Below is next installment from Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys through "No Excuses" Teaching. Please share widely.
KIPP and the Teaching Profession
. . . our teachers have normal lives, and many have families and children. --Richard Barth, KIPP CEO (Philanthropy News Digest, 2009)
The KIPP Foundation has no requirements for professional preparation, and certification requirements are governed by the state charter school statutes where each of the 183 KIPP schools is located. While a few KIPP advertisements state a preference for teaching credentials, no ads could be located that required anything more than what the state charter laws stipulate. The KIPP Foundation website (2015d) states,
the primary requirement for teaching at a KIPP school is a belief in a very simple concept: that we will do whatever it takes to help each and every student develop the character and academic skills necessary for them to lead self-sufficient, successful and happy lives.
The Foundation leaves it to each school to determine the qualifications required for new teachers. While many KIPP schools list two years of experience as a requirement in their ads, the necessity of replacing teachers who quit or who are fired make these requirements less applicable in real life. The KIPP website (KIPP Foundation, 2015d) points out that some schools have special programs for teachers with no prior experience.
In 2008, David Levin joined another charter school operator, Norman Atkins, and hedge fund mogul, Larry “L-Train” Robbins to found a non-profit corporation, the Relay Graduate School of Education, which focuses on preparing prospective teachers for the No Excuses charter school environment. Begun as Teacher U in 2006 by KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools, Relay requires evidence that degree candidates can raise test scores before receiving their Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degree.
In one of the first cohorts, “seven out of 110 teachers did not receive Master’s degrees because they could not show that their students had made at least a year’s worth of academic progress” (Green, 2011). The “pedagogical content” curriculum at Relay is based largely on the Doug Lemov’s (2010; 2015) text, Teach like a champion… Lemov holds an MBA from Harvard and is founder and Board member of Uncommon Schools, a charter chain that largely emulates the KIPP organizational model.
Showing steady growth, Relay has campuses in New York, Newark, New Orleans, Houston, and Chicago, with plans in 2015 to open a location in Memphis. Prominent among Relay’s philanthropic investors are the Gates Foundation, Credit Suisse, the Walton Family Foundation, the New Schools Venture Fund, and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund. These same organizations and many others with them channel millions of dollars of tax-exempted donations through their corporate foundations to supplement the hundreds of millions of dollars in public education funds that go to KIPP each year.
When Bill Gates delivered a TED talk in 2009 on two of the world’s most pressing problems, malaria and bad teachers, he provided a copy of Work hard, be nice…, to all attendees, and in 2014 Gates told an interviewer from the American Enterprise Institute that he had concluded “the greatest cause of inequity” in America comes from “the failures of the education system” (American Enterprise Institute, 2014, p. 3). Gates’ preferred solution, for poor urban children at least, is the KIPP Model.
KIPP has an attrition rate among teachers that would be unsustainable if it were not for the large numbers of recruits from Teach for America that replace the 30-40 percent of KIPP teachers who leave KIPP each year. When David Levin and Mike Feinberg founded KIPP in 1994, it is likely that they envisioned TFA, with its two-year service contract for inexperienced teacher candidates who are heavily recruited from top-tier colleges and universities, as a prime source of new teachers to sustain, perhaps, the heroic demands and test performance standards that the KIPP Model imposes (Horn, 2010).
While former TFA corps members make up between thirty and forty percent of KIPP teachers nationally, some schools have a much higher concentration. At the KIPP Endeavor Academy in Kansas City, for instance, 80 percent of KIPP teachers were TFA corps members in 2014. Even though TFA has always attracted more applicants than it has teaching slots, the organization regularly spends more money for advertising and recruitment (Teach for America, 2007, p. 29) than it spends on pre-service training, which lasts for just over four weeks.
One would-be recruit from a few years back (Chernicoff, 2006) wrote this assessment in the Yale Daily News:
In just a few years, TFA has established itself as one of the smart-people-who-just-graduated-with-liberal-arts-degrees-and-now-have-no-idea-what-they-want-to-do-with-their-lives-but-are-pretty-sure-it-isn’t-remain-in-the-spin-cycle-of-academia-or-move-on-to-the-next-preset-hierarchy-in-the-finance-world demographic. Used to be those poor souls could only go to law school or move to New York and “go into, like, publishing or something.” But TFA positioned itself in such a way that it gets the lost souls who have an impulse to do something to help the world immediately upon graduating (para 12-13).
New TFA recruits who are not assigned directly to KIPP are commonly harvested after two years into KIPP teaching and leadership positions. As KIPP school leaders, they are given CEO power in the principal’s office to make policy and rules that were once the responsibility of public school boards.
KIPP’s teacher turnover rate became a public fact in 2008, with the publication of the SRI evaluation report San Francisco Bay Area KIPP Schools. . . (Woodworth, David, Wang, & Lopez-Torkos, 2008). SRI researchers found KIPP’s teacher annual attrition rate ranged from 18 to 49 percent at the five Bay Area KIPP schools that researchers studied:
Since 2003-04, the five Bay Area KIPP school leaders have hired a total of 121 teachers. Of these, 43 remained in the classroom at the start of the 2007-08 school year. Among teachers who left the classroom, at four of the schools they spent a median of 1 year in the classroom before leaving; at one school, the typical teacher spent 2 years in the classroom before leaving (p. 32).
While SRI found KIPP teachers committed, they also found them clearly doubtful of their capacity to continue under the stress of 60-80 hours of school-related work per week (includes 2 hours per night for telephone homework duty). As one KIPP teacher told SRI researchers, “the consequence is I can’t do this job very much longer. It is too much. I don’t see any solution with our structure and our nonnegotiables. No one has really presented any way to solve that problem” (p. 35).
Browne (2009) found the average KIPP teacher leaves after three years of service (p. 174). KIPP researchers (KIPP Foundation, 2013) reported in 2013 that 33 percent of teachers left their teaching positions in 2012 (p. 26). Teacher attrition in KIPP’s largest district, Houston, was 36 percent across 24 schools in 2014. Two other No Excuses chains that are based on the KIPP Model, Yes Prep and Achievement First, report average length of service for teachers between 2 to 2.5 years (Rich, 2013).
In an analysis by the National Center on School Choice at Vanderbilt University, Stuit and Smith (2009) found the teacher attrition problem severe across all types of charter schools. Using NCES data from 2003-2004, the authors “. . . found the odds of a charter school teacher leaving the profession versus staying in the same school are 132% greater than those of a traditional public school teacher. The odds of a charter school teacher moving schools are 76% greater” (Abstract).
The KIPP Summit: Professional Development Revivalism
An important element of “teacher KIPP-notizing” comes each year when the KIPP Foundation hosts an annual summit that brings together all KIPP teachers just before the new school year begins. Part celebration, sales meeting, revival, and professional development opportunity, the KIPP Summit serves to indoctrinate new staff into the KIPP culture, which is referred to by the KIPP founders as “Team and Family.” One former teacher enthused about the KIPP Summit for the “interesting atmosphere” and opportunity to “learn new things” and the chance to hear teachers and school leaders “talk about successes that they had with kids going to college.” Interestingly, she found the Summit “fun . . .[and] real, even though “it was like a good educational Nuremberg Rally, but a good educational Nuremberg Rally—they really got you pumped up.” When I asked her to elaborate she said,
. . . it’s kind of rah-rah-rah, really this is what our mission is, and I . . . everybody is marching in the same direction. In this case it’s a good direction. We want the kids there to get to college, but in a way it is kind of the same direction, and kind of a lot of hype, and . . . there’s banners, and each school had their banner, and that’s probably the worst reference to make, but there is a certain correlation between the two [KIPP Summit and Nuremberg Rally] in terms of—it’s an enthusiasm that a whole crowd is getting, and kids would come up, and they would talk about their achievements, and everybody would clap and cheer, and it was really, everyone moving in that same direction.
And I think it was a good direction, but I’m a history teacher so part of me was kind of outside my body going, ‘This is interesting. I’m glad this is for a good reason, it’s really kind of whipping people up to go this direction.’ So I’m glad it’s a good direction, but I can see where, if you were in another place in time, it could be whipped up into that way.
Summits are often held in popular tourist destinations such as Orlando, Miami, or Las Vegas. In 2011, for example, the KIPP Foundation’s 990 non-profit federal tax return showed that $1,008,633 was paid to Opryland Hotel in Nashville for hotel and hospitality during one Summit, while almost $4 million was spent on travel that year. Most Summit expenses are paid by the KIPP Foundation, but then KIPP recoups some of that money from each KIPP franchise, which must pay up to $30,000 each year to use the KIPP brand name. In 2011, KIPP, Inc. collected a total of $2,050,256 from individual schools in these licensing fees.
One former KIPP teacher who had witnessed the extravagances of the 2014 Summit wondered why KIPP would claim there is no money for hiring substitute teachers, all the while renting huge arenas for general sessions and lavish hotel ballrooms for after parties that featured an array of desserts and snacks, open bar, and DJs: “To me it seemed like if we have the money for a summit and we don't have the money for substitute teachers, then we should kill the summit and find the money for substitute teachers.”
Several of the teachers I interviewed talked about their experiences at the annual summits that always come just before school starts, thus leaving new teachers, in particular, feeling unprepared to meet students. As teachers worry about a lack of lesson planning, the Summit vendors sell books and kits that are advertised to fill those needs and assuage those fears. One teacher said, “They were pushing products and they were pushing new ideas from business perspectives.”
One first-year teacher attended a KIPP Summit in Las Vegas, which she described as a “whole big feel-good session.” She saw students receive awards, and she heard “inspirational stories with how KIPP changes lives.” She said some of her colleagues “who had been in teaching for awhile thought it was a waste of time,” but she said, “I enjoyed it because I’m completely new, and I know nothing. . . . It was fun. I enjoyed myself. I got to go to Vegas for free so that was pretty nice. Then we get back and immediately, I mean I started work July 19 and did not physically stop working until Christmas.”
When another teacher mentioned the KIPP Summit as she described the beginning of school, I asked what she thought of the Summit. She replied:
Honestly, I was just kind of like what the hell did I get myself into. It was just really weird . . . . I don’t mean everybody, but it was like they were just so beyond enthusiastic, and I am kind of like, this is a little off putting because, I don’t know—it felt cheesy in a lot of ways . . . . I mean I am definitely a passionate educator and I think education is so important, and I definitely get enthusiastic about my content area, but it was just a little over the top, and I just felt like I didn’t fit in because I wasn’t that way, and KIPP is really big on little songs and chants and things like that, and that is just like not me at all. I mean there were a couple of points where I kind of got into it, and it was kind of goofy.
Besides feeling out of place at the Summit, this teacher thought the professional development had much in common with other professional development she has experienced during her six years in charter schools, where young teachers are teaching other young teachers who know only slightly less than they:
. . . it was kind of like the blind leading the blind. It is kind of hard to remember all the details, but I just remember thinking okay I feel like I have learned nothing . . . and I don’t feel like I walked away with things that made me feel like wow I can really use this in my classroom or wow that is really meaningful. That sort of professional development is a hole in charter schools. You need somebody coming in there who really has a lot of experience.
Another teacher used the word “interesting” with a clear inflection of disapproval. She noted “there was a very common thread that ran through meetings and conversations about the evils of unions.” During the roll call of schools at the Summit, each school staff stood wearing their own shirts and did a song or a chant. She described the atmosphere as “frenzied.” She also said that when teachers in the auditorium were asked to stand who had less than five years total teaching experience, almost everyone rose:
[The KIPP Summit] had a part where they would have everybody who has been teaching five years or less stand up, and everybody pretty much in the auditorium stood up—for 5 to 10 years, very few, and there were hardly any over 10 years. That was for teaching in general and not necessarily teaching at KIPP, but that was also very interesting to see it. And [KIPP leaders] didn’t seem ashamed of that. They seemed to think that was just fine.
“it was almost like a cult”
One teacher noted what she called the Summit’s “cultish mentality” that others around her saw as well. During the chanting of the KIPP motto, a friend said to her, “I’m not doing this—this is some cult bs.” This same teacher likened the conditioning to what she described as a fundamentalist cult. When I asked one teacher how KIPP values affected how she taught, she said,
You had to have all the KIPP values posted. You had to constantly remind the children of the KIPP values. It was an Orwellian type of teaching. You had to focus on teaching almost like a cult. It was very much brainwashing is how I could describe it. It was like it wasn’t you. I mean, believe me, if you didn’t have those KIPP values posted in your room, if you did not go over them daily, someone would know and they would remind you, hey, these are the KIPP values, teach them.
This teacher talked about the “language they’ve created where they just rename things,” which she described as “almost comical.” When I asked why “almost comical,” she replied:
Almost comical because it’s not fully comical, because it’s serious. It’s just serious. You’re working but it’s like you’re teaching these values and if you stop and think for a second you’re like okay, wait a minute, this is bizarre and ridiculous, but you keep doing it. It’s still serious. I don’t know. Sometimes you laugh about it. You had to laugh about it because you couldn’t stop and think, what am I doing. You just have to laugh because you’re like okay, here I am stuck in this situation, and I don’t want to quit, so very often you find yourself just laughing at yourself because you fell for it. I don’t know.
Another teacher noted, too, the private language and the “different phrases that were used” as “very cultish.” It has long been noted among scholars (Lifton, 1961) who have studied thought reform environments that a common characteristic is “manipulation of language in which clichés substitute for analytic thought” (p. 419). A former KIPP teacher who was older and more experienced than most offered this analysis:
. . . they take these young kids and they indoctrinate them into the KIPP way. Whether it works or not doesn’t really matter. It works from KIPP’s perspective; the teachers who stay are indoctrinated. It’s almost, and I hate to use this word, but I’m going to anyway. But it’s almost like a cult.
American Enterprise Institute. (2014, March 3). From poverty to prosperity: A conversation with Bill Gates. Retrieved from http://www.aei.org/files/2014/03/14/-bill-gates-event-transcript_082217994272.pdf
Browne, L. W. (2009). A character education approach to founding a KIPP college preparatory charter school. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Dissertation and Theses database. (UMI No. 3344513)
Chernicoff, D. (2006, October 27). I want you, Yalie, to teach for America. Yale Daily News. Retrieved from http://yaledailynews.com/weekend/2006/10/27/i-want-you-yalie-to-teach-for-america/
Green, E. (2011, February 14). A new graduate school of education, Relay, to open next fall. Chalkbeat New York. Retrieved from http://ny.chalkbeat.org/2011/02/14/a-new-graduate-school-of-education-relay-to-open-next-fall/#.VLGzeyeTDOE
Horn, J. (2010). Corporatism, KIPP, and cultural eugenics. In P. Kovacs, (Ed.), Bill Gates and the future of U. S. “public” schools. New York: Routledge.
KIPP Foundation. (2015d). Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from http://www.kipp.org/careers/application-resources/applicant-faqs#Candidate
KIPP Foundation. (2013). KIPP: 2013 report card. Retrieved from http://www.kipp.org/reportcard
Lemov, D. (2015). Teach like a champion 2.0: 62 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college (K-12). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Philanthropy News Digest. (2009, August 21). Richard Barth, Chief Executive Officer, KIPP Foundation. Retrieved from http://philanthropynewsdigest.org/newsmakers/richard-barth-chief-executive-officer-kipp-foundation
Rich, M. (2013, August 26). At charter schools, short careers by choice. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/27/education/at-charter-schools-short-careers-by-choice.html
Stuit, D., & Smith, T. (2009). Teacher turnover in charter schools. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from http://www.vanderbilt.edu/schoolchoice/documents/stuit_smith_ncspe.pdf