"The Softer Side of ‘No Excuses’"

New from Ed Next:

Teachers in KIPP schools have to be willing to go the extra mile. We demonstrate in a forthcoming Social Science Quarterly article that in advertisements for teaching positions, KIPP schools consistently emphasize public service incentives, serving kids, while nearby traditional public schools emphasize private incentives, namely salary and benefits.

One principal explained that KIPP’s New Orleans region hires teachers, in part, for “the J factor—Joy—enthusiasm and joy in learning, how to make learning fun; you were just in that classroom and could see that teacher had joy in the way he was leading the class.” If teachers don’t have it, then they probably can’t succeed at KIPP.


We have done hundreds of hours of fieldwork over the past eight years in 12 KIPP schools in five states, interviewing scores of teachers, students, and administrators....Our extensive fieldwork shows that in contrast to the claims of some KIPP backers, there is no magic. In contrast to the claims of KIPP detractors, there is no ill treatment of children. There is lots of hard work and hard play, led by teachers and administrators who, at most KIPP schools, know every kid and every family.

Traditional public schools can copy nearly all of the KIPP playbook, if they wish to try. If doing so establishes a culture of cooperation and academic success among students, teachers, and parents, would that be such a bad thing?

Read the whole thing here. 

A few thoughts:

1. Overall, good piece.  

2. The KIPP playbook, its founders would be quick to say (I think), actually comes from traditional public schools. 

It's just that the practices tend to be from successful individual teachers (Harriet Ball, etc). 

An unusual aspect of KIPP and similar charters is that all teachers row in the same direction, and create a pretty similar hour-by-hour experience for kids when it comes to discipline. 

3. A thought experiment would be to ask 100 new teachers, the day before school starts, what is expected of them if, say, a kid hits another kid, or walks into class 15 minutes late, or skips the homework.  I think KIPP teachers would more typically be able to answer that. 

Reasonable people can and should of course disagree on what the answers are. 

It's harder (though possible) to advocate for the teachers not knowing what is expected.  Yet that's what many rookie teachers describe in all sorts of surveys.  They're not sure whether the fault for not knowing is with them, with their Ed School, or with the school leaders, or it's just a healthy and essential part of being a rookie and it's not something to worry about. 

4. The authors say "Traditional schools can copy nearly all the KIPP playbook, if they wish to try." 

a. Suggested edit: "Charter schools with a negative school culture can copy nearly all the KIPP playbook, if they wish to try." 

I.e., I wish there was more of an ethic among charter supporters to "get our own house in order" before fixing traditional schools. 

b. Related.  It turns out it's hard to copy the KIPP playbook.

Hey Mike Petrilli -- I'd like to see Ed Next commission an article on middling charter schools that actually have tried to copy the KIPP playbook, and would say: they've failed. 

The "playbook" is hard to implement. 

One, you need an unusually gifted leader. 

Two, you need to be transparent with parents and teachers and kids as they're joining with "This is how we do things."  That puts a candidate and parent/kid in a good position to decide "Would I be happy here?"  Even if there's separation b/w kid view and parent view. 

And while that is hard at a small charter school with mostly new teachers, it's really hard at an existing traditional school....there are perhaps already 20 to 100 teachers already on staff, with a wide range among themselves on how to approach school culture.  They can't row in the same direction without some of them pretty significantly changing their beliefs about what is right for kids.

Three, teachers who build a really strong classroom climate in any type of school spend a ton of time doing it.  (And we'd do well remember that there are far more of these superstar teachers in districts than in charters in sheer numbers).

A lot of hours just "sweating the small stuff."  You have a kid stay late or call a kid on a Sunday to say: "Hey, we had a rough week, you and I.  Let's talk it out, get back on the same page, have a better week."  Those never stop.  They add up. 

It was really hard at Match School in 2000, 2001, 2002.  We failed a lot. 

If I had to pick a "pivot year," I'd guess 2004.  But still.  Years later, as a volunteer from the outside, I still see a never-ending work in progress, with well-intentioned parents, kids, adults and leaders sometimes improving the culture, sometimes having it slip back. 

5. Random nugget.  I have a hypothesis on how the "Charters are boot camp" meme has affected political support by Democrats for charter schools -- I suspect it's accidentally helped us a lot. 

Here goes.   Candidates fairly new to education policy typically get both an anti-charter and a pro-charter pitch.  My guess is sometimes the anti-charter pitch can be so overheated, that once the candidate makes a few in-person visits and sees the real teachers and kids, the contrast is so stark to the "boot camp" attack, that he or she moves towards charters. 

What I mean is, imagine a charter with a "pretty good" positive school culture.  Not perfect, but pretty good. 

Then a candidate hears from charter opponents charters are dreary, boot camp, etc.  Okay, so far, like many issues.  One side says X, the other Y.  Since politician feels like credible folks on both sides, guesses middle. 

Then he visits.  For this example, imagine it's a charter with, say, "7.5 out of 10" in school culture.  But he was told to expect a "2 out of 10."   The critics accidentally "lowered expectations."  "These schools are downright mean and bad for kids."

The in-person visit then makes the pretty good charter seem like an amazing positive school culture, a "9 out of 10" in this example. 

I sometimes wonder if that's part of what happened to Deval Patrick in the 2006 gubernatorial election.  I remember a visit he made to our summer school during the campaign.  His reaction was a combo of positive and surprised.  I didn't trust my read, but that's what I remembered.   Patrick visited some other charters, too, I'm not saying it had anything to do with our particular one.   

Many moons later I had drinks with a leading friend on the "other side" of the ed reform debate.  He said me that he and other anti-charter folks were surprised at Patrick's ed policy choices. "We did a lot to help Patrick during the primary, and ultimately to become elected.  Yet he didn't join onto any charter school moratoriums we'd sought.  And ultimately he was the one who expanded charters in Massachusetts."  I can't help but wonder if the contrast of "boot camp expectation" to "real life visit" played a small role.  Perhaps I'm naive. 

Anyway.  End of hypothesis. 

The article includes a recounting of Pi Day:

A general air of excitement preceded the Pi Challenge, in which students competed to see who could recite the most digits of pi, followed by the chance to hit a teacher with a pie. Student surveys picked the three “meanest” teachers in the school to “pie,” along with school director Maisie Wright, and they in turn got to honor, or dishonor, three students with pies in the face, perhaps students who had overcome great challenges, or who gave them the most grief.

Prior to the main event of pies to the face, the assembled KIPPsters cheered on their classmates in the Pi Challenge. The cafeteria-turned-temporary-auditorium was hushed as one student after another recited the digits and Ms. Wright checked the numbers. One student in the audience looked on with baited breath, a 7th grader who held the school pi record at 186. This young woman had moved out of state, returning to KIPP Blytheville during her spring break to see if her record would indeed be broken. A valiant effort was made by all competitors, but in the end, a girl in 6th grade won the crown for the day by reciting 158 digits of pi without tripping up.

After the Pi Challenge, one by one, starting with a countdown from 5…4…3…2…1, the participating teachers and students smashed pie plates of whipped cream into each other’s faces. The student assembly, which had remained seated and mostly quiet, was now in an uproar, with high-fives, hooting, hollering, cheering, even jumping up and down, as they watched their teachers and KIPP “teammates” getting pied.