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Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in Americaby Jay Mathews
Synopses & Reviews
When Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin signed up for Teach for America right after college and found themselves utter failures in the classroom, they vowed to remake themselves into superior educators. They did that — and more. In their early twenties, by sheer force of talent and determination never to take no for an answer, they created a wildly successful fifth-grade experience that would grow into the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), which today includes sixty-six schools in nineteen states and the District of Columbia.
KIPP schools incorporate what Feinberg and Levin learned from America's best, most charismatic teachers: lessons need to be lively; school days need to be longer (the KIPP day is nine and a half hours); the completion of homework has to be sacrosanct (KIPP teachers are available by telephone day and night). Chants, songs, and slogans such as "Work hard, be nice" energize the program. Illuminating the ups and downs of the KIPP founders and their students, Mathews gives us something quite rare: a hopeful book about education.
"'Many people in the United States believe that low-income children can no more be expected to do well in school than ballerinas can be counted on to excel in football,' begins Washington Post education reporter Mathews (Escalante: The Best Teacher in America). He delves into the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and follows the enterprise's founders, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, from their days as young educators in the Teach for America program to heading one of the country's most controversial education programs running today. Luckily for many low-income children, Feinberg and Levin believed that with proper mentors, student incentives and unrestrained enthusiasm on the part of the teachers, some of the country's poorest children could surpass the expectations of most inner-city public schools. Mathews emphasizes Feinberg and Levin's personal stakes in the KIPP program, as they often found themselves becoming personally involved with the families of their students (in one case Feinberg took the TV away from a student's apartment because the student's mother insisted that she could not stop her child from watching it). Mathews innate ability to be at once observer and commentator makes this an insightful and enlightening book." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Jay Mathews is a bit of a journalistic oddball. Most reporters see the education beat as a stepping stone to bigger things, but much to his credit Mathews, who writes for The Washington Post, returned to covering schools after an international reporting career. He is best known for his book on Jaime Escalante, who taught low-income children in East Los Angeles to excel in AP calculus and was featured... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) in the film "Stand and Deliver." Now Mathews is back to profile two young teachers — Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin — who founded the wildly successful Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a chain of 66 charter schools now educating 16,000 low-income students in 19 states and the District of Columbia. While I have some quarrels with the book's implicit and explicit public-policy conclusions, "Work Hard. Be Nice" provides a fast-paced, engrossing and heartening story of two phenomenally dedicated teachers who demonstrate that low-income students, if given the right environment, can thrive academically. In 52 short and easily digestible chapters, Mathews traces the story of two Ivy League graduates who began teaching in Houston in 1992 as part of the Teach for America program. Both struggle at first but come under the tutelage of an experienced educator, Harriett Ball, who employs chants and songs and tough love to reach students whom lesser teachers might give up on. Levin and Feinberg care deeply: They encourage students to call them in the evening for help with homework, visit student homes to get parents on their side and dig into their own pockets to buy alarm clocks to help students get to school on time. In Mathews' telling, it's hard not to love these guys. Their students flourish, but Levin and Feinberg worry about what will happen to the children under other teachers, so they come up with the idea of creating their own schools. Teachers would put in a longer school day (beginning at 7:15 and ending at 5 p.m.); teach Saturday classes and three weeks of summer school; and be subject to firing without due-process rights. Parents would sign contracts agreeing to check homework and read to their children at night. And students would go to school longer hours and do extensive homework each night in exchange for special rewards. Over time, the program began to attract favorable media attention and foundation support, including that of the co-founders of Gap, who bankrolled KIPP to the tune of $50 million. Today, KIPP has raised more money than any other system of charter schools and spends $1,100 to $1,500 more per pupil than regular public schools. Overall, test scores in KIPP schools have risen faster for more low-income students than anywhere else, Mathews writes. There are important lessons to draw from KIPP — such as the potential value of longer school days and the importance of teacher home visits — but there are also two misguided "lessons" that many readers may take from "Work Hard. Be Nice": that the KIPP example suggests that union-free charter schools are the key to closing the achievement gap and that poverty and school segregation are just excuses for teacher failure. Mathews himself doesn't explicitly endorse either position, but he lauds the union-free charter school structure. It provides, he writes, "a haven for Levin-Feinberg methods such as longer school days and school years, principals' power to fire poorly performing teachers, and regular visits to students' homes." Nevertheless, the highly accomplished KIPP Academy in the South Bronx, started by Levin, has been unionized from the beginning, as are the Green Dot charter schools that Mathews cites as equally successful. Meanwhile, plenty of nonunionized charter schools fail dismally. Some nonunion KIPP schools have suffered high rates of teacher turnover, and just last month teachers in two KIPP schools decided to unionize so they would have a greater voice in school affairs. Moreover, KIPP's experience does little to rebut the long-standing social-science consensus that poverty and segregation reduce achievement because in many respects KIPP schools more closely resemble middle-class than high-poverty public schools. KIPP does not educate the typical low-income student but rather a subset fortunate enough to have striving parents who take the initiative to apply to a KIPP school and sign a contract agreeing to read to their children at night. More important, among those who attend KIPP, 60 percent leave, according to a new study of California schools, many because they find the program too rigorous. As KIPP's reputation grew, it could select among the best teachers (who wish to be around high-performing colleagues), and it became funded at levels more like those of middle-class schools. None of this should take away from the wonderful education provided to children in KIPP's 66 schools, a tale beautifully rendered by Mathews. But neither should KIPP's story become the ultimate excuse for ignoring the devastating effects of school segregation and poverty. Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of "Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy." Reviewed by Richard D. Kahlenberg, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A grand example of humanitarianism in the classroom: Naysayers who believe there's no hope for America's inner-city schools haven't met Feinberg and Levin." Kirkus Reviews
"In Work Hard, Be Nice, Mathews captures the exuberance [and] intelligence...of two young educators. [They're] why KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program] schools are successful and why this book should be read by everyone who cares about education." Richard W. Riley, former U.S. Secretary of Education
"In Work Hard. Be Nice, Jay Mathews tells the compelling tale of the two young teachers who conceived and founded KIPP. Their inspiring story is more than one of triumph against the odds. It is a real-life parable for transforming our nation's failing schools and insuring bright futures for our most forgotten children." Michael L. Lomax, Ph.D., President & CEO, UNCF (United Negro College Fund)
Award-winning teacher and high-profile public speaker John Hunter offers insights into conflict resolution and collective problem-solving gleaned from his many years teaching kids through the "world peace game," an innovative global systems simulation he created.
In John Hunters classroom, students fearlessly tackle global problems and discover surprising solutions by playing his groundbreaking World Peace Game. These kids—from high school all the way down to fourth grade, in schools both well funded and underresourced—take on the roles of politicians, tribal leaders, diplomats, bankers, and military commanders. Through battles and negotiations, standoffs and summits, they strive to resolve dozens of complex, seemingly intractable real-world challenges, from nuclear proliferation to tribal warfare, financial collapse to climate change.
In World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements, Hunter shares the wisdom hes gleaned from over thirty years teaching the World Peace Game. Here he reveals the principles of successful collaboration that people of any age can apply anywhere. His students show us how to break through confusion, bounce back from failure, put our knowledge to use, and fulfill our potential. Hunter offers not only a forward-thinking report from the front lines of American education, but also a generous blueprint for a world that bends toward cooperation rather than conflict. In this deeply hopeful book, a visionary educator shows us what the future can be.
About the Author
Jay Mathews covers education for the Washington Post and has created Newsweek's annual Best High Schools rankings. He has won the Benjamin Fine Award for Outstanding Education Reporting for both features and column writing and is the author of six previous books, including Escalante: The Best Teacher in America, about the teacher who was immortalized in the movie Stand and Deliver.
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