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Books and Culture

Charles Upton Sahm
Why KIPP Schools Work
Jay Mathews shows how they’re revolutionizing education in America.
13 March 2009

Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America, by Jay Mathews (Algonquin Books, 329 pp., $14.95)

The informal motto of KIPP, the network of public charter schools that stands at the vanguard of America’s burgeoning education-reform movement, is “Work Hard. Be Nice.” That’s also the title of an important new book, by veteran Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews, which chronicles how KIPP’s network of 66 schools developed and offers some lessons from KIPP’s extraordinary success. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently praised KIPP as a “proven strategy ready to go to scale” and mentioned the need for schools across the country to embrace KIPP’s example of a longer school year, making Mathews’s book even more timely.

Mathews’s story starts in 1992 with David Levin and Michael Feinberg, two tall, gregarious seniors at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively. Not sure what to do with their lives, Levin and Feinberg signed up with Teach for America (TFA), the nonprofit that places America’s brightest college graduates in classrooms teaching the nation’s lowest-performing students. Levin and Feinberg both got teaching assignments in Houston, where—initially overwhelmed by the difficulty of imparting knowledge to rambunctious fifth-graders from the inner city—they began to develop a revolutionary new education model.

From one Houston teacher, Harriet Ball, they learned the importance of classroom management—the need to maintain order while keeping the classroom vibrant, enjoyable, and full of energy. From Rafe Esquith, an award-winning instructor in Los Angeles, they discovered the merits of extended class time and a rigorous, content-rich curriculum that holds low-income and minority students to high academic standards. Levin and Feinberg immediately appropriated one of Ball’s secrets: the use of mnemonic chants that, as Mathews puts it, “firmly attach essential rules of grammar and mathematics to the brains of nine-year-olds.” They used the chants to great effect, getting kids to commit important facts to memory in the same way they memorize lyrics from the latest hip-hop song. (Education-school professors frown on such devices as “rote memorization.” But today, all KIPP fifth-graders can recite their multiplication tables by heart—a skill that eludes 80 percent of their peers nationwide, according to a recent study.)

Levin and Feinberg did add a few twists of their own. They implemented a broken-windows-style discipline policy, believing that leaving any misbehavior unaddressed would increase the likelihood of further misbehavior and distract from lessons. They stayed after school to work with struggling pupils, assigned mountains of homework, and encouraged students to call them at home if they needed help with their assignments. Perhaps their most important step, however, was reaching out to parents. Against the wishes of school administrators, they visited students at home and enlisted parents as active participants in their children’s education. Among many memorable stories that Mathews tells: Feinberg goes to the home of a television-addicted student who has repeatedly failed to turn in her homework—and with her mother’s permission, exits the house with the family’s 36-inch TV in his arms.

Levin and Feinberg achieved remarkable results: nearly every one of their low-income minority students passed the Texas math and reading tests with flying colors. But they were often stymied by bureaucrats who didn’t appreciate their aggressive style and unorthodox teaching methods. In fact, after his fellow teachers voted Levin Teacher of the Year, the principal fired him for insubordination.

As their two-year Teach for America commitment ended, Levin and Feinberg began to hound the Houston School District for permission to start a special initiative that they called the “Knowledge Is Power Program”—KIPP for short. It would feature a 7:30 AM to 5:00 PM school day, Saturday classes, and a three-week “summer prep” program. In exchange for hard work, students would be rewarded with perks, such as lunch at McDonald’s, weekend excursions, and an end-of-the-year field trip to Washington, D.C.

The Houston school authorities finally agreed to let Levin and Feinberg launch an experimental fifth-grade program—if they could find 50 students willing to sign on to the long hours and academic rigor. The young teachers canvassed neighborhoods, asking students and their parents to sign the “KIPP Commitment to Excellence,” a contract listing the specific obligations of teachers, parents, and students. In August 1994, the first 50 “KIPPsters” walked into Levin and Feinberg’s classroom. Half the students began the school year having previously failed both the math and English portions of the Texas state test. By June, all but one had passed both tests, with an average class improvement of two full grade levels.

From there, the KIPP story became one of growth and replication. Levin and Feinberg hired other talented, dynamic teachers and added a sixth grade, then a seventh, and then an eighth. Homesick for his native New York, Levin approached Sy Fliegel, president of the Center for Educational Innovation (then a part of the Manhattan Institute), to help him establish a KIPP program in one of the city’s low-performing school districts. By 1998, with Fliegel’s help, KIPP had two fifth-through-eighth-grade middle schools in Houston and New York that were successfully preparing some 600 students for high school—many KIPP students win scholarships to attend private high schools or pass tests to attend competitive public ones—and then college. Levin and Feinberg also added cultural enrichment programs, such as orchestra and choir, which become important KIPP hallmarks.

According to Mathews, the “tipping point” for KIPP occurred in 1999, when 60 Minutes broadcast a heartwarming piece profiling students who had started at KIPP years behind in math and English and who, by eighth grade, were doing high-school-level algebra and reading a dozen novels a year. Politicians and school superintendents across the country began to reach out to Levin and Feinberg, asking them to open KIPP schools in their cities. Fortunately, Don and Doris Fisher, founders of the Gap clothing store, also saw the 60 Minutes piece and decided to commit $15 million to bankroll KIPP’s expansion. (The Fishers have since contributed another $35 million, and major education philanthropies, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation have also joined the KIPP movement.)

It’s difficult to replicate a successful school model on a grand scale, but KIPP, after trying a few different approaches, figured out a way to develop and monitor new schools. The process starts with the recruitment and training of “Fisher Fellows,” the handful of people selected to become potential leaders of new KIPP schools. They attend a rigorous six-week summer leadership course at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, where they study topics such as curriculum, how to choose effective teachers, school management, and fund-raising. (It’s telling that the Fisher Fellows have no involvement with Berkeley’s education school; KIPP adheres to a results-oriented business-school ethos, rather than the soft-headed nonsense taught at most ed schools.)

Those Fisher Fellows deemed KIPP material (many don’t make the cut) then spend the fall semester observing and assisting at an existing KIPP school. In January, they begin seeking space and recruiting students for their own schools. They must sign a legal licensing agreement that allows them to use the KIPP name so long as they follow the basic KIPP model. The national KIPP Foundation raises money to pay for training and start-up costs of the school, and once it’s off the ground, Foundation staffers periodically evaluate and audit it. They’ve closed down several, or stripped them of the KIPP name, for not meeting the organization’s high standards.

Today, 66 KIPP schools in 20 states enroll more than 16,000 students, and the network has expanded to include elementary and high schools as well as middle schools. (KIPP’s goal is to have 100 schools and 25,000 students by 2011.) In every city, KIPP students surpass district and citywide performance. In New York last year, for example, 94 percent of KIPP eighth-graders scored at or above grade level on the state math test—and 78 percent did the same on the English test—while in the city as a whole, those numbers were 60 percent and 43 percent, respectively. In fact, in many cities—including New York, Washington, Baltimore, San Jose, and New Orleans—the top-performing public middle school is now a KIPP school. It’s worth noting, too, that KIPP’s impact reaches far beyond its own network of schools, as scores of other charter schools across the country now emulate the KIPP model.

KIPP’s many admirers offer various explanations for the schools’ success. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell notes that KIPP students, like children in Asia, spend about 60 percent more “time on task” than students in traditional American public schools. New York Times columnist David Brooks has written extensively about how KIPP transmits to low-income minority students the “cultural capital”—how to speak effectively, how to look attentive, how to fill out a college application—that middle-class suburban kids take for granted. Oprah Winfrey has praised KIPP’s ability to raise students’ expectations of what they can accomplish if they’re willing to work hard.

Mathews attributes KIPP’s success to a combination of such factors—its instituting “high expectations for all students, a longer school day, a principal totally in charge, an emphasis on finding the best teachers, rewards for student success, close contact with parents, a focus on results, and a commitment to preparing every child for a great high school, and, most important, college.” But he might offer the best explanation for KIPP’s success when he notes how KIPP recalls the best “inner-city Catholic schools . . . with warm but strict teachers whose commitment to their students is motivated by far more than a weekly paycheck.”

KIPP fosters the sense of community that noted sociologist and education reformer James Coleman singled out many years ago as the key difference between public and private schools. At KIPP’s small schools, every teacher and school official knows every student by name. For many students, KIPP provides an oasis of affection and stability in their otherwise chaotic lives. And just like the Catholic schools of old, KIPP doesn’t simply teach facts and figures but unapologetically seeks to instill values, build strength of character, and forge good habits of mind and behavior.

Mathews also acknowledges two developments that coincide with the KIPP story and have been instrumental to the schools’ success: the advent of Teach for America and the rise of the charter-school movement. Mathews makes clear that KIPP wouldn’t be the success story it is without the synergistic relationship that it has developed with TFA. (In fact, the synergy between the organizations runs all the way to the top: TFA founder Wendy Kopp is married to KIPP CEO Richard Barth.) From KIPP’s earliest days, a significant portion of its teachers have come from TFA, which is now one of the nation’s most selective and sought-after postcollege programs. This year, 11 percent of the Ivy League’s graduating class applied to become TFA teachers; only a handful were selected. Today, some 60 percent of KIPP school leaders and 33 percent of KIPP teachers are TFA alums. (For a less sanguine view of TFA, see “How I Joined Teach for America—and Got Sued for $20 Million.”)

As for charter schools—independently operated public schools free from union work rules and other bureaucratic impediments—they first arrived on the scene in the early 1990s in Minnesota and California, and the idea spread to other states during that decade. (Over the strenuous objection of the powerful teachers’ unions, New York State passed its charter law in 1998.) KIPP schools, all of which are charters, enjoy flexibility with staffing decisions and can hold teachers accountable for student performance—so far. A recent move to unionize KIPP teachers in two New York City schools is a worrisome development.

KIPP is not without its detractors, and Mathews gives them a fair hearing. While some critics claim that KIPP is too authoritarian—the “Kids In Prison Program,” some call it—Mathews points to the schools’ overwhelming popularity among students, parents, and alumni. Some condemn KIPP for “teaching to the test,” but Mathews retorts that it is precisely KIPP’s relentless focus on student progress—which is, yes, measured by frequent quizzes and even standardized tests—that makes the schools so successful. As former education secretary Margaret Spellings liked to say in response to complaints about the testing requirements mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act: “What gets measured, gets done.”

Mathews also addresses the most serious criticism of KIPP (and other charter schools): that the schools “cream” the best and most motivated students. Though KIPP schools are open-enrollment public charter schools and students are chosen by lottery, critics contend that because of its long school day and rigorous standards, only the most promising students from the most intact families apply to KIPP and stay enrolled. There may be a grain of truth in this argument. KIPP officials, however, offer statistics that show little difference between KIPP students and their public-school peers, at least with regard to race, socioeconomic status, and previous academic achievement. Two limited independent studies have confirmed KIPP’s claims, and KIPP has recently hired the research firm Mathematica to conduct an extensive multiyear, longitudinal study comparing KIPP students with non-KIPP students.

Mathews devotes substantial space to the personal lives of Levin and Feinberg, which may or may not interest readers. Overall, however, his book provides a compelling look at America’s most successful charter-school network and debunks the dispiriting notion that low-income minority children should not be expected to make much educational progress. As Mathews makes clear, KIPP has proved that great teachers, high expectations, extra class time, and much encouragement and commitment can close America’s educational achievement gap.

Charles Sahm is a program officer at the Manhattan Institute.

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