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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Chess: The Best Move for Students

By Salome Thomas-EL — September 25, 2012 5 min read
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The next time President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are sitting together discussing education reform, I hope that it will be across the table from one of my elementary or middle school students. If so, there will inevitably be a chessboard between them, and I am certain my students will win every match.

My inner-city students, many of whom come from some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del., have traveled the country to compete in, and win, local, state, and national chess championships. Gov. Jack Markel of Delaware and former Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, all smart men, have challenged my students to chess matches and lost. A host of mayors, members of Congress, senators, and school superintendents—anyone brave enough to visit city schools and spend time with my students—all made the same mistake of taking them on, with similar results. These are the same children that most of society has forgotten. Yet they have gone on to attend magnet and private high schools, competitive colleges, and graduate and law schools.

Unfortunately, most of our nation’s urban and rural students won’t have the same opportunities as my chess players because, as a general rule, we don’t teach our children to think critically or to think ahead. We don’t teach them to use logic and reason or to consider rewards and consequences before they make decisions.

In the United States, we have become so focused on test scores that we have forgotten to teach our students to appreciate the process of learning, to embrace struggle, and to build self-efficacy and resilience.

Students must learn that they are not born smart, but become smart through hard work and the process of growth. Chess can help establish that foundation for students as young as 5 and 6 years old, and it is simple enough to learn quickly. Students can use a few pieces, or all of them, as they gradually learn the game. Imagine young kindergartners or 1st and 2nd graders beginning to learn to anticipate moves, think ahead, and solve multistep problems. All children need to learn how to make difficult and abstract decisions independently and think logically and efficiently. And teaching these skills to them at an early age can make a big difference to them as they progress through their education.

In the United States, we have become so focused on test scores that we have forgotten to teach our students to appreciate the process of learning, to embrace struggle, and to build self-efficacy and resilience."

I have used chess as a teaching tool in the three schools where I have worked as a turnaround principal. In each instance, most of the students were city kids, poor and minority. My mission has been to teach the game of chess to every student I have known over my 25-year career.

My current school, Thomas Edison Charter, in Wilmington, Del., serves students in grades K-8, 96 percent of whom are living at or below the poverty level. Many of our students are seen as at risk of not meeting with academic success before entering our charter school, yet they excel, in part, because of our instructional curriculum and the support they receive from the administration, teachers, and staff. But the success of our students is also a credit to our after-school chess program, which has had a tremendous impact on how our older students think and problem-solve.

This past school year, we received Delaware’s Academic Achievement Award for closing the achievement gap in a high-poverty school, improving our state test scores, and moving those scores closer to the state average. In addition, this past summer, our 8th graders were recognized for scoring over 90 percent proficiency in math and 85 percent proficiency in English/language arts on our state tests.

A year ago, I met with my teachers, and we decided to give our 2nd and 3rd graders the opportunity to learn and benefit from chess with our First Move program. Our 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders are doing the same in our Algebra Through Chess course. In total, we have almost 100 students who participate in our after-school chess program every day.

It goes without saying that exposing children to academics in the classroom advances cognition; however, games like chess, played in the classroom, can foster memory, skill at planning and strategizing, and development of cognition. Much of the traditional U.S. curriculum in the early grades does not allow for students to learn and teach themselves. Chess permits students to think on their own without the assistance of adults.

Students exposed to chess are much more optimistic about overcoming obstacles and struggles on a regular basis. Research supports the idea that schools that establish innovative programs like chess playing develop high expectations for their students and the atmosphere in which their students can achieve them.

America has much to learn from the rest of the world regarding education. Countries as small as Armenia have made chess a mandatory school subject for children over the age of 6, with the goal of teaching strategic thinking to all elementary students. As an advocate for this course of instruction, the chess grandmaster and former world champion Gary Kasparov is challenging countries around the globe to adopt chess as part of their elementary curricula. Implementing chess in the U.S. curriculum could be the low-cost answer to many of our education woes.

So many young people are raised to question their intelligence. Chess helps shatter that doubt. Chess teaches our young people about rewards and consequences, both short- and long-term. It challenges young people to be responsible for their actions. It cuts across racial and economic lines and allows poor kids to excel at a game thought to be reserved for the affluent. It boosts self-confidence. It is the great equalizer.

When a school redefines its culture by building a vision and commitment that is innovative and creative, based on increasing self-efficacy and resilience, it has the power to serve as a protective shield for all students. It can become a beacon of light for impoverished communities.

I believe that all children are entitled to success in learning and life, regardless of their gender, race, or socioeconomic status.

Mr. President, it’s your move.

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2012 edition of Education Week as Chess: The Best Move for Students


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