Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America

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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 ...

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Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

USA Today
“A vivid account of two young men who transform themselves from ‘terrible’ first-year teachers into visionaries.”–USA Today
“The improbable story of how KIPP was founded in 1994 by David Levin and Michael Feinberg, two young Teach for America alumni in Houston, is thrilling and worthy reading.”—Slate
World magazine
"A lively account of the way two young guys with more passion than knowledge overcame bureaucratic and financial barriers, garnered knowledge from experienced teachers, and made those ideas and techniques core KIPP ideas. Mathews makes his book as entertaining as any novel by weaving personal and professional stories and by surrounding his two stars with interesting characters." —World magazine
Richard D. Kahlenberg
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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

"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. (Jan.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Mathews's (Escalante: The Best Teacher in America) book follows the lives of the two educators who founded the successful Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a system of 65 schools that have revolutionized inner-city education. In 1995, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, tired of urban classroom chaos, came up with KIPP to help guarantee student success from grade school to college. They fought against classroom apathy, and reached out to students through homework assistance over the phone and regular home visitations with parents. The result has been an increasing group of self-motivated inner-city kids who have raised expectations for themselves and their future. However, it wasn't easy. Levin and Feinberg were constantly tested by unbending educational bureaucrats, uncooperative parents, and budget constraints. Though the book's writing structure is a bit scattered and repetitive, it does well to convey how KIPP continues to change lives despite criticism from outsiders. Suitable for public libraries.
—Karen Long

Kirkus Reviews
Washington Post education writer Mathews (Supertest, 2005, etc.) follows two dynamic teachers as they develop an effective school system tailor-made for "children stuck at the bottom of our public education system."Mike Feinberg, 23, and Dave Levin, 22, met in 1992 while working for Teach for America, an idealistic program these novice educators found of little help in coping with overcrowded classrooms serving desperately poor populations. So in 1994 they launched their own initiative, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), which offered fifth- to eighth-grade students from low-income families the chance to learn beyond what other instructors believed they could handle. The first classroom was in north Houston, but Levin soon moved on to the South Bronx. Mathews depicts both men as headstrong and protective of their students. Feinberg became known as an "unholy nuisance," and Levin continually locked horns with school administrators. The tools they employed to motivate students included incentive "paychecks" for good grades and behavior, "porching" (in-class sequestering) to discipline unruly students, commitment agreements among teachers, parents and students, and class field trips. Intermittent anarchy and chaos eventually subsided, test scores began to soar and so did media attention, including a 60 Minutes segment on KIPP. Interspersed among the chronicle of Feinberg and Levin's struggle to galvanize support for their program are three chapters detailing the progress of reluctant fifth-grade football hopeful Jaquan Hall from poorly educated misfit to responsible student. Mathews does a smart, respectable job here. Frankly elucidating the major struggles and roadblocks inherent inattempting to reform how underprivileged children are taught, he nonetheless leaves readers convinced of the truth in Levin's idealistic statement on his Teach for America application: "an educator could change lives."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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565125162
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 1/20/2009
  • Pages: 329
  • Sales rank: 172,181
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet 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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Table of Contents


1. Learning to Push....................7
2. Risk Takers at Play....................14
3. Road Trip Wisdom....................20
4. Problems in Houston....................25
5. Meeting Harriett Ball....................31
6. Staying Late after Class....................37
7. Michael's Smoke Signal....................43
8. Feeling Like a Lesser Levin....................46
9. Second-Year Teachers....................52
10. Meeting Rafe Esquith....................56
STUDY HALL KIPP Today: Jaquan Begins....................63
11. Getting Permission....................71
12. Firing Mr. Levin....................79
13. Ice Cream and Spinach....................84
14. Money from Mattress Mack....................94
15. All Will Learn....................98
16. Big Dogs on the Porch....................107
17. A Room in Motion....................114
18. Investigating New York....................119
19. In the News....................122
20. One on One....................127
21. Recruiting in Gulfton....................131
22. Serenading Bill....................135
23. Changing Places....................143
24. Harriett and Herman....................147
STUDY HALL. KIPP Today: Jaquan Climbs the Mountain....................151
25. "Them Jews Are Stealing Your Stuff"....................159
26. "What's With This Guy?"....................166
27. Off the Porch....................169
28. Starting Again in Houston....................175
29. Climbing the Fence....................184
30. Taking Away the TV....................188
31. Going to Utah....................192
32. Banished to the Playground....................196
33. Ambushing the Superintendent....................200
34. Dave and Frank....................208
35. "I'm Not Going to That School"....................216
36. Silencing the Loudspeaker....................220
37. Giving Up....................223
38. Moving Fast....................228
39. A Chair Takes Flight....................234
40. Letting Go....................240
41. Kenneth and the Golden Ticket....................245
42. "You Can't Say That to Me"....................248
43. "That's Where It Starts"....................252
STUDY HALL KIPP Today: Jaquan Improves....................257
44. Six People in a Room....................263
45. Too Big a Heart....................269
46. Skeptical of KIPP....................274
47. Little Laboratories....................281
48. Mentors....................288
49. Alumni....................291
50. "Tall Teacher, Sweet Face"....................295
51. Master Class....................302
52. Remembering Room 220....................308
Honor Roll....................315
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First Chapter

Work Hard. Be Nice.

How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America
By Jay Mathews


Copyright © 2009 Jay Mathews
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56512-516-2

Chapter One

Learning to Push

At age twenty-six, Mike Feinberg was supervising seventy low-income, mostly Hispanic fifth graders at Askew Elementary School in west Houston. It was 1995. They were the latest recruits for the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which rhymes with trip. It was a new but imperiled middle school program Feinberg and his friend Dave Levin, twenty-five, had started the year before.

That first year, they had run the program together in one crowded classroom at Garcia Elementary School in north Houston and they had doubled the number of students passing the state tests in that group. They wanted to create full-size fifth-through-eighth-grade middle schools, and they were going to do it in two separate cities. Levin had decided to move back to his hometown, New York City, to start a KIPP fifth grade in the South Bronx. Feinberg stayed in Houston to start a new KIPP fifth grade at a different school, Askew Elementary, since there was no room for his expansion plan at Garcia. Few of the people they knew thought KIPP would last very long in either Houston or New York. It was too stressful an approach, with long school days and very intense lessons. And Feinberg and Levin? They were too young and inexperienced to pull it off.

Feinberg had only one important ally, the Houston Independent School District's west district superintendent, Anne Patterson, and he had already tested her patience far beyond the point most school administrators would tolerate. He was hard to ignore, six foot three and very talkative, with a very short haircut as accommodation to his premature baldness. He was full of creative ideas but also had many demands and complaints. He was developing a reputation for being an unholy nuisance.

Patterson, a stylish dresser with a crown of thick red hair, often ended her day in tense meetings with Feinberg. She leaned forward on her desk. She kneaded her forehead with her fingers. She tried to figure out a way to get this effusive, overgrown adolescent to accept her view of the latest crisis so that she could go home.

At this particular moment in Feinberg's first year running KIPP Academy Houston by himself, he was near the breaking point. Space had to be found somewhere the following year for Feinberg to add a sixth grade on his way to a fifth-through-eighth-grade program. Patterson needed a building principal who could stomach Feinberg, and whom Feinberg, one of the least collegial educators she had ever met, would be capable of sharing a building with.

"I can be quiet and accommodating," Feinberg told her, "until I perceive in any way, shape, or form that someone is doing anything directly or indirectly to fuck with my babies, and then I become Mama Bear." Patterson already knew this. Patterson had promised to tell Feinberg by the Christmas holiday what space she had found for his expanded school, but it was January and she had no information for him. He kept calling her and showing up at her office. "Mike, you've got to be patient," she said.

Feinberg felt the Houston Independent School District was like an ocean liner: it took forever to make even the smallest turn. He would have preferred to be paddling a canoe - small, light, versatile, ready to careen down any rapids in its way. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that he would not be having this trouble if he were teaching the children of affluent Anglo parents in the River oaks neighborhood. His students lived in Gulfton, a sprawling collection of apartment complexes full of Central American immigrants. If KIPP had been in River oaks, getting reviews from parents as favorable as Feinberg was getting in Gulfton, and if that mythical River oaks KIPP had not been able to find space for the following year, those rich parents would have been screaming and yelling and the school district would quickly have found a way to give him everything he wanted.

Perhaps he should start screaming and yelling. Perhaps not. It often seemed to do more harm than good. But what if it were not him but his students who made the noise? with that thought began the KIPP Academy's first advocacy-in-democracy lesson. One of the advantages of the long KIPP day, from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., was that there was time for creative diversions. He explained to the children that American citizens participated in their government not only by voting but also by exercising their right to file grievances with whoever was in charge. This included the people who ran schools, motor vehicle departments, housing agencies, public hospitals, tax assessment bureaus, and garbage collection companies. Some people petitioning for redress wrote letters. Some used the telephone. The point was never to accept bad service or bad products without a protest.

Feinberg had his fifth graders practice proper manners when complaining to officialdom. It was important to be persistent, but also polite. They had to act like serious adults. "Look, the minute you call up and start giggling on the phone, this is all ruined," he said. He waved his arms as he stood in front of a blackboard full of key words and phrases. "These are not crank calls. You are not Bart Simpson, calling Moe's tavern and seeing if you can get the bartender to say something nasty."

He gave them a script to practice with: "Hello, my name is Armando Ruiz. I am an extremely hardworking student. I am part of the KIPP Academy and we were supposed to know where we were going to be next year, which school building we would be moving to, but we don't know yet. I wonder if you have any information to give me about where our new school is going to be. My family and I are very worried about where we're going to be next year because we want to make sure we continue to get a great education."

The next day would be a good time for them to make the calls, Feinberg told them, since they would be at home. It was a professional development day. Only teachers would be in school. He handed each child a list of the telephone numbers of twenty administrators, including the Houston Independent School District superintendent, the deputy superintendent, the director of facilities, the director of transportation, members of the school board, and Patterson herself.

About 9:30 a.m. the next day, he got a message that he had an urgent telephone call. There was no phone in the KIPP trailers. He had to walk to the Askew main office. The call was from Patterson.

"Mike! Make them stop! Make them stop now!"

"Anne? what are you talking about?"

"You know damn well what I'm talking about. They are calling me. They are calling the district. I am starting to get people in the district calling me and yelling at me. Make them stop now."

"Anne, I can't," he said. "They're at home."

"What do you mean, they're at home?"

"This is our professional development day. They are at home."

"How are they calling, then?"

"I gave them all the numbers."

"You whaattt? You gave them all these numbers? The switchboard is ringing off the hook. They're all calling."

"What are they saying?" he asked. He was interested in how well his students had carried out their assignment.

"They want to know where they're going to be next year."

"And what's wrong with that?" Feinberg said. It was best to keep Patterson on the defensive. "Like, you don't tell me where we are going to be next year, so I am having the kids ask."

Patterson ended the conversation quickly. Feinberg, as she expected, was going to be no help. She would have to explain to her bosses what had happened. As was standard operating procedure for administrators dealing with mischievous underlings, she would tell everyone she was going to put a stop to this.

But that was a lie. There was something about Mike, and his friend Dave, that she thought deserved both protection and encouragement, even if they were two of the most exasperating teachers she had ever met.

Levin was having similar trouble in New York City. Now fourteen hundred miles apart, he and Feinberg still spoke to each other by telephone nearly every day. Levin envied Feinberg's chutzpah in unleashing his advocacy-loving students on the Houston school bureaucracy. He was sure the Houston officials would bend. He wished New York were as easy.

Like Feinberg, Levin was hard to miss. He was the same height, six foot three, although a bit leaner. While teaching a lesson, he was always moving, talking, asking questions, keeping everyone on top of what was going on. Levin was making some progress in the classroom. He was turning into an exceptional teacher, but it was clear to him that he was not good enough.

Twelve of the forty-seven students Levin recruited his first year in the South Bronx had quit by the time he started his second year. The woman he had hired to serve as an administrative director had developed a philosophical dislike of his methods and had left. Frank Corcoran, the sweet-tempered teacher who had come from Houston to help him, was having trouble maintaining discipline in his classes. The Porch, a way of disciplining children by isolating them in the classroom, had worked in Houston but not in the Bronx, and Levin stopped using it. His students were used to punishment and hard times. They didn't see being forced to sit in the corner and not to talk to classmates as any great penalty. Levin looked for ways to raise his students' morale and his own. He asked his barber to shorten his big mop of curly hair, hoping it would make him feel sharper. But it still wasn't enough.

Levin was not sure where to turn. Marina Bernard, a young teacher he hired after he fired his school director, had a suggestion. She had taught at Intermediate School 166, a public school for sixth-through-eighth graders, also in the Bronx. It was full of kids with the same troublesome attitudes the KIPP students had.

"I know what you need," she said to Levin. "You need to go over to 166. He's there. You just got to learn how to control him."

She was speaking of a Bronx public school legend, Charlie Randall. He was a forty-nine-year-old music teacher who had grown up virtually parentless in the poorest neighborhoods of Orlando, Florida. He was a talented teacher, famous for producing terrific bands and orchestras with children who had never played instruments before. But he was also, everyone said, quite volatile. There were stories of his violent temper. On at least two occasions, they said, he had done serious harm to school staffers who had wounded him in ways he could not forgive.

Randall's first look at Levin confirmed his assumption: another crazy white boy. The kid was arrogant too. Who the hell did he think he was to come into Randall's neighborhood and act as if he was going to rescue Randall's kids? The veteran teacher already knew how to help disheartened and confused students find a way in life. He had grown up like that himself. He knew how to reach them. Could this Yale man ever understand such children?

Randall was polite, but he told Levin he was going to stay where he was. Levin kept calling. He knew as well as Feinberg the power of the personal approach, of advocacy that politely and persistently made the points that had to be made, over and over. He called Randall nearly every day. "How you doin', Charlie? How are things going?" he said. Did Randall have some advice for Levin on adding a music program? Could he come over on Thursday afternoons to teach music to a few KIPP kids?

The last request was a way to earn extra money, so Randall agreed. He brought with him the battered instruments he always kept in the trunk of his car: an old keyboard held together with duct tape, a beat-up violin, a couple of drums, and a few bells. When he got to KIPP, he was surprised. There was a warmth that he did not usually find in schools in the Bronx. The bulletin boards were colorful and welcoming. The kids were absorbed in what they were doing.

Levin kept coming at him. But the young teacher had no master plan. If he had envisioned what would happen - that Randall would create an orchestra that would include every student in the school and become an East Coast sensation - if he had dared even to suggest such a thing to Randall, he would have been dismissed by the older man as completely insane.

Finally Levin came up with the right argument. During one of their telephone conversations, Randall was explaining for the eighty-ninth time that he was just too old and too set in his ways to change schools. "I'm established. I am a master teacher. I have teacher-of-the-year awards and other stuff like that. I just don't need this."

"Wait," Levin said. "when you retire, what are you going to leave behind?"

Randall thought about it. "well, nothing," he said. "I have these awards, and some memories. That is all I expect."

"That's a mistake," Levin said. "If you come with us, you will have me, and Marina, and the other staff that will be coming on board. You can leave everything you know with us, and we can carry on your legacy."

Whoa, Randall thought. That was a tough one. It was coming from a smart-ass kid. What did he know about legacies? But Levin wasn't going to give up, as Randall had thought he would. Levin said he wanted to stay in the ghetto, unlike those other Ivy League guys that always left. If he was working that hard to get Randall, maybe he meant it.


Excerpted from Work Hard. Be Nice. by Jay Mathews Copyright © 2009 by Jay Mathews. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted May 14, 2009

    An important book and a great read

    This book fully debunks the myth that children from low-income families or inner-cities can't succeed in school. Yes, schools that serve these children have more difficulty achieving the standards and performance of schools in wealthier areas, but after reading this book you will amazed at what a school filled with teachers focused on improving educational outcomes for children can achieve.

    While reading, pay attention to the emphasis on constant improvement. The question asked is always, "Is what we're doing improving educational outcomes for students?" If it's not, can it and trying something else. This level of professionalism and hard work reminds me of the way the top and most prestigious corporations run: how can the corporation create value for its customers. It's this similar emphasis to constant improvement that distinguishes the KIPP schools described in this book from the bureaucratic and languid public school system. A system that ultimately fails, on the whole, to educate the least privileged among us.

    From start to finish, an engrossing read--particularly if you are interested in education and the future of this country.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2009

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    Inspiring for a wanna-be teacher

    I thought this book was great; It's wonderful to hear about the good things that are happening in education out there, when we hear so much negative in the news. I love hearing about teachers who are working so hard for our kids and not giving up on them.

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