I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Cult of KIPP Encounters Another Heretic

KIPP - the Knowledge Is Power Program - is America's preeminent charter school juggernaut. With 125 schools in 20 states and Washington, D.C., KIPP is the darling of reformy, pro-charter pundits.

It also has a bit of a reputation for being like a cult [all emphases mine]:
Indeed, Mathews likens KIPP to a cult "without the dues or the weird robes." But by definition, a cult is a fringe movement. To date, no one—including such mighty players as the Gates Foundation—has figured out how to take an educational cult and make it the predominant religion within any urban system.
I was a teacher at a KIPP school for 1 /1/2 years. (Not in NYC) It was the most horrible experience of my life. The teachers and students are literally in school for 11 hours a day. You basically have no personal life as it is all about KIPP. The school has a cult like mentality with chants, rituals, and an obsessive focus on “being nice, work hard, get into college”.  
"People say we're like a cult," says Marc Mannella, an intense, athletic-looking 34-year-old who founded KIPP Philadelphia in 2003, served as its first principal, and is now its CEO. "But people say that about Disney, too."
Third grade teachers were required to return to work over Christmas break (including New Years Eve) for special "training" in "Teach Like a Champion" techniques [the book by Doug Lemov that has replaced teacher preparation and professional development in these chain gangs]. During this training, a lady named Sue Welch from "Building Excellent Teachers" instructed us on what our first day back with the kids would look like: four hours (8-12pm) of teaching nothing but procedures. When I asked if perhaps we should do something to make it at least a little more "fun," she told me that fun was absolutely not an "appropriate objective." 
OK, that's enough for now - even though I could go on for quite some time. The point is that KIPP encourages a culture of fealty in both its staff and its students.

Which makes this story out of Camden all the more remarkable:
George E. Norcross III does not lose often. 
Nor does he lose easily: When Camden’s school board recently rebuffed a Norcross-backed bid to bring a Hope Act school to the city, the de facto leader of South Jersey Democrats quickly renewed the push for his goal.
Norcross declined to comment on specifics of the vote or his plans to revive the proposal, though he did express frustration and disappointment at the 4-4 vote he thought he would win. 
With the Urban Hope Act, powerful figures in local and state government advanced Norcross’ vision for a five-school complex near Cooper and the new medical school. The venture would be operated through an alliance of charitable foundations for Cooper and the Norcross family, and by KIPP, a national charter school operator.
For those of you not from South Jersey, let me explain: George Norcross runs Camden County like Jabba the Hut runs Tatooine. He wanted this KIPP school very, very badly; for him not to get it is almost unthinkable.

So, who were his betrayers?
But the BOE’s tally was 4-4, with one abstention, meaning the proposal failed. The other three proposals were spurned unanimously, with an abstention on each. 
The [Camden Mayor] Redd administration, which did not comment for this story, had embarrassingly miscounted. 
Voting against the Cooper/Norcross/KIPP bid were Sara Davis, Sean Brown, Kathryn Ribay and Brian Turner.
They all had their reasons, but Ribay is the most astonishing story:
The next two negative votes, though, were a shock. 
The Redd administration had wrongly expected support from Ribay based on her background.
Ribay is a Collingswood science teacher who’d come up through the reform-oriented Teach for America program. Her husband has taught at a KIPP school in Philadelphia and is on the board of a Camden charter school.
Ribay said an intermediary with a career background at TFA and KIPP lobbied for her support of the proposal until an hour before the board meeting. She declined to identify the person.
Known for being circumspect, Ribay said the intermediary may have mistakenly believed she would support the bid. But Ribay noted she never said exactly how she would vote.
“I’m not pro-charter, I’m not anti-charter. I’m for good schools,” said Ribay, who comes from a family of educators and holds a master’s in education from Harvard University and is pursuing a chemistry master’s degree at Rutgers.
While the state’s shifting process for vetting the Hope Act proposals “irked” her, Ribay said she voted against the Norcross proposal due to her perspective as an educator.

I ultimately made my votes on the merits, on the scope of the proposal, and the fact that the KIPP proposal had no checkpoints for opening each new school,” she said.
Wow. Not only did she betray Norcross; she betrayed her reformy roots in KIPP and TFA. How bad must this proposal be to engender such disloyalty?

The most interesting part of the story to me is that an "intermediary" was dispatched from the mothership to try to bring Ribay back into line. If that isn't cult-like behavior, I don't know what is. Who sent this envoy, I wonder? What sort of case did he make? Did he mention KIPP had already failed in Camden and was back for another try?

I often get the impression that the reformies like to believe that they are saving poor people from themselves; as if democracy was something that only the affluent can handle. Well, many people in Camden are not happy that the state is reneging on its promise to build new public schools in their city, opting instead for charters approved by the political and cultural elite. Like many other urban communities, they are tired of being told what's good for them.

This indignation is a powerful force; it may be more powerful than political machines and the cult of well-heeled corporate reformers combined. Time will tell.

No comments: