I got my copy of Work Hard. Be Nice. yesterday and decided I'd better plow through it as quickly as possible. It is a pleasant enough read, but doesn't answer many questions for me. I really need the next book about KIPP, which Mathews is working on, covering KIPP's expansion. This volume focuses on the early days, in fact it seems like most of the book is about the days when the KIPP founders, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, aren't even running a whole school.
They seem like great teachers, but there are lots of great teachers and reading about teachers is like reading about a rock band. A description of the performance only takes you so far. What makes their system work? You won't really learn that in this book. I was somewhat relieved that all the characters in the book are very familiar types. They aren't aliens. But then again, if they aren't so different than people I know, what explains KIPP's success?
It seems to me that Feinberg and Levin were the leading edge of educators that, from the beginning, accepted without dissonance that test scores were the measure of their success. Reading this book is helpful in getting into the headspace of this generation of reformers. This is the wave that stopped asking first "What is the purpose of school?" and just said "How can we get these scores up?" And they and their system thrive under that incentive, and then people like Jay Mathews have a clear benchmark for saying "these are the best schools."
Put in specific terms, Feinberg reminds me a lot of J.H., a former teacher at Feinstein. Same unstoppable macho mother-bear thing. Similar learning collaboration with an older female teacher, high standards, same big year-end trips, etc. The difference is J.H. didn't give a damn about test scores. Not that he was any less focused on his kids learning. He, and most of the rest of us, just didn't think the tests were very important or a necessarily valid measure of what our kids knew and were able to do. So our scores weren't as high as they could have been. I can imagine a test score focused J.H. Picturing that juggernaut is a little frightening, frankly. But I can see how it would work, and that's how I picture the genesis of KIPP.
Anyhow, I'm not worried about KIPP schools themselves. They seem like extreme data-driven parochial schools with ex-TFA-ers playing the role of highly energetic nuns. There are many, many worse things to be, especially if you're an urban middle school. I wouldn't send my kid there, but if my neighbor said "My kid got into the new KIPP school," I'd say "Good news!" Make of that what you will.
What does worry me is the political matrix that KIPP is embedded within. Is what is good for KIPP good for all schools? Trips, both local and national, are a big part of KIPP culture. That's great, but none of Providence's last four reforming superintendents has brought in a program to take kids on trips. I don't get the feeling that KIPP supporters will be pushing for a tax increase to fund field trips for all students. There is a lot of conflict with administrators in the book, but when you step back, what are they fighting about? Space! Nobody in administration (or philanthropy) seems that worried about their program -- they just don't have space for it. So, you might imagine that people supporting KIPP-style reform would be pushing for more school construction in public schools to make more space to accommodate alternative programs. I wouldn't hold my breath for that. KIPP schools don't take in new students at higher grade levels. Would you pay more so that every school could have that advantage? Or, stating it as an example: a federal program to ensure every kid in the country who needs glasses has them = bad; a philanthropic gift to ensure all KIPP-sters who need glasses have them = good! At least that's how it reads from my point of view.