so taboo despite the fact the everyone already knew it.” Read more:
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 6, 2013 11:09 pm
When I spent time at Mastery, one of the administrators said that she individualized discipline for students. Some students are given more leeway or chances, that is, it takes more for them to have their color moved or to go to the dean. Some children are given more opportunities to change their behavior and more second chances. Other kids don't have as much leeway. Deciding who has more or less leeway is based on the needs of each student. So even at one of Mastery's schools, although the expectations are the same for all students, teachers and administrators informally alter expectations in order to accommodate the individual needs of students.
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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 7, 2013 3:17 pm
This is similar to Vygotsky's zone of proximal development that I and most teachers learned about in our teacher prep program in a college of education. Yet, all that preparation has been removed in favor of FTA and TFA_like prep programs that do not equip teachers with the knowledge and theory to understand these issues.
Submitted by Wayles (not verified) on January 8, 2013 6:55 pm
Chris- Thanks for taking the time to write an authentic portrait of the struggles you’ve faced as a Philadelphia Teaching Fellow. Your explanation of how you incrementally push your students to higher and higher levels of achievement is exactly what we encourage our Fellows to do. GREAT work with Adam! I'm so happy to hear he is invested in his continued growth, instead of deflated by perceived failure. He is motivated by the prospect that before the end of the year, he won't be failing! I agree with you about the power of high expectations- having audacious goals for kids. When you set a goal that is challenging but achievable, you push yourself just a little harder than if the goal was too easy or seen as impossible. You accomplish more because you believe you can go just that little bit farther and meet it. Or, your teacher or parent believed you could go that little bit farther- and you wanted to see if it was possible. I know that a true Big Hairy Audacious Goal is a business term- but to me its connections are strong- a goal that is clear and compelling, a catalyst for effort and spirit. It has a clear finish line, so you know when you have achieved the goal. And, importantly relevant, it is a "goal which is audacious, likely to be externally questionable, but not internally regarded as impossible." You and Adam do not question that his B is realistic. I can't wait to hear how he does- keep me updated. Thanks for all you do for your students and our children of Philadelphia! Keep expecting great things from your kids. –Wayles Wilson Site Manager, Philadelphia Teaching Fellows
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