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Original Essays

Work Hard. Be Nice.

by Jay Mathews
  1. Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America
    $4.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Mathews' innate ability to be at once observer and commentator makes this an insightful and enlightening book." Publishers Weekly

    "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

With growing alarm, Anne Patterson received an increasingly angry series of phone calls one January morning in 1996. She was area superintendent for a part of the sprawling Houston Independent School District and an experienced educator. Officials from school district headquarters, though, were yelling at her as if she were an errant eighth grader. It seemed that one of her principals, a 27-year-old malcontent named Mike Feinberg, had pulled another of his stunts. This one he was calling the "advocacy-in-democracy" lesson. Administrators were not amused. Apparently he had instructed his 70 fifth-graders to call 20 board members and high-level officials and complain that nothing had been done to find them a school building for the following year. Their school, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Academy, planned to add a sixth grade on its way to becoming a fifth- through eighth-grade school, but no space had been secured yet. The 10-year-old callers, all from low-income families, were well coached and extremely polite, and so the administrators were forced to be kind to all these nice children, who kept calling all day. Which is why the administrators were now calling Patterson. They wanted this stopped.

Feinberg's friend Dave Levin — the two of them had co-founded KIPP the year before — was just as bad as Feinberg. Levin had distinguished himself some years back when he had refused to exempt 11 students in his fourth grade from the state achievement test, even after his principal directed him to do so. The principal was afraid that these recent immigrants and learning-disabled students would fail the test and make his school look bad. He needed a teacher's or parent's signature, so when Levin said no, the principal asked the parents. They also refused. That nice Mr. Levin, they explained, had told them he thought their children could pass the test. Don't sign any papers the principal might send you, he'd said. Your kids are learning. They can do it. The principal fired Levin for insubordination, even though his faculty had just voted to make the young man Teacher of the Year.

To many Houston administrators who had to handle the mounting problems of their impoverished districts, swollen with kids who could not read or write, Feinberg and Levin were as irresponsible as vandals spray-painting graffiti on the headquarter building's walls. So they were not unhappy when Levin decided to move to New York, where many of the administrators who had encountered him in Houston assumed his insane plan to start a KIPP school in the South Bronx would fail. Feinberg also seemed on the brink of having his KIPP plans blocked in Houston. Many people hoped he, too, would go back to wherever he came from. Why did these annoying novices want to make daily life hard for everyone else? Did they try intentionally to make people mad? The administrators thought they cared about kids just as much as Levin and Feinberg did, but rules were rules. They had worked longer and harder, knew more, and deserved some deference.

The story of Feinberg's "advocacy-in-democracy" lesson and Levin's refusal to excuse his kids from the big test were among many factors that led me to write a book about them. Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America explores America's education issues and goes deep into the lives of these two men; but the parts of their story that excite me most are their frequent attempts to push boundaries to improve achievement — and the ways they are repeatedly slapped around for it. I hope it's a useful lesson for inner-city educators everywhere, as well as the Obama administration's incoming education team, which is tasked with reviving our moribund urban schools and providing low-income students the creative and challenging education they deserve.

I have spent a lot of time in some of the worst schools in the country. What strikes me is how little outrage is expressed about the low standards and decrepit conditions that characterize such places. As if getting upset won't do any good. But when Feinberg and Levin became angry and broke the rules, infuriating many of their superiors — even their champion Anne Patterson — it did make a difference. Feinberg got the space he needed for the following year. Levin's students passed the state test. By giving their bosses stomachaches, by ignoring the tendency to go along and get along, Levin and Feinberg started down a road that has produced 66 KIPP schools in 19 states and D.C. The one thousand eighth graders who have completed four grades of KIPP have jumped on average from the 32nd percentile to the 60th percentile in reading and from the 40th to the 82nd percentile in math. Gains that great for that many low-income children in one program have never happened before.

To get such results, do teachers and parents and administrators have to be insufferable? Maybe not. Feinberg, now 40, and Levin, now 38, are more mature and less irritating than they were in 1994 when they started KIPP. They are recommending to the new KIPP principals, who have a similarly free hand in running their own schools, that they emphasize persistent persuasion rather than sudden ambushes. Yet anger, or at least firmness in the face of apathy, has its uses. The best educators I know, like Levin and Feinberg, would like to see students given more homework — and disciplined when they don't complete it. They want their principals to point out to teachers when they are not engaging every student in their classes, and help them to do it. They want to see a change in the habits of parents, both rich and poor, who tend to complain much more about inconveniences like alterations in vacation schedules than they do about inadequate teaching.

Anne Patterson remembers her own failure to use rage when it might have done some good. During her first teaching job in Houston, she found herself continually short of supplies for her elementary school students. She had to spend her own money to buy what her students needed. After several months, she happened to visit the office of the school's supplies coordinator. Behind the woman's office was a large storage room with all the items that Patterson had been denied. Was the coordinator padding her salary by hoarding supplies to sell? Did she surrender them just to teachers she liked? Patterson never found out. She was a 27-year-old probationary hire. She knew enough not to ask, or complain. She met Feinberg and Levin when they, too, were about that age. When I asked her how she thought they would have handled the case of the missing supplies, Patterson said she had no doubt: "They would have staged a robbery or something, but they would have got them."

It is risky to reveal a passionate commitment to better results at the workplace. Pushy people are rarely popular. Some will assume the crusader is trying to impress a supervisor or make a political point. Many fine teachers who tried to make changes when they were young have learned that it is, at least in their schools, a waste of energy. Not everyone has the advantage of being as young and determined and as ignorant of urban school realities as Levin and Feinberg were when they started.

But it is a new era in Washington — and in many city schools. This time a little more anger and a little more passion may work.

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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. spacer

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