Julian Vasquez Heilig has an interesting post over on his blog today which asks, “Are KIPP schools pathological?” I mean “interesting” in the sense that it’s an ironic question coming from someone pathologically obsessed with attacking education reform groups, particularly Teach For America – that is, when he’s not engaged in shameless self-promotion.

The study shows the only thing outpacing gains is his inflated self-regard:


However, in his recent post, JVH throws a bone to another obsessed anti-education reform academic (after all, they need to stick together), by bringing attention to the forthcoming book, Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys Through “No Excuses” Teaching, written by Jim Horn. Horn is a professor of education leadership at Cambridge College in Massachusetts and moonlights as an anti-reform activist on his blog, Schools Matter. [Full disclosure: Horn once called me a “smug little prick” when I called him out for being an out-of-touch, faux-radical academic.]  

Speaking truth to...well, not power, but ego.
Speaking truth to…well, not power, but ego.

Anyway, Work Hard, Be Hard is supposedly based on interviews with 30 current and former KIPP teachers, although we’re never told the breakdown between the two categories. As a former KIPP teacher and founding board member of KIPP New Orleans myself, I was interested to see what ridiculous accusations the piece would make about the organization and JVH’s review of Horn’s book didn’t disappoint. JVH starts out by describing KIPP as a “corporate charter school chain of schools” which has benefitted from “hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate, local, foundation, state and federal dollars since its inception in 1994.” As you can probably imagine, things go downhill from there. At various points in the post, JVH blames KIPP for the mental breakdown of one of his former students, claims KIPP uses “racialized and psychological solitary confinement” as a form of punishment, and manages students “largely through bullying, screaming and personal insults.” In short, you may know KIPP by its other name: Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Just your average KIPP school...in the mind of Julian Vasquez Heilig.
Just your average KIPP school…in the mind of Julian Vasquez Heilig.

For those of us who have worked with KIPP, these assertions are so ridiculous that they’re almost comic, especially given the tone of self-righteous gravity JVH employs in describing them. Of course, he offers little in the way of evidence to support his claims, but when you’re screaming from the margins, you can’t let something like evidence stop you from grabbing people’s attention. At the end of the day, the vitriol directed at KIPP and TFA has more to do with the pathology of those spewing it – like Julian Vasquez Heilig and Jim Horn – than it does with the organizations themselves. For education academics like JVH and Horn, these organizations only serve as reminders of the failures of the academic education field, as well as of themselves. KIPP and TFA elbowed-in on their turf and quickly beat them at their own game. The success of KIPP and TFA only exposed how atrophied and disconnected the Ivory Tower has become from the realities teachers and administrators face everyday in schools.


When KIPP schools send low-income students to college, it shows that you can do something beyond wringing your hands about poverty in a lecture hall. When studies repeatedly show that TFA teachers are as effective (if not more effective) as traditionally-trained teachers, people begin asking why many education school professors spend so much time writing opaque, jargon-laden “research” papers to pad their vitas. Plus, when your contribution to society amounts to a few articles in the Berkeley Review of Education or some other obscure journal no one reads, it’s easy to resent some upstart twenty-somethings who are actually making a difference in the lives of kids.

It almost makes you feel bad for them…OK, not really. Julian Vasquez Heilig and Jim Horn should do us all a favor and suffer with their existential angst silently, instead of lashing out at good people and their organizations who are changing the world for the better.


  1. Oh my god, I love this stuff. Who started the eye blackout thing? It just started like a month ago, and some might say you guys overuse it but I say it adds a sweet layer of Bat-Boy type legitimacy (ala’ the Weekly World News) that goes far beyond even the decades of classroom experience that comes through in this writing. Far more effective and definitely targets and wins a certain type of reader, reflects a deep level of care and understanding about the struggling America teachers are trying to serve. Like when Maury switched from issues to paternity testing. Smart move, and I told him so. He showed his audience he really cares.

  2. I’m concerned about the tone conveyed here, which implies there is a fixed, impermeable barrier separating practice (TFA, KIPP) and theory (Academia). Does KIPP, TFA, TNTP reject a priori all contributions from education research? Rich success in our communities is not about a self-interested race to find a definitive “best idea,” yell “claimed” (a la Walking Dead) and fight off all challengers.

    This discounts the many TFA alumni, staff, and CMs (myself included) who are eager to enrich their lived experience in schools with a deeper level of theoretical and empirical examination and reflection.

    Our goal should not be to avoid “opaque” words, but as we teach our students, to investigate them, understand them, and own them.

    Creating harmful rhetorical binaries – the equivalent of categorical name-calling and spitball tossing – does not serve the best interests of our students. I can only imagine what they might have to say about the substance of contributions like this.

    • You should be less concerned about the tone, since apparently you’re missing the point. Nowhere did I claim that practice and theory are mutually exclusive, nor did I reject – a priori or otherwise – all contributions from education research. However, I agree that, “rich success in our communities is not about a self-interested race to find a definitive ‘best idea,’ yell ‘claimed’ and fight off all challengers.” That’s exactly why I take issue with people like JVH and Horn who spend most of their waking hours trying to discredit and malign organizations like TFA and KIPP and who attempt to pass off something like “Word Hard, Be Hard” as legitimate research. This has nothing to do with you or your decision to pursue graduate studies in education.

      • Difficult to pick a “who is right” here. Like how “Super Walmart” was once a “Huh…what’s that?” back when …Now it serves a need it helped to create. Smart strategy and marketing. Just be good to have more discussion about the erosion of foundations versus the who’s better at repair.

  3. I know, value and appreciate Julian as a person and as a colleague. And, while I don’t know Pete Cook, I know, value and appreciate people with perspectives very much like his. I’ve been working in and around (as a researcher) the field of public education for 17.5 years, including a stint with TFA (I couldn’t handle the pressure) and time as a data coach in San Francisco during the design and implementation of the School Improvement Grant. Now I work a lot in the state of Montana. And so from where I am situated, I think you are both right and ywrong, and most importantly, both missing the biggest crisis. JVH is bothered by KIPP schools because they have found the precise formula that keeps kids learning at a rapid pace– face forward, eyes on the teacher, quickly and rapidly moving through the curriculum. This structure and pace is essential to get kids towards standards mastery in the most efficient manner. So it really looks like JVH doesn’t care (at least as much as he purports to) about the success of the kids who attend KIPP schools–kids of color and from low-income families. But JVH has different values and beliefs with respect to student learning— to him it’s less important that students do well on standardized tests (or even as top-notch violinists) as much as it is that they can think for themselves and question the world around them. In his view, this kind of education cannot take place in a sit-still, eyes-on-me kind of classroom. I agree with Pete’s assessment that it sometimes seems like JVH doesn’t realize or acknowledge the hard work of many TFA and KIPP teachers and leaders– and he could do more to acknowledge this, as no joke, it is HARD work. Lastly, because I know and love JVH I can say that I think he does like self-promotion but he also understands what it takes to be a public intellectual in the United States, much like Sir Ken Robinson– Americans do like their public intellectuals, so it’s a pretty influential place to stand. And Pete, you have to acknowledge that KIPP is prone to hyperbole, too, if for nothing else that the model isn’t sustainable and doesn’t serve all kids. So you’re both right and wrong, depending on what you value most. My trips to Montana have showed me that we will never “change the world” as long as we tolerate extreme economic inequality. Our field has lived by the philosophy, “Give a man a fish and he can eat today, teach a man to fish and he can eat for a lifetime.” But we’ve never examined the fact that a schoolhouse with a single teacher in a single classroom may actually be the worst arrangement possible for doing so, or the fact that in many places in this country there are no fishing poles. Put another way: on some basic level JVH and I are both concerned that the nation’s children spend 8 hours a day in places without adequate materials and with questionable educational/psychological tactics for managing the very difficult task of containing all those wiggly bodies for that many hours. Pete Cook and I both feel that absent a better approach, at least some of those wiggly bodies are growing up and going to college. I feel that as long as we continue to have emerging studies that question the benefit of RtI and suggest the delay of kindergarten reduces ADHD we should keep our intellectual muscles trained on teaching and learning. We don’t know that KIPP is changing the world for the better, and we don’t know that it’s not. We don’t know if JVH is changing the world for the better, and we don’t know that he’s not. Meanwhile, do either of you know where a school can get a cheap set of Houghton-Mifflin Science Fusion books for kinder? They are awfully expensive…

  4. I appreciate this fair minded reply. A few points of pushback: the biggest income inequality is occurring between the degreed and non-degreed public, so it is interesting to see college educated people de-emphasize the importance of schooling in fighting inequality.

    While it is fashionable to say the KIPP model “isn’t sustainable,” this misses the fact that traditional public education isn’t sustainable either. The idea that college educated millennials and generation z will enter a low pay, difficult, and artless profession at age 25 and stay for life lacks trendspotting. That is a doomed business model.

    And, on the point of being a “public intellectual.” Of what value is that to the individual who cannot read, gain employment, and live a basically good life while individuals with Ph.d can navel gaze about abstract concepts, a luxury afforded them as the outgrowth of private schooling and tests they were able to pass?


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