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Equity of Opportunity for All Children

Teacher of the Year and HGSE Alum Jason Kamras Visits the Askwith Forum

As part of the first Askwith Forum this semester, Kamras spoke passionately about equity of opportunity for children. "This is about leveling the playing field once and for all so every child has a chance to achieve their dreams," Kamras said.

For eight years, Kamras has worked as a 7th and 8th grade math teacher at the John Philip Sousa Middle School in Washington D.C. During this time, he has made immense changes to the math curriculum which, in one year, resulted in a 40 percent drop in the number of students performing below proficiency on the Standard 9. He also developed an after-school digital photography course to not only teach students technology and math, but also to learn a new skill and explore the city.

"This is a civil rights and a human rights issue."

In April 2005, he was named the 55th National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the ING FN-NAIC, and Scholastic Inc. Kamras is currently touring nationally and internationally as a spokesperson for education.

Kamras' experiences as a teacher in D.C.-where over 90 percent of his students live in poverty-have further shaped his interest in educational inequities, which he studied at HGSE. He pointed out that most of his students start two or three grade averages below their current grade level. However, he said that these students are just as bright and capable.

Kamras criticized the nation for falling short in basic educational promises thus widening the achievement gap. "This is a civil rights and a human rights issue," Kamras said pointing out that education shouldn't have to do with a student's zip code, skin color, gender, status, or any other label.

Despite the complexities of the achievement gap, it's a battle to be fought culturally, politically, and systematically, he said. Because even with the great leaps in test scores at his own school, Kamras said there are still problems, not only in D.C. but throughout the country, with education and the achievement gap.

Kamras admitted that the real difference in education isn't in better funding or test scores or teacher certifications, but in what he believes is philosophy. He credits his unwavering high expectations of students and their taking personal responsibility for their education as yielding some success.

"Students are dying for someone to push them harder."

"Students are dying for someone to push them harder," he said, noting that children will usually always rise to the occasion.

In addition, Kamras said that teachers need to find ways to overcome the little day-to-day issues that arise in schools. "I refused to get bogged down in the challenges," he said. For example, when a sewage pipe leaked into his classroom, he didn't give up, but instead brought the students to the library. Or, when he couldn't reach students' parents by phone, he made house visits.

Although he acknowledged that personal philosophy can make great differences, he also highlighted four ways that he would like to see education and the country change:

  • Admitting that not all teachers are created equal.
  • Rethinking how we decide to certify teachers.
  • Investing in meaningful incentives to attract people into the teaching profession and placing them in disadvantaged schools.
  • Challenging national leaders to use their power to influence and serve the nation's children.

Kamras' talk left an invaluable impression on the audience including Lesser Professor and Dean Kathleen McCartney. "This was one of the most inspiring talks I've heard in my six years at Harvard," she said.

HGSE students who attended the discussion felt equally inspired. Brent Maddin, a first-year doctoral student researching the achievement gap, said he felt Kamras' talk helped connect the work he's doing. "I feel the achievement gap is something we need to address," Maddin said. "His proposed solutions make sense."

The next Askwith Forum will be held on February 22 at 6 p.m. The event, which is free and open to the public, will consider how evolution is taught in America's schools.

In addition, there will be two Askwith Forums specifically addressing the achievement gap. Cosponsored by Harvard's Achievement Gap Initiative, these forums will be held on March 16 and April 25.