Work Hard, Be Nice

The second book on my spring 2013 reading plan, Work Hard, Be Nice, is a biography of the founding of KIPP, Knowledge is Power Program. KIPP is one of the most successful charter school programs, earning an Economist piece. KIPP does not require tuition. Schools have open enrollment, though they do require substantial commitments from students and parents. As the home page states, the KIPP network is “dedicated to preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life.” And they get generally positive results. KIPP contracted with Mathematica policy research, who published a recent report. From the executive summary:

The average impact of KIPP on student achievement is positive, statistically significant, and educationally substantial. KIPP impact estimates are consistently positive across the four academic subjects examined, in each of the first four years after enrollment in a KIPP school, and for all measurable student subgroups. A large majority of the individual KIPP schools in the study show positive impacts on student achievement as measured by scores on state-mandated assessments. KIPP produces similar positive impacts on the norm-referenced test, which includes items assessing higher-order thinking. Estimated impacts on measures of student attitudes and behavior are less frequently positive, but we found evidence that KIPP leads students to spend significantly more time on homework, and that KIPP increases levels of student and parent satisfaction with school. On the negative side, the findings suggest that enrollment in a KIPP school leads to an increase in the likelihood that students report engaging in undesirable behavior such as lying to or arguing with parents.

On page 19, the report further states that on average, over 3 academic years in middle school, KIPP students gain about 4 grade levels in math and science and about 3.5 grade levels in reading. This is commendable. Unfortunately, the average achievement gap between black and white students is about one standard deviation, roughly 2.5 grade levels. KIPP closes approximately 30% – 40% of that gap in math and science and 25% in reading. As more balanced commentators have said, this is not a miracle. At the same time, something in the system works for participating students.

Work Hard, Be Nice is a tale about the founding of the KIPP system. It’s written by Jay Matthews, a well known writer about education for the Washington Post. I don’t like Mr. Matthews as an advocate, particularly his AP Challenge Index. He ranks schools based on number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests TAKEN per student. It’s a poor metric, because the more logical measure of achievement is tests PASSED, not tests taken. It also compares achievement at the top of a school’s distribution, not throughout. Basically, it makes the people that pay his salary, upper middle class suburbanites in Georgetown Fairfax and Silver Spring, happy about their children’s school systems.

Similarly, this book will make readers happy about Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, the two founders of KIPP, and other notable names such as Harriett Ball and Rafe Esquith. Mr. Mathews spends a lot of pages on their dating lives, marriages, and social calendars, a detraction from the things I care about. Maybe that sells more books, as I read such notes frequently in education tales. I don’t like biographies in general, anyway. I read for policies; if I want fantasy, I’ll pick up quality science fiction. For general interests, I won’t recommend this book. It earns a 1 (Below Average) out of 5.

What about my interests? Is KIPP sustainable, as I asked in my last review Relentless Pursuit? Before that question, I want to summarize two themes of the book, Order and Mentorship. First, in the schools where Feinberg and Levin began teaching, classrooms lacked order, like at Locke High School in Los Angeles. The middle schools have oral sex and rape and pregnancy, teachers who casually step out for 15 minutes (p. 57), and other problems. That’s a level I don’t know, and it further supports my disdain of Constructivism.

What do I mean by the last sentence? As people know, I’m not a mathematics education Constructivist, using capital letters like other religions. There are two major reasons. First, I believe in a universal reality, a universal population, as a Catholic statistician. I research for generalizability, something absent from Radical Constructivism or Critical Theory. Second, more relevant to this discussion, I don’t believe students are intrinsically motivated. When I teach general education statistics, like most courses at Bellarmine, a majority of students don’t want to be there. They attend and participate because it’s a requirement to get the paper degree and do things they actually want to do. (One major problem with many Education Professors in Academia is that they only teach advanced students who want to be there, and have lost other perspective.) Giving control to students requires that they have motivation and enthusiasm to take up the charge. I don’t see that. Since, as I wrote in Teach Like a Champion, I have a societal responsibility for my students, I need to design a system around extrinsic motivation and usefulness. That’s what I try to do.

When I talk about another level, I mean students who are actively destructive towards the learning community. I teach university undergraduates, who will tune out and read Facebook, but rarely disrupt the class. They’re adults and don’t generally want that. Besides, I can send them away, or they can skip class. Minors can’t do that; they’re legally stuck. Furthermore, younger tweens and teens tend to have less emotional control. This causes outbreaks which can ruin days easily, even poisoning an entire class. For example, on page 26 Mr. Levin had to silence Quincy, and then the whole class improved. The KIPP system has a heavy focus on order and discipline, like Mr. Lemov in Uncommon Schools. Uncommon Schools even has a post on school bathrooms! Order establishment is not enough, but without it there can be no victory.

There are other necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for school building. It’s not enough for two young idealistic white men to have an idea about schools, like the protagonists’ drive to Houston. They needed support and mentoring. Seemingly every 20 pages, I found a reference to an ally, and I marked a little boxed M in my notes. Harriet Ball and Rafe Esquith have the two largest supporting roles, with many others: Mattress Mack, Sy Fleigel, Randall, Myers, Winston, Shawn Hurwitz, Scott Hamilton, Don Fisher, and likely more. No idea expands without support. We might debate whether that reinforcement comes from local communities, the “conservative” ideal, or government, the “liberal” ideal. I’m not sure I care. For individual ideas to become generalizable, my hypothesized universal population, structures must develop. Many other people are required, as this book demonstrates.

From its founding around 1994, KIPP has become about 125 schools across America. Though Feinberg and Levin originally had four factors (time, quality teaching, parents, administration, p. 125), by page 265 KIPP shifted into five pillars: High Expectations, Choice & Commitment, More Time, Power to Lead, and Focus on Results. I find the differences more like the original factors. Which ones matter? And while the expansion has been notable, is KIPP sustainable? I have some ideas, but well, I’m close to 1200 words and have another KIPP book to examine. We’ll see.

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network:
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