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Work Hard, Be Nice author Jay Mathews follows up on the progress of the KIPP charter school program

Tuesday, January 26, 2010
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HH: Joined now by Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, where he writes the education column. He’s the author of a wonderful book, Work Hard, Be Nice that we spent an hour talking about last year. And I got an e-mail, Jay, over the weekend…welcome back, Happy New Year to you, by the way.

JM: Same to you, Hugh.

HH: I got an e-mail from a listener who said Hugh, what’s going on with KIPP? You promised you’d keep us up to date, and I thought okay, I will, and so I called you. What’s going on with KIPP?

JM: Well, we’re in an interesting stage. There are now, still growing strongly, 82 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

HH: We should probably tell people what KIPP is. That’s broadcasting 101.

JM: KIPP is a network of charter schools, most of them are middle schools, 5th through 8th grade. They’re starting a few elementary schools, a few high schools, and they have demonstrably, they have the best results in raising the achievement levels of inner city kids of any school systems in the country. They have taken kids from about the 30th, 35th percentile in reading and math to about the 60th and 70th percentile. That’s from inner city standards to suburban standards over four or five years. Nobody’s done that.

HH: Now I’ve given away my copy of Work Hard, Be Nice, my annotated copy. It’s probably been passed on four or five times down the road now. But I remember this more than anything else, which is you said in all your years of being an education writer, KIPP was the most promising development for American education that you had seen. Do you still think that?

JM: Absolutely, and we’re seeing in various parts of the country people trying to take what we’ve learned from KIPP and use it in a broader scale. One of the reasons why Michelle Rhee is in so much trouble in Washington, one of the reasons, is that she’s trying to turn the entire school district into a KIPP-like organization, where schools are run by first-rate principals who have the power to hire and fire their teachers, create a team that does things the way that makes sense to them, and whose only focus is on raising achievement.

HH: Now I saw that Bill Gates at the Gatesnotes blog that he maintains with the foundation, has read Work Hard, Be Nice, was very impressed with it, and with the KIPP program. What’s that mean in terms of getting elevation for the KIPP message?

JM: Well, it’s wonderful to have somebody who’s that out there and noticed. I’ve gotten huge orders for editions in China, who apparently do everything that Bill Gates tells them to do.

HH: Wow.

JM: He’s a smart guy who’s had trouble with his own schools trying to find something that will make the schools that he’s supporting really work. He tried making high school smaller. That didn’t really do everything he wanted. Now he’s focusing on the methods that KIPP uses, which is high expectations for all kids, more time for learning, and creating these teams of teachers and great principals to raise the level of kids.

HH: Now I always tell people, from memory again, you’ve got to start early and go long, you’ve got to work a lot of Saturdays, you’ve got to do your math tables, you’ve got to memorize, and more important than anything else, you’ve got to have teachers who are performers full of energy and enthusiasm, because that’s what is magnetic in a classroom. Good summary?

JM: Yeah, but although, you’re leaving out the part that I think your readers will most appreciate. You have to create a new culture.

HH: Yes.

JM: These kids are coming from neighborhoods where there is very little expectation that if you work hard, think good things are going to happen. They change that culture all around. They say you know, we’re in a school, we’re a team. If they’re teasing kids in class, just teasing, that’s absolutely the worst thing you can do in a KIPP school. The teachers are right on top of that. There are consequences and penalties for that. They want kids to come to the school thinking they’re there to learn, that it’s a safe place, and that they don’t have to worry about their own schoolmates picking on them.

HH: I’m talking with Jay Mathews, author of Work Hard, Be Nice, the story of the KIPP program. Now Jay, in terms of the Obama administration arrives a year ago, and I don’t know what they’re doing at the Department of Education. A lot of people say they’re doing some good things. I just don’t know. In terms of charter schools, though, they’ve got a lot of friends at the National Education Association. Is the new team at the Department of Education friendly to KIPP and KIPP-like experiments?

JM: This is the most charter-friendly administration we’ve ever had. The Bush administration was very friendly and helped a lot, but the Obama people are even more out front, and have said on the top of their agenda is taking off the caps on growth of charter schools. They’re saying there shouldn’t be any limits on charter school growth. And they’ve also said something very clever, which is we’ve got to close bad charters more quickly. One of the great strengths of the charter school movement is that if you’ve got a bad school, you should be able to close it down and save that space for good schools like KIPP. The Obama administration is telling people they’ve got to do that, and that’s one of the things they’re looking at as they look to distribute the extra money they’ve got for the Races For The Top program.

HH: Where is the KIPP growth occurring, Jay Mathews?

JM: It’s in, usually places which have large urban networks. 19 of the 20 largest cities in the country have KIPP schools. It’s in, as I said, 20 states and the District of Columbia. And it’s hitting, however, in an interesting way, labor unions are getting nervous about this. They’re trying to kill the best school in Baltimore, which is a KIPP school, by insisting that they pay full hourly rates for extra time there, when the teachers didn’t object to it. The KIPP teachers like their system. But they forced KIPP, that KIPP school to reduce its hours, which is a killing thing to do. And in New York, we’ve had the AFT go against one of the best KIPP schools in Brooklyn. That’s Randi Weingarten, the AFT leader coming up against Dave Levin, who runs the KIPP schools in New York, and is one of the smartest educators I’ve ever met, and one of the KIPP co-founders. That is an interesting clash.

HH: Yeah, Dave Levin is profiled in Work Hard, Be Nice extensively. One of the better parts of the book is the story of these founders and the teachers around whom they have rallied, and from whom they have learned. Now Jay Mathews, in terms of scaling the leadership of KIPP, that’s always a big problem. You can go ten, fifty, now you’re getting to 100 schools. Are they keeping up?

JM: They are, and I think we are beginning to see that there is a surplus of bright, young people out there who would love to be teachers if they can be assured that what the work they do in the classroom is going to have an impact. There’s nothing more satisfying than to spend a day of schooling kids, and know at the end of the day you’ve been working with your other teachers, you’ve been focusing on kids who have problems, and you are making an impact. To see the kind of results that KIPP schools have is wonderfully satisfying, and if they can pay those teachers enough to make sure that their spouses don’t complain too much, and they’re doing that, they can keep a lot of these teachers for a very long time.

HH: Now I’ve got to ask you about suburbs, too, because while this works in the urban environment, which are the most neglected and the most devastated areas for educators, it’s got to work in suburbia. And if they ever introduce it into suburbia, they’ll build their political support. Have they tried that yet?

JM: Not really. There are some suburbs they have tried. They had…these are, we’re talking about low income neighborhoods in suburbs. They had a school in Annapolis, Maryland, which is Anne Arundel County, and that school was doing very well until the local school board killed it by refusing to give it space that it had available for the school to grow. Suburbs are very much anti-charter. They see charter schools as an insult to their regular schools, which they think are terrific. They don’t see the flaws, they don’t see what KIPP can do for them.

HH: And so, last question, Jay Mathews, are you writing another book about them?

JM: Yeah, I’m working on that. I want to explore how these, the first book was about these two guys, how they built this great idea. I can’t understand yet how they managed to produce so many schools not run by the two young geniuses, how they could expand an idea that didn’t diminish its impact, didn’t diminish with each new school leader. That’s a great mystery I want to solve.

HH: When I interviewed you about the book, Work Hard, Be Nice, you were in a Philadelphia KIPP school. Have you just been going around to all these different KIPP schools?

JM: That’s right. I’ve been…there are 82 of them. I’ve been to about 43. I’ve been to half of them, but I’m planning to see them all before…and taking my Lipitor, Hugh.

HH: Well, when you come out to the West Coast and you see one, call me. I’ll go with you to it.

JM: It’s a wonderful idea. I’d love to have you along. Thank you very much.

HH: Jay Mathews, always a pleasure from the Washington Post. The book is Work Hard, Be Nice. I recommended it so strongly last year. I continue to recommend it strongly, especially if you’re an education. It’s just inspiring. It’s always good to catch up on that.

End of interview.

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