The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Harassed, ridiculed and intimidated’: One teacher’s experience at a KIPP school

Placeholder while article actions load

Jim Horn’s 2016 book, “Work Hard, Be Hard,” examines “no excuses” schooling, including KIPP, the nation’s largest public charter school network. The book offers excerpts from 25 interviews with “no excuses” teachers, 23 of them former KIPP teachers who were mostly critical of the program.

In his book, Horn, a professor of educational leadership at Cambridge College in Massachusetts, does not reveal the teachers’ names or where and when they taught. But he has since identified one former instructor who tells an interesting story.

I consider KIPP one of the best charter networks in the country, mostly because of its success attracting and developing great educators who help impoverished students learn. The teachers I have interviewed at 42 of KIPP’s 224 schools have supported the network’s long hours, high standards, intricate field trips, focus on character development, and creative use of music and games.

Jessica Marks, the former KIPP teacher Horn has identified, gives a different view on Horn’s blog “Schools Matter” and in an exchange of emails with me. Marks joined KIPP in 2013 after four years of successful teaching in Prescott Valley, Ariz. She said she wanted to help KIPP’s mission “of sending all students to and through college.” But she did not like what she found at the KIPP Austin Academy of Arts & Letters. She said: “I think it is harmful for students and teachers to go there.”

Before hiring her in July 2013, she said, the school’s leaders interviewed her at length and watched her teach classes. She said the principal told her she was a great teacher but not “necessarily a KIPP teacher” and was hiring her because she was “a hard worker” who deserved “a try.”

Marks said most of her eighth-grade English students came from homes where other languages were spoken and the students were not fully proficient in English. She said the class had gone through three English teachers in the seventh grade. Her students, she said, did well on the first interim assessment test. But she was coming to work at 5:15 a.m. and not leaving until 9 p.m. to prepare for a 7:05 a.m. to 4:35 p.m. school day.

Marks sought help. She saw a therapist. To reduce her workload, she accepted the principal’s offer to coach her and teach her first-period class four days a week. During that reprieve, she worked reasonable hours, but after two weeks, she said, her first-period class was given back to her and the pressure resumed. Many of her students failed an exam the principal asked her to give on Homer’s “Iliad” because, she said, it used terms different from those she had used in class.

After that, she said, video cameras were placed to observe her. Applicants interested in her job circulated through her room. “I was harassed, ridiculed and intimidated by administrators,” she said.

KIPP leaders believe it hurts students to let teachers have two- or three-year probationary periods — standard in regular public schools — when their classroom results are not good. If new KIPP teachers are still doing poorly in December, a supervisor often takes their place until a replacement can be found.

KIPP officials said they respected Marks’s right to share her recollections but challenged the accuracy of some of her account. They said only 13 percent of her students had ever been held back. They said that she was not harassed and that few other teachers spent so much time at the school. Marks’s principal said teachers were not required to arrive until 7:05 a.m., were free to leave any time after 4:35 p.m., and were mostly gone before 6 p.m.

Horn said Marks told him that the year before she taught there, the school lost nine of 20 teachers at semester break, with one fired and the rest quitting. KIPP officials said the loss was six of 31 staffers, with one being fired and the rest leaving for graduate school, marriage, new jobs or a return home. They said the teacher retention rate was 60 percent when Marks was there but has increased to 82 percent after teacher duties were “drastically reduced.”

Marks was crushed at being dismissed but also told Horn in retrospect that “getting fired from KIPP was probably the best thing that has ever happened to me.” Four years later, back in Prescott Valley, she was named the Yavapai County teacher of the year. Horn published a photo of her smiling as she held up the trophy.

I was happy to see that. We need all kinds of teachers. The KIPP Austin Academy has shown strong student performance for several years. Nationally, KIPP has results verified by an independent firm, Mathematica Policy Research, good enough to justify choosing and training teachers its way, even if it is hard on some aspirants such as Marks.