Being “at risk” in Chicago and Washington, DC

A recent ASCD Smartbrief juxtaposed the following article leads:

(1) Chicago’s Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men is sending 100% of its first graduating class to college next fall. Just 4% of incoming freshmen were reading at grade level or above when they entered the school in 2006, and many have been affected by poverty and violence. But the school’s culture — strict discipline combined with an emphasis on high achievement and at least one mentor for every student — has helped many make significant changes in their lives.

(2) Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee plans to expand standardized testing for K-12 students, according to Washington Post education reporter Bill Turque. The additional tests are part of Rhee’s policy to use data to drive decision-making and are meant to offer a more comprehensive picture of student progress and teacher effectiveness. Critics, however, say the move favors excessive testing and test preparation over other forms of in-class instruction and student learning, Turque writes.

I am currently crafting a blog on the meaning of “at risk,” so the first article grabbed my attention. The point of my blog is that the six-virtue definition of the educated person tells us how to program for all students, including those labeled “at risk.”

Part of the argument inTSVOTEP is that public schools value the virtues of understanding, strong character and generosity, and the vices of intellectual incompetence, fear and pride. According to this premise, students who are at risk of public school failure are simply those who have not developed this specific set of virtues and vices. Instead, they may have developed virtues not valued in public schools (imagination, courage, and humility), and vices not tolerated in them (ignorance, weak character and selfishness). Any combination of these six can cause “at risk” students to misbehave in class or score poorly on standardized tests–either of which puts them “at risk” of public school failure.

Those who understand this argument in TSVOTEP know exactly how to help “at risk” students overcome this label. First, they value the virtues and ignore the vices these students bring to the schoolhouse door. This is what regular public school teachers do with students who are not at risk. They value student understanding, strong character and generosity; as they ignore occasions of intellectual incompetence, fear, and pride. The same behavior pattern — this time teachers valuing student imagination, courage and humility, and ignoring occasions of ignorance, weak character and selfishness — removes the “at risk” label from these students.

Instead of asking students to demonstrate the virtue and vice combination that was never modeled to them by significant adults, good alternative programs value the virtues these students have already developed, even if those virtues are not the ones valued in regular public schools. Once students are no longer “at risk,” their virtues become the foundation for helping them overcome their vices. After students feel valued for their virtues, they can battle their vices, not before.

This reasoning tells us that Chicago Urban Prep teachers valued their students’ imagination, courage and humility as a foundation for helping them combat the ignorance, weak character, and selfishness that were modeled and taught to them by members of the previous generation’s “at risk” students.

Therefore, without reading the article about Chicago Urban Prep, TSVOTEP readers already know:

1. Students in this alternative program lacked the virtue-vice combination valued in public schools.
2. Many of them struggled mightily in Urban Prep because, for the first time in their lives, significant adults were modeling, teaching, and insisting that they develop understanding, strong character, and generosity.
3. The main credit for success belongs to the students, although teachers deserve credit, too–for their insight into public schools and human virtue and vice.
4. Those of us who were never “at risk” can hardly imagine the depth and grandness of these students’ achievements.

Washington, DC, has many “at risk” students, too; so it is disheartening to read that Chancellor Rhee is stepping on the data driven pedal. Without first defining what it means to be educated in a deep, useful way, what data will they collect? Will they collect test score data? Why do they care about student scores? Don’t they already know that some students will score better than others? Don’t they already know that classroom teachers can tell them why some students will score well and others won’t? Don’t they already know that any teacher who cannot should be fired?

Chancellor Rhee is big on firing teachers. Does she fire those who don’t know why specific students got low scores? Or does she fire those whose students got low scores? Being driven by the data means she does the second. Why is that supposed to be admirable?

For more recent news on DC firings:


A deep, useful definition of what it means to be educated can drive educational improvement. Without such a definition, we are doomed, no matter how much data we collect.

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