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.