Work Hard. Be Nice. by Jay Mathews
I received a copy of “Work Hard. Be Nice.” from the publisher recently. I was excited to read it, since it is about two alums of Teach for America and I am a Teach for America alum as well. However, I decided to allow my husband to read it first since he is still teaching and is very passionate about education reform and doing what is best for the students. Since giving it to him, I’ve become bogged down with review copies so, instead of reading it myself just yet, I submit for your reading pleasure a book review-interview.
Starting off, what is “Work Hard. Be Nice.” about?
It is about two Teach for America graduates – Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg – who were not satisfied with the standard public education system and decided to start their own charter school. They created what is now known as KIPP, the “Knowledge is Power Program.”
Does this talk much about their experiences in Teach for America?
It talked about how they struggled a lot in the first couple of years. Throughout their struggles, though, they had some really great mentor teachers who showed them the progress that could be made with their students.
What was it about their TFA experiences that led them to start their own charter school?
I wouldn’t say it was their TFA experiences, simply their experiences of being in the school system. They realized that if economically disadvantaged students were to even approach a level playing field in education, they had to work twice as hard as other students because they didn’t have the same advantages (tutors, etc) that students in higher economic brackets had. The current school system was just not providing an environment – such as longer school hours and motivated teachers – that enabled them to do so.
So how did they propose to remedy this inequality with their new charter school?
They had the kids in school from 7 am to 5 pm, but they also inspired the belief in their students that any one of them could get to college. They used a lot of highly energetic teaching styles and techniques so that everyone was involved and gave their home phone numbers to the students so that they could call them with questions at night with their homework. They did home visits and had the teacher, student and parents sign a commitment to excellence. Basically they wanted kids, families, and teachers to all be strongly invested in a student’s success.
This goes against a lot of the status quo. Did they encounter any negative pushback?
Definitely from their school district. They encountered resistance through bureaucratic and political slowdown; when they needed space for their program to grow, they would end up displaced or would get a lot of runaround. They had to keep fighting and fighting for the right thing for their students.
And did it pay off? All their fighting?
Definitely. From an organizational standpoint, they were able to keep their school and they now have around 66 schools and are still growing. More importantly, help their students make huge gains, things like moving from the 20th to the 80th percentile in both math and reading.
How did this book effect you personally?
It has inspired me not only to keep the fight going in my own school, but also to fight harder still. One of their mentors, Rafe Esquith, is mentioned in the book and that has led me to read the two books that are out about him and through those books and the stories in “Work Hard. Be Nice.”, I’ve come to realize that all really great teachers encounter heavy resistance from their school or districts when they want to better the education for their students, which helps me deal with any resistance I run into. The book has also inspired me to try to open up my own KIPP school and this summer I will be applying for their two-year fellowship, to start in the fall of 2010.
Who do you think would be interested in this book?
Teachers, parents, anyone interested in or concerned about the current state of public education. It definitely opens up your eyes a little bit. In addition, anyone that likes a success story, even if they’re not super interested in education. This is such an interesting book because these guys started from nothing and built up this nation-wide, hugely successful program.