Julian Vasquez Heilig explains that he first started researching charter schools because of his encounter with KIPP Austin.

He planned to work with KIPP Austin on their problems with attrition of black male students. Then Oprah celebrated KIPP as just the right place for black students, and the collaboration and research project were dead.

Now he reviews Jim Horn’s book about KIPP from his perspective as a knowledgeable researcher. The new book is called “Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys Through “No Excuses” Teaching.”

KIPP is the most celebrated charter chain in the nation. It has received hundreds of millions of dollars in gifts and grants from foundations, individuals, and government.

Horn and his collaborators write about the perspectives of some 30 disillusioned former KIPP teachers.

Heilig writes that screaming at students is common practice in KIPP charter schools:

Why does KIPP encourage and/or allow these practices? Horn writes, school leaders relayed that “because of cultural differences, black students are accustomed to being screamed at…because that’s how their parents speak to them.” A KIPP teacher characterized the worst offender at her school as a “screamer, swearer and humiliator…..”


KIPP might also argue that they are the beneficiaries of widespread support in communities across the nation. It is very clear that KIPP benefits from powerful influential and wealthy supporters in government, the media, and foundations. Their no excuses approach to educating poor children has resonated with the elites in society and they have showered the corporate charter chain with resources for decades. So it may be surprising to some to read the counternarrative from KIPP teachers that is quite different than what you typically read in the newspapers, see in documentaries like Waiting for Superman, and generally experience in the public discourse. I proffer that the KIPP teachers’ counternarratives in Journeys should be required reading for all of KIPPs influential supporters. Why? Mutua (2008) explained the importance of counternarratives in society:

In their broadest formulation, counternarratives are stories/narratives that splinter widely accepted truths about people, cultures, and institutions as well as the value of those institutions and the knowledge produced by and within those cultural institutions. The term counternarrative itself clearly highlights its essence in expressing skepticism of narratives that claim the authority of knowledge of human experience or narratives that make grand claims about what is to be taken as truth.

So what is the counternarrative that the current and former KIPP teachers? There is a saying that I often heard in Austin that if you visit a KIPP school you would become KIPPnotized— essentially very impressed by their approach. One of the KIPP teachers spoke to being initially impressed during her recruitment and then later discovering that KIPP was “hell.”

[A former teacher wrote:] There was so much about it that was so good and promising in the beginning, and I got hooked into that from the minute I saw the news piece on them… but the dirty little secrets are what you don’t know until you are in their trenches.

The KIPP teachers in Journeys detail a variety of working condition issues that created high levels of turnover specific to the KIPP model in their schools— too many to discuss here. One teacher compared her experience teaching in KIPP and a public school. She said she wouldn’t recommend teaching in KIPP and stated “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone who wanted to be a teacher for the long-term…It’s exhausting. It’s demoralizing.” You might be wondering: If the working conditions are as bad as the current and former KIPP teachers say they were, how could the charter chain campuses stay open? Journeys explains,

Without a constant infusion of new teachers to replace all those who burn out… KIPP would have to shut its doors… The role of Teach For America and programs based on Teach For America’s hyper-abbreviated preparation are crucial, then, for the continued survival of… KIPP….

In summary, Journeys is shocking— but expected considering what is known about KIPP’s “no excuses” culture. What makes this piece unique is the unprecedented interviews with current and former KIPP teachers across many schools and years in the charter chain. While many claim that KIPP is beyond reproach and is the shining star of charter schools, I submit that we should instead be asking whether KIPP can actually reform their reform based on the counternarratives provided by the KIPP teachers, or whether their approach is simply a pathological and abusive approach that the elites would never prescribe or allow for their own kids— except of course if they sent them away to military school.