Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Book Review: Work Hard. Be Nice.

For years, people have been trying to find the panacea for the achievement gap in American schools. One of the most recent attempts is the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), started by Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, two Teach for America alumni. The KIPP schools, which are now found in several states and serve students from elementary to high school, offer a mixture of strict discipline, energetic chanting and singing, and more time spent in school (the school day is nine and a half hours long and students go to school on alternate Saturdays and in the summer). Jay Mathews’s book Work Hard. Be Nice provides an interesting and approachable if somewhat uneven look at the start of KIPP.

The book's s
ubtitle, “How Two Inspired Teachers Created America’s Best Schools,” leaves little to the imagination when determining Mathews’s opinion on KIPP. However, to Mathews’s credit, his account attempts to present different sides of the KIPP debate. Rather than making the program’s implementation seem easy, Mathews shows the many difficulties, ranging from colleague jealousy to administrative bureaucracy, that come with starting something different. Mathews also does not ignore Feinberg’s and Levin’s many missteps during their early years in teaching for TFA and creating KIPP. Although he portrays some of the anecdotes, such as Feinberg’s decision to have his students call school board members and inquire about the progress made in finding KIPP a new place, as drastic but necessary tactics or eccentric stunts designed to get needed attention, Mathews does not gloss over some of the more obvious errors that Feinberg and Levin commit.

er, the account still poses some problems. Mathews’s view of Feinberg, Levin, and KIPP is tremendously positive. While he does recognize some of the concerns critics of the KIPP schools have, he fails to provide compelling or substantive evidence that supports his rejection of these concerns. For instance, when faced with the contention that the KIPP students’ achievements may be attributed to them having a supportive home life because their parents value education, Mathews argues that the KIPP students do not have a family advantage because the system “puts less, not more, responsibility on parents than regular public schools do” (282) and points to the extended school day and Saturday and summer classes as opportunities for free child care. This line of reasoning neglects the parents’ efforts in getting their children into KIPP schools and assumes that the parents do not rely on their children to bring in an income from after-school work or to help at home by taking care of younger siblings. This failure to look under the surface to get a better understanding of the situation at hand weakens Mathews’s overall argument.

ther limitation with the book is its structure. While it revolves around Feinberg and Levin, Mathews also discusses their relationship with other teachers, such as Ball, and students. These relationships do humanize the two men. However, by interspersing ongoing stories about students with the basically linear narrative of Feinberg and Levin, Mathews sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to fully follow the different threads. While this problem is easily solved by flipping through the book and finding the previous thread to a given account, this solution makes for an occasionally unsatisfying experience.

rall, Work Hard. Be Nice will probably not sway critics of the KIPP schools. Before starting this review, I had some serious misgivings about the program, and these uncertainties remain even after reading and enjoying this book. Although the KIPP model may not present all of the answers or even be “America’s best schools” as the book’s subtitle claims, Mathews’s account is absorbing and provides an understandable, if somewhat biased, introduction for people who are not familiar with education or KIPP but want to learn more about both topics.