Friday, May 29, 2009

Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America (non-fiction book) by Jay Mathews

If I remember right, I found out about this book on Unshelved's website - it was during one of their book-a-day weeks, and the book's banner caught my eye.

Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin were in Teach for America and not happy with their teaching skills. One of them noticed an experienced teacher, Harriett Ball, who somehow managed to captivate and teach students and control her classroom. Eventually both Feinberg and Levin observed Ball teach and began getting pointers from her. They used some of the things she taught them, plus things they'd learned from another teacher named Esquith, plus their own trial and error, to successfully improve their students' test scores and control their classrooms. They didn't want to stop there, however - they knew just one good year wasn't enough for their students, any students. Plus, although they'd accomplished quite a bit, they knew they could do better.

Together, Feinberg and Levin began something they eventually called KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program). The primary features of KIPP were longer school days, more school days (some Saturdays, shorter summers), home visits (especially good for establishing strong relationships with the parents and demonstrating that they cared about their students), and making themselves available at all hours for homework questions. They practiced zero tolerance of bullying and other classroom disruptions, made sure everyone participated in class, and required their students to finish all their homework. They rewarded students who behaved and followed the rules with field trips that they, as low-income, at-risk students, would likely never have experienced in a non-KIPP class.

Although Feinberg and Levin's efforts produced impressive and measurable results (much higher test scores), they often faced opposition. Feinberg and Levin could be pushier than some administrators liked, and not everyone appreciated the extended school hours they believed were essential to the success of their students. Some believed that their classroom disciplinary measures sometimes went over the top and could potentially be considered abusive. Eventually, tired of never being sure if they would be given the space and freedom they needed, Feinberg and Levin found the funding they needed to establish their own KIPP schools. Most KIPP students were low-income, at-risk students. KIPP teachers were the best they could find, paid more than most public school teachers because of the long school days and 24-hour availability. There were still those who criticized KIPP, but the author of this book argues that, whatever KIPP's weaknesses (student retention is not always very good, for instance), it's still better at economically disadvantaged students than any other program or school in the nation. (I suppose I should have used the present tense in this paragraph, since KIPP is still around and, according to its website, going strong.)

For the most part, Mathews tells the story of Feinberg, Levin, and the creation of KIPP in chronological order. One of the things that bothered me was that he shook things up just enough that it was sometimes hard to figure out what was supposed to be happening when, and to whom. It didn't help that, for a good chunk of the book, Feinberg and Levin weren't even teaching in the same city - Mathews would write a bit about one person, and then move on to the other.

I also wasn't always a big fan of Mathews's writing style. It was fine when he was just describing events, but it felt too straightforward when he tried writing about Feinberg and Levin's personal lives. Also, this was probably unintentional, but all the more personal information about who was dating whom (one of the earliest KIPP teachers was, if I remember correctly, Feinberg's on-again-off-again girlfriend) made KIPP seem a bit inbred and soap opera-ish.

It wouldn't surprise me if any person who has had a good education could name at least a few teachers who had a big impact upon them. I believe teachers play a big part in a student's academic success - a "good school" can't be a good school if it doesn't have good teachers, and a "bad school" might only be bad because its teachers aren't good and/or don't put enough effort into helping their students succeed. Although this doesn't mean that all my other teachers were bad, I can really only name three teachers who had a huge positive impact on me - two were art teachers, one was a math teacher. They cared about their students, loved their subjects, and had high expectations of their students. I remember my math teacher starting our first day of class by telling us that she had been given a packet of our previous math ability assessment scores (or something to that effect) - and then she told us she threw those things out. Had she depended upon the information she was given, I would probably have done long division for the third year in a row. Instead, I learned algebra and actually started to like math.

I imagine Levin, Feinberg, and other KIPP teachers have also been the sorts of teachers their students will remember years later. I'm still not sure if I agree with KIPP's focus on test scores and college prep. College is not very everyone and is no guarantee of success. Also, focusing too much on standardized test scores can result in classes that miss out on the things that aren't on tests. It's a little difficult to tell, but it seems like KIPP might have managed to avoid some of the drawbacks of test score focus (you can see a little of what KIPP classes are like on their website - but of course their website is going to show them at their best) - the book mentions a KIPP orchestra, and KIPP students seem capable of applying what they learn outside of their classrooms and tests. Still, it made me a little uncomfortable.

Overall, this was a fascinating book. Mathews opinion of KIPP was a little too glowing for my tastes - he makes an effort to write about what some of KIPP's detractors have said, but then goes on to say that nothing those people have said has any basis in fact. He might've been telling the truth, but he seemed too enamored with KIPP for me to feel comfortable trusting him at his word. Also, although Mathews talked to some of KIPP's successful former (and current?) students, who mention that KIPP was tough but worth it, I don't think he ever included any comments made by those for whom KIPP did not help. At one point, Feinberg or Levin (I can't remember which one) accidentally humiliated a student more than he intended with one of his disciplinary actions - how is that student doing today? It's something that never comes up.

  • Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire: the Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 (non-fiction book) by Rafe Esquith - In this book, Esquith, one of the teachers who inspired Feinberg and Levin, discusses the teaching methods he has used in his own 5th grade classes.
  • Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America (non-fiction book) by Donna Foote - Foote, a freelance journalist and former Newsweek correspondent, follows four Teach for American corps members through a single school year at Locke High School in Los Angeles. Those who found the descriptions of Feinberg and Levin's time in Teach for America interesting might want to try this. This book may also appeal to those interested in something else about attempts at education reform.
  • Escalante: The Best Teacher in America (non-fiction book) by Jay Mathews - If you've seen the movie Stand and Deliver, you probably already know who Escalante is. Mathews traces Escalante's teaching career from its start in Bolivia to his to his inspirational success teaching calculus and other mathematics courses to low income, high risk students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. Those who'd like another "inspirational educator" book by Mathews might want to try this.

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