Saturday, April 11, 2009

Work Hard Be Nice (Final Thoughts, Hopefully)

I've finished Jay Mathews's Work Hard Be Nice. (previous posts) I'm really glad I read the book, something that will please Mathews, I'm sure. I genuinely enjoyed the book. I'm exceptionally impressed with Levin and Feinberg and all they have done. They are two of the hardest working individuals of whom I'm aware. They deserve a lot of credit.

That said, I still have some issues with KIPP and the view of KIPP.

1. It's all about the test scores. I had this same issue with Geoffrey Canada's work in Harlem when I read Whatever It Takes. In some ways I don't blame Levin, Feinberg, or Canada. They are playing the game as it stands in our country today. I do hold the media somewhat responsible, however. In the chapter near the end of Work Hard Be Nice in which Mathews address the critiques of KIPP he focuses almost exclusively on test scores. There is a bit about drop-out rates and demographics, but not much. If what we present to the public is all about test scores, that is all that will matter. There are so many other important things to consider.

2. When KIPP is discussed in the media (main stream, blogs, everywhere) the focus is on the wrong things, in my opinion. The focus is always on the longer day, week, and year and on the skill and drill part of the instruction. If Mathews has made an accurate presentation of KIPP, beyond the schools Levin and Feinberg started originally, then there is much more that is critical here. The cultural events to which they took students as well as the huge trips each year are rarely discussed. I would consider those aspects a huge part of what made KIPP work for students.

3. The skill and drill part of the instruction. I don't believe that all the instruction is this way, but it is a part. It seems to me that KIPP teachers are working so hard to bring their students up to grade level and able to pass the tests that they sacrifice deeper understanding for broader skills. It is unfortunate that students reach middle school and that choice has to be made because they are behind, but I still don't believe in memorization without understanding (such as rolling their numbers for multiplication).

4. I don't believe that KIPP is the savior for our inner cities. KIPP administrators get rid of teachers quickly if they don't cut it. That's not a bad thing. However, if enough good teachers were out there already we wouldn't be in this position. Not every inner city child will be able to have a teacher of the caliber of KIPP teachers, there just aren't enough fabulous teachers out there. That's an issue that needs to be addressed in some way and it is a critically important one.

5. I don't believe most middle class parents would want their kids to attend KIPP. I don't believe they would want the discipline level that KIPP employs, at least in the beginning. I don't believe they would want the skill and drill part of the instruction. That makes me wonder why we believe that disadvantaged kids should have things that we wouldn't want for our own children.

I have two close friends who taught at a KIPP school in Houston. In addition, I chatted with a bunch of teachers and students on the metro many years ago from a Houston KIPP school. They were here on their annual trip to DC and we just happened to be on the same train. I noticed the shirts and heard the chants and took the opportunity to talk with them.

I don't want to get rid of KIPP. I just want to know that we are looking at it closely, considering the positives and negatives, and moving forward from there. I'm bothered by the presentation of KIPP as THE answer. That's how Mathews presents it here. The book is worth reading, but not unless one is willing to go beyond it to learn about KIPP.


Jesse said...

If you agree with the following sentiments, or feel young people should see this perspective, please circulate it where current Teach For America teachers or potential recruits, may see it.

I am veteran teacher from Houston seeking a dialogue with current and past Teach for America teachers regarding a pattern of TFA leaders and alumni in leadership positions promoting conservative ideas and profiting from close relationships with reactionary corporations while presumptuously claiming to be the new civil rights movement. I first became aware of this when a former local TFA Director, now a school board member, recently proposed to fire teachers based on test scores and opposed allowing us to vote to have a single union. Having won school board positions in several cities around the country, former-TFA personnel are apparently pursuing these sorts of policies as an agenda.

The conservative-TFA nexus began when Union Carbide sponsored Wendy Kopp's initial efforts to create Teach for America. Union Carbide's negligence had caused the worst industrial accident in history, in Bhopal, India. The number of casualties was as large as 100,000, and Union Carbide did everything possible to minimize taking responsibility.

Ms. Kopp wrote in her book she nearly went to work for the Edison Project, and was all but saved in financial hard times by their managerial assistance. The Edison Project, founded by a Tennessee entrepreneur, was an effort to replace public schools run by elected school boards with for-profit, corporate-run schools. Ms. Kopp's husband, Richard Barth, was an Edison executive before taking over as CEO of the KIPP's national foundation, where he has sought to decertify its New York City unions.

In 2000, two brilliant TFA alumni, the founders of KIPP Academy, joined the Bush's at the Republican National Convention in 2000. This was pivotal for Bush, since as Governor had no genuine educational achievements of his own These charter schools do great service, but they start with families that are committed to education. They claim to be improving public schools by offering competition in the market-place, but they take the best and leave the rest. It's not a level playing field.

Superintendent Michelle Rhee's prescription for improving D.C. Schools is two-fold: close them rather than improve them—and fire teachers rather than inspire them.

TFA teachers do great work. But better schools are only part of the solution. Stable families are more able to be ambitious for their children than insecure, overworked and struggling ones. Our society has failed our schools by permitting the middle class to shrink. It's not the other way around. Economic inequality and insecurity fosters the achievement gap. Its not the other way around.

Blaming teachers, public schools and our unions brings money and powerful allies to TFA and KIPP but it also feeds corporate ideology and their power. Corporate domination of politics, and the weakness of counter-balancing forces like unions, are the obstacles to national health insurance, generous college funding and revitalized unionism.

Ms. Kopp claims the civil rights mantle, but Martin Luther King would take principled positions—against the Vietnam War and for the Poor Peoples March—even when it pissed off powerful people. His final speech was for striking sanitation workers. His last book argued for modifying American capitalism to include some measure of wealth distribution. WK is no MLK. I would like a dialogue about what I have written here. My e-mail is Your hard work as a TFA teacher gives TFA executives credibility and a platform to espouse their ideas. Its not the other way around.

Jay Mathews said...

I appreciate this thoughtful, fair review of my book. My only complaint, a mild one, is that I don't think KIPP is the savior of the inner city and never said so in the book, or anywhere else for that matter. Also, a good teacher like our blogger would, I think, learn much from actually spending some time inside a KIPP school, rather than try to reach conclusions based on what she hears from others, including me. I spent a lot of time discussing test scores because that is the only measure we have that has much authenticity with parents, voters and taxpayers, who make up the majority of my readers. But I said in the book that the best argument for KIPP is not test scores, but to watch the teachers in action. I think you will see that the drill and kill charge is nonsense once you watch these people at work. Indeed the drill and kill assumption has been repeated to me so many times over the last 27 years whenever I have written about academic success in inner city schools that I have to conclude it is a subtle indicator of the classism and racism that affects all of us. We find it very hard to believe that poor kids can do as well in school as affluent kids, so we seem to want to believe, without any evidence, that those poor kids must be memorizing the answers and not gaining the conceptional understanding that, of course, our children in the suburbs achieve. I know this sounds harsh and unfair, but there is no data showing such lack of conceptual understanding in these kids, and I have heard this charge so often I have to conclude some other factor is involved in the perceptions people have about such schools.