Monday, 30 January 2017

Book: Work Hard. Be Nice. by Jay Mathews

This is the story of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) – a promising charter school program in the US to geared for some of the toughest education consumers – 5th to 8th graders who come from low income families – and doing so with remarkable success. I had first heard of this book through a talk by Bill Gates. He had since blogged about this book and the organization in general. I very much enjoyed this book.

In the US, the prevailing assumption is that kids from low income background, with parents who also struggled with schooling in their youth and hold low paying work, do not have the same potential to achieve higher grades as their more affluent counterparts. As such, public schools in these areas don’t often provide challenging lessons, top notch teachers, or longer school days. Students in such schools perform consistently poorly on standardized tests and the cycle of poverty perpetuates.

KIPP’s founders wanted to change that. Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin – two white, Ivy League grads in their twenties who met at a gathering for Teach for America, decided to forge their own path to education – they would be driven by a mission, focused on measuring against their goals, and upend conventional thinking if they have to – and they did.

KIPP school days are long – from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday. Every other Saturday, student comes to school for half a day, and for a few weeks during summer vacation, kids come into school also. Long school days have shown to help immerse students in the school program, and keep the children occupied for the same length of time while parents are working. Teachers provide their cell phone numbers to students so they can call anytime should they have issues with homework or seeking other kinds of help. Whereas in a conventional educational system, teachers are discouraged from visiting families, the KIPP founders saw this as an important avenue for building trust and earning support for the kids’ parents if they visited the family and accepted invitation to dine on some occasions.

The KIPP teachers work hard – beside the long hours, they need to encourage and motivate students who don’t enjoy as much support from affluent parents. It takes a different set of skills and constant attention. Feinberg and Levin didn’t start out as great teachers and struggled here initially – they couldn’t keep students focused, disciplined, and had a tough time making the lessons stick. But they search and ceaselessly pursued successful teachers in the local community to mentor them.  They learned that different discipline techniques are needed in different locales, and that kids can memorize math rules if they are taught through songs and rhymes, and how to be attentive and maintain order in class.

On the administrative side, Feinberg and Levin must do all of the above while finding venues for their program with little funding. In one instance, the lack of school space meant a KIPP class had to be held under the sun out on the sidewalk. The cofounders also had to earn the trust of low income families so they’d let their kids into the program and local education experts who they’d like to have as mentors against their Ivy League background. They’ve done so with persistence and sometimes ruffling some feathers.

The message is clear to students and their parents that KIPP is driven by founders who cared about the success of the students. The hard work seems to be paying off. As Mathews notes in his book:

About 80 percent of KIPP students are from low-income families. About 95 percent are black or Hispanic. The fourteen hundred students at twenty-eight KIPP schools in twenty-two cities who have completed three years of KIPP’s four-year middle school program have gone on average from the 34th percentile at the beginning of fifth grade to the 58th percentile at the end of seventh grade in reading and from the 44th percentile to the 83rd percentile in math. Gains that great for that many low-income children in one program have never happened before.

Successful as the organization has been, and vigorous and positive as the debate it stirred up has produced, KIPP is still young and there are questions as to whether it can be scaled across the US with similar effectiveness, or of its long term effect, or if the kids that have performed well were the result of an admission process that favoured kids with such potential in the first place. KIPP appears to be taking such discussions seriously and are conducting researches on these issues.

It remains to be seen whether KIPP can remain and sustain their earlier success, but signs are encouraging. I was glad to have read this book, to see how the entrepreneurial spirit is applied in the education space to great effect. Personally, I find it very heartening that the determinant factor to a student’s success seem not necessarily about resource and class size (though they do help), but on teachers who ceaselessly care for the students, demand the best from them, and become a champion for their cause.