A Thug By Any Other Name

There was a pretty strong reaction, by some, to a comment I made in my last post about my visit to a KIPP high school.  In general, the post was called by a lot of people on Twitter ‘balanced’ and even GothamSchools summarized it (in a way I thought was a bit of a stretch) ‘TFA Critic Visits KIPP and is pleasantly surprised.’

But the comment I made that got a lot of people virtually yelling at me was what I said about how I was able to verify first hand that KIPP has the ‘easier’ kids to teach since there was a scarcity of ‘thugs’ at the school.  Based on the comments I got on the blog and also through Twitter, apparently ‘thugs’ is racially charged.  I didn’t even know that.  I used that word since I thought it had a campy 1950’s feel to it like ‘hooligans’ or ‘ruffians.’  When I think of the word ‘thugs,’ I picture Nelson, Jimbo, Kearney, and Dolph from The Simpsons.

I can see why people got upset by this comment.  I think it implies that I might think that everyone who looks like a ‘thug’ is, in fact, a ‘thug’ which, of course is not true.  So when I say there were not ‘thugs’ there because I didn’t see any, there’s the subtext that had I seen a kid who looked like what I’d imagine a ‘thug’ to look like, I’d make the conclusion that he was one, which would be unfair to that kid to make such a judgement just based on his appearance.  I can see that.

No, I don’t think that everyone who looks like a ‘thug’ is one.  And I also don’t think that everyone who does not look like one is not one.

To give some context, I’ve been studying attrition rates at KIPP since I started becoming active in the ed reform debate about a year and a half ago.  I know, for instance, that many KIPP middle schools lose over 40% of their students between 5th and 8th grade.  In Washington D.C. a school called KIPP College Prep expelled 17 students, which represented 5% (one out of 20!) of the school.  When asked why, they said

“We hate to lose any student ever — we don’t open up schools to kick kids out,” said Susan Schaeffler, executive director of KIPP DC. “But it’s absolutely essential that our parents feel safe sending their kids to school.”

So though they did not call the kids they expelled ‘thugs,’ they implied that those 17 kids were something worse:  violent beyond rehabilitation.

I admit I went into this KIPP with a lot of preconceived notions about what I would see there.  I was surprised that I was wrong about a few things, particularly my belief that the kids were going to be scared to make a sound for fear of the strict KIPP discipline.  I was pleased that this wasn’t happening at this school.  But since I already know that a huge number of kids who started the feeder KIPP middle schools as 5th graders had not made it to 9th grade in KIPP for one reason or another, it was going to take a lot to convince me that what I knew from research was wrong.  Honestly I think a kid would have had to stab a teacher in the middle of a lesson for me to leave that school not thinking “I was right!”

As I responded to one of the commenters, I didn’t get the sense that the staff at the school was skilled enough to have rehabilitated the real difficult kids.  It seems more likely that the kids simply weren’t in the school.  Maybe I was too eager to have used my experience as further ‘proof’ of what I have already suspected.  But just because I committed a language foul, does not mean that the case against charters for not serving the most needy kids is suddenly thrown out of court.  It is still a very open question, and one that is extremely important.

I do know, from first hand experience, a girl who was booted from KIPP for being a discipline problem.  I taught her one summer at the public school that she got sent to when I was teaching summer school there.  This girl was very bright, but also very defiant.  I’ve read other accounts of public school principals who get ‘charter rejects’ and struggle since they have the unequal burden that should be shared by charters too.

One last point about ‘thugs.’  When I taught in Houston, some of my favorite students were ones that I considered, at least by my more innocent definition, ‘thugs.’  One guy was a known gang member who, rumor had it, was ‘packing heat.’  I don’t think he graduated, but I saved one of his assignments for all these years.

Here was my handout (click on the image to enlarge):

And here is his paper (Definitely click on the image so you can zoom in on it and read):

Re-reading this brilliant paper from 18 years ago makes me feel a little bad that I trivialized the complexity of troubled kids with a word like ‘thugs.’  I wish I had instead written ‘pains in the asses.’

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15 Responses to A Thug By Any Other Name

  1. Lee Barrios says:

    “Pains in the asses” you mean like people who hyperventilate over words like thugs? I sometimes wonder how people can teach which low tolerance for perspective.

  2. skepticnotcynic says:

    Gary, honesty always trumps political correctness. Keep writing provocative posts. These types of posts are the one’s that attract new readers for your blogs.

  3. KrazyTA says:

    What Lee Barrios and skepticnotcynic wrote.

    I would add that focusing attention on the word “thugs” is a cheap and dishonest way of avoiding thoughtful discussion about the real state of education [public or otherwise]. If anything, sometimes I think you are overly polite in describing those who are wrecking public education. On the other hand, I admire your never-flagging attempts to engage in respectful dialogue with people that I might despair of reaching.

    So keep on keepin’ on and “to thine own self be true.” Your blog is much appreciated.

  4. Steve M says:

    Inner city schools have a large number of thugs…wannabe gangbangers. Suburban schools have fewer thugs, but they are present to some degree. Rural schools usually have more thugs than suburban schools.

    In the inner city, most wannabe gangbangers are underrepresented minorities (i.e. latino and black). In suburban schools the wannabes tend to be of various racial backgrounds. In rural schools the wannabes are typically white, but are often latino, and seldom black.

    I say “wannabe” gangbangers because true gangbangers (the sociopathic types) tend to avoid school altogether and seldom show up. Wannabes are just like you say…a pain in the ass.

    Call it like it is Gary. Your use of the word “thugs” is only as racially charged as the environment you were describing, which was inner city New York.

  5. veteran says:

    How do you feel about the TFA critic part? Aren’t you more of a Reform critic?- whatever that means

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Yes, the TFA critic part really isn’t relevant to the KIPP visit. What I resent most about the ‘reform’ movement is the lack of transparency and ways to verify if their own successes are genuine. This school was OK, but not really much better than other schools, so I question if they are truly making ‘transformational’ change.

  6. Brian Celce says:


    I’d like to forward you my book on education. How can I do this?

    Thanks, BC

  7. skepticnotcynic says:

    Gary, I think you know these schools are nothing more than smoke and mirrors. After all, you are no longer a naive 24 year old TFA corps member. The better question to address is whether this sort of education is actually worse for a student long-term( ie. what happens when they are left to fend for themselves after they graduate?). At what point do you let teenagers/young adults make some or most decisions for themselves? I disagree with how most high-performing charters teach poor kids. It may be a better approach for controlling behavior and keeping kids attention for more than a few minutes, but these schools, for the most part, do not foster creativity, independent thought, self-reliance, or critical thinking. I would say most of the effort is spent on classroom management, which is obviously inevitable when the avg age for teachers in these types of schools is mid-to-late 20’s.

    Most decisions are also made for the students and there is far too much direct instruction and compliance, grading for completion, scripted lessons, test prep, etc. The opposite of what type of environment you would want to create for a real college-prep school.

  8. AnnieS says:

    I read your other column where you first mentioned “thugs” and my first visual image was of a young white male. I’m middle class (I guess) and white. It would be interesting to see how many white people visualize a white person when they hear “thug” and how many non-white people visualize a non-white person when they hear that term.

    • Chi Res says:

      I’m white and I also had a visual image of white thugs, but not young ones. The term has been used a lot in my city over the decades to describe machine politicians and their cronies, so that’s who I immediately thought of –and they’re mostly white here. I’ve also heard it a lot in regard to mobs involved in organized crime, as well as gangbangers of all colors, so I’ve never thought of it as being specific to minorities.

      When the term “union thugs” was used to describe the Chicago teachers strike this fall, I envisioned teamsters (of a variety of races), not diverse educators –who are mostly women.

      I wonder if there are different connotations in various regions across the country. At any rate, I don’t think it’s particularly offensive when used to describe people who attempt to strong-arm, bully or use clout to manipulate and control others.

      BTW, I’m not a union member and I don’t think that “thug” is an accurate characterization of workers who try to assert their rights to fair labor practices and remuneration.

    • Seminole High Teacher says:

      I was thinking the same thing

  9. LBerger says:

    Thank you Gary for providing your perspective… I will simply add to the comments here, that perhaps it was not taken to mean a politician or a white male because Gary was going to a school which I’m sure was largely black and/ or latino (just being real people)

  10. Brian Ford says:

    As I think you have realized later, you are too nice in some of your posts. The original KIPP piece is a case in point.

    But sometimes you also say things that are less than well considered. Personally, I appreciate the posts that say, “Hey look at this — I’m not sure what it means, but here is my take on it, what do you think?” However, people who want to paint you in a bad light will jump all over you for that.

    That can be counter-productive.
    What strikes me about his episode, however, is that people jumped on the word ‘thug.’
    Offensive, maybe, but the real story is that that KIPP has the ‘easier’ kids to teach.

    As for thug, you were in Houston, but nationwide t was a bigger word in the 90s, I think. It was definitely a Biggie word and a Tupac word — thugs went with gangstas in a lot of rap music.

    Tupac’s Thug Love was big and Angie Martinez also had a song by that name.

    Biggie’s response to Tupac:
    Armed and dangerous, ain’t too many can bang with us
    Straight up weed – no angel dust, label us “Notorious”
    Thug ass n—-s that love to bust; it’s strange to us
    Y’all n—-s be scrambling, gambling
    Up in restaurants with mandolins and violins
    We just sitting here trying to win, trying not to sin
    High off weed and lots of gin

    So, you can see why people might take exception.

  11. Pingback: The Teach Like a Champion Paradigm | 34justice

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