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

Monday, February 29, 2016

Jay Mathews and KIPP Journalism

by Jim Horn

Before my book on teaching in KIPP Model schools went on sale yesterday, Jay Mathews and the “No Excuses” charter empire were already at work.  In fact, Jay had already delivered to his Washington Post editors a two-part response/review to my book.  Part 1 appeared yesterday.

Jay’s dubious assessment of Work Hard, Be Hard… may reassure KIPP’s corporate patrons, venture philanthropists, and the hedge funders that all is well in "No Excuses Land," but his remarks do nothing to shed light on the intent and content of my book, which was conceived and executed with the principal aim of allowing former No Excuses teachers to share their stories with the public. At the same time, I wanted to show that these grueling accounts of life inside "No Excuses" corporate charter schools reflect the realization of a paternalistic social vision and a hard-fisted privatization agenda that jointly constitute two of the greatest threats to democracy in our era.  

Because “No Excuses” charters are key to achieving this corporate-sponsored vision and mission, it is, indeed, important that Jay Mathews go all out to downplay my book and the importance of hearing former KIPP teachers’ shared experiences of life inside KIPP.  For if parents, policymakers, and prospective teachers come to understand the patronizing aims, draconian methods, and unhealthy outcomes of the KIPP Model charter schools, then a major tool of the education privatization and social control agenda could be jeopardized. 

Here is a the first clip from Jay’s Part 1 that requires a response:

I wish the book [Work Hard, Be Hard] were not so one-sided. In the great tradition of American polemics, Horn is entitled to his relentlessly anti-KIPP view. But he never satisfactorily explains how a charter network, if it is as harmful to teachers and children as he says, could attract nearly 70,000 students to 183 campuses in 20 states and the District.

I should first acknowledge my utter failure in this regard, for if there is anything I have learned from my years of sparring with the heavyweight champ of KIPP apologists, it is that there is no way to satisfactorily explain to Jay Mathews, at least, how the KIPP Model could reflect anything other than the spit-shined corporate image that he and the Washington Post editorial board have helped to carefully polish for the past decade. My book, however, explores in some measurable depth how we have come to fund thousands of these “No Excuses” charter schools that educate the brown and underprivileged in ways that the white and powerful have chosen for them.

And while Jay has remained steadfast in his support of the “no excuses” philosophy when applied to KIPP students and their teachers, he has found a litany of excuses for looking the other way when confronted with the kinds of abusive school practices that Jay would never, ever allow to be practiced on his own grandchildren. 

My book is not at all the first opportunity that Jay has had to use his position of trust to defend the indefensible.  When confronted, for instance, in 2009 with a detailed, formal state report of abusive and humiliating practices against children by one of KIPP’s school leaders (click here to read the Report in its entirety), Jay Mathews accepted the KIPP principal’s denial of the charges of abuse and illegal acts as fact. Having received an assurance from the alleged offender that student accounts, parent accounts, and school personnel accounts were all wrong, Jay was happy to pursue the story no further.

As blogger and public official, Thomas Mertz, observed in back in 2009 when the KIPP Fresno events unfolded, this kind of spin we may expect from public relations firms out to protect corporate clients, but we cannot accept this kind of unquestioning fealty from those represent themselves as journalists: “… the first step in spinning a story is to ignore any information that undermines your position; the second step is to include information that supports your biases, and throughout use every trick in the book to evoke sympathy for your cause…”

And here is a second clip that deserves comment:

…Having been refused access to KIPP Memphis two years ago, he [Horn] asked me for help. A KIPP spokesman told me the school’s staff had rejected the request because Horn had suggested in one piece that KIPP schools were like concentration camps.

I previously explained to Jay how this KIPP allegation is false in an email dated May 27, 2014, an email that followed Jay’s failed effort to get me permission from KIPP’s home office to visit a KIPP school:

KIPP’s well-financed meme that I called KIPP schools concentration camps has been around for a few years now, and it began when a KIPP fan in New Orleans asked me a question following a presentation at AERA.  I did not say at AERA or elsewhere that KIPP schools are concentration camps, even though I did reference concentration camps in response to the question as to whether or not I have ever visited a KIPP school. I said, no, in fact, I have not, nor have I ever visited a WWII concentration camp.  But the documentation is clear what it was like there in those camps (despite the Holocaust deniers), just as it is clear, thanks to evidence supplied by former teachers, what life is like in a KIPP school–despite the KIPP propaganda pieces.

And even if KIPP’s claim were true, is that enough to bar even the most skeptical researcher from access to a KIPP school?  What kind of exalted petulance are we witnessing? Or does KIPP want to keep out anyone who has looked underneath the KIPP “shine” that is reapplied with daily regularity to disguise some ugly truths?   

Even though I did not get to visit KIPP Memphis, I did find out subsequently that one Memphis KIPP school has test scores are low enough to put them repeatedly on the state's priority schools list (list here), which is comprised of the bottom five percent of test performers. Could a KIPP be shuttered for low performance?  Would the Washington Post cover the story?

Mathews ends his Part 1 with this, which cannot go unanswered:

KIPP teachers welcome into their classrooms students who have said worse things about them. KIPP schools have the power to invite Horn if they want to. Why not give it a try? The vibrant creativity of KIPP teachers refutes his dark perspective, and may persuade him to interview at least some of the many people who love those schools.

Did I say something derogatory about KIPP teachers that I missed?  What was it?  Mathews' feeble attempt to incite KIPP teachers to rush to the defense of KIPP, Inc. will surely fall short if those teachers come to read my book’s recorded accounts by former “no excuses” teachers, many of whom remain friends with teachers who are still in the “no excuses” schools. 

While many of the stories that these former teachers relate are difficult to read for their severity, there remains with most of those interviewed a solid appreciation and empathy for those who continue to struggle within a system that regularly grinds up teachers and spits them out.

Finally, despite Mathews’ clear suggestion that I intentionally avoided interviewing former KIPP teachers who had more positive accounts to share, let me repeat what I have told Mathews previously:  I interviewed every former “no excuses” teacher who contacted me and volunteered to be interviewed.  With one exception, those teachers chose to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from a system of corporate foundation influence that reaches into every corner of the educational ecosystem.  I will continue to respect that.

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't hope for any honest dialog from Jay Mathews, Jim. Here is my 2010 account of his evading disclosure of the Washington Post's own Kaplan virtual charter network, which was later sold to K12 inc.