Why I Stopped Teaching Like a Champion

A former KIPP teacher in New Orleans finds her voice

I was never much of a champion, to be honest. KIPP defines a successful teacher as someone who keeps children quiet, teaches children how to answer each question on a test composed of arbitrary questions, and then produces high scores on this test. Mind you, I was teaching Pre-K and then kindergarten at a KIPP school in New Orleans—and these were still the metrics by which I was being evaluated. Since my definition of a successful early childhood classroom looked very different from silence and test prep, I had to figure out how to survive. I lasted three years.

Exit ticket
By year three it had become very, very difficult for me to hide my disdain for the way the school was managed. In the previous two years, I’d fought hard for the adoption of a play-based early childhood curriculum, only to see it systematically dismantled by our 25-year old assistant principal. When this administrator told us that our student test scores would be higher if we used direct instruction, worksheets and exit tickets to check for their understanding, I lost my shit. I’m sorry, but five year olds don’t learn that way.

I was fired a week later. Well, to be fair, I was told that I *wasn’t a good fit*—most likely because I talked about things like poverty and trauma and brain development, and also because at that point I knew significantly more about early childhood education and what young children actually needed to grow and develop than the administrators who ran the school. And that made me a threat.

How did I survive as long as I did? During my time at KIPP, I made a point of seeking out other critically-minded educators. I met veteran teachers through the United Teachers of New Orleans and new teachers interested in educational justice through the New Teachers’ Roundtable. I also read as much as I could about how teaching can and should be. Critical pedagogy, liberatory education, anti-bias curriculum—you name it, I was reading it. And while it was nearly impossible for me to implement anything I was learning, my mindset was shifting.

I also channeled my energy into working with teachers, families, students and community groups to resist corporate school reform in all of its machinations. I also spoke truth, as I saw it, to my bosses at KIPP. If I had to be a shitty teacher at KIPP, I wasn’t going down without a fight.

Control issues
And the truth is that I was a shitty teacher at KIPP. For one thing I was a terrible disciplinarian. I couldn’t control the kids the way that my administrators wanted me to. There was a lot of chaos in my classroom, and a lot of yelling—because I was so confused and frustrated. As I quickly found out, you can basically only control kids in the KIPP way if you never question the value of control. The kids sensed my doubt and chaos ensued. And chaos was inevitably followed by my yelling.

Ironically, now that I’m teaching 3rd grade English at one of the few remaining traditional public schools in New Orleans, I’m much stricter than I ever was at KIPP. For example, every night my students answer an open-ended question in their journals for homework. When they come to class the next day, a few of them share what they wrote and get feedback from their peers. Their courageous honesty leads to incredible discussions about bullying, and gender roles, racism and deep dark fears of all sorts. But I recognize that my strictness makes those conversations possible. I’m super, super strict about how to listen respectfully, and about how important it is to take turns giving feedback. I’ve discovered that it’s actually very easy to be strict when you deeply believe that what you’re requiring kids to do is for their own good and for the good of the community.

Letting go
As I’ve let go of the priorities KIPP set for me, it’s been liberating to define my own values and priorities according to what makes sense for my classroom and my students. I started the year giving tests sporadically but I’ve given those up completely. Formal assessments don’t give me any new information, and they only serve to make kids who’ve already been disenfranchised by the schooling process feel even more frustrated. And I no longer plan formal units. Instead I define some general themes—last semester we explored self, family and community—now we’re learning about the history of African-Americans, starting in Africa and working our way to the present through literature, poetry and essays. I let the kids’ interests determine what we zoom in on.

I also expect my students to read independently any time they have a free moment. I’ve built a library of culturally-relevant picture books and graphic novels and chapter books, and by literally making them read at the beginning of the year, have been able to create a culture of reading. I’d say that the majority of my kids have come to realize that reading is really awesome and they voluntarily read all the time now.

One of my goals as a teacher is to create and facilitate a space where we all care for each other. How I handle things in the classroom needs to reflect this priority. So my students and I stop and talk about things—a lot. Somewhere along the line I developed this radical idea that children are humans who should be treated with dignity, and that the classroom should, ideally, be a place they’d want to be even if schooling weren’t compulsory. This idea that my students are human beings with thoughts and feelings, and that these thoughts and feelings should be at the center of what I do in the classroom, comes from my mentors here in New Orleans and is a radical shift from the silence and test prep that rule at KIPP.

Rebecca Radding came to New Orleans as a Teach for America corps member. She currently teaches third grade English at Benjamin Franklin Elementary Mathematics and Science School.

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45 Comments

  1. Thank you for challenging the KIPP chain of obedience schools. Ironic side note: I went through a number of rounds of interviews with a KIPP school in Chicago when TFA was trying to place me for my first year. During my final interview with the Director/Principal at this school I was told that it was extremely rare for that KIPP school to hire a first-year TFA. I was advised by this person to teach somewhere else for 2-years for my TFA experience, and then come back to see them if I still wanted to teach. That’s pretty rich coming from KIPP, as they were founded by TFA alums and the current head of KIPP is married to Wendy Kopp.

    Regarding your post: We all know that there is no place for critical thinkers in a “globally competitive labor market”. As today’s “pragmatic” voices now dominate the public discourse through near-universal mainstream media control, the role of school has been reduced to being exclusively for job prep. It’s become completely normal in America to have the opinion, “You can’t make any money with a history degree!”

    The “college for all” narrative that is being used to indoctrinate ALL students on the purpose if school goes, “Do well in school so you can go to a good college and get a good job.” The corporate class has no desire to raise ANY children (even their own) to become critically-thinking citizens who will actively participate in democracy and might someday challenge status quo power systems. The result is that people have only three possible paths in life, and they ALL benefit corporate hegemony: 1) do extremely well in school (based on high ACT scores, etc.) go to a top university and then be rewarded financially as a systems manager for the corporate state; 2) do OK in school (based on graduating high school and maybe attending a community or state college) and get a job stacking boxes at Wal-Mart; 3) do poorly in school (based on test scores and HS graduation) and become completely marginalized, likely winding up in prison. As long as the prisons are privatized, the corporate state still wins.

    1. Thank you for commenting on the “college for all” narrative. This drives me absolutely nuts, and people act like it’s wrong to say, but it isn’t: academia isn’t for everyone. And that’s ok!

      Some kids love cars and want to be mechanics. Some love doing hair and want to go to beauty school. You can make a perfectly good living at either of these professions doing something you love, that you’re good at, and that builds your confidence and makes you feel like a valued, worthy productive human being who is sharing his/her talent/gift/passion with society.

      This makes a person feel whole.

      Instead of encouraging kids to find their talents, we’re told to jam square peg in round hole and force kids into the college-only path, many of whom may not really want to be there and aren’t really prepared to be there – and will continue feeling like a failure who is incessantly behind. This isn’t fair. Everyone has a skill, talent, passion to offer society – we don’t all HAVE to be academics debating literature on a college campus (and racking up lots of nice debt too).

      All of the choices should be made available to students. College, or other paths.

      What matters is that you can think critically and think for yourself, empathize with your fellow humans, collaborate effectively, operate with a moral compass, and have the ability to clearly express yourself. Whether you end up at Harvard or in Trade School, these are the qualities are really what matter to sustaining a democratic society.

          1. let’s not forget that even these professions are becoming subject to licencing and schools for which the students take loans,

      1. I completely agree! Our world would have some serious problems if every person was expected to go to college and be successful in business. Who would drive the snowplow trucks when it snowed, or build our houses, or work in fast-food restaurants?

  2. “25-year old assistant principal”
    Research indicates that’s when the brain just finishes developing. Like they said on npr, the car rental companies apparently knew this forever, before it was recently discovered.

  3. What a wonderful teacher! She builds a community of educated, well-read thinkers without isolating the outside community. New Orleans sounds lucky to have her. She also seems to know the benefit of collaboration. Her students will always remember her.

    1. As an alumni of KIPP and a personal connection to Mr. Levin; he would not be marched as the many students that he has personally touched through his teaching and experience in KIPP would not allow such to occur. I love hearing people who do not understand the communities in which they teach speak to how an institution like KIPP is serving their communities. Let me tell you my personal experience, I attended the second school in the South Bronx (third class), I came from a single parent home where domestic violence was an issue, I was one of five children, we were poor and lived in the projects building across the street from the school. Before KIPp my role models where the drug dealers in our neighborhood as they had all the nice things the music I listened to told me amounted to success. Mr. Levin and Mr. Corcoran risked their lives walking through my projects to get children to agree to go to school from 7 AM to 5 PM. I was one of those crazy students who loved to get lost within school to escape the family problems at home, this was a perfect opportunity for me. I learned to play violin well, was top of my class, and succeed in the program. Did you know when cops would raid my apartment at 2 AM, I would call Mr. Levin and he would come to my projects and stay with me until it was sorted out and still be at school at 7 AM bright eye welcoming all the students in. He saw something in me and ensured any opportunity to learn, become cultured, and get away from the home life he would offer me; it was Mr. Levin who told me about boarding schools and encouraged me to apply, assisted in the process, and ensured I could get up there for school every year. He and other teachers gave me odd jobs to put money I my pocket to ensure I stayed off the streets and focus on school. I was young but the weight of my family on my shoulders. My mother and brother went to jail right after one another and Mr. Levin ensured I was not homeless and ensured I had the emotional support I needed to stay focus. I can go on and on and bring countless alumni on here to tell you what KIPP and teacher like Mr. Levin, Mr. Myers and Mr. Randall meant to us but to what fall on deaf ears. You judge an institution that for many years have been instilling soft values, hard skills, and giving support for many minority youth to succeed in environment and situations that are against them. You want to know what KIPP is, does, has done ask an alumni, we are the reason these schools have prospered, the reason it began, and the reason they will continue to grow; most importantly we are the voice of the program as many alumni were so inspired they are in education and work in many of the KIPP schools around the U.S. Please before you post things as I read above know the teachers whose hard work paved the way and dedication has inspired and touched the lives of many.

      1. Thank you for your words, Stephanie. As a KIPP teacher in Newark, dozens of my colleagues go to unreasonable lengths to improve the lives of their students, from scrambling to find shelter for a family that lost their home to fire, to driving students back and forth to school daily to make sure they make it on time in the morning, and make it safely home in the evening, to (in one case) adopting a student who would’ve otherwise ended up in the foster system. Going above-and-beyond for our kids is not the exception–it’s the norm, and it’s a point of pride for those who choose to work for us and go the distance.

        Just as KIPP (and any other charter) are schools of choice for families, they are schools of choice for teachers. If you have an existential problem with how the school operates, you’re free to leave–that should be obvious.

        That said, we go to great lengths to keep the best people–and the best people are rarely those who follow in lock step with systems that they feel don’t benefit kids. There is, in fact, room for teachers to make substantive change in KIPP schools–far, FAR more than in a public school (if I didn’t run up against the brick wall that was my principal, it was my equally change-averse UFT chapter leader).

        1. It’s good to see the KIPP PR machine at work. While Stephanie’s story is touching and undoubtedly Mr. Levin demonstrated sincere commitment to his students when he was teaching in the classroom, it’s also true that while Mr. Levin was building his first KIPP school in the Bronx, he neither recruited nor accepted students with special needs or students who were recent immigrants. If we are going off personal anecdote rather than academic research, I can say from conversations with parents of some of the original KIPP Academy students, parents I worked with in other KIPP schools, that the first KIPP school in the Bronx cherry picked students it would serve. This approach to “education for all” creates a culture of elitism inside a community that deserves equity. Furthermore, while you do paint Levin as the hero he’s always aimed to be, you neglect to describe the ways teachers across New York heroically serve all students that enter their classrooms– not just those with an internal drive or will to achieve, as you said you had growing up.

          In response to Anthony, what is the turnover at KIPP? How exactly do you build a professional learning community when teachers leave mid-year or end of year due to nervous break-downs? How do you account for the lack of a sustainable curriculum across years and disciplines? These were questions I found very difficult to answer while teaching at KIPP. There had been four teachers in my position in the prior four years. There wasn’t any vertical alignment in my discipline from 5th-8th grade. One of the teachers at the time was let-go mid-year. How exactly do those major curriculum deficits measure KIPP’s ability to go above and beyond? By comparison, in traditional public schools over the last ten years, I’ve been part of a professional learning community that developed and sustained a network of vertically aligned assessments and best practices in language and literacy that served our English learners, both Newcomer, Developing and Long-term. While teaching at KIPP, our staff never talked about Language or Literacy. Only “reading teachers” taught literacy at KIPP. Nobody taught academic language, and the idea that language was or should be developed through content was anathema to the drill and kill approach to teaching and learning at KIPP. The worst I saw was a “science” class that revolved around memorization of facts. Ask any scientist what science is about. It’s not about memorization, but about inquiry. KIPP didn’t have any labs or lab sciences. But they did have 3 hours of Math a day and boy do those kids look incredible when they “Roll their Numbers” for the cameras and for the the donors visiting classrooms.

          What’s just so sad for KIPP is that you’ve such a lack of experience and expertise inside the network. Four years of teaching, two of them TFA, qualifies you as a veteran or a leader. Why work towards a socratic seminar when the IRE model of questioning is what’s taught during school site and network-wide PD? An actual scholar comes from San Francisco and explains how critical pedagogy works, and KIPP newbies lose their minds with enthusiasm and desire to teach in this way. I guess Freire isn’t part of the 5 weeks of TFA training and the 3-day KIPP Summit PD provided?

          The worst part, really, Anthony, is when I hear about the US Department of Ed discussing methods of measuring grit. It makes my stomach turn. I was at KIPP when they rolled out the assessments for measuring character. We ALL knew it was a sham then, and it’s a sham now. KIPP’s PR machine is well funded and hard at work pushing this BS forward. My student who dropped out last week to work with her mother in the factory– she somehow lacks the grit needed to sustain her formal education? The 10-hour shifts standing, painting fabric all night, doesn’t indicate her grit? When she walked across the desert for three days, carrying a 2-gallon jug of water and a backpack of food, that didn’t demonstrate her perseverance?

          Meanwhile, KIPP peddles the teacher-hero narrative, peddles the concept of grit, all the while losing teachers and students in droves.

          How do you measure the grit of the 45 remaining 8th graders from an entering 5th grade class of 80? Why do the African-American boys who leave have less of it than the girls who stay?

          1. “you neglect to describe the ways teachers across New York heroically serve all students that enter their classrooms”

            Everyone knows there are great teachers doing amazing things with their kids in less-than-ideal circumstances–many of my KIPP colleagues were those teachers in the district schools where they taught.

            “How do you account for the lack of a sustainable curriculum across years and disciplines?…There wasn’t any vertical alignment in my discipline from 5th-8th grade.”

            This isn’t my experience at KIPP–I’m sorry if it was yours. I meet monthly with an instructional vision team with teachers in my content from K-12 led by an Ed.D. with years of experience.

            “My student who dropped out last week to work with her mother in the factory– she somehow lacks the grit needed to sustain her formal education?”

            I hope no one has actually said that–that’s absolutely tragic and I hope that she is able to continue her education. We focus on grit because we want kids to be able to bounce back from the setbacks they face every day–children of affluence have safe environments in which to do that, and we want to provide the same for our kids.

            “How do you measure the grit of the 45 remaining 8th graders from an entering 5th grade class of 80?”

            You’re right that this isn’t academic research, but I can say that 3 years ago, a visiting principal from a local comprehensive HS marveled at the number of boys in our classes. Limiting attrition is a national priority for KIPP, and the network in Newark has done a tremendous job of a) teaching a parallel population to that of the district and b) keeping student mobility to a comparable level to the district (see pages 7-10 of the TEAM annual report http://bit.ly/1eOp3hw). The same data are borne out in state reports.

            As far as the KIPP PR machine, who is really controlling the narrative? Maybe two of the top donors in US political history (AFT/NEA)? http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/list.php I’m not being paid by anyone to express my views here–I just get a little defensive when my students and colleagues are attacked so incessantly. I’m bothered by the narrative that says that all traditional public school teachers are sainted martyrs facing down a corporate juggernaut bent on destroying public education, and that all charter school teachers are incompetent child abusers.

            This is the bottom line as far as I’m concerned: Every institution/organization has valid criticism leveled at it. I work for a network of schools that learns lessons and adapts at a speed much faster than I saw working in the district. Our kids have been participating in Socratic seminars since 5th grade. You want to see a remarkably high-level seminar discussion in an HS science class? I have colleagues that are doing that with kids who reflect the same demographics as those attending neighborhood schools.

          2. This is in response to Anthony’s 8:52pm post but for some reason I can’t find the button to write it below what he has written.

            Just quickly, so I can fall asleep rather than steam over your “who controls the narrative” comment, I have to disagree that unionized teachers currently control the narrative of the state of public education and the efficacy of traditional public school teachers to provide all kids with equity and access to meaningful and engaging opportunities to learn.

            RTTP was written with provisions for the expansion of charter schools, the take-over of “failing” public schools by “successful” turnaround CMOs, and the inclusion of merit-pay as part of new teacher evaluation systems. This is our national education policy and it absolutely does not reflect the distorted “narrative” you seem to think exists that favors traditional public school teachers.

            The New York Times, historically a newspaper that supported progressive public education, has published so many, so, so many stories glamorizing KIPP, Levin and the “No Excuses” approach to cherry picking students, kicking out those too difficult to teach, and holding up test scores as if KIPP educates the same kids as PS 125 next door. It doesn’t. But mainstream media fails to mention this complete avoidance of an apples to apples comparison. There’s no way a school that has a lottery system can be compared to a school that takes all children. And while it’s just awful to have to do this, within the group of students living in poverty, there are those who are even more at risk for lagging academic growth–foster youth, incarcerated youth, English learners with interrupted education. When I was teaching at KIPP, we didn’t accept Newcomer English learners– how could we? We didn’t have an ELD program. We didn’t accept students mid-year for any reason, and actually, we didn’t accept any students after 6th grade. So the cohort was set. Finally, none of our kids were in and out of the juvenile justice system. In the traditional public schools where I teach, I’ve worked in classrooms where all of these kids are mine. And by their test scores, I am a failure.

            Guess what? At KIPP, I had incredible test scores. It’s true. My kids beat other KIPP kids in New York and across the network on the MAP. Sadly, I even felt proud of this. At KIPP, I’m effective. At my neighborhood public school, I’m not effective. Totally different systems and totally different kids. The New York Times, the LA Times, the WSJ fail to effectively tell this story.

            So far Salon, Edushyster, Schools Matter, and maybe The Nation have actually investigated problematic practices within KIPP and definitely within TFA. The KIPP:STAR Elementary School closet debacle was in the news for two days, and then the story disappeared. I hadn’t realized the story affected the KIPP community much, since KIPP didn’t really respond to the accusations. But now that you’ve mentioned it here, it seems it struck a chord within the network?

            Compare the two days of media attached to KIPP:STAR elementary to the weeks devoted to trashing traditional public school teachers’ reputations by posting their students’ standardized test scores in the LA Times, the NY Times and the NY Post. Did you know KIPP teachers were exempt from that embarrassment? So weird, right? But in NYC, the charter school teachers’ test scores weren’t published.

            And how could we forget Waiting for Superman? Or Won’t Back Down? Or any of the sure to be released Hollywood films that debase public school teachers.

            KIPP, finally, is catching some flack for really controversial approaches to disciplining students. Former teachers are speaking up, and this makes you and others uncomfortable. I’m sure you can agree that the world of public ed is generally misunderstood by the media and its subscribers. Some complexity is finally being addressed but that’s hard for you guys at KIPP, because for once that light is shining on you, but not, like SHINE-ing on you, you know?

  4. It is funny as a KIPP alum of the South Bronx (third class in started by David Levin) to hear these stories from the teachers and those who truly think they understand the dynamic and cultural setting of the poverty stricken communities that KIPP serves. Whenever I see these stories I get the urge to comment; where are the student voices that programs like KIPP helped, mentored, and became families to the many children who did not have a great structure at home. The basics such as structure, how to take a test, accountability, responsibility, and team values should be instilled at a young age; especially in communities where such values as I call them soft skills such as tracking a speaker as they speak, nod to let them know you are engaged, listen to the speaker so you can be able to engage them in a Q&A session after not only builds skills required in any industry but can assist in building networks. In communities where education is undervalued and kids are learning all the wrong behavioral values it is important to put in structure early so they can get in routine and later be able to score high on test which to you meant nothing but in these communities and the rest of their academic careers will determine where and how far they can go. KIPP assisted me to get into a top boarding school, Phillips Academy Andover, and later, a full ride to Syracuse University; I was the first of my family to receive a high school diploma, which Mr. Levin and many others apart of the program came to be my family support at my graduation as my mother was incarcerated. I am tired of hearing teachers talk about fighting an institution that has been detrimental to the development of many of students that pass through it’s doors. Not everything is for everybody, it is great you found you niche; but to try to tear down a charter that has been proven to work in higher percentages than most and evidently better than the public school systems that are failing the minority youth of today shows again the understanding of the communities that most of these teacher teach in apart of TFA are foreign and still misunderstood. Most yoing children are wise beyond years and pretty self sufficient in these communities and play time is all the do at home to stay out of the way as single mothers rest from working multiple jobs to support their family or raise other siblings who require more attention. I think for every post I read as this one I just want to publish the countless alumni stories I know of success due to KIPP. Before KIPP was this organization it is today it started with two TFA alums who dare challenge the status quo and the drive to know that the communities they were serving did not learn the way system said they should. In the South Bronx, it started in one classroom in P.S. 156, where they divided into two classrooms where teachers funded books, supplied, uniforms, and snacks out of their pockets. Year end class trips where I became cultured to other races, environments, and experienced opportunities that made me who I am; these trips funded again out of teacher pockets. Where are the student voices and the parent voices that appreciate what program like KIPP offer? There are many sides to a story… before we judge people understand them all.

    1. Stephanie,
      Your voice is so appreciated and so needed in this debate. I hope you can find a larger forum for it, because I think it’s crucial that others hear your story.

      Caitlin

    2. Stephanie,

      In your KIPP-lore you’ve forgotten to mention that one of the key figures who inspired the TFA teachers, Levin and Feinberg, to start KIPP was a mentor named Harriet Bell. Unlike Levin and Feinberg and the many TFA recruits that pass through KIPP on their way to organizations for which they’ve been groomed, Bell was a career educator and a teacher in a traditional public school. Like many of us who critique KIPP, and ultimately critique your KIPP-lore, Bell devoted her life to the classroom, not to her ascension up the reform-minded career ladder, the path many KIPP/TFA teachers choose. If you were to actually read about the history of education reform, read further back than your personal experience within KIPP, you would find that Levin and Feinberg are hardly the first educators to see systemic problems and address them through the creation of innovative schools. The history of the charter movement is actually grounded in career teachers’ efforts to innovate on behalf of students who hadn’t historically been successful in traditional school settings. It’s unfortunate that KIPP, in its relentless self-aggrandizement, has failed to note this important fact. At the same time, what you’ve really failed to see is that Levin and Feinberg, while devoted, weren’t that different from tens of thousands of other teachers who also paid out of pocket for books and materials their students needed in order to learn. There hasn’t been a year in ten where I’ve spent less than $500 dollars on behalf of students, in many cases, I’ve spent far more than that. With the advent of Donor’s Choose, teachers nation-wide fund school projects, trips and materials, not unlike what you’ve described as your experience with Levin. On the other hand, most teachers, myself included, don’t have a PR machine to convert our every day, humble practices into myth, and then peddle that myth to investors who donate heavily to more than student school expenditures per child at KIPP as compared to traditional public schools. Were you to look at my resume, the resumes of my colleagues and friends you’d see unpaid work in Policy, Advocacy, Organizing, Counseling, Coaching, Literacy training, Test-Prep, College-Essay tutoring, Letter-writing (to judges on behalf of incarcerated students as well as to college admissions officers), Conflict-Management, Rides home, Rides to school, Money for Lunch, Money for Dinner, Dinner, Breakfast, Lunch, Snack…I could go on. All of this, all of this that is described above, some that makes it to our resumes and some that doesn’t, that’s called good and caring teaching and being a member of a learning community. So just like Levin, we have our own lore. But it’s shared over drinks on a Friday night after a long week of teaching, sometimes 80 hours a week, sometimes the night before going back to school on a Saturday to tutor or coach. But we don’t have a PR machine. We have pride and our community which sustains us. Something you might not understand as an individual supported by a PR machine.

  5. Rebecca – thank you for posting this! As you know all-too-well, the metrics and measurements used to determine student growth are too often focused on the wrong thing and more concerned with providing a set of data that can be used to reward or punish schools. I’d like to share a personal connection with your post. I remember abandoning my extensive test-prep for a district end-of-course exam about two years ago. I went from some of the highest scores in the district (because I played the game well) to some pretty low results. However, my students have never been more capable and curious learners. They problem solve and think critically. It wouldn’t have happened if I was teaching in a school with a closed mindset.

    Keep up the good fight for teachers and students everywhere!

  6. It’s not a “radical idea that children are humans that should be treated with dignity.” It is common practice, and I believe I practiced it as a teacher at the same school as the author taught at and that the teachers still there practice it as well. The tone of this article belies that her criticisms are personal rather than objective. There are many veteran teachers that still teach with compassion and ingenuity at the KIPP school criticized here.

      1. Sam, it’s also worth noting the way KIPP, internally of course, demonizes and degrades it’s traditional public school counter-parts. It’s almost funny to see you KIPP folks here, as if you’re the under-dog, as if it’s your story that’s being suppressed. You know KIPP is known as a bully nation-wide, right? If there’s a public hearing about co-location or the introduction of a KIPP school on another school’s campus, KIPP more or less tells their employees they need to go to the hearing, wear KIPP gear and hold a sign and cheer. I went to a hearing where the KIPP parents were so loud and obnoxious, they were like bad sports fans, not allowing the single dissenting teacher to finish his argument against co-location. I walked out of that hearing in disgust. KIPP is the bully on all accounts, not the other way around. Teachers are finally feeling the courage to speak up against the organization.

  7. I have read the story and the comments. The most important thing to remember that no one model is the best for every student. As we learned back in the middle ages (1960s) children learn through different modalities. Some are visual and need to see things, other are aural and need to hear things. Some need to write things down, and others need a combination. I know that I need all 3 of the above to learn. Hands-on is reinforcement for me.
    But, back to teaching. I had the opportunities to explore possible paths to answers to problems. I was given tools and had to choose which tool worked best. I also learned about myself, my strengths and weaknesses. I think many of my contemporaries learned and taught the same way. I am saddened by the emphasis on testing and teaching to the test. Students now are learning how to fill in circles. Think Orwellian 1984 and the thought police. Sadly, I think they are here.

  8. Thank you for writing this piece. As a person that has taught in a depressed and difficult area for over 10 years, all I gleaned from your piece was that you quit. You quit on the students that needed you most because it was hard to enact the changes you wanted. Change is hard fought, ugly at times, hits back hard from those who do not want it, and yet it happens all over the country every single day. Shame on you for not playing by the rules enough to win the fight for your students. I cannot help but wonder whether TFA actually prepared you for that everyday grind, the pedagogical fight, and how to succeed. I think this may be the best representation that TFA does a disservice to our low income students by giving them teachers that are not prepared for the long haul. It does not happen the way it does in the movies. I hope that you were more prepared for your students you have now. Do not give up on them!

    1. Mandy – I disagree. First of all, Rebecca says she was forced out because she wouldn’t fall in line with KIPP’s lockstep approach, not that she quit on the children.

      Secondly, it takes guts to walk away from a situation that is forcing you to compromise your beliefs and values. Rebecca felt that KIPP’s model was damaging her students – and the fact that she wasn’t drinking the KIPP kool-aide was readily apparent to her kids. If she’s not fully on board with KIPPs approach, staying and gritting her teeth and bearing it would have been far worse – her resentment and frustration would have festered and would not have helped her students.

      Being true to her own pedagogical values and leaving a bad fit is brave. Hopefully she finds her place at a school that shares her values.

      There is no standing up to KIPP or trying to change it from within. It’s a charter chain. There is no union protection. You fall in line with the test prep and the numbers and the harsh discipline or you leave – they treat the teachers the same way they treat the kids.

    2. You’ve got it all wrong, or maybe you didn’t really read this essay. It’s clear from what she wrote that she did not quit teaching in New Orleans, nor did she “give up” on her students, nor did she leave to work in a more privileged school. She simply went to a school where she is allowed to teach in a way that is developmentally appropriate and respectful of the students. There she’s discovered the joy that results from teaching students to think critically about the world, to develop a passion for history and reading, and to think of themselves as writers. This is the kind of teaching is made impossible by the test prep that passes for pedagogy at No Excuses schools.

      My question is, as an ethical person and as a critical thinker herself, how could Ms. Radding (or ANY No Excuses teacher) NOT leave a place like KIPP? Should she have “played by the rules” and just ignored her heart which was telling her that the RULES in these schools are oppressive, violent, and often racist. These “rules” (SLANT, walking on black tape, silent lunches, silent recesses, paychecks, exit tickets, test prep test prep test prep, etc.) do not lead to real learning, nor do they develop students as empowered agents and citizens. Leaving seems like the only ethical choice possible in this situation.

      I have a feeling, based on my own conversations with many teachers at similar schools, that more and more young educators will be writing stories like these and leaving schools like KIPP for precisely the reasons Ms. Radding articulates here.

      1. I agree. There’s something about KIPP’s pedagogy that does not lead to kids being the kinds of—to use one of their cliches—“scholars” who are able to handle the demands of college. By KIPP’s own admission, on 30% of the KIPP grads eventually earn a bachelor’s degree. So let’s get this straight—you basically give up your childhood and, if you attend a KIPP high school, your adolescence as well… and there’s a 70% chance that will all be for naught. This rigid, highly-disciplined approach doesn’t produce critical thinkers; it produces intellectually-stunted followers or cult members. When I see former KIPP students on COMMENTS boards defending KIPP, it’s like listening to the same tape recorder spewing out the same stock answers and stale talking points… with no effective, or articulate arguments supporting their case… it’s simplistic propaganda from people who come across like they’re suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome.

  9. MB from KIPP:
    “Shame on you for not playing by the rules enough to win the fight for your students.”

    Curious as to what else you think she could have done to win the fight? She didn’t have a union to help fight what she felt was an educational injustice for her students. She got involved with groups to make changes to education that she felt would benefit her students. She fought to have changes made that would help her students and successfully had them implemented during her first two years. After they were dismantled, she still tried to fight for her students, speaking to her higher ups and getting fired as a result. After she was fired, she didn’t quit the teaching profession but instead found employment where she continues to make a positive impact on the education of students.

    Compare that to KIPP, which recently bailed on their students in Texas by closing schools because of state budget cuts: Texas public schools have had to deal with the same state budget cuts by forgoing profits–I mean, by engaging in belt-tightening–in order to continue to serve their students in need, as well as the KIPP students who they will now have to absorb back into the public school system.

    “KIPP Pulls Out of Two Campuses in Galveston”
    http://dianeravitch.net/2014/02/05/kipp-pulls-out-of-two-campuses-in-galveston/

  10. I’m happy things are going well for Rebecca, and for her students! To state what I think is obvious: different schools are different fits for different teachers and different students. A place that works great for some, might not work so well for others, and I think that’s one of the strengths of a system that allows charter schools and networks into the mix.

    I do know KIPP teachers (and teachers from other CMOs) who are passionate and who care about their students’ thoughts and feelings.

    There’s also quite a bit of data out there indicating that New Orleans’ students are more likely to have better outcomes now than they were pre-Katrina. Rising graduation rates are just one of those indicators.

    I’m certainly not saying things can’t be improved, though, and it’s great to hear about her success!

    1. Hey Matt,

      Do you know any unionized public school teachers who are passionate and care about their students?

      Just so you know..that’s not a quality TFA/KIPP invented. You need to get out behind your corporate sponsors and walk the walk. Maybe you’d like to teach?

  11. It is so important that we keep our heads, that we not get lost in emotion to the detriment of value. I too, like Rebecca Radding, am a former teacher at a KIPP school. I can see, and I saw during my time teaching at KIPP (one year), that many many students benefit from the KIPP model, as their testimony here in the comment section demonstrates. I too, however, had an experience much like Rebecca Radding’s.

    I had students, in groups, creating skits as means to illustrate their understand of and their experiences with the Bill of Rights in our 8th grade US History class. Students were engaged in the lesson, in fact I felt like I had finally found my stride and things were well organized compared to many of my other disorganized and “yelling” days. My principal came into our room and silenced the whole class. She then uttered words I will never forget. She said, “This is not the sound of learning.” To this day I get a bit nauseous while retelling this story.

    As has been stated above, we all learn in many different ways, and all of learn through various modalities; for social learners there is very little room in KIPP schools. I understand that there is a lot of discipline, and test taking skills, and good learning going on in probably every KIPP school. But we cannot throw out all the value of other forms of learning (other than the traditional “sage on the stage” direct instruction model) due to a perceived need of order and discipline.

    I also think we need not demonize KIPP schools because of our experiences as teachers. I knew some very good teachers at KIPP, one of them who I constantly stay in touch with and is right now the principal of a charter school. I appreciate everyone’s comments in here. I especially appreciate Rebecca Radding for sharing her experience because I relate so strongly with it.

    I am currently teaching high school at an independent study charter school where we work with youth who have been underserved by our public school system. Part of me knows that many of these youth could definitely have been helped by going to a KIPP school early in their educational careers. At the same time, I think that the KIPP model is not the end all and be all of inner city education. We can find an equilibrium between teaching standard cultural competencies and building critical thinkers.

  12. I wonder if the author would comment on the extent to which her management style at her new school would have translated at the KIPP school she left. It seems that “being strict” was among the techniques she eschewed at KIPP, yet she adopted stronger management after she left. I recognize that “not planning formal units” would have been anathema at KIPP, but could your stricter routines currently be considered KIPPish?

    I was a Creative Writing teacher at KIPP high school for several years, and found that well-defined expectations, as well as reacting when those expectations weren’t met, were the basis of a classroom culture that I was extremely proud of. It was a culture of honesty, respect, and introspection, where our explicit long-term goals were about character as much as they were about craft. It seems that many commenters may have found it surprising that these high standards of behavior–timeliness, organization, quiet or silence when necessary–are not incompatible with creativity and exploration. To the contrary, they are essential!

    1. That’s why I HATE the word “strict.” A classroom environment that is loving, respectful, and engaged isn’t one that can be fostered by a mean-spirited, angry teacher. An environment like that only comes from a consistent teacher. Consistency and strictness are not the same thing, but ineffective classroom teachers frequently use the excuse of “I’m not strict” or “being strict isn’t my style” when the real issue is that he or she isn’t consistent. What the KIPP framework values is consistency–I don’t give feedback to my teachers about how strict they are, I give them feedback about how consistent they are in setting clear expectations and helping kids who aren’t meeting them to do so.

      1. Yes. And there is so much time wasted talking about consistency. The amount of collaboration time lost to discussions of pencil shavings, talking in line, getting up at lunch to drop off trash at the wrong time, etc, etc, etc, was sickening. That time should have been spent talking about language and literacy. It wasn’t. Such as waste.

        1. I take a different perspective. 5 minutes on Day 1 explaining to kids what entering the classroom looks like–plus the occasional 10 seconds here or there reinforcing the expectation, or 90 seconds if there needs to be a significant reset–saves countless minutes of getting settled over the course of the year.

          1. Good point, Ross. I think most capable teachers would agree that teaching of classroom routines saves time over the course of a year. My criticism isn’t about procedures like First 5 or Last 5, and it definitely isn’t about the importance of silence, at times, in a classroom. The issue I am raising, and what I think the post’s author is raising, is an over-reliance, almost dependence on silence at both of the KIPP schools where we taught.

  13. I have a different perspective on KIPP. I taught at a public school that was co-located with a KIPP school. From my perspective KIPP and other charter schools create a separate and unequal school system that is immoral and in violation of Brown v. Board of Education.

    The KIPP school that was co-located with my school skimmed off the kids who had involved, supportive parents who were proactive about education for their kids. The KIPP parents had the ambition and wherewithal to sign their kids up for a charter school, and they also had to commit to doing a significant number of volunteer hours for KIPP, which was a very effective screening process for keeping out undesirable children.

    My public school was left with KIPP’s undesirables: kids from foster homes, homeless kids, kids who lived with a grandmother or other extended relative, kids whose parents were apathetic, special education kids, kids far behind grade level, English language learners, kids whose parents were disabled or illiterate, and so on.

    The KIPP school had much better resources than our school, even though we were teaching a far needier population. For example, KIPP had a nice library and a computer lab. My school had no library and no computer lab.

    My school had no hallway monitors, recess monitors, or PE teachers, so our teachers had to supervise the hallways and take kids outside and supervise them during what was supposed to be our prep time. My school had no teacher’s workroom. If we needed to make copies we went into the principal’s office and used the sole copy machine that was there for the entire school, administrative staff and teachers. By the 3rd week of school that copy machine was out of order so staff had to print things out at home. My school didn’t provide teachers with computers, printers, or overhead projectors, so most teachers brought personal laptops from home and bought or borrowed other resources as needed. Our classroom telephones didn’t work so we had to use use walkie talkies if we needed to communicate with the principal’s office, or in case of emergency. We had no intercom and no bell system. And so on. Meanwhile the co-located KIPP school was packed with forbidden riches.

    It was very sad to realize that I was teaching in a second-class school. But what was really heartbreaking was that my students were well aware that they were second-class students compared to the KIPP students, they would talk about it sometimes, and ask me questions about why KIPP had so much more than us, and I didn’t have any good answers for them.

    Supporters of KIPP or any other charter school need to think long and hard about what happens to the leftover kids after the best students from the most involved families are creamed off. No matter how wonderful KIPP is, I do not believe this separate and unequal system is morally acceptable. I like the Finnish model, which emphasizes equal access to public education for all. No charters, no magnets, no vouchers (no private schools!), just great public schools for all kids.

    1. I think the real issue is why NYC wasn’t supporting its district schools with appropriate facilities and resources. KIPP has its issues, but they’re not responsible for the schools that they don’t run.

      All students and teachers should have access to high quality public schools. The divisive charter vs district argument is a sideshow to keep the hotheads entertained while inept district admins and school leadership milk the system a little longer.

      1. Charlie,

        When you say the real issue is why the district (in CA, not NY) wasn’t supporting my school with appropriate facilities and resources, I agree. Part of the reason why is that facilities and resources had been given away to KIPP. It should go without saying that school facilities and resources are finite, so whatever districts give charter schools is taken away from public schools.

        Having taught at a public school co-located with a KIPP school, it is my very strong belief that KIPP bears some moral responsibility for the decimated public schools they leave in their wake, even though they are not responsible for running those public schools.

        I’m not a hothead, I’m justifiably angry because I taught in a public school where the staff and students were treated like second-class citizens compared to the KIPP school co-located on our campus.

        District admins and school leadership deserve some blame, in fact I blame them for allowing charter schools to create a two-tiered education system. But it is the school privatizers, including charter schools, testing companies, and technology companies, that are milking the system.

  14. When ever I see that “College for All” banner, I often wonder about college for all. What does that mean? and why doesn’t it mean “College of Education for All Teachers” ? That is what is important to me. That the teachers are well prepared and have that college of education background. TFA? Pffffffffffffttttttttttt.

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