Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews on the success of the KIPP charter schools
HH: You know, radio should always be informative and usually entertaining. It can occasionally change the way you think about something, and rarely, will actually change the way you live or act. And it’s just hard to know when that’s going to be, but I think this hour is one of those hours for many of you. You do not want to miss this, because right now, there are 16,000 students in 66 schools in 19 different state in the hard core urban centers of America, who are learning despite very low expectations because of the KIPP Program – Knowledge Is Power Program. It’s a charter school movement. And one of the most fascinating books I have read in years, Word Hard, Be Nice, is about this movement, where it got started, who ran it, what’s going on in it, and it’s authored by Jay Mathews. You’ve met Jay before on this program, long time Washington Post education reporter. And Jay Mathews, welcome back, congratulations on a fascinating book.
JM: You’re making me very happy, Hugh. Thank you.
HH: Well, you should be pretty happy. I don’t read education books unless I have to, usually, because they’re…
JM: This is written just for you. That was exactly the way I wrote it.
HH: It is written as stories. There are lots of amazing stories. But you clearly, clearly love this program. In fact, I want to start by reading from the very end of the book, when you write in the Commencement part, that you have a mission in your life which has been to find the schools and teachers who have done the most to overcome poverty, apathy, racial and class bias, and raise their students to new heights of achievement. And you think you them in Feinberg and Levin.
HH: Tell people about KIPP.
JM: As you said, it stands for Knowledge Is Power Program. It was invented by two tall, goofy kids, well, I call them kids, they were in their early 20s when they had only two years of experience in classrooms. They were part of the Teach For America program. As many of your listeners know, this is a program that started in 1990 in which they recruit the brightest kids coming out of some of our most selective colleges, it’s very competitive, they only take about 20% of the people who apply. They train them just for a summer, and then they toss them into some of our worst schools hoping that these kids’ ambitions and energy and smarts will give them something in a classroom that most teachers don’t have. And a lot of them flame out, but a lot of them just hit the ground running. But they all go through this very difficult opening period, and that’s what happened to Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. Mike had just gotten out of Penn, David was just out of Yale. They thought they were God’s gift to American education. They played basketball during their training sessions most of the time. They got in a car, they drove to Houston. By the time they had passed Blythe in the Mojave desert, they had completely reformed in their heads American education. They had solved all our problems. They thought they were really brilliant. And then they got into classrooms in Houston and they were terrible. They were in chaos. These were elementary school classrooms that they could not control. They were so ashamed of themselves, it was that shame that really led to KIPP, because they said to themselves, we’ve got to get better, at least we’ve got to get better enough so we could survive the two years we’ve committed to this program. And they lucked out. They were…across the hall from Dave was this, one of these magical teachers you occasionally run into, a woman named Harriet Ball, who’d grown up in the Houston ghetto, who had invented all these games and rhymes and chants and songs. She had noticed that kids could memorize rap songs in a couple of seconds, so she applied that energy to her learning, and she had test scores way up here. They started to follow her around, listened to her, copied what she was doing, and they got better. And then they ran across a guy in Los Angeles you’d hear of, Rafe Esquith…
JM: …who still has a 5th grade that he runs. He’s now, you know, a best selling author. And he was coming into school at 7:00 in the morning, and not leaving until 7:00 at night. He talked to them about the importance of a lot more time, about taking kids on trips far away. He had turned his classroom into a training ground for Shakespearean actors. He did Shakespeare, and to give these 5th graders, these low income kids, really high expectations and high experiences. That produced at the end, two great schools – Mike’s in Houston, Dave’s in New York. They were the highest scoring schools in their poor neighborhoods. And then they, in 2001, they geared up. Now they’re up to 66 schools. And you know, I tell everybody this, because it’s a factoid, one of the factoids that changed my life, their numbers are this. Kids over four years, at a KIPP school, these are middle schools, from 5th to 8th grade, a kid goes from, on average, from the 32nd to the 60th percentile in reading, and from the 40th to the 82nd percentile in math. That’s going from inner-city standards to suburban standards. That’s never happened before with this many kids in this many different locations from one program.
HH: It’s extraordinary. There are a lot of heroes in this book, and we’ve got a full hour to talk about this, and I want to make sure we give people due. Doris and Don Fisher are heroes, Mattress Mac, I’m just captivated by Mattress Mac, Scott Hamilton, Colleen Dippel and the students, and I mean, Kenneth McGregor, it breaks your heart what happens to this young man. So I want to take our time, but I think you said a word, Jay Mathews, that sums this up. It is energy. It is about energy.
HH: And energy that Harriet Ball unleashes in her classroom, and Mike and Dave took and sort of built into KIPP. And you also say on Page 285, “The key to their success,” and it is documented success, “is not the size or the cost, or the age of the teachers or the motivation of the parents. It is the willingness to change and quickly when students don’t improve.”
HH: Those two things to me, you’ve got to bring energy every day if you’re going to work with urban youth that do not have the benefits of suburban or high income urban youth, and you’ve got to bring a willingness to do what you have to do immediately, or you’ll lose them. You’ll just lose them.
JM: That’s exactly right. And that is all fueled by expectation. If you go into a regular school in the inner city, any big city in the United States, you find this apathy, this listlessness, this feeling that well, these kids really can’t go very far, so why should we work very hard to teach them? That low expectation fuels all the problems that we’re seeing in the inner city. These people came in expecting something much different. The teachers that moved them said you know, you might have low expectations for my kids, but look what I’ve done with them. They can really go, they’re as smart as the suburban kids. You just have to give them the extra time and encouragement to learn. I’m sitting, by the way, in the KIPP school in Philadelphia, and I was just talking to the school leader here, who was telling me why he had to get rid of one of his teachers last month, you know, in the first year. It was one of his bad hires. And they get rid of teachers who don’t have that expectation very quickly. This teacher happened to have been recruited out of California, one of the schools in the Valley, and she’d been teaching kids who were, Hispanic kids who were just learning the language, and she didn’t have to do very much for them. They were actually pretty high level, they just needed to know the language. Coming into Philadelphia, low income African-American kids who have not had the same good teaching that they had in California, she didn’t raise her game. She didn’t raise her expectations. And her class wasn’t improving, and they got rid of her, which is another sign of how different KIPP schools are, because that teacher in a regular Philadelphia school would be hanging around three or four years until she got past her probation period. And she might hang around after that, and all those three or four years, she’d be teaching hundreds of kids who would be getting a sub-standard education. That doesn’t happen in KIPP.
HH: That’s one of the most memorable anecdotes, is when Levin shows up to try and teach a young teacher how to teach math. And by the way, I would love to hear rolling the numbers sometime. I need an audio of this. I can’t imagine what it sounds like. It’s a device, obviously, to teach multiplication tables. But Levin sounds like really a gifted math teacher, which is a very interesting gift to have, and it’s a gift. I don’t know that people can teach math unless they kind of can see it in front of them that way.
JM: It’s amazing to watch and visit his schools. He’s now, he was one of the co-founders, he started his one school in New York and then he began to grow the New York…he didn’t want to leave New York. He didn’t want to run the whole organization. So he has now four schools in New York, and that number is growing. And I watched him, you know, go through one of this schools, watched one of his teachers, and he looked disgusted. And he stepped out and I listened to him, and he said why is she whining on like that? The teacher was sort of lecturing. Doesn’t she know class has to be a conversation? You should be quick and moving and calling on every kid, getting a conversation going. And when I watched him demonstrate for a teacher who was struggling how to do it, it was amazing. You know, over 45 minutes, he picked up the names of all these kids, he’d call on every one, he kept the thing moving, he had jokes, he had games, he was very energetic, as you said. And putting in that energy, it makes all the difference in a class.
HH: Now I want to read from Page 265. When they got together to roll this thing out nationally, they had a big meeting with the foundation types, and they laid out what the essential of the KIPP model would be, the five pillars it turned out to be, but I’ll just read this to you. “What would KIPP schools have in common? Hamilton brought in a large easel, flipping over each page that’s filled with ideas. The big points seem obvious – high expectations for all students, a longer school day, a principal totally in charge, an emphasis on finding the best teachers, rewards for student success, close contact with parents, a focus on results, and a commitment to preparing every child for a great high school, and most important, college. They decided to call the main principles the six principles. That got lowered to five principles which are 1. High expectations, 2. Choice and commitment, 3. More time, 4. The power to lead, 5. Focus on results. Jay Mathews, when we come back I want to dig into how they maintain their quality, but also the drama of who these young men are, because their lives are in this book. I really take my hat off. You can’t get anyone to read an education book because they’re boring. This is fascinating, because these are interesting men, and their lives are peopled, populated…
JM: Nobody who has interviewed me has read the book as closely as you have, Hugh. This is quite…
HH: Oh, I love this book.
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HH: Jay, one of the things that clinched the authenticity of the book is you went to the critics of KIPP. You got all their studies, you read them all, you published their results, you posted what the critics say about the program, and you are undeterred. This is a little bit about you. You obviously believe in your heart this is the way to go.
JM: Well, you know, I’ve been doing, for 27 years as you know, since I stumbled across Jaime Escalante at East L.A. in Los Angeles, I’ve been looking for schools and teachers that have set us to a new level, that know how smart our kids were in poor circumstances, and were taking them to a new level. And these people have essentially blown me away. There are, thankfully, a few other organizations – Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, Yes, in various parts of the country, mostly networks or charters like KIPP that are raising the bar in the same way. But these guys have been at it a bit longer, and have been a little bit more ambitious, and they’ve gone further than anybody else. And it’s amazing what you can do. I think what’s really hopeful, Hugh, is that we have this new generation of teachers, most of them, many of them coming out of Teach For America, who have seen, has had that same moment of despair in the classroom and then pulled their way out of it, seen what you can do when you apply more time and encouragement to kids. And they are now on fire. They are rising to many places. They are principals, they are starting charter networks. One of them is the chancellor of the D.C. public schools.
HH: Oh, I didn’t know that.
JM: Michelle Rhee…
JM: And she is going in a direction that is just blowing everybody’s mind. It’s going to be messy. The change is very hard. My book, as you know, is full of examples of the excitement and the drama of all the times Mike and Dave bumped their heads against a recalcitrant administration and all the weird things they did and dangerous things they did to try to get past people who were standing in the way. Michelle Rhee is doing it from the top down, and that’s creating enormous distress in D.C. schools, but it’s all pushing us toward a place where we can give these kids the educations that they are ready for and deserve.
HH: Oh, this is really, the book may inspire, I think it will, a lot of people to think about being a teacher. And there is no, one of the lessons here, there is no cardboard cutout. I mean, Frank Corcoran is just about as world different from Dave Levin as possible, but they become soul mates and friends. Corcoran…did he stay in New York? I mean, that guy would hate me given his politics…
JM: Oh, yes. This is Dave, the very mild-mannered, quiet teacher that Dave met, was one of their roommates in Houston, and he brought with him when he moved to New York to start his school. Frank was an anti-war type…
JM: He was thrown out of Notre Dame for painting the word war backwards on top of the ROTC building at Notre Dame, very quiet guy, very artsy. He became a fabulous math teacher, and eventually won the Disney teacher of the year aware. He’s still there. He’s still doing the annual KIPP winter show, notice they don’t put Christmas in there…
JM: …because these are good liberals, and don’t believe in Christmas.
HH: These are public school teachers, yes.
JM: And the winter show is amazing. That school has every kid in that school learning to play an instrument. These are kids in the South Bronx who have never seen an instrument at home until they get to 5th grade.
HH: Well, that’s because of Levin. That’s because of, who’s the other teacher there? Randall.
JM: Yes, Charlie Randall.
JM: You’re amazing, Hugh. You rally absorbed this. I’m breathless here at…you look at the winter show, and they have the 5th graders just learning to read music, so they have them be the actors and singers in the winter show. The show I saw was the Christmas Carol as seen in a Bronx subway station. And then every other student, all the sixth, all the seventh, all the eighth graders, are arrayed in the front of the stage. They’re all playing an instrument, and that orchestra is fabulous.
HH: Yeah, it’s am amazing…and this is in the Bronx, and this is not the nice Bronx. There is no nice Bronx.
JM: No, no.
HH: …as far as I know. This is the Bronx Bronx.
JM: This is one of the worst parts of New York.
HH: It’s incredible, and Corcoran is not a natural teacher. That comes through. He made himself, and he was assisted by Levin…
HH: And I think this is one of the messages here, people who are driving around listening to this should read Work Hard. Be Nice. to figure out you don’t have to have it on Day One. These guys didn’t.
HH They built themselves into great teachers.
HH: There is, however, a very interesting aspect of this, which is not your classic, gooey liberal. People that listen to me know I always talk about Catholic schools, you reference them, too, Jay, that some people think KIPP reminds them of the old, urban Catholic schools.
HH: And I spent 12 years in Catholic school, eight of which were in the Parochial schools runs by nuns, big classrooms. And what they have in common is discipline. In fact, on Page 73, you say the guys who founded this, Feinberg and Levin, started off saying they’re going to need the traditional rules of classroom decorum. And a lot of this book is about how they maintain that discipline. It’s a wonder thing to see and watch unfold, because without it, you’ve got nothing.
JM: Exactly. I mean, the trick is, they learned after the pain of being awful in the classroom, they learned from Harriet Ball among others that you have to defend kids. The first thing you have to know is if you see one kid teasing or bullying or doing anything harmful to another kid, you’re on that right that second. You don’t let it go away. You surround the offender, you talk to them, you think you’re really that good? You think you’re a lot better than that person? At KIPP, they have a system where the kids who misbehave in that way or don’t bring in their homework and so on are put on the bench, or the porch, which means they’re isolated from other kids. They still come to class, they still come to school, but they sit in a corner and they are forbidden to talk to other students. They sit in the corner at lunch away from their friends, forbidden to talk to other students for a certain amount of time. But they must keep talking to teachers. And they’re having lots of conversations with teachers about the choice they made, how that’s not the right choice, if you want the kind of life with many choices, you really have to come back to our culture. They’re really taking away the standard youth culture in the inner city, which is kids being unhappy, mean to each other, undisciplined, and turning it around to a place where they’re saying we have high expectations for you. We know you’re smart. We know that you can go very far. All you have to do is remember that you cannot treat other people like this. We are a team and a family. It’s that sense of togetherness that you found in the Catholic schools in the inner city way back when, when communities were tighter. They’re recreating that in these schools. They say we’re a part of this, we’re a team, we’re a family, that’s not the way we treat each other. And so you have an academic part of what they’re doing, but the moral and the spiritual part of it is just as powerful, and is what takes these kids to the next level in their lives.
HH: One of the notes I made that I went back to a couple of times is a Harriet Ball saying early in the book, If you don’t protect your kids, they won’t respect you. And they do protect their…because there are kid predators, not gun-toting gang members who are killing kids, but they’re just bullies. There are bullies in every classroom.
HH: And that will destroy the opportunity to learn.
JM: Yeah, there’s a myth out there that KIPP is as good as it is because they just throw out all the bullies. Absolutely wrong. One study in the Bar Area schools, there are five of them, found that there were only, in one year, only three kids expelled from five schools total, which is way below what you find in regular schools. They look at the bullies as special challenges. And they’re talking to them, they’re looking for ways that they could turn them around. Kenneth McGregor, the person, the kid in Houston you were talking about, was in that category. And they found something to connect with him. When he suddenly realized that these teachers were actually serious about his potentiality, when they got him interested in the basketball team of which he was very good, when he bonded with Mike Feinberg who was the principal and the basketball coach, that changed it. Kids are looking for an adult. They’re looking for someplace they can be happy and comfortable. Once they establish a relationship with an adult and a school, somebody who clearly cares about them, then that changes most of the bullies into something entirely different.
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HH: It’s just an amazing and important read. I devoured it in one cross-country flight on Jet Blue coming back from New York last week, and took copious notes, and want you read it and especially if you’re a teaching, thinking about being a teacher, or you’re a parent who needs to find a place for their child in the inner city where the schools may not be functioning, Work Hard. Be Nice. is in bookstores. It’s at amazon.com. I’ve linked it at Hughhewitt.com. I want to pause for just a moment. We’ve mentioned Kenneth McGregor three times. And it’s one of the storylines that goes through. The young man died tragically of enlarged heart syndrome playing basketball. They established a scholarship for him. But when teachers fly from San Francisco and New York to grieve with the family of a student they haven’t taught for four years, they’re extraordinary men. And I think that’s something that just comes through.
JM: Right, I mean, these are teachers that take the team and family concept seriously. It’s part of their lives. I tell a lot of stories about kids that these two guys touched. Dave had one of his students in his New York school, a young woman in the South Bronx, get into St. Marks, probably the Toniest of Toney private schools.
JM: And she was doing pretty well, but she fell in with some middle class kids who had different values than hers, and she was caught shoplifting her senior year. She called Dave and said you know, I need some help. He was there the next morning with a stern face and a long lecture about the bad choices she was making, but he got her out of there, got her into another school, and sent her on her way to the University of Maryland where she’s doing very well now. Mike, my favorite stories about Mike Feinberg in Houston, one of his students was applying to the college of Occidental in Los Angeles, and there was a problem because she had come in illegally, her parents weren’t married, and that created all kinds of problems in regularizing her status as far as this application goes, as far as getting financial aid. And Mike got the two parents together and persuaded them to get married, which I thought was just amazing.
HH: And the first story you told, I loved it that Levin got up there and while he’s chewing her out, he’s also arranging for a lawyer to make sure that the charge against her is dismissed after eight weeks of community service so it doesn’t wreck her life.
HH: So he’s doing tough love, but there’s a lot of love in that. Now the question is, that I think you’ve answered it implicitly, but explicitly I want to know, can it survive without these guys, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, if they’re not there, if you take them and their energy out of the equation, does KIPP fail?
JM: I think they’ve already proved that it will succeed, because what they have done is the magic of the…I’m going to write another book about KIPP about how it grew, which is the real news story for an education reporter. You expect, you know, special people like these two guys to produce great institutions. That’s a given. They’re special people, so that’s what happens. What they have done, however, is create a system where they are training Mikes and Daves. They are picking their best teachers, the best teachers they can find, giving them a year’s training in management and in how the best KIPP schools are run, that some of the training is done at Stanford and some other various schools, and after a year, those selected school leaders start their own KIPP school. Generally, they choose where they want to go, and because they are charter schools, they have the great adventure of starting their own school and doing things the way they think they ought to be done, picking the best teachers that they can find, creating a culture that will work for them and their kids, and doing what is the magic you pointed out, is the magic of KIPP. If something doesn’t work, they try something else – instantly creative, instantly improvised. And we now have dozens of examples of principals and school leaders who I would argue are even better than Mike and Dave. I’m sitting in the KIPP Philadelphia, where there’s a young man named Marc Mannella, who’s amazing and his scores are off the roof. There’s a woman in D.C. I’ve been watching, the first woman from Show Me KIPP, Susie Schaeffler…
JM: …who has since 2001, when she started her first KIPP school, she has created five more KIPP schools. The three of them are the top three rated in terms of test scores, the top three public schools in the District of Columbia. And during those same eight years, she’s had three kids.
JM: Somebody who can organize like that, you know, could really change the country. She’s doing things for schools in D.C. And there are, I can cite you two dozen other leaders like that who are just as good as Mike and Dave because they were picked carefully, and then given the power to lead, given the power to make their own decisions, not to have to be cow-towing to superintendents, but taking their teachers as a team and doing things that work for kids.
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HH: If you’ve walked into the middle of it, you’ll have to get the podcast tonight when it is posted at Hughhewitt.com. If you’re a teacher, if you’re even thinking about becoming a teacher, even if you can’t get near a KIPP school because they’re filled up or you want to stay in a town where there isn’t a KIPP school, read Work Hard. Be Nice., the brand new book by Jay Mathews, to get a glimpse of what’s ahead – the hardship and the heartwarming joys of it come through in this book like very few I’ve ever seen. Talk about teaching now, Jay Mathews, there are enemies of KIPP out there. There were enemies when they started. In fact, I was reminded Bill Bryson wrote in his book, A Short History Of Nearly Everything, that you should always marvel at how lucky you are just to be alive given the number of genes that don’t get out of the gene pool. It’s amazing to me that they got this thing out of Houston, especially after the stunt of leaning on Rod Paige’s car all day. That would not, that normally wouldn’t fly. Rod Paige must be a pretty good guy. Tell people about that.
JM: Every year that these guys were building their schools, they started with 5th grades and then they wanted to add a 6th grade the next year, 7th grade the next year, in both New York and Houston, every year they tried to grow in that way, they faced what seemed to be impossible barriers to get over. The first year, Mike Feinberg in Houston couldn’t get any more space, so he had an advocacy in democracy lesson which he instructed all his 5th graders how we in a democracy redress our grievances. We call up, we send letters, and he had them practice calling up district administrators and asking why they hadn’t arranged more space for them the next year. They had all these little kids calling up all these big shots, and the big shots just went ape. They were so angry with Mike having done that, but they got him his space, and it made a difference the second year.
HH: And who was the West Houston superintendent that protected him?
JM: Anne Patterson was their one rabbi…
JM: …the one person that helped them, and she was just in tears because all of her bosses were on her case for letting this overgrown adolescent, Mike Feinberg, into their school district.
JM: But they got him the space, and next year, it got worse. Again he wasn’t getting the space to add a seventh grade, and again, Anne couldn’t find any space for him, so…and he tried to get an appointment with Rod Paige, the future U.S. Education Secretary who was then the superintendant in Houston, and he couldn’t get through his secretaries, so he noticed when he visited the school headquarters that there was the superintendant’s parking space right there in front of the main entrance. So he showed up in the parking lot one day at 2:00 PM with a sheaf of papers to grade, and just hung around the car, leaning on the car for five or six hours until Paige came out, and he confronted Paige, and begged him to consider his problem. Paige didn’t even know about it, said come see me tomorrow morning, and they worked it out.
HH: But end runs around bureaucracies, they don’t normally work. These guys had like seven of them each.
JM: Yeah, exactly. And it shows, I think, that change is hard in these schools, but if you have people who are willing to really annoy the power structure, who are really willing to push things to the edge, they are more likely than not to get some progress. The problem is, the real enemy here, is apathy and listlessness, and that comes out of the most humane instincts. My theory is that most teachers become teachers because they’re wonderful people. They’re very, they’re the nicest people on the planet. They’re very humane, but that gets in their way, because if they see anybody pushing kids too hard, they think well, this is going to hurt that kid. And if I make a choice to be more challenging for this kid, it may be, it may hurt them. It may be too much for them. That is their instinct. And so it stands in the way of people like Mike and Dave who really understand that if you challenge a kid, they’re going to thrive. Most teachers think if you challenge a kid, they might break down. That’s the problem, it’s an attitudinal problem, and it comes from our deepest, humane feelings about kids, which is why it’s so hard to uproot, because it’s based on actually good feeling rather than bad.
HH: And there’s also some received wisdom and limited them. They were told don’t visit homes. And I can understand that. They’re a liability…
JM: And that’s still the rule.
HH: It is, but they always did, right?
JM: They always did. Well, they did at first in desperation, because in Dave’s case, he had gotten so impatient with a kid who was just awful, and a huge 5th grader that he had to discipline, that he had picked the kid up once one day and carried him back to his chair, and the kid was so heavy he dropped him into the chair. And he figured well, I’m fired, I’m gone, but at least I can go apologize to the mom. So he went out and found this kid’s house, and he went in and knocked on the door. The mother was astonished to see a teacher at her house, but she invited him in. He said you know, I had to get a little rough with your kid today, and she said well, I know my boy, and I’m not surprised by that. And they bonded. They both had the same problem with the same kid, and that gave Dave credibility at the kid’s home, which helped him enormously when he had to discipline the kid in the future. So they started visiting all their parents.
HH: And Feinberg moved to the neighborhood.
JM: Yup, he did. And Feinberg moved into this low income apartment complex in the Gulfton section of Houston. People who know Houston know that’s a sort of a huge, rabbit warren of small apartments for mostly Central American immigrants. And he began to recruit and talk to parents as a member, as a part of the neighborhood, which is a great thing to do. And this keeps happening.