"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, September 08, 2012

A Former KIPP Teacher Shares Her Story

A Former KIPP Teacher Shares Her Story
Jim Horn

Ever since KIPP students were recruited to do a skit at the National Republican Convention in 2000, KIPP has been the darling of venture philanthropists, Wall Street hedge funds, corporate donors like the Fisher family (of Gap fame), and corporate foundations, including the Gates and Walton Foundations.  Hundreds of millions of dollars have poured in to the KIPP home office in San Francisco, and tens of millions more are raised each year to support a charter chain that claims to have found the solution to urban schooling, a solution that entirely ignores the exploded lives and oppressive conditions of the people living in communities ravaged by poverty and the attendant problems of poverty.  

KIPP does its work by accepting no excuses, not even poverty, and if the unwavering public relations script is to be believed, KIPP will close the achievement gaps and send poor kids to college regardless of conditions.  This misleading message over the past decade has quickly taken on mythic proportions, and it continues now to drive KIPP expansion in particular and charter growth in general.  

KIPP's biggest hurdle as a viable organization is keeping enough teachers in its intensely segregated classrooms.  Without the malleable corps of white middle class Teach for America recruits, KIPP could not keep its doors open.  The constant churn created by teacher and staff turnover, then, reinforces and emboldens a strict corporate code of behavior that applies to all teachers and students, alike.  Indoctrination into the KIPP code must be quick, thorough, and constantly monitored and reinforced.

KIPP teachers normally work from 60 to 90 hours a week in a total compliance organizational setting that constantly reminds teachers and students, alike, that they are not trying as hard as they can in either their work or in their behavior/attitudes.  For many teachers and students, alike, who cannot survive the KIPP total compliance gauntlet, their eventual burnout leaves them with self blame for not working hard enough or being nice enough to make it at KIPP.  Some teachers tell of nightmares and flashbacks that are consistent with post-traumatic stress.   

Teachers and students, too, are taught to internalize criticism and harsh discipline, regardless of context or fault.  Below is one of the cartoons used by KIPP in building what they term "grit" among students.  Students are indoctrinated to feel okay when they are berated or screamed at, which is a common occurrence at KIPP schools.  

According to Dr. Martin Seligman's team of psychologists who helped co-founder David Levin develop these "character-building" lessons, the results among students and staff should be total compliance and a consistent demonstration of learned optimism--which is the behavioral foundation for the positive psychology movement that has taken corporate America by storm, thanks to Dr. Seligman.  Together, these traits of total compliance and learned optimism signal the acquisition of the most important element of character, which is "grit."

Some KIPPs are now issuing character report cards that quantify how well students internalize and demonstrate these lessons.  The graphic below is used in KIPP classrooms to build character, i. e., to help middle school children learn how to respond when they are screamed at by adults:


Of course, the correct response for KIPPsters is the top choice, with the arrow indicating as much, in case any of the children might forget.  Doing better next time will surely win the coach's praise.  What KIPPsters learn, however, is that better should always be, well, better.  Work hard, be nice. And if that is not hard enough or nice enough, well, it is no one's fault except your own. This is the psychological control mechanism behind "no excuses."


I am in the process of writing a long piece that recounts the experiences of former KIPP teachers.  The following represents 
some of the data from just one interview, with minimal contextualizing and no analysis.   Names have been changed to protect the identities of participants.



A new KIPP high school, grade 9 only, gets ready to open.  For the next three years, a grade will be added each year until the new school all four grades, 9-12.  Teachers gather in early July for two weeks of induction training, and for some, including Kathyrn, it is the first time ever for any teacher training instruction at all.  Terms like “special education” are new to some, and “IEPs” are even more alien.  From 8 to 5 for these two weeks, these soon-to-be teachers plan lessons and learn, as Kathryn says, “an alphabet soup of teacher acronyms.” 

Kathryn has been hired by the school leader (principal), Ashton, after he flew several hundred miles to watch her teach a college class at a small Midwestern college.  Ashton is eager to sign Kathryn, and offers to have KIPP pay Kathryn’s expenses to fly her to the city she will teach in to find an apartment.  Kathyrn is impressed and says yes.  She is been hired as a language foreign language teacher, and she will be bringing home around 42K her first year, with no K12 experience and no teacher preparation.  As a result of being misled on the salary issue by Ashton, who promised $3,000 more than Kathryn ends up getting paid, she is a bit disappointed from the beginning. 

I ask Kathryn how many teachers the new school has, in a building that is still being completed as school opens for approximately 130 9th graders:  “There were seven teachers and then an athletic director, a counselor, a dean of students and then like a learning specialist or something.  And then Ashton [the school leader] and we had a business manager.”  

Kathryn and her small group of colleagues work through the two-week induction in late June of 2010, with each day bringing a new level of anxiety: “We did two weeks of in-service and that was a frustrating two weeks because my learning curve was sort of on crack, like it was insane. . . . I had no idea what I was doing.” 

At the end of the induction period, Kathryn and every other KIPP teacher in the nation are flown off to Las Vegas for 4 nights and 3 days at the Annual KIPP Summit, which is part convention, part revival meeting, part sales meeting, and all of it aimed at having teachers and school leaders “inundated in the culture,” as Kathryn described it. 

Upon her return from the Summit, Kathryn and her colleagues are eager to get started teaching, but they find that a 3-day trip to a state college about an hour away has been planned.  Sort of planned, she finds out.  Ashton has put his new Princeton sophomore intern in charge of planning this initial residential orientation session for students and teachers.  It involved dorm living among about 130 9th graders who do not know the teachers and teachers who do not know the students.   In Kathryn’s words, “it was a disaster on every level,” and for Kathryn and her colleagues, it was an experience that carried forward into the year, with new teachers starting a new school from scratch with an administration making policy and rules and regulations on the fly.  There is no time, however, to look backward or to reflect.  As Kathryn said,  “I started work July 19 and did not physically stop working until Christmas.”  Two of the seven teachers quit before the first year ends.

For all the former KIPP teachers I have interviewed so far, there is one unwavering agreement on one key issue:  the workload and expectations for KIPP teachers is unsustainable over a normal career span for anyone. 
Kathryn: I mean the experience for me I would get to work . . . in general I’d leave my apartment about 6:20.  I’d get up at 5:00, leave my apartment about 6:20.  Get to work in about 13 minutes.  I would strive to get there earlier so I could have time to make my coffee because everybody made their coffee in the morning and it was this mad dash.  And I wanted to make sure I was in the cafeteria by 7:00 or 7:20, which is when we were supposed to be in the cafeteria as a staff.  I would get there about 6:40, I’d print off my deliverables, I’d make my coffee, I’d get my board ready with my key objectives my board configuration.  I’d get my PowerPoint set up.  I’d make sure the class is clean and things are in their place.  All my stuff is on the table when the kids come in so they can pick up their worksheets and take them in.  I got everything  created in ready for that day. 

During the morning, Kathryn taught one 90-minute classes and her plan period, and then came lunch.  She says,
. . . . I brought my lunch every day and I just ate it standing up or I ate it with kids.  It was usually standing up.  And we would rotate to make sure, like I would usually come in first because the other teachers a lot of times I didn’t have class because I was on my planning and I’d get there first and make sure everything  was okay and the kids were in line and they were standing up against the wall.  And then I’d make sure they were okay and then the other teachers would get their lunch and then I’d go get mine and bring it back down to the cafeteria.

I asked about learning the rules like standing up against the wall and the imposed silence in many KIPP lunchrooms.  She said the rules were communicated during in-services, as part of the Big List. 
Big list? I asked.
         . . . . The big list is basically anything and everything because in low income schools . . . [it’s] sort of  the methodology behind teaching in low income schools. . . .The big list is every system or procedure that we have in place so that basically it’s controlling every variable in an environment, which is generally uncontrollable.  For example, where teachers are in the morning.  Where teachers are when they greet students in their classroom.  What time you need to have all your copies and everything done and ready.  What students should dress like when they come into the building.  And some of it we just went all off those and we created this big list.  And that was something we did during in service and then we did also while we were at KIPP summit.  You set an expectation and the kids have to meet that expectation every day all day without prompters. 
         INT:  Without fail.

         R:  Without fail.  And that’s the KIPP culture that’s supposed to be the KIPP culture.  Now it varies from school to school because you have different school leaders and KIPP sort of  does this let the stallions run things, where it’s like let the principal run the school how they see fit.
[Other former KIPP teachers talked about children learning to ride the bus the KIPP way, getting off the bus, going to the bathroom the KIPP way, sitting in a desk the KIPP way, and walking in the hall all according to KIPP, how to act when visitors were in the building, and how to accept punishment.]

Two more 90-minute classes came after lunch for Kathryn, and then came homeroom or advisory with 17 African-American female 9th graders.  Then from 3:45 to 5 PM came the co-curricular period {CCP), or when electives were offered such as art or music or sports or debate, depending on availability of staff to teach direct these activities. 

Kathryn said most students left at 5, but she would usually stay until 6, sometimes visiting with other teachers in their rooms (by design, there was no teacher room or lounge).  She would get home around 6:30, “have about an hour for myself,” and then grade papers and plan until 9 or 9:30.  Kathryn was also on call during this time for parents and students.
I asked Kathryn about the time she put into her work at KIPP.

. . . .  Yeah.  I was working about 90 hours a week.

INT:  Ninety hours.

INT:  Did you have a significant other?  Were you married?

R:  No, I was married to my job.  I didn’t even have a social life. 

One of my standard questions is “what makes a good KIPP teacher?”  Kathryn’s response:
. . . .The KIPP teachers that do well I think are the ones who taught for a while or have been in KIPP for a long time.  I honestly don’t know because I didn’t meet those teachers.  I didn’t see those teachers.  We lost 70 percent of our staff—either they were fired or they quit by the end of this past year.  And the teachers that stayed, one of them is my close friend and she will not be there this year probably.  She’s like, I can do this last year and this year but I can’t do it for another year.

Kathryn pointed out that most of her colleagues did not thrive, and some did not survive the first year:
           . . . .We lost our athletic director in October. . .  and then our biology teacher quit in the third quarter.  And then by the end of the school year our dean resigned the last three or four weeks of the school year.  I lost my job because [her subject] got cut.  Our writing teacher was fired and one of our math teachers was fired.  And our business manager quit. 

In discussing the students at this brand new KIPP, Kathryn points out that about 40 of the 130 students come from two local KIPP middle schools, which she describes as “dysfunctional.”
And those two KIPP middle schools had virtually no rules.  They had incredibly high teacher turnover.  They were more like what you would consider like a comprehensive public middle school would be. . . . One of my friends called it this KIPP combination of like just one of those traditional sort of urban stereotypes of urban schools but then combined it with this really strange sense of entitlement that KIPP created.  And you had this very strange hybrid of students.  And so classroom management across all, and some teachers had more success than others.  More experienced teachers had more success than others and some classes were more successful than others.  But in general all the teachers had classroom management—all of them had classroom management issues. 

This interview is one of more than a dozen interviews that I have completed with former KIPP teachers in a study aimed to understand why teachers leave KIPP.  If you know someone who is a former KIPP teacher and wants to share his/her story for research purposes, please ask her or him to email me: james.horn@cambridgecollege.edu

31 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:02 AM

    I have a hard time believing that Seligman's goal was "Total Compliance." It may have been dreamed up by a KIPP administrator, but that goal goes against everything that Positive Psychology stands for.

    From your description Kipp sounds like a perversion of education and I would guess it is a perversion of Positive Psychology as well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Positive psychology has self-control and self-monitoring as primary goals. The goal is have compliance from within, which I would argue constitutes the most successful form of control. Look at Seligman's early work on learned helplessness, and then look at KIPP schools with adolescents where you can hear a pin drop. For hegemony to prevail in any social situation, self-correction and self-blame and self-correction are essential. You may also be interested in Seligman's work for military in its bullshit PP non-treatment of returning vets.

      Delete
  2. Your response to criticism of positive psychology sound absolutely, uh, positive. I suggest some reading on the uses of learned helplessness, a Seligman discovery that he has described in briefing CIA interrogators. Learned optimism is the flip side of that, and both are used at KIPP for control purposes. I encourage you to read this piece on Seligman's scam that he has sold to the U. S. military as a cheap remedy for PTSD and other traumas from war.
    http://schoolfunding.info/litigation/overview.php3

    Hey GI, stop crying about that missing leg: Be Happy! Show some true "grit."

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  3. oops, sorry about that wrong link on "comprehensive soldier fitness:"
    http://www.psysr.org/blog/2011/04/05/the-dark-side-of-comprehensive-soldier-fitness/

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  4. I was a KIPP teacher in San Antonio, and it was shocking to see the double standard so blatantly used. Drunk teachers, money embezzled, kids left unattended during field trips, special education services denied...the list goes on and on. If a traditional public school behaved this way it would be cleaned out or closed....yet the school continues under the management of Mr. Larson. It is shameful!

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    Replies
    1. Anonymous11:28 PM

      Hi Pam, i just got called for an interview with kipp aspire in san antonio, should i run like hell? I've been researching kipp as a whole and my finds arent that great. On paper its sounds great but it seems like the pay isnt much in comparison to responsiblities and the overall culture is bad? Any advice since youve worked at a san antonio location?

      Delete
  5. Pam,

    Please contact me if you would like to share your story. JH
    ontogenyx@gmail.com

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  6. Keep up the interviews Jim! This is an important story to share.

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  7. Anonymous12:34 PM

    This seems to be a culture of charter schools....I spent 3 years in one and got out as soon as I could. Now I'm moving to another state I find that I'm more likely to get a job in a charter school..I really dont' want to but a job is better than another. So here I go again going through hell.

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  8. I am graduating in May and I just applied to teach at KIPP schools.. and then I saw this blog post :/ thanks for the information

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  9. Anonymous2:56 PM

    As a teacher who has taught in both public and charter schools, I'm beginning to wonder if the problem is charter schools. I currently teach at a prominent charter school in Las Vegas, NV, and it has been nothing short of a nightmare. The school speaks highly of its extended school day, but fails to mention how the additional school hours are spent. Students typically are placed in random electives that have little to do with academics, such as kick ball. In addition, the school leadership is extremely inconsistent. This year alone, the school has had three different principals. The school is a mess and yet students continue to attend everyday hoping that things will change. My guess is that they won't.

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  10. Wow. I second everyone's thanks and encouragement to keep up this investigatory journalism (is that what it's called?).

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  11. Anonymous7:00 PM

    Most teachers work incredibly long hours and, unfortunately, eat their lunches while supervising students. The teacher in the above interview sounds like she's just bitter that her job was cut. I've been teaching for 15 years, and while I have never worked at a KIPP school, most of the things she is complaining about come with the territory of teaching.

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    Replies
    1. KIPP represents the traditional school experience on steroids. The teachers I talked with were sad, depressed, disenchanted, angry, enlightened, but almost never bitter about losing their job. Most came to view their job loss as blessing, in disguise at first, in some cases. But in the end, always a blessing.

      The book will be out in 2014. Hope you will have a look.

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  12. Really great blog keep it up.

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  13. Anonymous6:31 PM

    As an educator hoping to return to NYC from NJ, I looked into KIPP as a possible alternative to "raise the bar". After reading your blog and comments, I doubt the KIPP program is the place for me. Thank you so much for posting.

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  14. Anonymous6:40 PM

    Thanks so much for posting this. I just had an interview with a KIPP school and really did not get a good feeling. Seems like they try to quantify things that aren't always quantifiable, character and student growth for example. Did you find this to be the case? I currently teach at an independent school and LOVE teaching. I am afraid that if I teach at a KIPP school I will burn out, which is the last thing I want to have happen. Do you suggest avoiding KIPP opportunities?

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  15. Anonymous12:41 PM

    Just saw an advertisement for a KIPP posting in my area, but after reading your blog, and even though I need a job, I think I'll pass on the KIPP experience, and I have 28 years of experience K-12 and college. Thanks for the heads-up! You may have saved me a lot of aggravation.

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  16. Anonymous11:56 AM

    I don't personally know any KIPP teachers, but I am a mother of a KIPP student and WOW he has been denied to have any kind of feelings whatsoever! He is not allowed to have a personality of his own and has been emotionally broken down on a daily basis. I really feel bad as a mother for not figuring this out sooner and putting him through this abuse for a whole school year being bullied by these teachers. Finding this article makes me feel better and that I'm not so CRAZY after all.

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    1. Anonymous2:49 PM

      this is true my daughter has been at KIPP in Houston for 3 weeks and has already told me how the teachers make the kids stand in front of the class and have the students shout out whats wrong with their uniform or why did you forget your homework, on so on, my daughter said that 3 grade girls began crying. The stories she has told me go on and on. I pulled her out today; I hope I did the right thing?

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    2. As you obviously love your daughter, yes, you did the right thing. Never doubt it.

      Delete
    3. Anonymous8:21 PM

      I have 35 years of experience in education, mostly special education. I have taught early childhood through post grad with excellent evals in all teaching environments. Asked to accept a spec. ed aide position on a temporary basis last week at a Kipp school (since I'm retired). In 3 days I am stunned to find such violent negative verbal behavior by teachers, that I cried driving home. These kindergartners and first graders deserve much better. I will be writing a editorial about my limited experience.

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    4. I hope you will send us your editorial, published or unpublished:
      ontogenyx@gmail.com

      JH

      Delete
  17. Anonymous1:19 PM

    Thank you so much for posting. I withdrew my child from KIPP today and there are only 7 days of school left for the year, but I could not allow my child to go through this abusiveness any longer. Here's something crazy, they would not allow me to go through with the withdrawal process (like filling out the proper paperwork) until I spoke with the Dean. I politely told them I don't need to speak to anyone or have anything to say to anyone I just want to fill out the proper documents and go to work. So she told me okay just to make myself comfortable and have a seat until 4:45 p.m. until they are able to meet with me. I was there at 9 a.m. and I was not about to sit and wait until 4:45 in the afternoon, that's insane.

    Please continue to share these KIPP stories they have been a big help. I no longer think I'm just being a crazy protective mother.

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  18. Anonymous9:14 AM

    I just stumbled upon this blog. Thank you fiur work. Are you still looking for stories? I taught at a KIPP in the Atlanta area. It was insanity. My children also attended so I can give you 2 or more prospectives.

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  19. Anonymous12:13 AM

    90 hour weeks = the life of charter school teacher. Having taught for one year in a public, inner-city school, and making the transitioning to a charter school for the next year was the biggest mistake I've ever made in my life. My charter school administrator told us on the first day of orientation: "look to your left, and look to your right...one of these teachers won't be here by Christmas because they have failed the kids, failed the benchmarks, and don't deserve to teach dogs..." I plan on working as hard as I can to shut down every charter school in America. They are a monumental waste. Parents of special education students had best beware - your child will receive no services, even if they have and IEP or a 504. My administrator's wife yelled at me constantly and called me "a cracker in training." That's a charter school.

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  20. Anonymous9:45 PM

    this entire movement exists to deunionize teachers and chain them to poverty wages while private administrators profit.
    it's vital to go beyond the nuts and bolts insanity of the charter itself and to understand the very dark political forces at work here.

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  21. My son has been accepted to a Kipp school in NYC, should I run?

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  22. Thank you for your comments. My niece has the potential to attend KIPP middle school in Columbus, Ohio.
    I really appreciate you guys' honesty. These comments have been a huge help in my decision making. Public school doesn't seem that bad after all. As long as we're paying attention our kids will do fine in public schools. MANY THANKS.

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  23. Anonymous3:02 AM

    Glad I read this before finishing my application.

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