KIPP Teacher Loses Mind. Publicly Denounces ‘No Excuses’ Philosophy.

Poor guy.

Maybe because he was feeling like an inadequate new teacher, maybe because he didn’t “get the memo,” maybe because there wasn’t an all-night confessional open.  Whatever the reason, a KIPP teacher has snapped and ‘gone rogue’ publicly denouncing the ‘no excuses’ pillar of the reform movement.

On a blog for Philadelphia teachers and parents, Chris Low wrote a post called Carefully sliding the bar of success.  Because posts that I blog about have a tendency to disappear, here is the text of the post:

It had been a while since I had seen such an unusual reaction to failing a test. Adam, one of my 5th-grade students, had fashioned his two-page score report into makeshift ice skates. Sliding around the back of the room, he declared, “I don’t care about this stupid test! I don’t care! This test was stupid!” It’s an unorthodox strategy for analyzing the data, wearing your report on your shoes.

In my role as a learning support teacher at KIPP Philadelphia Charter School, I had pulled students with learning disabilities into a smaller, more accommodating space during interim testing. Adam was one of those students, and I had worked closely with him during the week leading up to testing. I felt invested in his success. So I was hit with a mix of shock and disappointment to see him behave this way.

On a couch in the back of the classroom, Adam and I sat down to cool off and talk through the numbers. When he was ready to listen, I told him something that clearly surprised him. I pointed to Adam’s first interim score, which was a 53, then I pointed to his new score, which was a 68. I told Adam that I didn’t think he had failed at all.

There is a delicate balance at play in many Philadelphia schools. At the heart of the issue is the idea of expectations. How can teachers keep the bar high without giving in to the constant disillusionment of failed endeavors and unrealized goals? This past summer, during my training as a teaching fellow, my eyes were opened to the limitless potential of students unhindered by the boundaries of low expectations. For many Philadelphia students, the biggest barrier to success lies in the belief that great accomplishments are beyond their grasp. The goal of the teacher is to be a figure that pushes students past the limits of what they think they can do.

But it’s never that simple.

I found early in my first year of teaching in Philadelphia that maintaining high expectations carries a price. I was disappointed all the time. I was disappointed in my kids for not trying harder, and I was disappointed in myself for not being a better teacher. I hesitated to celebrate success with my students, because their success never measured up to the standard we were trying to reach.

That’s where the balancing act begins. That’s where the bar needs to slide.

When kids feel successful, they try harder. Like when I learned how to ride a bike. The bike I learned on happened to be a girl’s bike that was embarrassingly small. I felt ridiculous, but my dad celebrated my small achievement anyway. That feeling of success helped me find the courage to try on something a little more impressive, a bigger bike. My dad had lowered the handlebar, but as soon as I proved myself capable, he quietly slid that bar a little higher, and I was back to reaching again. I’m learning how to do that for my students.

During my conversation with Adam, his face had lit up a bit. I explained that an increase of 15 points in just six weeks was impressive. We did some quick math and figured that he would have a B on the next interim if he kept increasing his score by the same interval. It was a sweet moment, and I think it was just what Adam needed to hear in order to press on.

“Will you call my mom and tell her?” Adam asked. “She’s not going to believe me that this is good.”

Adam was right. Keeping the balance between celebrating small achievements and maintaining high expectations is a tricky business. I said I would be happy to call if he agreed to look at his scores with me to see where he could improve. He peeled the test off the soles of his shoes, and we got started.

Now the fact that he thinks this way is not surprising.  The fact is that all teachers, despite the cries for ‘more rigor’ for ‘higher expectations’ and for ‘no excuses,’ know that high expectations are not the solution to anything.  Good teachers are the ones who set the bar just a bit beyond what the students think they are capable of, and then continue slowly raising the bar.

And Chris Low is not the only charter school teacher who feels this way.  I visited a KIPP recently and found that all the teachers there had ‘appropriate’ expectations, which were just as high (or low if you want to see it that way) as they have in the nearby ‘failing’ school.  So this post isn’t really that newsworthy in that sense.  But it is newsworthy, I think, since it is an example of something sorely missing from the ed reform debate — honesty.

The fact is that schools are lying when they say that their success, if they really have genuine success, is because they make the big teaching mistake of setting unreachable goals.  I applaud this teacher for being brave enough to express something so taboo despite the fact the everyone already knew it.

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18 Responses to KIPP Teacher Loses Mind. Publicly Denounces ‘No Excuses’ Philosophy.

  1. James says:


    I hope, if Wendy responds to your letter, she also digests this blog post. It’s time for the obsession with ‘big goals’ at TFA — introduced with all the Justin Meli antics, Christmas lights and gimmicks — to seriously evolve into something more reasonable, and more sustainable for both teachers — and as this blog post suggests — students alike.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Sarah says:

      Just to clarify, the blog post was written by a Philadelphia Teaching Fellow, not a TFA corps member.

      • Mercedes Schneider says:

        The La Dept of Ed has a number of “fellows,” the most newsworthy of whom is Molly Horstman. She was given (I mean that as in “here, have this”) the position of Director of COMPASS; when it hit the news that she only had two years f TFA teaching experience and had no valid teaching certificate, she was removed from the position but continues to be paid as a “fellow” the sum of 77k.

  2. A teacher says:

    Just imagine the role of a teacher becoming a human interaction where one develops relationships and trust rather than test prep, test prep, test prep. What Chris Low described, his interaction with Adam, happens every single day in public schools by unionized teachers all the time. It is routine, ordinary and human. This is something Wendy and Michelle know nothing about because they are not teachers and they never will be. They are opportunistic exploiters of children.

  3. Michael Fiorillo says:

    Get this man to a KIPP-TFA re-education camp immediately, before he infects his colleagues!

  4. Dan Gosselink says:

    As a Kipp teacher these interactions happen everyday in my school, this is the norm at Rise Academy, in a way that I have never come close to seeing at any other high performing charter, low performing charter or traditional public school. This teacher exemplifies what a Rise teacher is. Come visit a KIPP school/ classroom where this is very present everyday. Rise Academy room 103. Thanks,

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Hi Dan and Meg,

      Yes, this is exactly my point. No quality teacher actually has the ‘no excuses’ / ‘astronomical expectations.’ I never said that KIPP teachers do and that this guy was some kind of exception.

      The point, though, is that most politicians and funders of KIPP would be very surprised to learn that KIPP teachers, just like non-KIPP teachers, try to gauge where their students are and then try to push them a bit from there.

      The myth is that because these KIPP teachers push the students to their incredibly high expectations, the students respond to this and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every teacher knows that this isn’t the way it works, but unfortunately a big part of the charter myth is that high expectations is the main source of their ‘magic.’

      Surely Teach For America buys into that. See the Teaching As Leadership and the first 1/3 of the book is just about high expectations.

      I do think that teachers should not have expectations that are too low since then students certainly won’t feel pushed to attain them, but too high doesn’t work either. This post was not as scandalous as I implied at the beginning of my post, but then I hoped I made it clear what the point was at the end.


  5. Meg says:

    I don’t see much of anything taboo in here, and don’t necessarily think this comes anywhere close to denouncing “no excuses”. I know many charter schools that value progress just as much as performance. All of my school’s departmental goals for our state test are about a 15% increase from last year’s scores. I’m not particularly familiar with KIPP so maybe it’s a bigger deal coming from them, but my school is “no excuses” and everyone, especially school leadership, says things like this all the time.

  6. Mercedes Schneider says:

    Here’s a thought: If the student does not attain a B as the teacher encouraged him that he might, what then? Does KIPP still support teacher and student? Does KIPP fire the teacher? Does KIPP “encourage” the student to attend elsewhere? Does KIPP lie publicly and report 100% graduation even if this student drops out down the road?

  7. Cameron says:

    I agree with the post Gary-I had a very hard time coping with the fact I couldn’t get my students to pass the district-wide algebra test. When I found out that 93% of district failed I realized it wasn’t really my fault, but I was upset about it for months before that statistic was released. I remember telling my TFA mentor that I thought the test was unreasonable at the beginning of the semester and she told me I was lowering my expectations. I was actually right, and in hindsight, I think I might have had more intuition about what was possible than the district coordinators who were supposed to be math specialists.

  8. Pingback: Conflicting Responses to Testing Abuses – @ THE CHALK FACE knows SCHOOLS MATTER

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