QWERTY Mistakes and School Leadership

We joke a lot about the generational divide on our staff; those of us who went to college when sending an email was something to be bragged about and the hordes of twenty-somethings who stare at me like an alien when I talk about record stores.  It’s ironic that all of us spend chunks of our day hobbled by mid-twentieth century “innovation”.

The QWERTY principle is named after the order of letters on most of our keyboards.   Like most people I assumed there is some important reason for this odd arrangement.  There was an important reason but the reason no longer exists.  The keyboard arrangement comes from the days of ribbon typewriters.  The keys are  arranged to slow down typing since early typewriters would jam frequently

So millions of us compose more slowly than we could due to set-up that no longer makes sense.  What routines, systems, even values did we build in our schools that outlive the reason for their creation?


Lots of schools develop systems and routines around their inadequate facilities. Kids moving in tight lines is entirely necessary in our rented church space in Lynn where there is barley room to breath during a class change.  Will we still want lines in our new building?  Not sure.  We  roll numbers in a series of chants to excite kids about math; will we still use these chants after our elementary school is open?

KIPP began in a single fifth grade classroom and for the first ten years of our existence our model was to build individual middle schools that would catch up kids entering fifth grade below grade level and then slingshot them into high performing high schools and onto college.

In a not too distant future lots of our KIPP middle schools will have the majority of their students entering at or above grade level from KIPP elementary schools.  This is no magic elixir.  Achievement gaps and opportunity gaps are intertwined but distinct challenges on the path through college.   A fifth grader who reads at level is not magically guaranteed a slot in an college system that increasingly provides less aid and more cost.  The same fifth grader will need even stronger skills and character in order to carve out a career and a life of choice in a world where headlines like “the end the job” are common.  In other words, KIPP elementary schools won’t make the mission any easier; instead they will channel our efforts in middle and high school.

Which practices at our middle schools will become out-dated relics created to serve a majority of students behind on academic skills?  Which practices remain meaningful traditions or culture builders as 5-8 becomes K-12?  Will our entire middle school curriculum become the equivalent of the outdated keyboard arrangement I am now typing on?  What about some common systems and routines from across KIPP?



Naming classes after the year they go to college?

Big end of year trips?

The QWERTY mistakes are trickier than the rabbits in Australia because they are good ideas at the time that exist past their purpose.  As a caveat sometimes I assumed practices were QWERTY when they were in fact essential to our  school.  For instance I stopped door to door student recruiting after our first two years when the waiting list ballooned.  We realized the error in our thinking as the demographics of GCP shifted.  I’d argue that a school with a 2,000 person waiting list still needs to knock on doors and tell its story.

One last question: what skills and mindsets do we need to develop in our leaders that prevent clinging to out-dated practice while at the same time preventing the love of novelty that sends countless schools and organizations lurching from one new idea to the next?


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