Jan 05 2013

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.

20 Responses

  1. James


    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

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

      • Mercedes Schneider

        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

    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

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

  4. Dan Gosselink

    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

      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

    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.

    • A teacher

      What is a no excuses school? What does that mean?

    • James

      Yeah, I agree with you, Meg. This is a pretty reasonable account — in fact, probably something of which KIPP would probably publicly approve of as being supportive of their model.

      • A teacher

        Well, now they would….how could you oppose it openly?

  6. Mercedes Schneider

    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. 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. James Horn:

    I was severely disappointed as I read your piece “KIPP Forces 5th Graders to “Earn” Desks by Sitting on the Floor for a Week”. As a professor of educational leadership at Cambridge University, I expected so much more than what you failed to deliver.

    This interview was partial. KIPP is an amazing organization that places countless children who come from impoverished communities into a mind frame that fosters success and accountability. Instead of properly researching KIPP, this article fell prey to lazy journalism and shock value.

    Given your position as an educator and someone who undoubtedly has influence through journalism, I can’t help but to feel let down. Where were the news reporters when over sixty kids had to share one partitioned room because the board of education wouldn’t fund us? Where was the outrage when the board of education refused to provide us with books? In fact, they even refused to provide us with desks. It was our KIPP teachers who went into their own pockets to make sure we had the necessary tools for our education. It was Dave Levin and Frank Corcoran who miraculously put together two classrooms with the necessary resources we needed to learn. Where was the outcry then?

    KIPP came from humble beginnings, much like the students it serves. Even as an adult, I often look back to my KIPP years some 18 years ago and continue to extract the life lessons instilled in me then. How many schools put character first? If you want to tell a story, tell impassioned narratives from people who truly understand what KIPP means. Your article captured the opinion of one person who no longer works for our organization. How could this educator possibly give a balanced assessment of KIPP when they struggled to make it through the summer themselves, failing to understand the life lessons that were instilled in these kids starting from these children’s first day of school?

    Why not interview KIPPsters such as myself? You don’t want to hear the truth? You don’t want to hear that KIPP works? Will no one read a four page article praising a charter school that helped to send Black and Latino kids like me to boarding school on full academic scholarships? Is it boring to hear that KIPP has an amazing post graduate network that sticks with their alumni and offers SAT, SSAT, ACT, and LSAT prep for its alumni? Guess who was front and center at my prep school graduation? KIPP. College books are expensive. Want to know who paid for my college books? KIPP. Want to know who has called me every month for the last ten years, at least, to make sure I am okay and to ask if I need resume help or any type of tutoring if I want to further my education? Mr. Martinez. Guess where he is from. You guessed it, KIPP. I remember struggling with college math 2 AM frustrated as can be. I picked up the phone, called my 8th grade math teacher, Mr. Corcoran, and he spent 45 minutes on the phone helping me through my math problems. How many students can do that? How many teachers are that dedicated? As a college professor, do your students have this access to you?

    No one tells the tale of countless minority children who are murdered in the streets of the South Bronx and Chicago. We don’t see enough articles detailing the failed public schools who have children reading and performing mathematics below grade level. The inmates are getting younger and their jail sentences are getting longer. What is the solution?

    For many of us, the solution is KIPP. I am the first person in my family to graduate college. I am the product of a teen mom and immigrant father, neither who raised me. I grew up in foster care, battling my surroundings. I battled poverty, abuse, neglect, and danger as I proudly walked to school with my KIPP uniform with the big red words Knowledge is Power written on back of my shirt. I didn’t know then what KIPP would mean to be now.

    I can jot down facts like 95% of KIPP alums have graduated high school, compared to the low income average of 70%. 89% of students who completed a KIPP middle school five or more years ago have matriculated into college, compared to the low income average of 41% and the national average of 62%. A third of KIPPsters earned their bachelor’s degree, compared to 8% of the low income average. I can give all types of statistics, but, as a journalist, that is your job.

    KIPP isn’t the problem. KIPP is the solution. Without a doubt, KIPP isn’t for everyone. Not every teacher is cut out to be a KIPP educator and not every family can handle the pressure of nurturing a KIPPster. There is an outrage that students are made to sit on the floor to earn their desks but there is no outrage when these same students, who walk through life learning nothing of character, perseverance, and accountability are put behind bars serving sentences to a society designed for them to fail. The cycle never ends.

    I remember not having books. I had photocopies from books because no one would fund us. I remember not having enough desks and chairs in the classroom. We shared. So what?! I remember wanting to learn and having dedicated faculty nurture my desire to learn and helped me build on my academics as well as my character. I am not upset about these children with no desks. I am proud of them. Nothing is this world is given to you, it is earned. It is amazing that these children extracted such a big lesson as such a young age. They are already following the footsteps of so many KIPPsters before them who have paved their way. Good for them. They are headed in the right direction. From one KIPPster to another, I am proud of you. Always put your character first, even when other people question it. Keep choosing the road less travelled. It makes a difference.

    • David Adams

      Juanita Davis

      I am trying to understand the strengths and weakness of KIPP.

      So far it seems like a battle between idealists and pragmatists.

      The idealists – education theorists seem to be starting with an ideology and analyzing schools like KIPP through that ideological lens.

      The pragmatists just want to do what seems to work.

      If it is possible I would like to interview you (email/phone) about your experiences

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