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Jewish World Review
April 23, 2012/ 1 Iyar, 5772
Educational excellence is a game
National testing tells us that vast numbers of students are not up to snuff on what they should know. But, wait a minute, what's that signal of hope out of Brooklyn? A middle school with 60 percent poor kids just won the national high school chess championship?
It's true. This institution with a forgettable, numerical name, Intermediate School 318, just did the near impossible by engaging in right practices where so many public schools engage in wrong ones. It thereby joined a number of other superb schools over the years in providing lessons far more important than chess skills. The practices are important for educational excellence.
While many believe teachers can do little to make much of a difference for kids from such tough economic backgrounds, chess players from this middle school have been outmaneuvering more advantaged students for years. What they did this time around was especially impressive, for they were whipping high school students. Middle schools do not win national high school contests in chess. It has never happened before.
Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City's education system, has written that the poor can perform as well as the gifted at special schools if they get the right teachers to teach them. What that can mean, says this voice of experience, is taking on teachers unions over all kinds of rules that foster mediocrity by protecting jobs no matter how miserably performed.
At least one exceptional teacher in I.S. 318's case is Elizabeth Spiegel, who started as a part-time chess coach before becoming a full-time chess teacher, according to The New York Times. I like much of what she is quoted as saying, such as her recognition that intellect expresses itself in a variety of ways and that chess is more than chess. It is a way of learning to think and to cope.
To stand out in the crowd, as I.S. 318 did, requires principals who stand out in the crowd, as we've been told in books by such observers as William G. Ouchi, a Stanford management professor, and by Samuel Casey Carter, a corporate vice president and Heritage Foundation fellow. That brings us to Fortunato Rubino, who died early this month. His leadership as principal of I.S. 318 seems from all accounts to have been central to this year's accomplishments.
But, for goodness sake, let's not forget the chess players themselves, according to Chester E. Finn Jr., an education expert writing in National Review online. He says too many educators these days nurture student self-esteem when none is due. They hate the idea of students competing and maybe not winning. They do not push for students to work particularly hard.
Time to tune in to an online video of the chess players funded by an organization called Kickstarter.
One player on the video says, "We crush our opponents," apparently enjoying every minute of competition. Another one says the thing that matters most in winning is "how much work you put into it." My favorite is a teen happy to earn her self-esteem. Ranked low among chess players, she fought her way up. She reminds us of the saying that Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Others point to other issues, such as an I.S. 318 money deficit that, as worrisome as it might have been, donors filled to keep the program going. Basic skills, despite their primary importance, should not be the whole show in public schools, which is not the same as saying chess is crucial to every school. But are good teaching, good leadership from principals and hard work by students crucial? Checkmate.
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Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
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