Will You Accept This High-Performing Seat?

Philly KIPP principal Ben Speicher and I chat about The Bachelor, the charter school backfilling debate and the evolution of KIPP…

EduShyster: You and I happen to have in common two passions: our shared love of the TV show, The Bachelor, and a strong belief that charter schools should play by the same rules that govern most public schools. A few weeks ago I happened to be watching the show whilst also reading this piece by confirmed non-bachelor Mike Petrilli, arguing that as students leave, charters shouldn’t have to accept new students. I shared my view that the backfilling debate and the controversies that have beset this season of The Bachelor are not unrelated. To which you had this to say:

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Ben Speicher: I’m a proud fan of The Bachelor and have even been known to use clips of the show during staff training sessions. As much as like watching the show to see who gets the final rose – and who gets sent home – I work hard to keep attrition low at my school so we never have to say goodbye to our kids.

red-roseEduShysterAwwwww. For people who are just tuning in, why don’t you fill us in on the whole backfilling debate. Why is it causing so much drama in the education reform house?

SpeicherThe education reform house is a fairly big one, and people are drawn to education reform for a variety of different reasons. I think some folks would say that charter schools represent the ideal of total independence. When Mike Petrilli and others make the argument that the rules around enrollment practices should be different for charters, I disagree. For me, it’s much more about equity—giving all kids, regardless of their background, access to a great education. If a student leaves us, we take a new student in off of our waiting list. We have a waiting list that’s between 400 and 600 students long each year, and these are students who applied to attend our school the previous year. When kids leave in the middle of the year—and it’s almost always because families are leaving Philadelphia—we go to our waitlist and if the person who is number one on the waitlist doesn’t want the spot for whatever reason, we keep going until we get to somebody who wants it. We do that anytime throughout the year. So it’s pretty automatic for us. We’ve done that at our elementary school since we opened 5 years ago.

EduShyster: My role here is to play the part of the intrepid tabloid reporter who digs up dirt about The Bachelor’s would-be suitors – say, an embarrassing mug shot. Which is to say that this hasn’t always been KIPP’s position, correct?

SpeicherThis is something that has really evolved for KIPP Philadelphia in recent years. Originally we didn’t backfill in our middle school in our higher grades at all. We talk with the teachers in our building about the fact that a core part of our mission is taking all kids, serving all kids, keeping all kids. You know, we have over 20% of students with IEPs and attrition under 4% each year. That’s a responsibility that we embrace, but there’s no getting around that it makes our jobs harder. At the end of the day, the question we had to ask ourselves is, are we serving the maximum possible number of students who need us? If we have room, then bringing in students mid-year or in the older grades makes sense. So we decided to start backfilling, and now we do it throughout the year in all grades. And if you look at our enrollment, you can see that – our 8th grade classes are almost exactly the same size as our entering 5th grade cohorts.

red-roseEduShyster: I’ve written quite a bit about how charter high schools in Boston that lose a lot of students, boys in particular, and don’t replace them, end up with tiny numbers of graduates. It occurs to me now that the appropriate metaphor isn’t The Bachelor but The Bachelorette, where the cohort of young men is winnowed week by week until the final rose is handed down, in this case college. Thoughts?

Speicher: While I can’t speak to the particulars in Boston, from my experience in Philadelphia, this is something which people are still talking about like it’s a footnote, or an asterisk. *Well, this particular charter school is doing a great job, but their enrollment practices are a little questionable.* KIPP’s middle school in Philadelphia opened in 2003, and we had a lot more attrition than we do now and didn’t backfill in our older grades. That first class was in 8th graders in 2007 and that year we had our highest results ever on the state tests—but that group only had 30 something kids in it out of the 90 who started 4 years earlier. Our percent of students passing the state test has never been that high again, but because we now have 85 or more students in 8th grade, the total number of kids who are proficient or advanced on the state tests is twice as high in terms of raw numbers. Since we report the percentage of students who pass, it looks as if we’re doing a worse job than we used to, but in a lot of ways we’re doing a better job. We’re holding onto kids better and still getting results that are higher than all but 1 or 2 district schools who serve a similar student population. What I would love, if I was an authorizer, is the idea that you would measure state test results, but the denominator would be the number of kids you began with. Because that matters a lotIf a school has 75 kindergarten students and only 30 are still there in 4th grade, but they all pass the test, that’s only 30 out of 75 that the school has fulfilled its mission to. That shouldn’t be good enough and not enough people are paying attention to those numbers.

EduShyster: I think some of the people reading this, particular those whose hearts pound for charter schools, will take your criticism of, say, sketchy enrollment practices, as an indication that you may not be here *for the right reasons.* So let’s go there. This is the part where you pull me aside and warn me about the intentions of the other girls, or in this case, charters.

SpeicherPhiladelphia has had some charters with pretty egregious enrollment practices. There’s one school, for example, where in the recent past, the application you have to fill out could only be picked up one day a year. And the response of the district, which is the charter authorizer in Philadelphia, was: red-rose*Your results are really good. But next time you really should make the application available on more than one day.* Which is the same as saying *in the future you need to change that.* That message needs to be much stronger because if you’re not truly serving all students youre not doing what you set out to do and your scores will look better. Charter schools have to be held accountable for their enrollment practices and authorizing is a huge part of that.

EduShyster: I’m not quite ready to give KIPP a rose, but I definitely get the sense from talking to you and others that KIPP is evolving in some important ways. Are there other areas besides backfilling where you see KIPP moving in a different direction?

Speicher: I see big changes in the way KIPP Philadelphia thinks about student culture and discipline. In the beginning, our discipline policies were more regimented and honestly, we were much quicker to say that a student wasn’t a good fit for our school. But we realized that if our goal is to successfully work with every kid no matter what their challenges are, we had to evolve our thinking and practices. KIPP is pretty decentralized, so it’s hard to speak for everyone, but from visiting something like 40 KIPP campuses over the years, I think skeptics would be surprised at how un-regimented many school cultures are, especially in our elementary schools. We had to make the commitment to keeping all our kids and giving them a joyful, engaging school culture. Joy is one of our values at KPEA and you see kids smiling and hear them laughing all day long in our building. Kids not being able to talk all day, silent lunches, public ostracizing of kids—that doesn’t happen a lot anymore in the way that I think it maybe still does in some other charter networks. What you’re not going to hear are any adults yelling since we have a strong staff commitment not to do that. We’re far from perfect, but everyone I talk to in the KIPP network is thinking about what is going to best get our students ready to succeed in college so we have to be thinking about what is building student character for the long-term.

Ben Speicher is the principal of KIPP Philadelphia Elementary Academy. He blogs at buildingagreatschool.blogspot.com and Tweets @benspeicher.


  1. “I’m not quite ready to give KIPP a rose, but I definitely get the sense from talking to you and others that KIPP is evolving in some important ways.”

    Yeah, KIPP is becoming more like public schools. And their scores are becoming more similar to public schools’ scores. Hmm, wonder why? Could it be that KIPP doesn’t offer miracles after all?

  2. Thank you Ben and Edushyster for this important topic. And thanks to Marc Mannella who I’m sure was instrumental in the decision to start backfilling. Let’s hope other charter schools follow your lead.

    As Ben well explains, it is a true unfair competitive advantage (and I think illegal, though it’s never been challenged), for charter schools to refuse to backfill. It’s not replicable on a system wide level for all comprehensive schools, so it makes no sense to allow it anywhere, especially if we are going to continue to try to compare charter schools and district schools.

    One simple change that I would like to see happen is for authorizers to publicly post enrollment caps for each grade for each charter school in one place and also post, and update in real time, the actual enrollment numbers in each grade at each school. Then parents and students would have the information needed to both exercise their “choice” but also to challenge questionable enrollment barriers. This should be simple to do.

    Backfilling is most important at the middle and high school level, where push out becomes a much bigger issue. Relatedly, the Pennsylvania Department of Education should forbid the practice of counseling out or recommending that a student or parent withdraw from a public school for any reason. There is never a legitimate reason to tell a family they should leave. If a school chooses to implement legal expulsion proceedings, of course they can do so, but counseling out sends a clear “we don’t want you here” message that usually so taints the relationship that even family who win their expulsoin proceeding are so soured that they refuse to send their child back to the school. I suspect we would see a few more expulsions (for which schools can be held accountable), but a lot less attrition and more school stability.

    More administratively challenging, but equally important, is that parents and students should be surveyed of the reasons any time they leave a school and this should be part of a school’s accountability metric.

  3. Nice PR job for KIPP. If you were wanting to find out about how life is on the set of The Bachelor, wouldn’t you ask someone other than the producer and director?

  4. Sorry, but I’m with Jim Horn on this one.

    I remember folks who had a problem with “SCHINDLER’S LIST”, as it focused on the one “good German”, pouring one’s emotional and intellectual focus there, instead of on the 99.9999% “bad Germans” and all that they perpetrated on their victims.

    While I understood their point, I think those critics ignored Ralph Fiennes’ brilliant portrayal of the evil Aemmon Goeth, Auschwitz’ commandant, whose screen time equaled that of the “good German” Schindler.

    (I remember Fiennes saying he had a minor nervous breakdown after shooting the movie, as it took him months to get “Goeth” out of his head.)

    That said, I feel like you could call this above article…


    as it focuses on the one “good KIPP honcho”—and those kids saved by Speicher from the abusive excesses and cultural sterilization inflicted on the rest of KIPP-sters nationwide, and not on the rest who were not/are not ( KIPP Fresno, anyone?)

    Indeed, there’s no mention of the overall unsound cult of KIPP and all it represents and perpetrates, from which Speicher radically deviates (a model, it must be noted, which KIPP’s founders Dave & Mike would never allow to spread beyond Speicher’s isolated enclave).

    Furthermore, unlike SCHINDLER’S LIST, the article includes no Aammon Goeth to balance the atypical “good KIPP honcho”/”good German” Speicher/Schindler.

    (Thankfully, this alternate narrative will soon be provided in Jim Horn’s long-awaited book expose on KIPP… with over a hundred teacher and student refugees / apostates telling their own horror stories about life at KIPP. Please do an Edushyster article on that once it comes out.)

    Therefore, while I hitherto have found 100% of the things written on this site to be amusing and charming in its evisceration of “corporate ed reform”, I find the playful, flirtacious, and ultimately propagandistic banter with Speicher to be anything but.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’ve been very critical of KIPP and of the no excuses movement which it helped spawn. I’m a loud and persistent critic of test prep academies that emphasize silence and compliance and lose so many of their students, especially boys, along the way. Which is why I recognize that when someone who leads a KIPP school is saying some of those very same things that it means more than when I express my opinion again. And just to clarify, Ben Speicher isn’t just some guy. His portion of this interview had to be signed off on by the top KIPP-sters. As he emphasizes, KIPP schools are largely autonomous, meaning that what’s true for his school in Philly may not be true in their other schools. But the fact that KIPP’s top management approved him saying this on my site is a clear sign that the chain as a whole is evolving away from some of the practices that concern me the most. And frankly that makes it harder for some of the other no excuses chains, which are expanding far more rapidly than KIPP, to continue to justify their practices. Btw: I’m looking forward to seeing Jim Horn’s book when it comes out.

  5. I would love to hear from Ben on other issues critical to the KIPP model, specifically the use of punitive versus restorative discipline. As I assume he knows, Senator Casey has introduced a bill in PA that seeks to sharply reduce the number of school suspensions. Likely the method of shifting away from zero-tolerance will be a shift toward restorative practices. Having worked in a KIPP middle school now almost ten years ago, I can say at that time, the school was not restorative and it also didn’t backfill. Perhaps that has changed as the school staff and leaders were very nice and reflective people, aware of research-based practices that inform high-quality instruction.
    Nonetheless, I found the model, at times, to be highly punitive, kids being screamed at, humiliated, embarrassed and shamed in front of their peers. I wouldn’t say that happened daily, but it did happen. At the same time, some individuals working inside that model worked restoratively, developing positive relationships with students and working to repair the harm when needed. Sadly, this was still inside the context of the “bench” or whatever euphemism they used for it, where kids were removed from their community for silent lunch for weeks/months at a time, spent an hour every day from 5-6pm in detention, and basically occasionally had “good” weeks where they weren’t being punished (enduring “consequences”). Many of these kids who spent large chunks of the year on the bench were black boys, aged 10-13, some with diagnosed learning differences, some with clear learning differences that hadn’t yet been diagnosed. When I think back to that time of my teaching career, I wish I’d done more to understand alternatives to this model, and that I’d done more to demand para-professionals in our classrooms to support our LD kids. I do think this article sheds light on KIPP’s practice of “picking up the mirror before picking up the microscope” which is one of several KIPP artifacts I do appreciate having learned. Perhaps Ben will share his approach to backfilling with other school leaders in an effort to improve the system. At the same time, for all KIPP’s efforts, they can’t really compare to neighborhood schools that take on the legions of Newcomer English learners fleeing Latin America right now, or the schools that have very high percentages of foster-youth, or the schools that care for kids in and out of the juvenile justice system, rehab and on and off the streets. KIPP caps class-size at 28-30. Compare that to LAUSD schools with 54 students in an Algebra 1 class. There’s really so many layers to this conversation, but in all it’s good that it’s begun. We should ultimately be working together in the best interest of all our kids. I think I read a NYTimes article about some collaboration between KIPP:NYC and teachers in public-non charter schools in NYCDOE. It would be interesting to know how that went and what was achieved.

  6. There are many things I loathe about the charter school movement, but one thing I admire about charter schools like KIPP is their willingness to impose stern discipline. My fellow liberals are willfully blind when it comes to looking at classroom malefactors. Let’s face it: many of these kids are just being bad and they know it. There’s a reason all civilizations threaten negative consequences to citizens who break the rules: the threats kinda work. It’s not abusive to impose stern discipline; it’s beneficial. Would that “restorative” practices really worked well. Right now it’s just a trendy buzzword that we should view with skepticism. My suspicion is that “restorative justice” is going to result in the conversion of many teachers into full time counselors. Why should teachers have to negotiate and pow-wow with kids who choose to talk with their friends all class long? I applaud KIPP’s willingness to stand up to liberal child-rearing orthodoxy and tell misbehaving kids and their Romantic adult enablers, “Cut the BS”.

    1. I can always count on being served up a heaping crock from this poster’s claims on various blogs, such as the descriptions of “fellow liberals.”

      “Cut the BS” yourself, Ponderosa, and try to learn something about permissive, authoritative and authoritarian styles of discipline.

  7. Ponderosa,

    Restorative practices and justice aren’t buzzwords but I could see how it might feel that way if as a framework they were shoved onto a teacher’s plate, without asking for teacher feedback or inclusion in the process of shifting from a punitive to restorative framework.

    At its heart, restorative approaches are relational- that relationships between all members of a community are integral and valued most. And that “misbehavior” isn’t just an offense against an individual but against the learning community, and that the harm can be repaired, through talk about those affected and how to make things right. I encourage you to learn more about restorative practices. As an approach to shifting school culture a positive direction, they have proven to be successful.

    I’m sure it sounds harsh, but it doesn’t seem you understand them based on your comments. RP never requires a teacher to be a counselor. That’s not at all what they are about. And RP isn’t a response to misbehavior, but a method of helping everyone build strong bonds so that people feel less compelled to misbehave, because the members of their community have been humanized to them.

    KIPP I know, having worked there, values positive relationships. It’s actually a huge part of their PD for new and returning teachers, and at times Dave Levin even talked about “authentic conversations” between adult staff. This kind of thinking is very restorative, although I feel KIPP misses the mark in that to be truly restorative, those in positions of authority do things WITH, not To or For those they manage. KIPP, at my school, wasn’t in the WITH quadrant of Wachtel’s Social Discipline Window. (i.e., I didn’t want a massage as a reward for working 70 hour weeks, I wanted to be asked how the school could structurally change so that I didn’t work 14 hour days and burn out.)

    With regard to students, truly great implementations of RP and restorative justice are student led. See this video about Oakland USD for more on student led circles to build community. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdKhcQrLD1w&feature=youtu.be&sa%20fe=active

    Research shows RP has high rates of success. Please see this report as just one of many supporting the positive impact of RP in schools. http://www.safersanerschools.org/pdf/IIRP-Improving-School-Climate.pdf

    Finally, here’s an excerpt from a non-charter, traditional public school in West Philadelphia about the positive impact of RP on school climate.

    “West Philadelphia High School, widely known as one of Philadelphia’s most dangerous and high-risk
    schools, on the state’s “Persistently Dangerous Schools” list for six years running, is seeing positive results
    with restorative practices less than one school year into implementation.
    Administrators at West Philadelphia High School learned about restorative practices in spring 2008 and
    began implementing the practices immediately, using circles in some classrooms. The school had its first
    formal restorative practices training in fall 2008. From April to December 2008, suspensions decreased
    by half and recidivism plummeted. The school’s administrators credit restorative practices for these
    “Restorative practices is what you need in an urban environment, because you have students who
    have so many social concerns, so many things that get in the way of learning. Restorative practices
    has given us a way to help the kids process the things in the front of their minds that make learning
    secondary to them.
    “In the classroom, it’s about getting to a state where we can work, rather than seeing how much
    punishment we can heap on a student. The more kids understand that, the more they’re willing to
    own their actions and become productive members of their class. This is different from the model that
    says, ‘You’re going to get a detention and a suspension, whether it’s going to help you or not,’ over and
    over and over again. Now the kids have the authority to make their own corrections.
    ‘We didn’t really believe that we could get our kids to the point where they could express remorse,
    sympathy and respect. Now the kids have embraced restorative practices even more than the
    —Saliyah Cruz, principal”

  8. Flor, I sincerely hope that restorative justice is working in Oakland. I’ve heard one glowing story on KQED about it. But as a veteran teacher, I am very leery of every new fad. They all start out with glowing press. And can we really trust the reporters and the principals to tell us the full story? Come on. Those of us who work in schools know that reporters rarely see reality, and principals have vested interest in spinning their latest initiative. We teach our kids to think critically; shouldn’t we critically examine supporters’ claims? A decline in suspensions sounds good to many people, but what if that means increased chaos, violence and fear in the classrooms because belligerent students are allowed to run amok. Flor, restorative justice is new. Isn’t it too early to declare it a success?

  9. Hi Ponderosa,

    I am also a teacher and I’ve worked to bring Restorative Practices to my schools for the benefit of colleagues as well as their students. I was introduced to it by teacher-leaders, trained by teachers, and now I teach other teachers about it.

    I’m curious what kinds of schools you’ve worked in. I consider myself a veteran also, having worked in urban, high-poverty schools for many years. I would never describe my students’ behavior as violent, belligerent or chaotic. Our schools have always been the safe place, a happy refuge from community violence, abuse and neglect. My kids respond to kindness and respect. Why do you talk about kids this way?

    That kind of talk dehumanizes our students, who we need to remember, are other people’s children. If a teacher talked about my son that way, I’d be really angry and feel disrespected.

    It’s troubling to see comments like yours from “veterans” as this deficit lens only inspires criticism of our profession. Seriously, please don’t talk about kids that way in these really public forums; it’s offensive and it undermines our mission.

  10. Flor,

    I teach six sections of the same history class to 13 year olds. Four of these sections are harmonious and wonderful. Lots of learning occurs and there is very warm rapport. Two of these classes are a management challenge. One of these is a daily battle. The kids are not evil, but they have a very strong bent to play around rather than learn. The same lesson that engaged most of the kids that day will not grab them unless I get very stern –often this entails threatening a detention. This almost always works to stop the unruliness, and once it stops, most kids eventually do get on board and don’t mind the lesson at all.

    I teach in a pretty sedate suburb. My heart goes out to the teachers in rougher schools. I know that these places are often exponentially more stressful and difficult for teachers. It sounds as if your school is an exception. But saying that there aren’t severe classroom management challenges out there does not seem accurate to me. Maybe you have found the silver bullet that will cure the woes of troubled schools. But until I see convincing proof that these new methods work, I am loathe to take away from teachers the tools, like those KIPP uses, that are proven to work.

  11. My confirmation bias wants to do nothing but hate on KIPP so hard, but I’ve heard similar evidence of evolving from other folks.

    A friend interviewed at multiple schools in NYC, many of them charters. He said that relative to Achievement First and particularly Uncommon Schools, KIPP seemed like a relaxed hippy haven.

    Now obviously schools aren’t McDonalds franchises and there’s plenty of variance between KIPP buildings even within a single district, but its encouraging nonetheless.

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