KIPP -- 'It's almost like a cult...'...'Well, yeah, the kids have nowhere to go but up... And through rote memorization, you can turn a kid into a robot...'

[Editor's Note: The following interview was published by Jim Horn at Schools Matter on May 26, 2014 as one of the ongoing interviews jim is doing about KIPP. Readers can get more of Schools Matter at the following URL: _______. George N. Schmidt, Editor, Substance].

Mike Feinberg and David Levin founded KIPP charter schools 20 years ago and quickly became the darlings of corporate reformers and corporate media pundits behind the "no excuses" regimentation of minority children.Bill was an experienced urban teacher when he came to Memphis to teach at KIPP. Like other teachers I have interviewed, he found himself so compromised and burned out that he did not last very long. When he unexpectedly was offered an opportunity in another state, he bailed. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation:

INTERVIEWER: How do you think KIPP achieves its purpose and its aims?

BILL: They dont, not in Memphis, and, you know, I knew about KIPP __________ when I was working down there as well. They dont achieve their aims. Heres what KIPPs MO is. Theyll take kids who are academically the lowest of the low, whose test scores theyre not at the bottom theyd already reached the bottom and had begun to dig. Theyve dug a hole. And they take all those kids. And then they tell the public, well, yeah, theyre not passing yet, but they are improving. Well, yeah, the kids have nowhere to go but up.

And through rote memorization, you can turn a kid into a robot. Doesnt know how to think. Doesnt know how to process. But you can turn a kid into a robot where hell get enough to improve on the test. But long-term, its not going to happen. Are there kids who come out of KIPP schools who do well in college? Absolutely. But there are kids who come out of every school who do well. Are there are teachers at KIPP schools who are good teachers? Yes. But from what I saw, I don't know where they come from, because theyre running off more good teachers than theyre keeping. Of the ten teachers who were at KIPP Memphis, and I didnt know this until I actually arrived on campus. But of the ten teachers that they had for the 201_-201_ school year, only two survived.

What it is, is they take these, like I said, they take these young kids [young teachers] and they indoctrinate them into the KIPP way. Whether it works or not doesnt really matter. It works from KIPPs perspective; the teachers who stay are indoctrinated. Its almost, and I hate to use this word, but Im going to anyway. But its almost like a cult.

INTERVIEWER: You didnt hear dialogue with students?

BILL: No. No. Its, like, you know, the students came in. The browbeating was all day, if you will. They were going to do things one way, the KIPP way. Its what I kept hearing, its the KIPP way. OK. The whole idea of grit and determination, you know, if you just do 80 hours a week, you'll be successful. Im, like, really? How about worker smarter, not harder? Like I said, it wasnt a good fit. And I knew it. They knew it. And when an opportunity arose, I jumped at it. I will say this. On some level, I feel really bad about leaving Memphis because I think, Im pretty sure that there were a few kids that I could have reached if I didnt get fired along the way. Im a firm believer that if you save one, you save the world. And I miss teaching. Im no longer in education. Im now an ___________consultant for a _______ company. I miss the classroom. I miss the interaction with the kids. I miss being _________ , because Im not _________ anymore. Im just Bill at work.

> > . . .

INTERVIEWER: You mentioned that there was a possibility of turning kids into robots. Did you see kids being turned into robots?

BILL: Yeah, thats all KIPP does. Im convinced thats what their whole MO is . . . they think that the idea to help young urban youth is to turn them into automatons. I don't believe that. I believe that in order to help any young person, you have to get them to think. And that means that they can disagree with you. Used to tell the kids all the time, you can disagree with me all you want. You'll be wrong, but thats OK. It was actually a quotation from one of my professors in college. Thats where I got that. Its the whole idea of Socratic teaching. The whole idea of Socratic, you know, dialoguing and critical thinking is to get these kids to think. They can form their own opinions. Thats my feeling. Thats not the KIPP way.

INTERVIEWER: So how does your experience teaching at KIPP compare to your other experiences?

BILL: Im a teacher. And I wasnt teaching at KIPP. You know? I had moments, brief flashes where I was.

INTERVIEWER: What were you doing?

BILL: Just teaching, like I said, the conversations with the kids. That was the worst ______ months of my career. And yet, you can always try to find a silver lining in it with the kids. I keep going back to the kids. My wife and I have talked about this. You know, I was talking the other day. Will I ever be a teacher again? I don't know. I don't know what the future will hold. I would like to think that some day that I might be a teacher again. But it would have to be under the right circumstances. And the right circumstances to me, I don't necessarily need 100% autonomy in the classroom. Im not a college professor. At the same time, I want to be appreciated for my experience. I want to be appreciated for the things that I do. You know, its the old saying, leave me alone. As long as the kids are learning, what does it matter? You dont have to understand it. And so who knows what will happen? Im happy now at my current position.

INTERVIEWER: So when you're having your day and you're going along and suddenly KIPP comes to mind, is there an image that stands out to you?

BILL: Yeah, the administration telling me that they could change me into a KIPP teacher.

INTERVIEWER: How does that make you feel?

BILL: It made me feel almost like my entire career had meant nothing. And you know what really angered me about it? I had kids on the south side of _____________, who when they came to me as juniors had no idea that they were really going to go to college. And two years later, they were not only going to college, they were ready. And I still get emails from them. One of them told me that she went down to [local college]. She walked into class the first day and when the teacher handed them the syllabus, she started laughing. She knew that she wouldnt have any problem. The work was obviously a little different, but she wouldnt have any problem doing the work.

BILL: You know what it reminded me? Im sitting here thinking about it. KIPP reminds me of Brave New World. Theyre trying to feed the kids the soma. And I guess people all over the country are buying it because they dont think that theres any way else to reach these kids. So when you have somebody that comes in and says, wait a minute, there is a way to reach them, and really reach them, that person cant last in society. Didnt happen in Huxleys book. And it didnt happen to me at KIPP.

Posted By Jim Horn to Schools Matter at 5/26/2014 07:55:00 PM


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