EDUCATION Review by Richard D.Kahlenberg

Two Teachers, 16,000 Students, One Simple Rule

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Sunday, February 22, 2009


How Two Inspired Teachers

Created the Most Promising

Schools in America

By Jay Mathews

Algonquin. 328 pp. Paperback, $14.95

Jay Mathews is a bit of a journalistic oddball. Most reporters see the education beat as a stepping stone to bigger things, but much to his credit Mathews, who writes for The Washington Post, returned to covering schools after an international reporting career. He is best known for his book on Jaime Escalante, who taught low-income children in East Los Angeles to excel in AP calculus and was featured in the film "Stand and Deliver." Now Mathews is back to profile two young teachers -- Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin -- who founded the wildly successful Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a chain of 66 charter schools now educating 16,000 low-income students in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

While I have some quarrels with the book's implicit and explicit public-policy conclusions, "Work Hard. Be Nice" provides a fast-paced, engrossing and heartening story of two phenomenally dedicated teachers who demonstrate that low-income students, if given the right environment, can thrive academically. In 52 short and easily digestible chapters, Mathews traces the story of two Ivy League graduates who began teaching in Houston in 1992 as part of the Teach for America program. Both struggle at first but come under the tutelage of an experienced educator, Harriett Ball, who employs chants and songs and tough love to reach students whom lesser teachers might give up on. Levin and Feinberg care deeply: They encourage students to call them in the evening for help with homework, visit student homes to get parents on their side and dig into their own pockets to buy alarm clocks to help students get to school on time. In Mathews's telling, it's hard not to love these guys.

Their students flourish, but Levin and Feinberg worry about what will happen to the children under other teachers, so they come up with the idea of creating their own schools. Teachers would put in a longer school day (beginning at 7:15 and ending at 5 p.m.); teach Saturday classes and three weeks of summer school; and be subject to firing without due-process rights. Parents would sign contracts agreeing to check homework and read to their children at night. And students would go to school longer hours and do extensive homework each night in exchange for special rewards.

Over time, the program began to attract favorable media attention and foundation support, including that of the co-founders of Gap, who bankrolled KIPP to the tune of $50 million. Today, KIPP has raised more money than any other system of charter schools and spends $1,100 to $1,500 more per pupil than regular public schools. Overall, test scores in KIPP schools have risen faster for more low-income students than anywhere else, Mathews writes.

There are important lessons to draw from KIPP -- such as the potential value of longer school days and the importance of teacher home visits -- but there are also two misguided "lessons" that many readers may take from "Work Hard. Be Nice": that the KIPP example suggests that union-free charter schools are the key to closing the achievement gap and that poverty and school segregation are just excuses for teacher failure. Mathews himself doesn't explicitly endorse either position, but he lauds the union-free charter school structure. It provides, he writes, "a haven for Levin-Feinberg methods such as longer school days and school years, principals' power to fire poorly performing teachers, and regular visits to students' homes." Nevertheless, the highly accomplished KIPP Academy in the South Bronx, started by Levin, has been unionized from the beginning, as are the Green Dot charter schools that Mathews cites as equally successful. Meanwhile, plenty of nonunionized charter schools fail dismally. Some nonunion KIPP schools have suffered high rates of teacher turnover, and just last month teachers in two KIPP schools decided to unionize so they would have a greater voice in school affairs.

Moreover, KIPP's experience does little to rebut the longstanding social-science consensus that poverty and segregation reduce achievement. In many respects, KIPP schools more closely resemble middle-class than high-poverty public schools. KIPP does not educate the typical low-income student but rather a subset fortunate enough to have striving parents who take the initiative to apply to a KIPP school and sign a contract agreeing to read to their children at night. More important, among those who attend KIPP, 60 percent leave, according to a new study of California schools, many because they find the program too rigorous. As KIPP's reputation grew, it could select among the best teachers (who wish to be around high-performing colleagues), and it became funded at levels more like those of middle-class schools.

None of this should take away from the wonderful education provided to children in KIPP's 66 schools, a tale beautifully rendered by Mathews. But neither should KIPP's story become the ultimate excuse for ignoring the devastating effects of school segregation and poverty. ยท

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of "Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy."

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