Overheard at KIPP

In November I visited the KIPP high school in New York City and wrote about it.  Trying to be diplomatic and maybe even be invited to come back some time, I left out some things that I wanted to write about.  More recently, I reached out to the two founders of KIPP in one of my open letters and was kind of disappointed that they did not respond to it.  I also had tried to make that letter pretty tame and easy to respond to, and both Dave and Mike did write back to me that they got the letter, but it was pretty clear that there was not going to be any big public response the way that, for example, Wendy Kopp did.

So maybe this is petty, but this made me a bit upset.  Here I was trying to advance dialogue and also having showed ‘good faith’ by diluting my analysis of their flagship high school and they could not be bothered to write back a small response to someone they have known for twenty years.

So this made me want to reveal a little more about what I learned at KIPP.  I suppose I could have channeled my feelings into a giant post, but I decided instead to write a bunch of small posts and see how they are received and what sort of interest, in terms of the comments and discussion I appreciate, these generate.

Most people who are not knowledgeable about education will do a short school visit to a school and really have no idea how to put what they see into any context.  So they see kids in uniforms and they see a teacher using a ‘Smartboard’ and they leave the school impressed.  I did a full day visit, from about 8:30 AM to 3:00 PM.  Not only did I sit in on classes, but I talked to the teachers and also couldn’t help but overhear some conversations that I probably wasn’t supposed to hear.  In this post, I’ll describe two such conversations.

The KIPP high school has a large area in the middle with a lot of tables, almost like a coffee shop.  I went out to get lunch at the nearby Fairway and came back and sat at one of those tables to eat.  At the table next to me I overheard a discussion between a KIPP administrator and a teacher.  Most of the KIPP administrators, like this woman was, are young and white, as are most of the teachers.  This teacher was black and seemed to be in her late 40s.  The conference was related to some sort of recommendation letter, maybe for some academic program, that the older teacher was writing for one of her former students.  I’m not sure who initiated this discussion, but the administrator was explaining that the letter should be re-written.  The issue was that this teacher had been a bit too ‘honest’ in the letter and it would hurt the chances of this student getting into the program.  Now I’ve written many recommendation letters, and of course you want to put the student in the best possible light, so I’m not saying that the administrator was wrong in suggesting that this teacher change the letter.  I’m just writing about this since some of the things said in the discussion were revealing.

Apparently this student had a bad attitude and failed the course.  The teacher had written about this so the administrator explained to this teacher that, yes, the student had failed, but that a lot of students fail that course (I think it was Geometry).  Also, it was important that the teacher understand that getting a 60 in that course at the KIPP school was like getting a 90 in most other schools since, I guess she felt like she knew, the other neighborhood schools have extreme grade inflation.  The conference was resolved with the teacher agreeing to rewrite the letter keeping these things in mind.  I found it interesting that a lot of students fail this course since the media would have us believe that after being in KIPP from 5th grade to 11th grade, students there wouldn’t be failing that much.  Also, the assumption that the ‘other’ schools have such low expectations that a  90 there is like a 60 at KIPP, I don’t know if she how she can be so confident about that claim.

Until they get their new building next year, there are not a lot of empty rooms at KIPP high school for teachers to work so they have a big area in the middle of the school, kind of like an open teacher’s lounge.  I went to this area to plan what class to visit and also to chat with some of the teachers.  I’ve been teaching for fifteen years and I feel like I really ‘know’ teachers and generally get along with them as peers.  I don’t think most of the teachers there knew that I write a blog or that things they say could show up on the internet.  It’s not like I was wearing one of those hats with a ‘press’ card on it, so they were just being themselves and not being extra careful around me.

I heard a math teacher explain to another administrator that one of the girls in his class was refusing to do the work.  It was clear that this was a chronic problem.  The administrator asked if the teacher had spoken to the student’s father and the teacher chuckled and shook his head, indicating that he had tried to reach out to that parent many times before and that it was futile.  I found this interaction interesting not because it really surprised me, but because it would have surprised many people who think of KIPP as this place where students aren’t ‘allowed’ to fail.  The fact is that these teachers are the same kind of mortals that teach in other schools.  They don’t have the magic secrets to overcome all the factors that prevent kids from reaching their potential.  Despite all the advantages with small class sizes (about 20 to 25 a class) and small teaching loads (teachers there teach 4 classes, as opposed to the 5 or even 6 at other schools), teachers still struggle with motivating students and also eventually throw their hands up and ‘give up’ on them.

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16 Responses to Overheard at KIPP

  1. EdEd says:

    Gary, I read your last post about the quote on the teacher’s door, and this post as well, and I’m wondering if you’ve been able to identify any general trends that you saw throughout that particular school, and if you feel comfortable generalizing those trends to all KIPP schools? The reason I’m asking is that I’m sure you could find examples of problems at even the best schools, and I’m not sure that your anecdotes about quotes on walls and conversations leave me with a well-informed, generalizable impression of that school, or KIPP schools as a whole.

    I think one point you’ve tried to make is that KIPP schools may not fully live up to their values and ideals in every conversation and wall post, and I think that’s important to understand, but is true about all schools. I’ve never been to a school in which every conversation and head nod is perfectly in line with the school’s mission. So, I’m not sure pointing out a few small problems really serves as a thorough review of the academic program, school culture, etc. Do you have any general insights supported by observations that seemed very consistent across all of your observation settings?

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Good question. With 125 KIPP schools, there are surely some that are very good and some that are very bad, so it is hard to generalize about KIPP, in general. This is, though, the only KIPP high school in New York City so all the KIPP middle schools feed into this one, so it is a pretty good specimen to examine. KIPP cheerleaders are pretty quick to point to the exceptional cases and to infer that most KIPPs are like that. The fact is they can’t even replicate their own successes.

      For this school, I can say that these little anecdotes were not, it seemed to me, exceptions because it’s not like I saw all kinds of other very impressive things that I’m withholding.

    • My read on Gary’s thread isn’t to say that “Oh my – Kipp is terrible.” Rather – it’s a school and as such can have good stuff going on and problems.

      It’s not the silver bullet for education (even though additional funding for lower class sizes and giving teachers fewer students overall certainly makes things easier).

      A school is no better than it’s teachers, leadership, and culture, and I think that’s the point.

      Gary’s debunking the reformer line that schools like Kipp are miracle factories and in contrast, true public schools are failing.

      • EdEd says:

        Thanks Mike – if so, that seems to make sense. One issue some seem to have with KIPP, TfA, and some other groups is that they may take small successes and pass them off as the norm. I would think it would be equally as unwise to take small snippets of negative and assume that to be the norm as well. It sounds like this discussion is appropriately focused – on just one school, and just the observations noted.

  2. KrazyTA says:

    Gary R: your postings on your KIPP visit remind me of one of the best teachers with whom I worked—sober, understated, realistic, helpful.

    Don’t change a thing. For the occasional poster who visits your blog who wants a pound of your flesh, just keep this old[?] ditty in mind: fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, haters gotta hate, Gary R’s gotta speak simple truths in plain English.

    Thank you for your efforts and I look forward to viewing your blog again soon.


  3. Educator says:

    I believe the power you have is that you are a blogger with real experience in the classroom (and you’ve written books about teaching, have trained teachers, etc…) AND you have experience with the reform camp (people and organizations like Teach For America). So, I believe you are quite dangerous to the reform camp. You can’t be dismissed as a status-quo, self-interested teacher so easily. I hope that your blogs make the reformers think a lot. I hope they read these posts. I worry though, that if your posts become too snarky or negative, that they’ll just dismiss you as they have of other people who question their actions.

    I think these anecdotes about KIPP are helpful because many folks with no charter experience are left wondering what’s so miraculous about these schools. What’s the magic formula? Almost everyone has an idea of what it’s like in traditional public schools because of their own experience, or because of what the media paints. But for charters, to many, it’s a mystery. So I like hearing about these things, even if it’s a small quote, or what you overheard.

    Now, for this post. Is it odd that a principal asks a teacher to change a recommendation? I always thought that teachers generally write the recommendations and submit them without any kind of editing from someone higher up?

    • Linda says:

      I think that may be one or Gary’s messages…there is no miracle or special sauce. Yeah, they help some students and so do all schools. Yeah, they get rid of or counsel out the ones who don’t make them look good, but public schools cannot. That’s the primary difference. So they package and publicize themselves better….so what?

      • Educator says:

        I’m not sure what you mean by the last sentence “they package and publicize themselves better….so what?” but I guess what you’re saying is something like “Why is it a big deal that KIPP packages and publicizes itself better than traditional public schools?”

        If this is what you’re saying….it is a big deal because many state legislatures around the country and starting to implement laws based on what schools, many of them charters, are claiming they do: “Educate better with fewer resources and the SAME students” Politicians are believing this because charters seem to be able to publicize themselves better, and as you can see from Gary’s blog and the Miracle Schools Wiki, and more often these past few months from investigative journalists, many of these schools simply are doing tricks such as losing 40% or more of their students, educating fewer SPED/ELLs, having low thresholds for expulsion…thus increasing their test scores substantially compared to a traditional public school that can’t do as many tricks as the less regulated charters.

        It’s a big deal because this is affecting communities, students, and the teaching profession.

        Many of the reform advocates are saying that they are doing this “for the children,” and to a certain extent, I do believe that. But when these facts are brought forward, many of these reformers seem to be silent, or they dismiss critics as “status-quo” They don’t answer questions. So it leaves peope wondering, what’s their real intent? Some thing it’s privatization…and depending on who you ask, this is good or bad.

        So that’s why this matters.

  4. Steve M says:

    I have written hundreds of recommendation letters for students, and I really can’t think of ANY situation where it is healthy for an administration to have access to the recommendation letters a teacher has written…for any program, organization or scholarship.

    If a student took a recommendation letter to the administration and a complaint (assuming there was a complaint) by the student was not for some type of actionable offense, then it would be an enormous violation of trust. Any administrator worth his/her salt would not even look at such a thing unless the student first stated that an actionable offense occurred.

  5. Teacher in Delaware says:

    I appreciate that you are highlighting KIPP teachers as mortals, however, the scenario you described with the teacher who was asked about calling the student’s father did not seem to me that she was ‘giving up’ on anyone, but rather asking for help.

  6. Eded says:

    I agree about the marketing, and actually think public schools should learn from orgs like Kipp and tfa. Rather than bring angry with them, learn from them about how they’re communicating their message, whether you agree with it or not.

    • Linda says:

      The KIPP message isn’t true. It is marketing, yes, but spin and hype. They cherry pick more than just students.

      TFA and truth….puhlease!

  7. Eded says:

    Yeah I don’t think I’m talking about truth or not. But, I think people like them, so we should find out why. Since schools are accountable to the public, how can public schools better communicate their successes.

    • Educator says:

      Good point. Many charters need to market simply because they need enrollment to stay in business. Traditional schools haven’t caught on just yet in my opinion, because they’ve never had to worry about enrollment. Now, they sort of do have to worry.

      I know many traditional schools have a lot to brag about, especially non-test-based programs such as sports and more choices in clubs and stuff. Some charters scrap these things in pursuit of student achievement (defined primarily by multiple choice exam results)

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