Apr 10 2013

Teacher quality at KIPP

I’ve written a bunch of posts about my visit to the KIPP high school in New York city over the past few months.  The first was a general summary and, since then, I’ve gotten more deeply into some of the things I learned there.  I thought the school was just OK.  As we always hear that charter schools thrive because they have high quality teachers that they give flexibility too in return for accountability, I want to, in this post, describe the teaching I saw there.

Over the years I’ve worked, from time to time, as a teacher trainer for both TFA and for The New York City Teaching Fellows.  I think my favorite part of those jobs was watching the trainees teach and then providing detailed feedback of the strengths and weaknesses of their practice.  I spent the entire day at KIPP and popped in and out of classes at will, getting to see about twenty different teachers in my visit.

The KIPP teachers only teach four classes a day with class sizes between ten and twenty students.  This is a very light schedule and it certainly costs a lot of  money to have such a low student teacher ratio.  I don’t know if this is common for KIPP schools, but this was a pretty nice perk, I thought.  I also don’t know what their salaries are, but I’ve heard stories about KIPP teachers making extra money.

One thing that I see in schools a lot is the most experienced teachers getting to teach the high level class while the newbies have to teach the ninth grade remedial classes.  I suppose that this is some kind of reward for longevity, but it really is unfair.  If it really is about ‘the kids’ the new teachers should teach some of those easier classes.  I’m sorry to report that at KIPP they seemed to have the same sort of totem pole going on.  In the ninth grade wing is where I saw the most first year TFAers.

I saw a first year TFA guy who was trying very hard to teach 9th grade math, but his lesson, like most of the math lessons I saw there, was completely uninspiring.  Really just a mechanical activity which the students were most certainly not getting.  A few doors down I watched the beginning of a lesson on world religions where the new TFA teacher was struggling to get the YouTube video he was planning to show from ‘Little Buddha.’  The clip was not running properly and students were completely disengaged.

I think the worst teaching I saw was a TFA-type English teacher who had a class with about 9 tenth graders.  This teacher had no control whatsoever.  Students were ignoring his instructions and he finally got his question out and one student answered it while the others chattered away.  He had a nervous smile all the time and revealed his inability to carefully choose his words when one student tattled on a girl in the class and another student started telling the girl to be quiet until the teacher said “Don’t worry.  I’ve got this.  I’m on her,” which got a big laugh from the entire class.

I was told that I had to see another young teacher, maybe a TFAer too, who taught Social Studies.  There were, again, about ten kids in the class, and there was a discussion question about whether or not Napoleon was ‘enlightened.’  The responses were from just two students back and forth and it really seemed like the didn’t understand the question.  (I wasn’t really sure what it meant either.)  This teacher definitely had a lot of charisma and some humor.  Any time a student said the word ‘French’ they had to do a French ‘Ha Ha Ha,’ which was a nice touch, but I don’t think I saw any real ‘learning’ going on in that class.

Most of my time was spent in math classes.  I didn’t see much innovation going on in any of them.  In one class the teacher taught a rule for solving a problem and then told the class “If you want to see a proof of this, come after school.”  In another I watched a teacher try desperately to get some kind of inquiry into his lesson.  He showed his class how a theorem involving triangles worked for an acute triangle.  He then asked “If I wanted to check to see if this was not just lucky, what other types of triangles might I try this with?”  It was a good question but the students were unable to come up with the answer.  It went on for a few minutes before he simply told them.

I saw a class that was called ‘precalculus’ but the material seemed to me to be basic Algebra, something with compound interest.  On the wall of the room I saw some student work displayed, mostly recent tests, and saw that the tests making the wall had scores in the low 80s.  Achievement was not as high there as KIPP PR would have us believe.  In that precalculus class the teacher mentioned that most people had failed the last test and that she would like for at least 75% of the students to pass.

An ‘English’ class I watched was merely students on laptops doing test prep.  I left that room as quickly as I could.

I did see a few things I liked there.  Like a computer programming class which was hands-on and also most definitely not ‘test prep.’  I also like an engineering class.  In that engineering class, students were working in groups trying to design cars they were going to build that would be powered by mousetraps.  I like activities like that and even though the students were making very little progress on the project, they were trying and I’m all for students doing something interesting and getting to exercise their creativity.

The most pathetic thing I experienced, though, and which I wrote about a little in my original post about my visit was a ‘study skills’ class.  KIPP has recently been priding itself on its ‘grit’ training program.  Just passing the tests is meaningless if the students have not developed the kind of attitude that will help them overcome the challenges they would face in college.  I actually like the idea of having a class where students can learn to develop these skills.  But what I saw revealed something that I suspected about KIPP all the time:  They don’t really have any special expertise in some of the things they claim to do well.

So this class had about 5 kids and one teacher and the teacher was asking the students to make a list of things that distract them when they try to work at home.  Rather than write the things down the students started either calling out things that distract them or complaining that nothing distracts them.  Later the teacher announced that as an incentive for these students doing their homework, they would get some candy if they would do one of their homework assignments that night.  Kids started calling out “That’s it, just one homework?” and then the teacher explained that the next week they would need two assignments and then it would increase from there.  The last fifteen minutes of class were spent with the teacher answering questions about what the minimum amount of homework would need to be done to qualify as one assignment.

I don’t know.  Maybe I came on a bad day to that class, but it really just seemed like a teacher winging it and not anything based on research or child psychology or anything.

Most of the teaching, I should stress, was not ‘bad.’  The issue I have is that the teaching would need to be spectacular to satisfy me.  Schools are getting closed all around the country, 20 in New York City, 20 in Washington D.C., 30 in Philadelphia, 50 in Chicago.  When politicians are asked why they are doing this they generally point to a charter school, often a KIPP, which ‘proves’ that all you need are ‘highly effective’ teachers and all students will excel.  This KIPP is the only KIPP High School in New York City so all the students from their middle schools filter into this school.  They will have their own multimillion dollar new building next year, paid for with money that I believe could have been better spent elsewhere.

What was strange was that the teachers and administrators who I spoke to, who were quite nice to me, were completely oblivious to the ed reform context in which they teach.  Maybe they were in denial about it, but it is pretty clear that kids, teachers, and schools are being punished all over the place for failing to live up to how great a school like this KIPP is supposed to be.  I’d love it if a KIPP teacher would come out and say “Please stop shutting down schools and using me as the justification for it.”  It seems to me that the whole charter school movement, at which KIPP is at the forefront, has benefited the small percent of students who make it through the KIPP program — they have a lot of attrition — and also benefits ‘the adults’ like the teachers and the administrators there, but that benefit has come at a much much larger cost, the destruction of neighborhood schools and displacement of unwanted students.  All in all, it is a large net negative, though it needn’t be.  With more honesty about what they are, and are not, accomplishing at KIPP and other charter schools, we could improve public schools rather than obliterate them.

51 Responses

  1. Tom B

    I actually really like this post and think it should be good for morale for corps members who’ve had a mediocre day/week/month/year. TFA can be pretty brutal on the psyche sometimes and there is a general culture that if your classroom doesn’t look like a KIPP/Uncommon promo video every day it’s because you aren’t working hard enough. I think in the end it’s this culture that makes corps members so successful, but it can be demoralizing at times.

    A colleague of mine did a KIPP visit and when I asked her how it went she responded, very enthusastically, “it was SO GOOD.” I expected her to talk about all of the stuff she was going to implement in her classroom, but she said pretty much the same story you have. That it was just average. Nothing special. This can be a nice reality check on the shame/guilt TFA can cause.

    • Mary Valentine

      KIPP teachers are so good? That’s not exactly what I’m seeing here.

      • Tom b

        Sorry it wasn’t clear when I wrote it. She meant it was so good to see that it was completely average and not any standard to feel ashamed of not meeting.

  2. meghank

    There are plenty of ex-KIPP teachers who say, “Please stop shutting down schools and using me as the justification for it.”

    With their job security in such doubt, it might be too much to ask for a current teacher to say such a thing. (Perhaps that’s part of KIPP’s plan)

  3. KrazyTA

    Gary: I have been following your blog for some months now and—I can’t explain why—this is my favorite so far.

    Anyone who has cared to pay attention while they are/were working in a classroom can appreciate your deft touch. For example, “The KIPP teachers only teach four classes a day with class sizes between ten and twenty students.  This is a very light schedule and it certainly costs a lot of  money to have such a low student teacher ratio.” It is difficult for anyone who hasn’t worked in a classroom—especially with thirty or forty or fifty students during five or six classes a day—to understand how much easer [not easy] it is when you are dealing with ten or twenty or thirty or forty fewer students. As a SpecEd TA I was moved around from one SpecED teacher to another plus often being assigned to regular ed classes to assist the SpecEd students [obviously not identified as such to the other students] being mainstreamed. That is, many times I would move—frequently period to period—from a room with one teacher and myself and less than a dozen students to much larger classes. **Note: I often found the genuinely [not falsely assigned] SpecEd students to be much easier to work with and help then some of the so-called regular ed students.** Personalities of teachers and students, subject material, grade level, mix of students from very different backgrounds and abilities [including ethnic/national and ELL], etc., made every move sometimes feel a bit like traveling from one country to another [truth be told, I liked the variety]. Then throw into this mix the ever-changing composition of classes and teaching staff—my rule of thumb was to never get totally comfortable in any situation because things could change very quickly, e.g., just bring in a sub for a week and an entire class might get on, or off, track faster than you could say “no excuses.”

    :)

    You outdid yourself. Thank you so much for keeping it real.

    As some of the students I worked with might have said, you da bomb!

    :)

  4. But, but, but…. The woman at the “REASON” conference said KIPP schools are just a runaway success!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=47oyCTfv6JM&feature=youtu.be&t=3m40s

    • Michelle

      I can’t even watch that. We’ve tried computer programs at my school. The students don’t do any work on the computers. They need human teachers to explain things and work with them and motivate them and push them. Interesting related video on teaching done by non-human means:
      http://talentsearch.ted.com/video/Derek-Muller-The-key-to-effecti

  5. Michael Fiorillo

    Mediocre instruction and achievement, with between ten and twenty students in a class?

    And Levin, Feinberg, Barth, Kopp, Duncan et al. have the effrontery to claim that KIPP is a model for public education?

    What chutzpah, what lies…

    • ChitownStu

      One day in one school debunks their whole argument? Wow. If that’s all it took…

  6. skepticnotcynic

    Gary,

    Have you ever applied to be an investigative journalist? You may have missed your calling. With regards to KIPP, I doubt you will be invited back. Your picture has probably been emailed across the network. “Don’t let this guy on any KIPP campus, he is a threat to your paycheck.”

  7. T. I. Troll

    “Schools are getting closed all around the country, 20 in New York City, …”

    Note that is is exceedingly rare for a school to be shut down, the building to be torn down, and a strip mall to be raised in its place.

    Generally, a “closed” school is one which is disbanded and replaced by another school in the same building, with different leadership, etc (or by multiple smaller schools, or several closed schools may be replaced by a single larger one) – the phase “shutting down the school” is very misleading in this context.

    for example, in the 2012-13 school year in NYC:

    schools proposed for closure: 17
    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/07/city-names-17-schools-slated-to-close/

    schools opened: 31
    http://schools.nyc.gov/community/newschools/default.htm

    • BronxBob

      Under mayoral control, more than 140 “failing schools” have been shut down in NYC over the objections of students, teachers, parents, alumni & community members. These schools, many in existence for 75-100 years, were centeral to their communities, which are largely minority & impoverished. Significant percentages of staff were graduates of these schools, as well. Thee extensives links to the communities are lost whne they are closed. The real reason for closure is to obtain real estate to insert charter & mini schools in these buildings, with the ulitmate aim of breaking teachers’ unions & privitization of public education. Standards for “failure” are arbitrary and are adjusted to get the desired results. The Bronx is “failing” – should it be “closed” and replaced?

      • Jack

        It’s the antithesis of democratic decision-making. In spite of overwhelming protest from the public—i.e. what’s going on in Chicago.” The Forces of Darkness in power basically reply to the outraged public:

        “F–k you! We don’t give a sh-t what you think or feel! You’re gonna accept these school closings and privatization-via-charters if we have to shove them down your throat! Then, we’ll mock you and laugh at your ‘protests’ all the way to the bank!”

    • Kt

      Well, if a store goes out of business and a new store rents the space, we still say that the old store was “shut down” or “closed.” In NYC, where I’m most familiar with school closures, the school is not just renamed, or given a new principal – those kids are strewn elsewhere, and the replacement school(s) serve an entirely different set of kids (often with higher incoming test scores). So although the real estate itself is not destroyed, I think “shut down” is entirely accurate.

  8. gkm001

    Candy for partial completion of homework? Seriously?

    The KIPP folks should read Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, Drive by Daniel Pink, or anything by Carol Dweck, so they can understand how prizes and incentives diminish internal drive and motivation, undermining the “grit” they are seeking to cultivate.

  9. Jane G.

    I have mentioned on a few blogs of my nightmare experience working for a year in a KIPP school. I was a veteran teacher who was dumb enough to transfer into a KIPP school. In the year that I was there I saw tremendous staff turnaround. Teachers quit in the middle of the year and were fired in the middle of the year. The entire school seemed like a cult with constant chants, rituals, and songs. The students were told to NOT speak to other students from other schools and were constantly prodded to “work hard be nice”. There was an unrelenting pressure that life as you know it consists of getting into college. The staff was extremely overworked, underpaid, and even had to go on weeklong field trips out of state. All in all, it was the saddest experience of my teaching career. I would never even think of suggesting to any teacher to think of teaching in a KIPP school. They are a world within a world and they care nothing other than spreading their false bill of goods to parents, teachers, and the community. When you have carte blanche to brainwash kids, utilize boarderline mental abuse, and kick kids and teachers out at the drop of a hat, you will have a totalitarian school where results are met by means that are never justified by ends.

    • Julie

      I interviewed at a KIPP school recently. Not only was I treated quite unprofessionally, I didn’t see any awesome teaching there, either. I think the schools I’ve taught in–just plain old “public” schools–have far, far superior teachers and much sounder instruction. I was not impressed and I would not recommend that anybody seek employment in such a school.

    • Jen

      This is perfectly said, it is a “cult” experience and kids are brainwashed from a very young age. The whole “no excuses” approach is taken way too far and there are double standards all over the map. It’s taken years for many people who have had the “KIPP experience” to shake the mental abuse. And, it’s a school run by corporate money and political motivation.

    • Jen

      This is perfectly said, it is a “cult” experience and kids are brainwashed from a very young age. The whole “no excuses” approach is taken way too far and there are double standards all over the map. It’s taken years for many people who have had the “KIPP experience” to shake the mental abuse. And, it’s a school system run by corporate money and political motivation.

  10. As a Kindergarten teacher, I definitely think that extrinsic rewards do have their place, particularly if they are related to the action earning the reward. That said, I have a problem with food rewards, particularly things like candy.

    But what I really don’t understand is how “grit” is developed through earning rewards. Isn’t the goal that you have enough determination, resilience, etc. to be sufficiently “gritty”? I don’t know that starting with extrinsic rewards will lead to intrinsic skill development.

    Was this KIPP school one of the ones grading students on character traits? I know that some KIPP schools do, and I have concerns about the cultural competence of the KIPP teachers doing the grading.

  11. Chiara

    These dispatches are really interesting. Thanks so much for actually showing up. We get so little reporting, and so much spin.

  12. JTS

    Why didn’t you just ask the “TFA-type” teacher and “maybe TFA” teacher if they were, in fact, corps members? And since you didn’t, why did you choose to include your assumption that they might be corps members in this piece?

  13. Ken Mortland

    Washington state recently passed a charter schools initiative. Going to be interesting to see what sorts of charter schools appear and who is going to be running them. Have been told KIPP isn’t interested in Washington state. Can’t imagine why. It’s clearly a case of the blind leading the blind here.

  14. Gabriel

    I was a School Leader sharing a bldg with a Kipp in NYC (a MS). I had many chances to observe KIPP in action), we also occassionaly received a KIPP transfer student (we were a highly desirable public and selective STEM school). Aside from a beautifully renovated bldgs (with Central AC!) and an incredible sense of order and focus observable in every classroom and hallway, I was most impressed by the classroom organization and lesson structure I saw. I have observed hundreds of teachers in 3 continents and across a range of public, private and international schools, and rarely have I seen in one institution such homogeneity of lessons, classroom organization, and behavioral management protocols. Whether this is educationally meaningful or just superficial control nonsense, I cannot tell. – there is some accumulating research that this order and strict protocols has an impact but its no silver bullet and the jury is still out on test outcomes.

    • Megan H

      Educational equality: give every student the same (literally, the same, exact) education.

      Educational equity: give every student the education he or she needs.

      When I visited a KIPP elementary school in NYC, their homogeneity struck me as unimaginative and robotic.

  15. MOMwithAbrain

    Compared to the disaster we see in public schools, this sounds good. Thanks for the report. No wonder parents are pulling their kids out of public schools and opting for KIPP schools. While they may not be perfect, this sure sounds like an improvement for many families

  16. WT

    Maybe we should view this another way around. The best studies all say that KIPP gets hugely better results than the same kids in public schools. If the teachers you see are unexceptional, then how bad do the regular public school teachers have to be, given that they do so poorly compared to KIPP?

    • Steve M

      I’m sorry, but your statement that KIPP gets “hugely better” results than comparable public schools is absurd. What is true is that many, and likely most, inner-city schools are extremely bad.

      But, KIPP is not the answer.

    • Julie

      Hmm. As a “regular public school” teacher, I’m a lot better than the KIPP teachers I’ve observed (and I’ve observed in more than one KIPP school). My school does not perform poorly, nor do many of the schools around me.
      I mind remind you, also, that public schools–when they do “perform” poorly–do so for various factors. Teachers can teach their hearts out but if there is not student motivation, no parental or administrative support, and so forth–well, there’s only so much a teacher can do.

  17. WT

    Did my comment get deleted?

  18. George Buzzetti

    Obviously there is no learning in this environment. 10-20 students in a class and only 4 periods, how and they be losers? Where is the quality and control of the classroom? Without control of the classroom there is no chance for learning and it is a waste of time. The other big question is HOW DO THEY FUND THIS MESS? I am an expert in school fraud and budgets. This does not add up and pass the smell test. When in schools with 85% of the budget going to employee wages and benefits how do they have these sizes of classes, number of periods/teacher and higher pay and balance the budget. Mathmatically it is impossible. I would like to see their budget against the public school next door handling the same students. Who is putting in the extra money? Who is peeling off the extra? It is always the same story. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck most likely it is a duck.

    • Steve M

      George, KIPP schools have corporate sponsorships that will continue for a few years. When that dries up…well, you’ll have a bunch of young teachers (assuming that they plan to stay in the profession, and are not simply TFAers) standing around wondering where they will be the following year. Of course, they will have no seniority within their district and will have to move on to a new charter operation that some con artist established.

  19. Dan Gosselink

    KIPP teacher -Please stop shutting down schools and using me as the justification for it!

    And not all KIPP schools are the same.

  20. Peter

    For readers interested in a sound analysis of what KIPP is and isn’t:

    http://shankerblog.org/?p=7874

    • Steve M

      From Shanker’s blog: “It’s very difficult to put a number on this, but it’s safe to say that this model is not a good fit for a very large proportion of students, regardless of background. Most of these students won’t apply to KIPP in the first place. Those who are admitted, but don’t thrive in this environment, can (and probably should) seek out alternatives; and, indeed, many do. So, KIPP’s high-intensity approach won’t work for most students, but that doesn’t change the fact that the students who apply and remain are predominantly from lower-income families living in urban areas.”

      Well, yeah, KIPP targets inner-city schools…duh. But it effectively weeds out the most problematic students, which is something that the school down the street cannot do. Let’s see how KIPP does when: 1) those students are literally forced to attend; 2) KIPP is given the same budget as the public school. Will it work? I doubt it but, then again, KIPP has made no effort to see if their model will work under such restrictions.

  21. Educator

    Off topic, but this is a must read regarding D.C. reforms under Rhee just published by John Merrow, PBS Frontline reporter.

    http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/?p=6232

    So many readers of this blog are involved in various ways with education, and especially education reform. Please read this article and consider whether these reforms are actually making things better or worse.

    Most of the reforms these days are focused on standardized test scores. Although Rhee and D.C. and Atlanta may be extreme examples of things going totally wrong….it does make you think.

  22. You should visit Achievement First Endeavor Middle School in Brooklyn. I looked for many of the same things you did, and came away very impressed.

    What I don’t get about your argument is the focus on closing schools, without talking at all about the schools that are opened in their place. I agree that the transition of students from one school to another is disruptive, but it’s not like there are fewer neighborhood schools in NYC now — there are far more than before Bloomberg/Klein. Now, whether many small schools are better than a few big ones is an open question, and whether KIPP style schools implemented unevenly are better than schools where no one can be fired is another. But it doesn’t seem honest to me to demand apologies for closing schools without also assigning credit for opening them. I’d like KIPP teachers to also say, you’re welcome for the new neighborhood schools that I hope are a better place to send your kid than that old school no politically connected patent would touch with a ten foot pole.

    • Educator

      I think some folks would argue that when you close a “failing” school and open up other schools, that essentially what happens is that the students get stratified. “Better” students go to schools like KIPP, while the rest are left to fend for themselves. These other schools, then, are deemed failures, while KIPP schools are deemed miracle schools. So it makes politicians think “just make every school like KIPP” And as far as personnel, it dis-incentivizes people to work in these “lower performing” schools.

      There are some, like this ed policy blogger, who argue that this isn’t a bad idea. Others will argue it doesn’t solve the problem, but simply masks the problem (poverty, etc…) and distracts politicians from working for better solutions.

      http://www.edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/flypaper/2013/the-charter-expulsion-flap-who-speaks-for-the-strivers.html

  23. Nikki

    “Please stop shutting down schools and using me as the justification for it.” I teach at a KIPP school, and I taught for over 10 years in a traditional public school setting. In my experience, there are some aspects of KIPP that are truly outstanding, but KIPP can learn much about “systems” from traditional public schools, and where I teach, we do not have a strong special education program because of our belief that “hard work” is all you need and our school leader’s philosophy opposing the idea of special education. For this reason, I am leaving my current school and going to a different KIPP school where the goals are more realistic; the complexities of teaching and learning are honored, and the idea that there are several paths to success in life (not just a 4 year university) is embraced.

  24. Emmanuel Parello

    I work at a charter school as a long term sub. The school has a lot going for it, but it certainly isn’t magic. It pains me when, as you say, other public schools are punished for what charter schools are supposed to be. I wish that more teachers at charters would stand up and voice their opposition to that trend.

  25. mark hansotia

    The scores don’t lie! If this type of teaching gets better scores, then obviously it is working! You sound like a bitter old lazy typical government run public school teacher! yes the curriculum for the teacher is difficult, but if you want to win. Winning isn’t easy! And I’m very proud of the teachers, they’re putting forth the effort for our children! Thank God my two daughters don’t have you as a teacher. I’m just sad that there isn’t a Kipp school in Phoenix where I live.

  26. JoJo

    Interesting to mention KIPP is hosting a national convention in Las Vegas this week and all their teachers and admin are being hosted at the Cosmopolitan. If you ask me, that money could be better spent on scholarships or other resources for students. And you won’t get any honest comments from current teachers due to fear of losing their job if they speak anything negative about the system. Disagreements are not widely accepted. Go along with it or get out.

  27. Assorted Links linked to this post.
  28. Wendy

    Have you ever bothered to walk in on and observe a typical inner city classroom? My guess is that what you saw at KIPP was likely a huge improvement, if for the simple reason that you never encountered a behavior problem completely dominating and distracting the classroom. The reason that KIPP works isn’t that all the teachers are uniformly brilliant from day one, it works because the teachers that don’t improve aren’t allowed to stay.

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