D.C. teacher Stephanie Black sent me an absorbing e-mail that began with a favorable review of my book “Work Hard. Be Nice” on KIPP school founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg. Then she explained why her positive feelings about the KIPP charter school network had deepened her distaste for the D.C. teacher evaluation program, IMPACT.
I have not taken a strong stand for or against IMPACT, other than to say it is better than the weak evaluation systems in many districts that give almost all teachers satisfactory ratings. Black’s personal reaction to what happened at her school is moving and persuasive. I am going to ask a D.C. school official to respond.
By Stephanie Black
The book made me quite sad. When I read your accounts of Feinberg and Levin, I must say that at times it was like I was reading an exact description of the teacher I used to be. Like them, I entered teaching through Teach For America. Like many TFA kids, I spent most of my first year idealistic yet exhausted. I listened enthusiastically at professional developments and pep rally-type meetings to Susan Schaeffler and Mekia Love, read tales of Rafe Esquith, and strove to be more like these inspiring and fun educators. During my first year of teaching, I told my partner teacher, who was a second year TFA teacher, that one day I hoped to open a KIPP-type school for second language learners. Basically, as a newcomer, I was eager to learn and enthusiastic to the max, much like Levin and Feinberg.
As the years went on, and I developed skills as a teacher, I developed a style very similar to the one that Levin and Feinberg describe in your book. My classroom revolved around tough love and high expectations. The slogan “Work Hard, Be Nice” hung near my door, was inscribed on the gold pencils I purchased just for my math class, and was the heading at the top of all my self-made math materials. I expected work to be done and done well, and I expected behavior to be top-notch.
Furthermore, I was willing to reward kids who followed the rules and procedures, and to withhold fun from those who didn’t. When students did not meet my academic or behavioral expectations, I let them know honestly and clearly what they had done incorrectly, why it did not meet my expectations, and how I expected them to make it up to me. On the first day of school, I would read a book about standing up for other people who are getting bullied, and made clear to the students how important it was for me that we all protected and supported each other. We were a family, and I expected them to act like it. Most important, my students always knew, no matter how strict I was with them, how much I loved them and how much I was there to make sure they succeeded.
Like Levin and Feinberg, I strongly believe in the power of time (in fact, my core teaching beliefs are very similar to their five pillars). After my two years of grad school were up, I worked aftercare so that I could spend more time with my students — many who stayed for aftercare — often working with students until five or six o’clock. At the beginning of the year, I would beg parents to sign their children up for aftercare, and also gave out my phone number to be used for homework help. Last year, I helped my principal create a six-week Saturday school program so that we could work on extra skills, and try to better involve parents in what we were working on.
Now, here is why your book made me so sad:
For three straight years, I was filled with enthusiasm about education and teaching. At some point after I had declared during my first year that I would one day open a KIPP-like charter school for ELLs (English language learners), I came to oppose the frenzy around charter schools, and so was no longer thinking about that plan. Instead, I had decided that I wanted to find a way to bring those high expectations and amazing results into an average public (non-charter) school classroom. If the purpose of schools like KIPP is to show that it is possible, I figured why not take the next step by trying to make it happen in a regular public school.
In a sense, I became more Team Esquith (a man whom I also admire and whose book There Are No Shortcuts sits on my bookshelf) than Team KIPP. I wanted to show that awesome results could be achieved even in schools with (relatively) high percentages of [Special Ed] and [English as second language] students, and that function under the normal rules that govern public education. As I learned more as a teacher, I also decided that I wanted to teach my students more than what was measured on the standardized tests. I saw it as a very important challenge to see if I could get my students to master the basics, and also become critical thinkers, collaborative workers, and compassionate and thoughtful people with high levels of internalized self regulation. (Admittedly, by the time I left I was still working on how exactly to do all that.)
In my third year, I was still filled with enthusiasm and a desire to become a better teacher so that I could help my students reach all the goals I had set for them. This was the first year that IMPACT was rolled out, and like most teachers, I was ignorant of how influential and pervasive it was about to become. While I was aware of everything going on, I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. We had just gotten a new principal, and I spent more time thinking about how we could combine our enthusiasm to make the school a better place, and how, as a teacher, I could create meaningful PBL (problem-based learning) math and science lessons that would work towards helping my students meet all the goals I listed above. As a third year teacher should be, I was confident, yet still trying hard to improve.
The summer after my third year, the environment in DCPS and my outlook on teaching changed dramatically. The scores from the DC-CAS (Comprehensive Assessment System) came back, and they were, like most schools’ scores, not good enough, particularly in math. There were only four testing classes (about 65 kids) in our PS-4th grade school, and in my fourth year, I would be teaching math to about 70 percent of those students. Suddenly, this huge weight was put on me, as well as the other testing teachers, as the need to get our scores up became a near obsession. At the same time that this happened, people were realizing just how serious IMPACT was. For me, I all but forgot about the type of teacher I was striving to be and the type of students I was trying to develop, and my focus became very narrow. Ultimately, by last year, it had become clear that in DCPS the emphasis was on doing well by IMPACT and getting high test scores. Unlike in KIPP, DCPS had also decided that they knew exactly how to get this done, and instead of giving teachers the freedom to do their own thing as long as they got results, they were going to micromanage teachers and tell you exactly how they wanted you to get it done.
By as early as November of last year, my passion — the passion that you wrote about seeing in Levin, Feinberg, Ball, and Esquith — was all but gone. In a matter of months, the excitement I had once felt, and that drive to see if I could meet the challenge of bringing KIPP-like results into public education had pretty much been sucked out of me by the top-down approach DCPS had adopted. Instead of being excited and passionate, I was constantly on edge, frustrated, and feeling like I had no control over my development as a teacher. I no longer had time to think about how to improve my teaching so that I could meet those lofty goals I had set for my students (and myself). All I had time to think about was how to make my style of teaching more IMPACT friendly and how to get test scores up. Pretty early in the school year I knew that I would likely not return the next year, although I would continue to work tirelessly for my students and my school throughout that year.
Instead of recognizing, like you do towards the end of your book, that the tireless work that goes into getting high levels of achievement is more a factor of an indescribable internal motivation to see children succeed than the promise of a paycheck or a bonus, DCPS has risked sucking that internal motivation out of teachers in order to replace it with external motivation. I believe that the results of this decision are going to be disastrous. For example, if someone had taken the internal motivation out of Levin and Feinberg when they were young and full of enthusiasm, it is likely that we wouldn’t have KIPP schools now. If we want to see similar dedication and enthusiasm in public schools, I believe it is imperative that the schools find and foster teachers with that kind of internal motivation, not try to force it on them with carrots and sticks. Carrots and sticks will never work because that is not why great teachers do what they do.
Furthermore, DCPS needs to find a better way of helping teachers develop into great teachers. As you wrote, becoming a great teacher doesn’t happen overnight. It is a long process of observing/hearing/reading about the things that other great teachers do, discovering your own great methods, and working on all those methods until you find your own style of great teaching. Great teaching comes out of the trial and error involved in trying new things, and by sticking it out long enough to get to the point where the errors are fewer and farther between.
(This final part will sound like I am tooting my own horn, and I suppose in a way, that is kind of what I am doing.) Last year, 60 percent of my third and fourth graders were proficient or advanced in math (I was the math and science teacher). At the end of third grade, only 23 percent of my fourth graders had been proficient, and by the end of fourth grade 64 percent of them were proficient or advanced. Furthermore, unlike in most KIPP schools, 20 percent of my students had IEPs (Individualized Education Programs), 100 percent of the students were FARM students (from families whose incomes qualify them for federally subsidized meals), and about 40 percent were English Language Learners (although a higher percentage spoke Spanish as their first language). My point in telling you this is because I feel like I really was on my way to showing how it is possible to get KIPP-like results in a typical public school. Unfortunately, in this process, I also found that it takes a lot more dedication, enthusiasm and willingness to innovate than I found IMPACT could support, even though under that evaluation system I was rated effective in both 2010 and 2011.
I hope that as a journalist you can use your platform to advocate for an education system that finds and fosters the kind of dedication and enthusiasm you saw in Levin, Feinberg, Ball, Randall, Esquith, etc. and that is the basis of KIPP’s success. If one of the goals of having charter schools is to open the door to innovation and show what’s possible, then we need to truly learn from those schools that get the job done. As the founders of KIPP have shown, the key isn’t simply to find a cookie cutter mold and try to shove all teachers into it (especially if that mold involves teaching for only the standard 6.5 hours per day, 180 days per year).
In my resignation letter, which I handed in last spring, I wrote: “I cannot emphasize enough how difficult it was for me to make this decision; I am walking away from a job that I know I love, and from a school that is filled with amazing people. In my mind, this next year will be more like a sabbatical (albeit unpaid) from which I can return to teaching reinvigorated and with a fresh sense of purpose.”
Your book has helped me remember that sense of purpose and passion that made me love teaching in the first place, and that made me want to work so hard to improve public education, so I just want to end by thanking you for that.