On Veteran’s Day I toured the KIPP High School here in New York City. Public schools were closed but some charters were open (one of those ‘needs of the kids ahead of the needs of the adults’ things, I think). So on Veteran’s Day I went to visit a school that had few veteran teachers.
I’ll admit that I came to this school with a very critical mindset. Ever since getting ‘enlightened’ nearly two years ago about the threats to teachers and schools based on the inflated claims of school ‘reformers,’ I’ve gathered so much information about different KIPP schools. I’ve analyzed attrition patterns and challenged their claims that they get incoming students who are way below grade level. And even though I’ve known Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg for twenty years, though generally we’d talk at TFA events, KIPP had become, for me, a very abstract impersonal thing. By visiting an actual KIPP, it was an opportunity to put faces and personalities to this organization to help me understand it better.
KIPP is the ‘gold standard’ of charter schools, and charter schools are the crown jewels of the education reform movement. It is the charters that ‘prove’ that hard working non-union teachers are able to get incredible results with the same kids and the same resources as the nearby failing school. When that failing school gets shut down for failing to accomplish what KIPP has, it makes room for another charter, maybe another KIPP. KIPP continues to grow this way. They even received $10 million recently from the U.S. Government to continue their expansion.
Before visiting, I had a stereotype image about KIPP schools which I expected to see there: I thought I’d see a school with extended hours, maybe 7:00 AM to 5:30 PM. I’d see teachers working relentlessly, enthusiastically high fiving their students all the time. The teachers would tutor through their lunch. I expected the kids to be eerily and unnaturally quiet. If a kid misbehaved, he’d be sent somewhere — on the bench, they used to say, so he wouldn’t interfere with the lesson. Though I wouldn’t be able to ‘see’ the attrition rate, I expected I’d see a group of kids who were the survivors of the middle school program, which I had studied and knew that up to 40% of students who started in KIPP in 5th grade do not make it to 8th grade graduation in KIPP. These 9th through 12th graders would be the group that remained and they would be very good behaviorally and academically. The classes would be equipped with the latest technology and the most modern curricula. Everything would be top-shelf. As I’ve tried to get information from KIPP before and they have been very tight-lipped, I assumed that my visit would be somewhat controlled. I’d have limited access to see what I wanted, I thought.
My first surprise was that this KIPP did not have an extended day. Students came from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM, with an extra hour and a half on some days for after school activities. The schedule was the basic 8 period, 50 minutes a period variety. I had expected some restrictions, but they instead gave me the master schedule and said I could go in and out of whatever rooms I wanted to for as long as I wanted to. Glancing at the master schedule, I noticed something quite odd. In most secondary schools, teachers teach five, if not six, classes a day. All the teachers at this school seemed to teach just four classes.
As I’m a math teacher, I visited mostly math classrooms, though I also spent some time in English, Social Studies, Science, and Music classes. Throughout the day I was quite surprised when the average class size that I visited was about fifteen students. They said that some students were absent because of Veteran’s day, but not many as the school attendance rate for that day was about 87%. So these KIPP teachers, though I did see them hard at work planning when they weren’t teaching, had schedules that seemed impossible: four classes a day, fewer than twenty students per class. This gives them about half the number of students that someone with five classes of 34 has to encounter. Already I could verify that the ‘same resources’ thing was untrue. If these are two of the things that contribute to the success of this school, it is a good argument for increasing resources to all struggling schools.
Just as the quality of the different KIPP schools throughout the country varies widely, the quality of the KIPP teachers in this school varied widely too. I did see some great teaching. A class called ‘engineering’ where the students were designing and building cars that are powered by a mousetrap was something that really impressed me. I also saw some terrible teaching — classes, despite their small size, accomplishing little but joking around while the teacher weakly tried to get control. But, in general, what I saw was teaching that I could best describe as ‘adequate.’ (Before anyone from the school gets too defensive about this, they should know that I think it is tough to even be an adequate teacher. I often judge myself as just adequate, and I’ve been at it for fifteen years.) The math teaching was good, not great. Good, not special. Considering all the hype about how ‘effective’ teachers teach a year and a half to two years of material each year, these teachers were good, though not good enough.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. Many of these teachers were in their first few years of teaching. It wasn’t that they weren’t trying, but they were struggling to get the students to learn. The teachers tried to teach beyond the basic level where students just memorize a formula and learn to apply it. They asked good questions to encourage thinking, but based on the responses, something just wasn’t clicking. Teaching is hard, and the KIPP teachers reinforced that truth.
I did witness some discipline problems — mostly kids sleeping or zoning out and the teacher trying to get them to be more attentive. The kids were not carted out of class, as I imagined they would be. Teachers were generally responsible for handling their discipline problems.
I think one of the reasons these teachers were struggling to get the students motivated to learn the math was that the lessons, which the teachers plan together, were on very un-inspiring topics. More experienced teachers find a way to include some kind of motivation or fun thinking opportunity into every lesson no matter how dry the required topic is, but these lessons were very dry and extremely teacher centered. Now, I’m not one of these people who thinks that the teacher needs to be “the guide on the side.” I can appreciate the need for teacher directed structure, particularly for kids who struggle. But I needed, and the kids needed, something with a bit more ‘spark.’
I visited one of KIPPs ‘study skills’ classes. I had read about how KIPP had developed a program for building skills like resilience and ‘grit’ which were even more important than academics. So I was very surprised to see that a big part of the class I saw was dedicated to explaining a new reward system where the five students in that class would earn a candy bar each day for a week that they completed just one of their required homework assignments. There is no way that Paul Tough was writing about this when he wrote about how KIPP is developing character in his latest book.
The kids, as I expected, were great kids. They were very spirited and did not have the energy sucked out of them as I had thought they might. I was glad to see that. But I definitely noticed an absence of, for lack of a better word, ‘thugs.’ By this I mean like a 21 year old ninth grader who is only in class because it is a requirement of his parole agreement. As I suspected, the ‘thugs’ have disappeared long ago, and maybe never were even there to disappear as their parents did not have the skills to know about or even enter the KIPP lottery. The KIPP staff would probably disagree. It is an awkward argument: “Your kids aren’t that bad.” “How dare you insult me. Our kids are plenty bad.” But my sense, which I’ll admit could be wrong, was that these kids were somewhat ‘easier’ to teach than the ‘same kids’ at the neighborhood failing school.
There was a nice sense of ‘team’ in the building, which I appreciated. Since there weren’t a lot of rooms on their floor (they are getting a new building to themselves next year) teachers would plan in classrooms while their peers taught. During one of the classes in the independent practice time I actually saw the teacher who was planning at the teacher’s desk get up and start working individually with the students in the other teacher’s class.
But my assessment is that this school is a somewhat better than average, but by no means a place where miracles are happening. One thing that makes them better is surely the tiny class size and the fact that the teachers only teach four classes, which leaves them a lot of time to help kids individually. I’ve sometimes thought that as a reward for teaching a high needs population, all teachers in a school with high poverty should teach just four classes. Maybe this is something we can learn from KIPP.
I did enjoy going to KIPP and meeting all the teachers and administrators who were very nice to me and accommodating. I understand them a bit better, though I’m going to use this last paragraph to help them get to understand me better, if they’re wondering why I’m taking all this time to scrutinize them. Though the teachers and the administrators don’t think about this each day when they prepare their lessons and do the best job they can do to help their students, they are also, I think reluctantly, part of a bigger political picture. Each year in New York City, Washington D.C., and other cities across the country, public schools are getting shut down for being ‘failing’ and their teachers are getting fired. When politicians have to justify these heavy-handed tactics, they generally point to a charter school, sometimes a KIPP, to ‘prove’ that these teachers deserved to be fired and that these schools deserved to be shut down. Like it or not, KIPP has been ‘weaponized’ by these people.
I do appreciate the hospitality and, like I said, I certainly did see a lot of good things going on too. So keep giving it your all and good luck to you.