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Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America Paperback – January 20, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From 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.)
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"Mathews does a smart, respectable job here. Frankly elucidating the major struggles and roadblocks inherent in attempting 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."--Kirkus

(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

"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


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 329 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; First Edition edition (January 20, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565125169
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565125162
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #106,468 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jay Mathews is a Washington Post education columnist and has created the Post's annual America's Most Challenging High Schools rankings. He has won several prizes, including the Benjamin Fine Award for Outstanding Education Reporting for both features and column writing, and is the author of nine books, including Escalante: The Best Teacher in America, about the teacher who was immortalized in the movie Stand and Deliver, and Work Hard. Be Nice, about the rise of the KIPP charter school network. He has spoken throughout the country on the need to bring challenging lessons to all students and release the untapped potential of low-income American children.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Timothy J. Bartik on February 11, 2009
Format: Paperback
Jay Mathews's book is a good story and description of the history and accomplishments of the KIPP schools. Among its strengths are the following:

1. It is a well-written and highly engaging book. The personal stories of KIPP's founders are interwoven with their battles with institutions in a manner that attracts and keeps the reader's attention.

2. The book includes some detailed stories of what goes on within KIPP schools. The book does a good job of describing key KIPP program elements that include longer school days and school years, more homework, more teacher home contact, along with an eclectic group of pedagogical techniques.

3. The book highlights the contribution to the KIPP model of teachers Harriett Ball and Rafe Esquith, who greatly influenced KIPP's founders.

4. The book is fair in discussing some criticisms of the KIPP model, including that it may select more motivated students and parents in some cases, and may lead to selective dropouts of students who do not progress as well.

Among its weaknesses are the following:

1. I was surprised that the book did not more extensively discuss WHY KIPP appears to be successful. To what extent can KIPP's effects on academic achievement simply be attributed to its students spending more time in school? It would be interesting to discuss this with KIPP teachers, students, and parents, and with educational researchers who have observed KIPP. There are empirical estimates available of how time in school affects achievement gains, and it might be interesting to see whether KIPP performs better or worse than one would expect given the increased time it implies in school.

2. The report did briefly discuss some of the empirical research on KIPP's outcomes.
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49 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Teresa Buczinsky on July 30, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
To their credit, no one in the KIPP story, neither the writer of this book, nor the teachers themselves, claims that the KIPP program is a panacea for all the ills of education among disadvantaged students. Nonetheless, I imagine that many of this book's readers are teachers like myself who continue to look for ideas and strategies proven successful in schools, especially among struggling students. I opened this book hoping that I might encounter an idea to apply in my own classroom or to bring up as an option for my school administrators as they look for ways to improve. This is not that kind of book.

Halfway through Work Hard, Be Nice, I realized that the heart of the KIPP method--extended teaching hours, Saturday school, summer school, evenings spent with students' families and a cell phone at hand to ensure that students can reach the teacher for homework help--was a recipe for teacher burn out. No one should be surprised by KIPP's success; these students get nearly twice as much attention as most students do. Unfortunately, KIPP's success seems to be built upon the backs of young, energetic teachers who do not yet have families and who do not seem to have a personal need for down time. For those of us who are committed to teaching as a lifetime profession, the book simply underlines what we already know: there are no short cuts, and there is never enough time to do all that we would like to for our students.

Five years into my career, I knew that I had to adopt some limits to the time I would give my students. If I didn't, I would end up leaving a career I loved. I began to limit my workday to eleven hours. That gave me one additional hour of prep and assessment time for each hour I spent with students.
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71 of 77 people found the following review helpful By Swimmer's mom on April 2, 2009
Format: Paperback
I read this book on a plane. It's a fascinating story, but could have used some serious editing, particularly with respect to chronology. There was too much jumping ahead and then rewinding, which was confusing, especially because the story moved between New York and Houston after the first several years and it was sometimes hard to keep straight which school we were reading about. I don't like the recreated dialogue convention -- obviously, no one was taking notes during all of these conversations and confrontations over more than a decade. And do all of the physical descriptions of the major players (other than the two teachers) really add to our understanding of this story? Do we really need to know when Feinberg and his wife-to-be began their physical relationship?
With regard to the small section devoted to empirical research, I believe that the author has too easily dismissed the observation that the students attending KIPP schools are not randomly selected. Although their family socioeconomic background may be identical to students who are languishing in nearby non-KIPP public schools, each of the KIPP students who perseveres in this program, and their parents or other relatives, has freely chosen to be there -- to do the extra work, to put in the extra time, and to push themselves. The relatively high dropout rate in some KIPP schools illustrates that this approach is not a panacea for all lower-income students, especially those non-immigrant students whose parents are so mired in their own dysfunction that they would never even consider a program like KIPP. (The differences the teachers noted between the Hispanic immigrant families in Houston and the mostly black families in New York was profound, and perhaps deserved more attention in the book.
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