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

Friday, October 07, 2016

Understanding KIPP Model Charter Schools, Part 11

This is Part 11 from Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys through "No Excuses" Teaching.  It's another piece of the puzzle providing a clear picture of the KIPP Model "Miracle."
Chapter 11

Special Needs Students and the KIPP Model: “A Lawsuit Waiting to Happen”

            Research (Miron, Urschel, & Saxton, 2011; Miron, Urschel, Mathis, & Tornquist, 2010) consistently shows that the majority of total compliance charter schools have significantly fewer English language learners and special education students.  The charts below show trends of students served by KIPP schools and public school districts for 2005 through 2009 (Miron, Urschel, & Saxton, 2011, p. 14).

More recent research (Weber & Rubin, 2014) shows that, when comparing the types of disabilities found at charters with regular public schools, the disabilities of students enrolled in charter schools are ones that require fewer time-consuming and costly accommodations and individual education plans (IEPs).  Based on interviews with former KIPP teachers, these findings become more understandable.

Schools that follow the KIPP model use predominantly large group direct instruction, with the teacher expected to be in complete command of behavioral and academic tasks.  Most school leaders and teachers at KIPP have not completed traditional teacher education programs, and their understanding of special needs children’s learning modalities is most often scant or non-existent.  This reality presented itself for one former KIPP teacher, who had never been consulted regarding his students’ IEPs. 

The lone special education teacher was a faculty member he had seen “once or twice” during his two years at KIPP.  He spoke of the inexperience, isolation, and lack of collaboration at his school that he blamed for a dangerous event involving a special needs student:

So many times I felt like I was just working in isolation. And again, I liked my colleagues and I never felt like there was anybody who was against me or didn’t like me, but I didn’t feel a sense of unity or collaboration there, and I think that is something that has to come from the top. . . . I don’t think that charters are evil and the people who run them are evil, but I think they are incredibly misguided.

I think our principal was very young. I think she was without a lot of experiences, and I think when you have those combinations you are not going to guide your faculty with wisdom, and so I think that is why there is just so much miscommunication.  There wasn’t a lot of bringing the faculty together. There wasn’t a lot of quality professional development. I think that is why I am like scratching my head like, ‘where is the special education teacher,’ like we need to talk.

            One day one of my kids, and I don’t recall exactly what all of his issues were, but he had some academic and emotional disabilities, and one day he just like freaked out, pushed this other kid and threw a chair across the room. And I was just like what the heck just happened, and so I had like one of the kids run downstairs and grab someone from the office, and I come to find out later that he has an IEP.  Well, I didn’t even know that. 

So I didn’t even know like what things were going to be triggers for him, and after I read his IEP, I could see like okay this and that set him off, and now I know not to let that happen, but you know you can’t throw your teachers under the bus like that. And that’s how I felt. Just moment after moment there was something happen[ing] that just made me feel alienated or unsupported or out of the loop.

            Some KIPP schools ignore IEPs for special needs children they enroll, and at other schools IEPs are adjusted to fit the KIPP Model, which disallows or discourages differentiation.   At another school, a teacher who had previously taught in an urban public school with large numbers of special needs children did not get to see the IEPs for the third grade special needs children in her class, thus making it impossible to address the special needs of children as mandated by law. 

The IEPs, she said, “were in the office with the special education coordinator,” who was the only trained special education teacher for the school: “She would come once a week maybe, and take the kids out.  I honestly have no idea what she did with them.  I never saw an IEP.”  This teacher noted, however, that seeing the IEPs would not have been very helpful to her, since there was only one way to teach at KIPP:

Even if I had seen them, we literally weren't allowed to differentiate.  We had to teach every single lesson in the same exact format.  Every kid.  There was no concept of accommodating.  There was no concept of maybe having this one group work on something a little bit different.  It was the most rigid way of teaching. 

            She became very familiar with the “rigid way” during the Fall term after the school’s third graders did not do well on the “mock exam,” which resulted in school leaders concluding that “third grade instruction was off.”  She became one among four teachers new to the KIPP that year who were called in over winter holiday break for “professional development” based on KIPP’s most used instructional manual, Teach Like a Champion, by Doug Lemov (2010).  When school started back after the holidays, she and her new colleagues “were constantly being observed,” videotaped, and measured against checklists from Lemov’s teachings.  She found any variation from Lemov’s method was not allowed:

I used to present a question for the kids to ponder.  I like to start lessons like that from time to time.  Not all the time, but some times.  Let's look at this problem on the board.  Let's brainstorm some ways about how we might solve this.  We were not allowed to do that.  That was an inefficient use of the time.  I had to go right from, Teacher shows the kid how to do it, to We Do, to You Do.  Which I hated.  I couldn't get over how superficial it was.  I didn't understand how nobody seemed to be saying anything about it.  It was like, ‘No, this is just how things happen here.  We've got to get them ready for the tests.’

            This teacher was assigned a self-contained room with between 20 and 25 lowest performing third graders, and she was assisted by a “floating teacher” who “would teach some classes.”  Seven of her students she knew had IEPs, even though she did not know what their individual plans stipulated.  Four of the seven she knew “had diagnosed ADHD,” even though the diagnosis brought no alterations to the SLANT requirements that demanded all children to sit with hands folded while tracking the teacher:

These poor kids just had to sit there with their hands folded, and they would rock and they would tap.  Every time they would rock or tap or talk, you would have to mark it on the chart.  If you had to mark it three times, then they had to go to time out.  If they had to go to time out twice, they had to go to the Dean.   There was about five, six or seven kids who were constantly either in time out, or in with the Dean because they just physically were struggling to sit that still.  I don't blame them at all. 

            The kids that I had taught up in __________ [prior school], they also had ADHD.  Part of what I thought as my job was to find ways to make it so that even though they still had a lot of energy, and needed to move, and talk, and be active they could still learn.  There are so many things that you can do, I think, to keep active, so that they can still learn.  Instead of this, they just got sent to the Dean.  I had one little boy who got suspended probably once or twice a week.  He wanted to talk, and he wanted to tap, and he didn't want to have to sit completely still.  He couldn't sit completely still like his peers.  It was really, really sad.

This third grader’s parents became angry with the school when school leaders put “enormous, enormous pressure on them to have him medicated for ADHD” so that he could remain enrolled at KIPP.  The teacher said,

I'm not anti-medicine, but I have worked with special kids that are way, way more extreme than this little boy was.  The fact that everyone was pushing meds for him so hard—it just didn't seem right to me. He was the kind of kid that if I had been given the opportunity, I really feel confident that I could have found ways for him to succeed in the classroom.  I don't think he was a kid that needed medication.  I'm not an expert for that, obviously, but I know that his parents were getting very frustrated and had stopped showing up for the meetings. 

            When this teacher was asked what other parents thought about the services they were receiving for their special needs children, she replied:

I don't really know because I don't really know if they were aware of what actually happened in the school.  I never saw a parent actually come in and observe a classroom.  I never once saw a parent actually in the school during school hours.  I don't think they really knew what their kid was being expected to do, and why they kept getting in trouble.  They just kept getting these phone calls saying, "So and so was talking during class.  We had to mark it down four times.  It disrupted everyone.  Now you have to come pick him up."  I don't think they really knew.

            Another teacher found that her KIPP school attempted to use “inclusive methods,” even though there were too few special education teachers for this strategy to work.  She noted that during the first days of the new school year when KIPP-notizing was the sole priority, protocol did not allow for special education teachers to be in the classrooms: “you would start off trying to condition them and definitely that is when the special education teacher wasn’t in the classroom.”

            One KIPP teacher I interviewed had been hired as a special education teacher after years in public schools as a special education teacher.  When I asked her to describe KIPP’s way of doing special education, she said, “This is a question I’ve answered many times—a lawsuit waiting to happen.”  She said that when she began, “there was no special ed program, so I did start it and I ran it the way I wanted to, which was according with all the [state] laws and the federal laws, . . . but I worked day and night.”  

Complicating her tasks with special needs students were the many other hats she was forced to wear, which included school nurse, “because the nurse who was not a certified teacher was teaching science because the science teacher was on maternity leave.”  She also served as school counselor, mentor, compliance officer, and classroom teacher of various subjects, thus giving the term “inclusion” a whole new meaning, perhaps:

You didn’t have to be good at that subject or have it as your specialty or what you were certified in, but since I’m certified in special ed, I can teach all subjects.  I can teach any subject—I would just have to read up at night.  In 20__, I was teaching math, which is not my strength so I would just study at night.

            She explained how the Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) meeting, which determines the supports and services for the special needs child, more often worked to serve the needs of KIPP, rather than the special needs child:

When I talk about it, it’s scary because having experience in special ed…before I arrived at KIPP—that’s why I was hired—to make it to where it looked like we had a special ed program.  Let’s say if we had a student come in who had severe behavior problems, there were no counselors—I was the counselor.  Whatever need that the student had in his ARD meetings, I served as that person: a tutor, a small group instructor.  There is no small group instruction at KIPP, so basically what we would do is eliminate that modification or accommodation and tailor it to KIPP’s program. 

Parents would sometimes be told during ARD meetings that a requested service “is just not here, ma’am” or “we don’t have this.”  When asked what happened if the IEP did not fit the KIPP program, she said,   

We tailored the IEP to meet the KIPP program, therefore, we could remain in compliance.  But, let’s say the child was required 30 minutes of one-on-one instruction in math, well, we would just take that out and say we don’t offer 30 minutes of individual instruction in math—so we would just say no accommodation.  We would say ‘sit in front of the classroom,’ something that we had that could provide some type of help to that student, but it would not be what was required from the previous ARD at a different school. 

            How effective was this kind of program for special education students?  She said that special education students “were not successful,” and that “they didn’t stay very long.” When asked why she stayed on more than a year at this school, she said, 

I felt very bad for them.  Back to that question why did you stay, I did form a bond with some parents and some students, and I felt like if I left I would leave them.  And you kind of do get that feeling like you’re helping them somehow.  It’s like if you leave, then they’re gone.  They’re going to lose them.  Which I’m sure that that’s what happened to the few that I was very close to.

            This teacher remembered fondly the one success she recalled at KIPP, when she discovered a child was dyslexic and was able to devise some interventions for him that worked.  Most of her memories, however, were associated with the many lost weekends when she was recovering from her week of work at KIPP.

            Another teacher had also been hired to teach special education.  Since this KIPP school had previously used part-time special needs teachers from the district, she was the first full-time special education teacher at her KIPP school.  At the beginning of the school year during the faculty’s KIPPnotizing, she was inundated with information from “a giant binder” that the school leaders reviewed with new teachers, page by page.  Oddly, she found there was nothing at all about special education in the giant binder. 

No, no. I was asked later—I was asked to give a presentation to the staff about that, which I did, but at that point there was nothing that was specific to special education or to my role or how the gen ed teachers needed to be in compliance, either.

            She said, “they had no clue about what a special education teacher did or how to use me or anything at that point, but I was still involved in the entire training, which was good because I got a good understanding” [of the organization]. She found the status of KIPP’s special education students “horrific.” She said, “Their accommodations were not being met. Their IEPs were out of date.  It was just bad. It was shocking to me.”  She said the principal did not know about the “IEP process,” nor did she understand “compliance and the ramification of being out of compliance.” 

            This teacher had previously worked with severely emotionally-disturbed children, where she had two assistants most of the time, and at least one instructional assistant all of the time.  During her hiring interview at KIPP, she had asked “what sort of assistant situation would there be,” and the school leader replied that “we don’t do that,” but that if the need arose, it would be “something we can talk about” and “go from there.” 

            With approximately twenty special needs students in different classes, the need did, indeed, arise, but requests for an instructional assistant were denied. This teacher found herself stretched beyond her capacity to help students and to remain in compliance with state law:

Even if I were to hit all of those classes every period, I still couldn’t get to everyone, and what it turned out to be is, I would go in, make eye contact, make sure they were there and working, and then move on.  I was covering my butt in terms of fulfilling what the accommodations were.

            I began using a system where I had a sheet for every student in a binder, and I would go in and write the day and the time and my observation about what was happening with that student because if for some reason we had a litigious parent, I wanted to at least say I am doing this….So I wanted to do whatever I could….I wasn’t doing anything that those kids needed.  If someone had a meltdown or something like that while I was in the class, I could take care of it, and often students who are more disruptive due to attention difficulties and things like that, teachers would send them to me. So if I had students sent to me, that is great, but then I can’t roam around to all the classes…

            After several attempts to sway the school leader, this teacher stopped asking.  Around mid-year, however, a leadership shake-up ended with a new school leader being installed.  The new leader was a colleague who had previously served as a part-time teacher at the school, and she had neither teacher nor administrator certification.  The special education teacher tried again, this time focusing on “compliance, compliance, compliance,” but to no avail.  She was told by the new school leader, “no, we really can’t do that.”

            Another teacher said that IEPs were being met for reading and math students at her school, but not for other classes.  This teacher, however, focused her remarks on the absence of accommodations for the “English learning students” at her school, for whom, she said “there was absolutely nothing.”  When she talked at school about two core concepts for English learners, Basic Interpersonal Communications Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Capacity (CALP), she was met with “blank stares” from her colleagues:  “My coworkers had no idea what I was talking about, which is like Teaching English Learners 101….There wasn’t opportunity for English learners to practice oral language in a low stakes environment, and because there is so much whole class instruction, the opportunity just to talk was infrequent.”

            One former KIPP teacher who had no experience with or preparation for working with special needs children felt he was pressured out of his position at KIPP for expressing concerns and complaints regarding the treatment of special needs children in his class.  The situation involved his last class of the day, which he had trouble controlling.  The class began at 3:30 in the afternoon after 300 minutes of instruction and “all day of being silent.”  Fifteen of his 21 students had IEPs.  Even though the students “were receiving some access to special education resources” earlier in the day, this teacher had no assistance during this final period. 

            During a one-on-one meeting that the school leader had requested on Friday afternoon, he pointed out his lack of special education training, and he shared his concern that it could be “illegal to have so many special education students in one classroom because the law states they have to be educated in the least restrictive environment available to them.”  The school leader responded by asking him a series of rapid-fire questions:  what kind of structure he was providing, did he believe all children could succeed, if children were not successful, was it the fault of the child or the teacher, and “do you believe that students fail or teachers fail?” 

He felt cornered by the school leader “putting things in these dichotomies.”  He said he felt as though his answers were “digging my own grave.”  He was told that he would be observed every day of the next week.  In the meantime, the school leader suggested a book on classroom management.  Considering his mental state, his weight loss, and his stress-related alopecia, he decided that weekend he should cut his losses.  On Monday morning, he sent his resignation by email.  It was Labor Day, and he had been a KIPP teacher for six weeks.


Lemov, D.  (2010).  Teach like a champion:  49 techniques that put students on the path to college (K-12).  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Miron, G., Urshel, J., Mathis, W., & Tornquist, E.  (2010).  Schools without diversity: Educational management organizations, charter schools, and the demographic stratification of the American school system.  East Lansing, MI: The Great Lakes Center for Educational Research and Practice.  Retrieved from http://greatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/Miron_Diversity.pdf

Miron, G., Urshel, J., & Saxton, N.  (2011).  What makes KIPP work: Study of student characteristics, attrition, and school finance.  New York: National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.  Retrieved from http://www.ncspe.org/readrel.php?set=pub&cat=253

Weber, M., & Rubin, J.  (2014).  New Jersey charter schools: A data-driven view, part 1.  Rutgers Graduate School of Education.  Retrieved from http://www.saveourschoolsnj.org/save/corefiles/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NJ-Charter-School-Report_10.29.2014.pdf


  1. Anonymous9:58 PM

    The most crucial ingredient in successful teaching is compassion. Atypical learners are in need of more, not less compassion.

    Abigail Shure

  2. "After several attempts to sway the school leader, this teacher stopped asking. Around mid-year, however, a leadership shake-up ended with a new school leader being installed. The new leader was a colleague who had previously served as a part-time teacher at the school, and she had neither teacher nor administrator certification. The special education teacher tried again, this time focusing on “compliance, compliance, compliance,” but to no avail. She was told by the new school leader, “no, we really can’t do that.”"

    So let me get that straight: this certain KIPP school's equivalent of a principal --- "school leader" --- had ZERO certification, either as a teacher or as a school administrator?


    1. In KIPP Model schools, it is commonplace to have "school leaders" who are veterans of TFA with no experience or credentials in school administration.

  3. Anonymous7:30 PM

    I worked in a KIPP school with 300 students. (Middle school) There was 1 special ed teacher and she pulled out the few kids that actually had IEP's. There is something else that needs to be considered when you look into this situation: Special ed teachers are not very common compared to the tens of thousands of regular ed teachers. With such a small amount of special ed teachers currently working, why would they be insane enough to work in a KIPP school? Special ed teachers can pick and choose which decent school systems they would like to work i

    1. Having plenty of special ed teachers would probably not stop the reluctance by KIPP Model schools to hire them. KIPP does not want special ed students who bring down school performance scores. That's what the Miron research shows, as well as others.

  4. Anonymous11:27 AM

    As a former KIPP teacher, I'd like to contact you to share my experience. How can I contact you?

    1. my email address: ontogenyx@gmail.com