Something Strange & Wonderful on Capitol Hill…


I started my career as a reporter on Capitol Hill in 1996. I was so excited to get my press badge and be part of Important Washington. I went out and bought a suit at Filene's Basement (beige, naturally).

On my first assignment, I found myself in a room with 20 other reporters listening to a not-for-attribution staffer read a statement that we already had. We all wrote down what he said, for some reason. I thought to myself, "What the hell?"

I've tried to avoid going back. There are too many reporters covering far too little way too predictably (with a few exceptions).

But yesterday, I made the pilgrimage to the Cannon House Office Building to see something different: a group of students and teachers showing what learning looks like, instead of just talking about it. This is normal in places like Japan, as Elizabeth Green described in her book Building a Better Teacher, but it happens very rarely in the U.S.

In the Caucus Room, there were red velvet curtains, microphones and name plates--all the accouterments of bullshit Washington committee hearings. I started to worry.

But the name plates were for kids, as it turned out. For "Tiara," "Abdoul" and "Saliou" and a half dozen other students imported from New York City for a live demo lesson from Success Academy Charter Schools, one of the most controversial and best performing school networks in the United States.

The program began with a teacher and school leaders from Harlem North Central Middle School holding a planning session in advance of the class, something that happens weekly at Success Academy Schools (and almost no where else in the U.S., where teachers get little planning time and almost never spend that time agonizing over the details with their principals). We got to hear the teacher worry about how her students had done on a problem the day before--and her principal urge her to use the students' mistakes to generate an active discussion. We all had a copy of the math problem, which asked students to figure out which store had the better deal on pet food--but advertised different prices for different volumes of food.

Then the 5th graders filed on stage and took their seats. The teacher projected Tiara's work on the screen and asked her to explain why she had done what she'd done. It was obvious to most of the adults that Tiara's answer was wrong, though I wasn't sure Tiara knew. She walked us through the approach she'd taken, speaking clearly and only a little haltingly into the microphone. Then the teacher asked Saliou to explain why he'd solved the problem differently. Every so often, the principal injected a comment, usually drawing attention to something a student had said.

It felt a little contrived, yes, but also a little awesome. Here we were, a hundred or so badged and suited grown-ups on Capitol Hill, watching kids and their teachers grapple with a real-world math problem in an intellectual way. We could see for ourselves that the principal was coaching the teacher; this was her priority, not managing the facilities. We could see for ourselves that the teacher was resisting the urge to talk; she asked questions but the students did more of the talking. Watching this happen is infinitely more powerful than listening to some "expert witness" tell us about it.

What would education be like if Congressional staffers and reporters spent more time analyzing the science and craft of teaching and learning? If our debates were about the best way to provoke original thinking about mathematics in a 5th grade classroom--instead of about how many charter schools a city should be allowed to have? Success Academy's leaders took a risk in holding this event. Who knew what the kids would say? Or if the teacher, a relative novice, would impress? But in the end, the event was so wonderfully counter-cultural that the details didn't matter that much; the fact that it happened at all was a triumph.

A few minutes later, Tiara, Saliou and the other students had worked out the solution. They concluded that they needed to figure out the price of one can in each store in order to decide which place had the better deal. They came up with three different strategies for doing this, one of which they could do mostly in their heads.

Then as the teacher rushed to wrap up the mini-lesson so the adults could get back on stage, Abdoul chimed in one last time. You could actually solve this problem in an infinite number of ways, he said, not just three.

But we were out of time, and so Abdoul was sent off stage to get his boxed lunch with the other kids so the adults could keep yammering on.