Break Every Yoke

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 24 2012

Work Hard. Be Nice. (a sort of review)

Work Hard. Be Nice. brands itself as the story of “how two inspired teachers created the most promising schools in America.” Education-savvy readers will, of course, recognize the title as the trademark slogan of the Knowledge Is Power Program, better known as KIPP, which (according to Wikipedia) is the largest network of charter schools in the country.

I ordered Work Hard. Be Nice. on a whim a few weeks ago and finally read it during my flight home on Friday. As the subtitle suggests, the book chronicles the journey of Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, founders of KIPP, from their college days at Penn and Yale, to their TFA experience in Houston, to their fitful attempts to establish KIPP’s legitimacy. It was definitely a thought-provoking read, and while I’m too deep in break mode to write a comprehensive review, I would like to bullet out some observations:

  • Subtitle notwithstanding, the book does an excellent job of demonstrating that much of the credit for KIPP’s success belongs to Harriett Ball and Rafe Esquith, who mentored Feinberg and Levin in their early years of teaching. Indeed, had Levin not taught in the room across from Ball’s and noticed her catchy chants and jingles in his first year, KIPP would probably not exist today. (Its name would be different, in any case.) Two points here: (1) It seems odd that, in the raging national discourse about KIPP and other “high-performing” charter movements, so little attention is paid to the traditionally trained, lifelong educators who influence those movements. Yet they must exist, since long before there were charter schools with their “high-impact teaching strategies” and “teacher career pathways,” there were just… teachers. (2) Just as Feinberg and Levin spent hours consulting with Ball and Esquith, I should constantly be observing and studying the practices of my fellow teachers. (This is a lesson that I learned way back at Institute.) And yet I don’t. I’m convinced that it’s a mark of pride to assume others can learn more from me than I can learn from them, but the numbers from the semester don’t bear this out: I’ve been observed by my colleagues more times than I can count, and I’ve observed them… fewer times than I care to admit. I hope to reverse this trend next year.
  • I’m floored by the amount of blood, sweat, and tears (literally) it took for Feinberg and Levin to make the kind of impact they’re making today. Notable examples from the book include: visiting student homes constantly; being available by phone every evening to help students with homework; waiting all day in a hot parking lot for a chance to speak with the superintendent; jumping a fence to check on the progress of classroom construction (and ripping open a hand in the process); and even bailing a student out of jail. I’m inspired because Feinberg and Levin are so clearly willing to do whatever it takes to achieve what they believe is best for their students. (Of course, whether the KIPP system is actually what’s best for students is a different question, and one that I can’t fully address here.) At the same time, I’m discouraged because this approach hardly seems sustainable. I love teaching; yet the thought of pouring even more of my time and energy into my students is exhausting (and I don’t even have a family to support). How is one supposed to make a career out of purely living and breathing teaching?
  • Let’s pretend that all research validated the KIPP system: the extended day/year, mandatory Saturday/summer school, in-house extracurricular offerings, “no excuses” environment, etc. Let’s also pretend that KIPP teachers found a way to provide all these services for their students while maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Would it then be possible to rapidly and successfully roll out the system to all schools nationwide? At the secondary level, the answer (even according to the book) is a resounding no. The problem is acute culture shock: the environment in KIPP schools is so different from what most students in under-served inner-city schools are used to that they would rebel or shut down, not unlike white blood cells in the presence of foreign antigens. Feinberg observed this on a small scale when he invited eighth graders, who had previously gone through his fifth grade pilot, back to KIPP Academy Houston: just a couple years away had rendered them unfit for the rigors of the program. This has interesting implications for me as a high school teacher. As much as I admire what the high school incarnations of KIPP and other charter networks are doing, I cannot try to replicate too many of their practices in my classroom; my kids just haven’t had the conditioning of attending elementary and middle school in the same network, with all the shared expectations, terminology, culture, etc. that entails. I suppose this could be discouraging, but I like to think of it as having the opportunity to teach the students who most need a bit of culture shock to jolt them out of complacency. It just needs to come in smaller, manageable doses.
  • Now let’s step out of charter school fantasy land where KIPP can do no wrong. The actual data, as any moderately nuanced Google search reveals, are largely inconclusive. Indeed, of the three studies cited in the Wikipedia article under “Outside comments,” two argue in favor of KIPP and one argues against. The test score gains are real, but at what cost (high student attrition, drawing resources and students from district schools, etc.) do they come? Unfortunately, the chapter that should have addressed these concerns is mostly filled with anecdotes and further appeals to the higher test scores. One passage struck me as particularly hand-wavy: “… the students who remain in KIPP through eighth grade are going to be those who did not reject the program and thus may be more motivated than those who leave. Still, the fact that KIPP schools have been showing very positive test results over several years in dozens of schools reduces considerably any doubt that the achievement gains are real.” Non sequitur, much? I do believe there is inherent value to the work that KIPP is doing, but as a teacher in a traditional district school, I need to see more concrete evidence that its contribution is a net positive for all students—not just the ones who make it into and survive the system.
  • Finally, this is nit-picky, but I thought the book sometimes focused a bit too much on the personal lives of Feinberg and Levin. Was it interesting to read about their turbulent dating lives? Maybe a little. Was it relevant to the overarching narrative? Not at all.

That’s it for now. In unrelated news, home is great, and I’ve been gorging myself on homemade Korean food nonstop. But I’m already itching to get back to the school to implement some new ideas I have for classroom organization and management. Ah, to be a teacher. Merry Christmas, and see you all on the other side of the new year.

3 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I am preparing to teach in Philadelphia, and your blog gave me many nuggets of wisdom this past year as I finished grad school. Have a blessed Christmas! -Christy

  2. Christy

    Philly is a great place. And it would be cool to meet up; since I’ve been reading your blog for a while, I would love to hear more about your teaching experience.
    I hope you have a restful winter break–

  3. Educator

    If you haven’t checked Gary Rubinstein’s blog out I think you ought to take a look. He writes a lot about KIPP and has even written an open letter to them. It has made me think a lot about charters and what they’re doing.

    I don’t think they’re a scalable model. Instead, they seem to be an escape hatch for some students (motivated, non SPED, non ELL, non behavior problems). So for the students who do make it through (Gary writes only about 60% do, I think), it may be great for them. However, what’s harmful is that politicians and reformers are drawing false conclusions about the typical traditional school system based on KIPP and other charters’ non-comparable results.

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