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

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Surviving "No Excuses" Teaching: The Emily Kennedy Talmage Experience

During the coming months, I will publish more personal and professional accounts of former "no excuses" charter school teachers.  Unlike the anonymous accounts in my 2016 book, the teachers offering their "no excuses" histories for this upcoming series will be stepping out of the shadows to let the world see the real faces of educators who have survived the "no excuses" gauntlet.  

I invite any former "no excuses" charter teachers to contact me if you have a story you need to share with parents and teachers who may be considering the charter school option: james.horn@cambridgecollege.edu

Today the "no excuses" KIPP Model remains the paternalist billionaires' charter school choice for segregating and indoctrinating urban children whose parents relinquish their children's childhoods and suffer years of repeated indignities for a chance at an education that may lead to college, even though KIPP's "no excuses" model amounts to a punitive regimen of unceasing test prep and behavioral neutering more suited to penal institutions. 

KIPP's total compliance-and-surveillance model of schooling has inspired a number of high-flying knock-offs like Brooklyn Ascend and its two sister schools in Brooklyn, which use KIPP's chain gang methods to denigrate, demean, and capture the spirits of kids, all in the twisted and debased name of equal educational opportunity for children who are victims of poverty.  Social justice in blackface is the only adequate way to describe this caricature of equal education.

Parents and the general public know little of what goes in these corporate madrassas.  Only in recent years have former KIPP Model teachers begun to step forward to share their sometimes-hellish experiences in these schools. 

The first to give permission to use her name was Emily Kennedy Talmage, and it wasn't until she read the "tremendously disturbing" book by Ascend's founder, Stephen Wilson, entitled "Learning on the Job: When Business Takes on Public Education," that her unsettled feelings about Brooklyn Ascend began to come into sharp focus.  In Emily's initial email to me, she said that "my experience at Brooklyn Ascend has been nothing less than depressing, demoralizing, and at times even shockingly upsetting."

As we were arranging an interview, she sent me this email with some of those disturbing details as her year at Brooklyn Ascend was winding down:

Just so you know a little bit more about what I have experienced at Brooklyn Ascend, here are some highlights from my year:
  • In December, after giving our third graders a mock exam and realizing that their test scores were not looking very good, our administrators decided to do a third-grade "restart," in which they rearranged the classes and schedules so that the lowest performing "scholars" were all in one class (my class).  [Emily was hired as special needs teacher.]
  • Third grade teachers were required to return to work over Christmas break (including New Years Eve) for special "training" in "Teach Like a Champion" techniques [the book by Doug Lemov that has replaced teacher preparation and professional development in these chain gangs].  During this training, a lady named Sue Welch from "Building Excellent Teachers" instructed us on what our first day back with the kids would look like:  four hours (8-12pm) of teaching nothing but procedures.  When I asked if perhaps we should do something to make it at least a little more "fun," she told me that fun was absolutely not an "appropriate objective."   
  • In order to boost test scores, science, social studies, and Spanish were removed from the schedule of the low-performing group.  Instead, we were required to teach an additional reading and math block during this time.
  • Scholars [the word that has replaced children] in the low-performing group were required to attend after-school-tutoring sessions for more test prep.  So, after going to school from 7:30 to 4:30, they needed to stay an extra hour for more test prep - in addition to completing the hour of homework that we are required to give each night.  (8 year olds!!)  Needless to say, I had many kids falling asleep in class and having frequent stomach aches.  Our school director - a TFA grad - thought that if we brought more of the "j-factor" to our classroom (joy factor) that they would be more motivated.  To him and other Doug Lemov zealots, this means doing cheers like "Pick of your pencil and YOU WILL BE REWARDED!" in between long independent work sessions. . . .
  • Small-group guided reading (when we were once able to choose books that the kids would really enjoy) was replaced with small-group test-preparation sessions, where teachers were given scripted lessons and packets that mimic the reading comprehension portion of the New York State test.  
  • All lessons from February break onward were based on specific skills that our "data analyst" determined for us by looking at results from the mock exams.  
  • During the testing weeks, we had "pep-rallies" each morning in which they kids had to do chants about how they were going to ace the tests.  

I could go on.  I am so angry that this is what our country is allowing education to become.  

Here and here and here are the links to the rest of Emily's story


  1. KIPP= Kids In Prison Programs. Sorry to say, but a lot of these awful practices occur in public schools, too (packets, mock exams, pep rallies, removal of classes, the "offer" of extra tutoring after school). Test prep is abundant in public districts with high test scores......at least the teacher's unions make sure that the teachers aren't abused.

  2. Anonymous6:31 PM

    I provided a very long anonymous comment on your blog last year about my 2 years working in KIPP hellhole. It was the most depressing school I have ever seen for both students, staff, and parents. I worked there 11 years ago. I recently checked the school website where I was not shocked to see that literally only 2 teachers are still currently working there. The principal now works for the KIPP foundation. I would love to share more of my experience in regard to formally working there. However, I am only willing to do it without giving my name. I have no doubt that KIPP might try in the future to mess with former teachers who speak out against them. (I have even read that the people who started KIPP met with ex-army personnel to learn about discipline and school management techniques.) KIPP is a well funded machine based on fear. I am delighted that word is getting out on how horrible they really are.


  3. Teachers in all schools must remind themselves EVERY day:
    There is some shit I will not eat.
    e.e. cummings

    Emily's observations hit very hard. Eons ago, I, too, taught 3rd grade in school (a public school) where lowest readers were rigorously confined together. Although I was appalled by this practice, I soon said "hoorah!" b/c I could make school day a joyful experience for kids who were so beaten down every-which-way in school. My colleagues were appalled by my classroom. I anticipated a showdown when the district monitor was due to make official observation of my teaching class on specific page of the basal (ALL 3rd graders in the district were supposed to be on the specified pages all year). I was the only teacher in the district who refused to use the basal. Funny thing: the kids got it out when they wanted to "play school." At the last minute the monitor wasn't able to come. Ha. Ha. My principal, who cheerfully looked the other way, did the official observation in his stead. One of those third graders, a deaf child in public school for the first time, invited me to her 50th birthday party--and I drove 500 miles to attend. God, 50 years old. I mention it to note that the academic abuse of children is an old rite. but what Emily describes is too ugly to fathom.