At Corning Elementary in Frayser, a group of kindergarteners gathered around their teacher Erica Allen. As they all clapped in rhythm, Allen asked her young students to read the word on a card she was holding. They chanted, “Can! Can! Can!”
The kindergarteners don’t remember this, but last year Corning was run by Memphis City Schools, and the school’s average score on the state’s TCAP exam was an F.
Author Paul Tough thinks America’s schools aren’t doing a good job teaching character. Tough has covered education for the New York Times Magazine and This American Life. His latest book is How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.
Tough was in Memphis to speak at a charter school run by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which aims to teach character skills—things like zest, self-control, and, yes, grit—alongside math and reading.
Tennessee’s new Achievement School District kicked off the year with a party. In the parking lot beside Frayser Elementary School, kids danced, slid on slides, and bounced in inflated houses. There was even a rock-climbing wall and laser-tag.
Education is the key to social mobility in the United States. This fact was not lost on African Americans who were enslaved and later sharecroppers in the South. In the 1880s one-room schools sprouted up throughout the region. Many of them are now gone forever and just a distant memory. But Flagg Grove School in rural West Tennessee is an exception.