KIPP-type school teacher survivor tells all

The total compliance schooling model of KIPP, Inc. has inspired a number of high-flying charter school knock-offs that make a virtue of torturing test scores from children through behavioral and psychological treatments more suited to penitentiaries. Brooklyn Ascend is one such school, along with its two sister outfits, also in Brooklyn.

Parents know little about what goes inside the “no excuses” corporate chain gangs that try to emulate the KIPP cult-like model of schooling for the poor, and little did anyone else know until a former teacher stepped forward to call a spade a spade. Her name is Emily Kennedy, and was only after she read what she calls her boss’s "tremendously disturbing," Learning on the Job: When Business Takes on Public Education, that her unsettled feeling about the goings-on at Brooklyn Ascend Charter School began to come into sharp focus. In Emily's initial email to me, she said, "my experience at Brooklyn Ascend has been nothing less than depressing, demoralizing, and at times even shockingly upsetting."

Perhaps it would good for dupes like Pedro Noguera and Howard Gardner to look a little deeper into the workings of these penal pedagogy schools before they rush to the microphone with their declarations of support. After all, there is only so much that one can learn from deftly-guided tours by the school leaders and their glassy-eyed guards. As you may recall, it was only after being handed notes from some of the desperate citizens of Jonestown that Congressman Leo Ryan came to see that there was darkness lurking under the sunny gloss that master manipulator, Jim Jones, had prepared for all visitors.

Emily Kennedy first contacted me after she heard that I was doing a research study based on the perspectives of former KIPP teachers. Below is a compilation of those emails that came during Emily’s final weeks at Brooklyn Ascend. Her name is used with her permission—and encouragement.

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.


Spring Break Academy

In the months leading up to the state exam, we began to hear about the need to target our “bubble kids.” In New York State, a child needs to score a 3 on the state exam in order to be considered “proficient.” The “bubble kids” were those who had demonstrated that they were close to achieving proficient scores, or had indeed scored 3’s on mock exams (which we gave out each month) but not by enough points that we could feel confident they would pass the real test in May. These were the kids, we were told, that we really needed to “zero in on.”

And so the school came up with a plan to have these kids come in over their spring vacation for “Spring Break Academy,” so that they wouldn’t “slip” during this time. To me, the idea sounded cruel. After asking them to sit day after day in “STAR” (hands folded in front of them, backs firmly against the back of their seat, and eyes on the teacher at all times) from 7:30 to 4:30, while we forced endless test prep down their throats, and then asking most of them to stay an extra hour after school for tutoring, and then demanding that they also complete an hour of homework each night, we were then requesting to take away their vacation time to have them practice even more of the same inane test-prep memorization? How was any of this supposed to lead to any real, meaningful learning for these kids? And how could any of my colleagues believe that this was honestly part of a mission to give these kids an education that was actually of any value?

What killed me, however, was that when our school director put out a request to have teachers work at Spring Break Academy, it was couched in this language of "making a monumental difference in our scholars lives" and "putting them on the path to college." I still don't know whether or not our school director, who is a Teach for America grad, honestly believes he is acting in the best interest of the children, or if his desire for Brooklyn Ascend (and himself, too, I would imagine) to appear successful (with bar graphs to proving that our school is "closing the achievement gap") is so great that he simply has to remain in denial about what he is actually demanding of these kids.

At any rate, despite being offered a fairly sizable compensation for working at Spring Break Academy, I declined to take the job.

(By the way, the “bubble kids” did get to spend half an hour each day of Spring Break Academy doing artwork. When we returned from Spring Break, it was all over the walls – murals covered in phrases like “Ace the Test!” and pictures of kids saying, “Yay! I passed!”)


Dear Teacher Friends and Other Like-Minded Folks,

Our students, whom we were required to refer to as "scholars," were required to remain silent and sit with their hands folded in front of them for virtually the entire day. There was close to zero peer interaction at any time, and we were not allowed to plan any hands-on or inquiry-based learning activities at all (activities that are meant to spur curiosity, for example, and foster critical thinking skills). Beginning in December, we were required to teach only test-prep lessons - which were mostly scripted by supervisors, and mostly focused on tricks they could use to get "right answers," rather than developing genuine forms understanding - until the state test, which was in May.

My group of students, deemed by mock-test data to be the "lowest-performing" in the school, were no longer allowed to have science and social studies like the rest of their peers; instead, they received an extra hour of reading comprehension and math instruction each afternoon. (Since it's [writing] not tested, by the way, there were absolutely no writing lessons throughout the entire day.) I wasn't allowed to differentiate lessons to help students with different learning needs find success, because it was considered an inefficient teaching strategy. Not surprisingly, the same students - mostly those with ADHD and learning disabilities - struggled day in and day out to meet the same "high expectations" as the rest of their peers, and fell further and further behind. [IEPs for special needs students never made to the classrooms.]

Additionally, my students were asked to spend an extra hour either before or after school participating in tutoring, where they did even more test prep. For most of my students, that meant a school day that ran from 7:30 to 5:30, with only a 15-minute break for indoor recess - which, by the way, was only allowed if they also finished the hour of homework we gave them each night. Perhaps worst of all, the pressure to pass the tests was not even remotely concealed from the kids. Instead, they were constantly informed that they would not go to fourth grade if they failed.

Needless to say, I had many miserable kids - constantly complaining of stomachaches, headaches, and fatigue - in my class. If ever they slumped in their seats, however, or nodded off during class, we were required to mark the behavior as a "correction" on a chart, and tell them that their "excuses" would not be accepted. (Teachers, by the way, received only a 15-minute lunch break during the day, so we also complained of stomachaches, headaches, and fatigue. Needless to say, [too] our excuses were also not accepted.)

I don't know yet how the kids ended up doing on their state exams. For their sake, I hope they did well and will all get to move to the next grade. If they pass, however, it will have come at the expense of so many other valuable skills that I deeply believe children should be getting in school and that they will undoubtedly need for the rest of their lives - the opportunity to learn with and from one another, for example, or to learn to think critically and creatively about problems without having the solution spelled out for them right away.

Please don't get me wrong - I am not saying that charter schools, in general, are necessarily a problem, and I am certain that there are many that are much more child-centered and oriented toward real and deep forms of learning than the one I worked at. But my experience at this school has left me deeply troubled. Through movies like "Waiting for Superman," most of us have heard by now about how there are certain schools that are "closing the achievement gap."

But I have begun to suspect that this claim is largely an empty one, even if the test scores they post are impressive. When I hear about how children are educated at schools like KIPP or Harlem Success, for example - which are frequently held up as the models of education that we should be aspiring to give all urban children - I hear of many of the same practices that I witnessed at the charter I worked at. And so I wonder, are these children really getting the type of education they deserve? The type of education that most of us got as children? If they are being silenced and their education is being treated like a product that can be churned out of a factory, as they were at the school I worked at--do good test scores really mean anything?

Certainly, there is room for debate on issues of choice, testing, and accountability in public schools. But I have become deeply worried about the direction that current education policies are taking us, particularly in the world of urban education. I'm worried for teachers, and the type of teaching we'll be able to do as time goes on, and I'm worried about the kids, and the type of education they'll be getting.

And so - and this gets to the real point of this email - I think it's time to have our voices heard, and I want you to join me. From July 28-31, I'm planning to attend a conference and rally in Washington, D.C. called "Save our Schools and National Call to Action." The "guiding principles" of the rally are 1) equitable funding for all public school communities, 2) an end to high-stakes testing for the purpose of student, teacher, and school evaluation, 3) teacher, family, and community leadership in forming public education policies, and 4) curriculum developed for and by local school communities. Take a look at the link for more details. (And, education-buffs, notice that the key-note speakers are going to be Jonathan Kozol and Diane Ravitch.)

If you have time, please take a look at the link, and consider joining me in D.C. that weekend. It probably won't change any policies right away, but hopefully, it will spark much-needed conversation about what is happening in today education policy and the direction things are moving in. And maybe it will help some people, who may have forgotten, remember that education is really about giving children opportunities to grow and succeed in all sorts of different ways - not just teaching them tricks to pass tests.

Thanks so much for listening, and please let me know if you're interested in coming with me that weekend.

Emily Kennedy


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