Why I like KIPP — or it’s instructional methods at least

Two months ago, I had my first opportunity to visit a school based on the KIPP / Knowledge Is Power Program, and after three hours of hearing about its methods and observing their effectiveness, I went to teach my community college history class with new conviction — no foolishness.

When Charlie nodded off in the back of the room, I walked over to his seat and told him to wake up — or leave the class. When Cheryl took out her cell phone and started reading a text — a clear violation of rules I’d established on the first day — I walked over to her and put out my hand. She got the hint, gave me the phone, and noted that I put it at the front of my desk, where it stayed for the rest of the period.

Before observing KIPP methods in action, I might have ignored Charlie’s nap — motivated by a desire to not embarrass either of us. As for Cheryl’s phone, I might have just told her to put it away — or ignored it as well. After all, the class was almost over, and the girl had given me a sob story about a recent illness.

The following week, distressed by how poorly my 20-odd students had done on a simple test, I told them of my visit to the KIPP-like school and wrote its SLANT rules up on the board.

Sit up straight             Look and listen             Ask questions             Nod your head (when you understand)            Track the teacher with your eyes

I told them where the rules came from and that they’d be enforced in our classroom as well. Since then, marks have not much improved, but self-discipline has.

Like a lot of other teachers, I’d tended to ignore behavior that got in the way of learning. My students are legally adults, after all. At 20, they should know better. In class I’d often cited the correlation between students who paid close attention, did homework — and got good marks. But few changed their habits in response to my sermons.

A somewhat similar story is told in Work Hard, Be Nice, a 2009 book subtitled “How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America,” which was written by Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews. A decade after the two teachers — Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg — had started their now widely lauded KIPP schools, one of them was called in to address the problems of a failing, sixth-grade math teacher at a school in New York City.

Though well-educated and well-recommended, this young teacher was a poor manager and motivator. After just three months, his students had already fallen behind. Had his principal been at a regular public school, as Mathews wrote, she would likely have called him in for a pep talk and sent him to observe some veterans. And, if he hadn’t learned to be more effective at the end of his probationary period, she might have let him go (or let someone else hire him).

But this was KIPP. That approach would not work for them. This principal called in Dave Levin for some help. Levin’s first task was to do some quick behavior mod with the classroom troublemaker, which he did in private while the regular teacher kept the others in the hall. Having secured the problem child’s cooperation, Levin had the rest of the class return — and for the next 40 minutes he had two-dozen students focusing intently on long division.

First he got their attention with a brief introduction; “no whining” he said when they responded languidly to his initial greeting. The students took note: authority was in charge. Then he moved on to the lesson. “Okay,” he said, “I am missing one person’s eyes.”

Levin cajoled, inspired, persuaded every child to participate, and reminded them that “smiling keeps your brain awake.” A great salesman, instantly responsive when he knew the class was not following him, Levin employed all the tricks he’d learned over a dozen years. He stimulated them with a challenge, kept their names straight, wrote a mistake on the board, and kept reminding them “eyes up, please.” Though the teacher Levin had come in to help had taken copious notes, it was soon clear that he was meant for something other than being a KIPP teacher, so he was transferred out of the classroom and encouraged to find another line of work.

Having known of KIPP for several years, I was somewhat surprised at my own reaction to its methods: that once seeing them in action at a Trenton high school one morning, I would be employing them myself that afternoon. As a staunch supporter of public education, I was suspicious of charter schools to begin with and tended to distrust KIPP’s reports of vastly improved test scores. Too authoritarian. And likely good at teaching to the test,  manipulating results, and self-promotion.

Nevertheless, I got a copy of Mathews’s book and started reading it. Soon, I was sold.  Several years of teaching community college students in Chicago and New Jersey have convinced me of a couple things: (1) Poor self-discipline is the major cause of poor performance, and (2) teachers — myself included — are more inclined to complain about students’ lax attitude toward learning than doing something about it.  In sum, I’m thinking that the most cost-effective means of improving performance in troubled urban schools would be for teachers unions to start urging their members to adopt as many KIPP methods as they can. I’ve already begun doing so with my community college colleagues.


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