Jay Mathews’ Cheap Shots at Former KIPP Teacher Backfire Badly
by Jim Horn
It was back in March 2018 that I sent Jay a link to my article about Jessica Marks’s KIPP teaching experiences, and he wrote back saying “I will check it out.” Obviously, it took KIPP some months to come up with a response, which Mathews used as a basis for spinning an attack against Jessica in the pages of the Washington Post.
Jay Mathews sent me an email last month on the eve of Winter Recess, with a draft story for his Washington Post education column. The story consisted of KIPP’s defense of the unethical and abusive practices against former KIPP Austin teacher, Jessica Marks. Jessica was also a recipient of the email, and Jay offered us 6 days to respond to “factual errors” in his piece.
Jessica, I found out, was away from work and away home when Jay emailed us both his finished draft. Even so, she did manage to find a wi-fi hot spot to respond to his severely flawed article about her horrific KIPP experiences. I responded as well, even though Jay ignored most of my efforts to clean up some of the slime oozing from his draft.
Before I share my response to Mathews’ column published January 5, I have to say something about the belittling and demeaning tone of the column. Mathews’ dismissive demeaning of my work I am accustomed to, but before these last two weeks I had not witnessed Mathews’ obvious delight in sliming an individual who has already suffered mightily as a result of KIPP’s amoral ideology, dehumanizing methods, and hard-fisted administrative practices. Obviously, Mathews and KIPP fear the fearless, and Jessica’s courage in stepping forward with her story sets a precedent that the multi-billion-dollar charter chaingangs would rather nip in the bud. Sorry, corporate KIPPsters—Jessica is one of many brave souls whose stories will be shared.
Mathews’ imperious callousness toward KIPP’s victims and his lack of empathy for the uncounted KIPP teachers and students who the KIPP organization has used, abused, and discarded still remains the most remarkable aspect of his weird attraction to KIPP’s miseducative reform school experiment. His lack of caring in his column is palpable, and the utter lack of curiosity about how the brutal No Excuses KIPP model now affects and will affect children and adults into the future is remarkable and shameful, especially for an education writer who would know better if he were not blinded by a mysterious devotion to what could pass for a corporate cult.
Mathews' continued excuse-making for an organization that accepts no excuses from those that KIPP destroys is mind-boggling to me, even as it is exactly what I have come to expect from him. Mathews has been spinning for KIPP for long time, and his loyalty to KIPP's billionaire patrons has earned for him many royalties.
The Mathews column is below. My comments on Mathews’ column are interspersed, indented, and italicized.
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.
All the teachers I interviewed for my book requested anonymity at the time the book was published in 2016, and I respect that. It’s not unusual for research participants to remain anonymous, which offers some advantages in terms of candor and authenticity, while protecting those who fear further victimization from the perpetrators of their misfortune. Jessica is the first of those research participants to step forward to share her story publicly her identity since the book was published.
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.
If not for Teach for America and the alternative certification knock-offs that TFA has inspired, KIPP, with its brutal teacher attrition rates, could not stay in business. As for the “great educators,” TFA provides its recruits, which it spends millions of dollars in PR to “attract,” four weeks for instant “developing” before they are dumped into some of the most challenging classrooms in America. The average KIPP life expectancy for a teacher is two years, and KIPP strenuously tries to hide the real attrition numbers, as noted here.
Even by Mathews’ admission, KIPP teachers who have not developed to suit KIPP by the holiday break of their first year are most often fired.
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.
As for interviews with teachers, Mathews has never published one, either positive or negative, either anonymous or named, either before or after his celebratory book about KIPP written over 10 years ago. He did talk a great deal to Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg for his book, even though he has since distanced himself from Mike Feinberg, since Feinberg was booted by KIPP in 2018 for allegedly sexually abusing a KIPP middle school girl and for sexual harassment of a KIPP employee. Of the KIPP founders, Feinberg and Levin, Mathews said, “They are terrific interviews. Turn on the tape recorder and the book is already written.”
When I asked Mathews where I could find those interviews with “hundreds of KIPP teachers and administrators” to which he refers, Mathews referred me to the KIPP employees’ names in the index of his celebratory book about the KIPP founders—the one he wrote over 10 years ago. No transcripts, no published interviews, no nothing, not even any extensive quoting.
In one of Mathews’ many rejoinders to skeptical readers of his published column, he even falsely claims to have interviewed Jessica Marks. This is a lie of Trumpian proportion.
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.
Jessica had been one of three county finalists for First Year Teacher Award back in Arizona.
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.
According to KIPP’s own projections, Jessica’s students were on track to pass the annual STAAR, which was to be given in the Spring. All of her SPED students actually passed the first Interim Assessment.
Jessica’s larger problem with her principal, Kevin, began after he took over her first period class for two weeks in November. Kevin taught 8 lessons, and he taught the Iliad to Hispanic 8th graders with marginal English skills, who complained that he had taught them the same material the previous year when Kevin filled in for one of the three English teachers who left before the end of the year.
Jessica said that Kevin told her explicityly to take the lesson he was teaching first period and, throughout the rest of the day, “to make it my own.”
At the end of the eight first-period class sessions that he taught, Kevin put together a test that required students to recall the actual words that he used during those first period classes. He insisted that Jessica use the same test with her other classes, even though he had told her to teach the lesson in her own words, rather than parroting what he had exactly said.
This was Kevin’s set-up that initiated Jessica’s downfall.
A couple of days after the test, which significant numbers of Jessica’s students predictaby failed because the students had not heard to exact terminology on the test that Kevin had used during first period, Kevin presented her with an evaluation rubric that scored her as a 1.5 out of 4.0. Among the various shortcomings marked up on the checklist, Kevin noted that Jessica provided an “unsafe environment” by not immediately correcting students who were whispering in her classes. When she asked how this could construed as “unsafe,” she was told that the students could be bullying one another—even though Kevin admitted he did not hear what any the students were whispering.
Jessica was given just a few work days (until December 19) to bring her evaluation score up from 1.5 to a 3.0. During those following days, applicants for her position paraded in and out of her classes, and she was subjected to ongoing video surveillance and other forms of harassment, such as notes left on her desk that said, “You’re still not getting it.”
Then, even the brief time that Jessica was given to improve was cut short without explanation. Kevin announced to Jessica on December 17 that she was fired. Jessica told me recently in an email:
When I was fired, he [Kevin] rounded up all of the other teachers into a meeting to discuss it and to isolate me further. I was told I was never again welcome at the school and that if I should need to speak to anyone, I should call the HR department, as I should not even call the school ever again.
The day after my termination, they had a big assembly about my firing, letting the kids know what happened. I was told by my friend that the kids were very upset, but that Kevin had said something like, I had to let her go because you deserve the best, and Ms. Marks let you down. One of the kids piped up, “why did you fire her when we were the problem?” He ignored the question.
Over a year later, Jessica returned to Austin, at which time she did visit the KIPP Austin’s HR Department:
I went back to the HR department at KIPP because I needed them to sign some form for my student loans, and they were not answering on the phone or through email. I stood in their little space, next to a tall, full-size filing cabinet marked "TERMINATIONS". Each drawer was labeled with a school year on it. The year I was fired, 2013 - 2014 had two drawers. How can any district [with 11 small schools] have so many terminations in a single year that it would need two full drawers?? I think the Universe wanted me to see that drawer so that I would not feel alone.
According to his LinkedIn page, Kevin Newman has moved up in the KIPP organization since Jessica’s brief tenure at KIPP. He now is Director of the prestigious Fisher Fellowship, which recruits new KIPP administrators who will now learn from Kevin and the instructors he hires how to be a KIPP CEO.
By the way, the teacher that Kevin hired to replace Jessica quit after one day. The rest of the year Kevin taught Jessica’s eight grade English class.
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.
If KIPP is replacing teachers who don’t fit the KIPP model in December before the first semester is over, why is Mathews talking about a 2-3-year probationary period? Contractually, KIPP teachers can be fired at any moment for any reason—whether or not that reason is shared with the fired teacher. KIPP’s bottom line is measured in test scores, which are extracted from children by whatever means necessary. If that means the dehumanization of and callous disregard for the welfare of both teachers and students, then so be it.
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.
This is a quote from the the interview I conducted with Jessica in 2014:
. . . we had really old kids in eighth grade. I had two kids that were 16 years old in eighth grade. And one turned 17 while she was in first semester. She turned 17. And most of my kids, at some point, had been retained. So a majority of my kids were 15 years-old in eighth grade. Like, they [KIPP] started the kids in fifth grade, and there’s always fewer eighth graders than fifth graders. But they weren’t brand new to KIPP. So a lot of these kids had been retained at KIPP. Some of them had been retained before. I had a lot of old kids.
KIPP is free to tell whatever tale they think the their Washington Post education writer will print, but I have the transcribed interviews that detail the grisly specifics of Jessica’s and other teachers’ hellish schedules.
Of the 20 teachers at Jessica’s KIPP school, she was never the first to arrive or the last to leave. KIPP knows that, and KIPP also knows about the lack of textbooks that requires teachers to photocopy lessons. KIPP knows teachers must arrive early or stay late to access one of the two photocopy machines at the school. KIPP also knows about the heavy doses of staff development after school, regular required parent nights, bulletin board redos, exit tickets and other bookkeeping minutiae, and student tutoring after school that required teachers to regularly stay late and/or arrive early. And then there is the homework, lesson planning, grading, and let’s not forget being on-call after hours until 9 PM.
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.”
First, what teacher who has signed a contract for the year leaves at semester break, unless she is under duress? Secondly, if KIPP did, indeed, have 31 “staffers,” only 20 of those staffers were teachers. Did Mathews ask KIPP how many “staffers” at the school were not teachers? Of course not. Thirdly, the 60 percent retention rate that KIPP admits would seem to support everything that Jessica has pointed out about the unsustainable job of teaching at KIPP.
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.
Billionaires buying research for their favorite paternalistic social control projects is nothing new. James Anderson's book on education of blacks in the South following the Civil War reminds us that it was white philanthropists who were the crucial backers of the dehumanizing Hampton Model of schooling, which sought to acquire from black citizens “complicity in their own subjugation” as second-class citizens who would work hard and be nice. Everyone from James Eastman to Andrew Carnegie to Rutherford B. Hayes supported the Hampton Model of indoctrination and miseducation for blacks.
Mathematica has collected at least $5 million from The Atlantic Philanthropies, and then there's KIPP's own payment of $1.2 million to Mathematica to “verify” KIPP data. At the end of the Acknowledgements in each of the numerous and ongoing Mathematica research papers that Mathematica posts without benefit of peer review, Mathematica includes something like this, which can be found in the final 2013 Report:
Finally, the study and this report benefited greatly from input at various stages from Danielle Eisenberg, Jonathan Cowan, and Steve Mancini at the KIPP Foundation, as well as Carrie Hahnel at The Education Trust—West, Ila Deshmukh Towery at TNTP [The New Teacher Project], and Jason Atwood at Teach For America.
KIPP’s method for “choosing and training teachers” was institutionalized long before the venture philanthropists paid for the “independent research” to which Mathews refers. The KIPP corporate methods were chosen because they are consistent with the “no excuses” paternalistic corporate model of segregating and controlling the children of the poor. The KIPP Model represents a conscious attempt to neurologically alter and culturally sterilize children, rather than spending money to end child poverty or to implement a schooling model that will improve equity, diversity, and achievement at the same time.
If you look at the determined resistance among parents on New York’s Upper West Side to KIPP’s recently announced plan to open a “diverse”KIPP school there, you will see that thinking people know the swindle that the big money investors, hedge funders, and the corporate paternalists are trying to sell—and they are not buying it anymore.
In 20 years, KIPP will have been added to the dustbin of bad education ideas and labeled as a prime paternalistic example of racist corporate colonialism applied to public education in the early 21st Century. KIPP and Jay Mathews are on the wrong side of history.
I hope readers will go to Mathews’ column and check out the many insightful comments by readers there, most of whom are skeptical, disgusted, or appalled at Mathews’ unguarded abuse of his position of power to go after a former KIPP teacher should have long ago received, at minimum, an apology from KIPP.