Episode 15: Marc Mannella, CEO of KIPP Philadelphia Schools

Marc Mannella being interviewed by Eric Gurna on the Please Speak Freely Podcast

“We are trying to teach the kids that there is a way that KIPPsters act. There is a curiosity that they bring to the classroom; there is a respect that they bring to their interactions with their peers and with their teachers. We are going to be pragmatic about that approach, and we’re going to do what we think works.”
– Marc Mannella

The KIPP network of charter schoolshas been at the forefront of the charter school movement. In this episode, Marc Mannella discusses the KIPP approach to working with young people, including their values, and the systems they use to control/manage student behavior.

Transcript Available here.

Marc Mannella and Eric Gurna on the Please Speak Freely Podcast (Transcription)

Eric Gurna: Hi, I’m Eric Gurna Gurna, Executive Director of Development Without Limits and this is Please Speak Freely, the podcast where we have honest conversations about youth development and education.

So I’m here in West Philadelphia with Marc Mannella Manella, who is the CEO of KIPP Philadelphia. Did I get that right?

Marc Mannella: Yep, absolutely.

Eric Gurna: Good. So, Marc Mannella, thank you for agreeing to be on Please Speak Freely.

Marc Mannella: My pleasure.

Eric Gurna: Uh, so I guess you know there’s so much to talk about when it comes to KIPP. And there’s so much conversation about KIPP, in the field in general, and even in the sort of more public discourse. And I guess I’d like to start out by asking you, what drew you to come to work at KIPP? I believe you were a classroom teacher with Teach for America, starting out?

Marc Mannella: I was, yeah, that’s right.

Eric Gurna: So what drew you to KIPP?

Marc Mannella: I mean, I think it was how aligned what KIPP believes is to what I believed. I was a teacher, I taught for two years through Teach for America in West Baltimore, actually in Baltimore Maryland for two years, and then I moved to Philadelphia and was teaching at a small charter in North Philadelphia. And I had the opportunity to be on a panel with Mike Feinberg. Mike Feinberg is one of the founders of the original KIPP school in Houston back in the early ’90’s, and we were talking about Teach for America and sort of what you can do when you’re done with your Teach for America core experience. I said you could stay in the classroom, other people were talking about going into consulting, and Mike said you could actually start your own school. So we’re on this panel together and I approached Mike afterwards, because Mike was talking about the expansion of KIPP, which had just started, this was back in 2002. And I said “Mike, when you guys coming to Philly? Because everything that you’re talking about, what kids can do when they’re taught in a high quality way in a safe environment, that’s what I believe too. And so if you guys were to come to Philly, I would be the first person to apply to be your science teacher.” And he said, well I’ve just listened to you for the last 90 minutes, and you’re exactly the kind of guy that we would like to see open the first KIPP school in Philadelphia. And so, you know, from there it was a question of really digging deep inside myself, and figuring out what it was I was really willing to commit to and do towards what I believed. And at the end of the day I decided to apply for the Fisher Fellowship, which is a 1-year training that KIPP Foundation runs to help teachers learn how to set up and start their own KIPP-like schools. So I was fortunate enough to be selected to be a Fisher Fellow, and from there worked in the ’02-’03 school year designing a school. I had to apply for a charter, I had to recruit kids, I had to hire teachers, I had to get insurance, like, everything you have to do to start from the ground up.

Eric Gurna: And this is sort of a mock exercise? Or, this is, you’re really going through the process right off the bat?

Marc Mannella: This was it, this was how KIPP Philadelphia started.

Eric Gurna: OK

Marc Mannella: It was this ’02-’03 school year where I spent the entire year working to this. And in July of 2003 we opened KIPP Philadelphia Charter School. 90 fifth-grade students, 4 teachers, an office manager, in a somewhat abandoned community center in North Philadelphia.

Eric Gurna: Mmm-hmm.

Marc Mannella: And those were our sort of inauspicious beginnings.

Eric Gurna: And so you basically just stuck with it and ended up as the CEO. When did you start as the CEO or did you just sort of grow into that role as the thing grew, that you stayed the leader of the whole thing?

Marc Mannella: Yeah, it was the latter. And so, I was sort of always the CEO of KIPP Philadelphia because back then it was just one grade.

Eric Gurna: Right.

Marc Mannella: And as we grew and we experienced more and more success, and by the time that our first group of kids, those fifth graders, were in the eighth grade, which is the end of the KIPP middle school experience, 91% of our eighth graders were proficient or advanced on the state test at math and 91% in reading. And we knew we were being successful at that point, and so we decided to grow. And so we put together a plan, that was gonna have us grow to 10 schools in Philadelphia. We were going to expand K to 12, so we were going to start doing elementary schools and high schools, which is a pattern that is being followed across the country by KIPP schools. What started as originally middle schools has now expanded to a K to 12 movement. And we’ve calculated that if we could get to 10 schools in Philly we’d be serving about 4400 students in North and West Philadelphia, and that expansion would increase the number of students from Northwest Philadelphia who are going to college by about 40%. That was a pretty significant impact that we knew we could have. And so we set out on this plan. We’re currently today at 4 schools, we serve about a thousand students. We have an elementary school, we have two middle schools and we have a high school. And we are on our way to hitting 10 schools by 2016.

Eric Gurna: OK. So, at the beginning of that you said that what really drew you to it was that KIPP believed what you believed. That you felt like there was sort of a, it was compatible, your values, your beliefs was compatible to what KIPP is already trying to do. So what is that set of values, what is that set of beliefs?

Marc Mannella: Ultimately, it’s that if you work hard, and you are nice, that there is no limit to what you can accomplish. Our students come to us between 2 and 3 grade levels behind. That is our reality. Our students largely come to us from the neighborhood schools that have basically failed their neighborhood for generations. And so when we take in a new fifth-grade student who is so far behind, that does not mean that their destiny is set. It means that there needs to be an intervention of sorts, we can’t continue to do the same old things if we’re going to expect that our students are gonna be able to go to and through college and have a happy, independent life. But it doesn’t mean it’s impossible either. My student’s zip code does not have to define their destiny. And so what we have said is, if we roll up our sleeves, and we work harder, and we go to school from 7:30 until 5, we go every other Saturday, we go for a month during the summer, if we roll up our sleeves and we work harder, our students can and will achieve. That’s ultimately, fundamentally, what it is that I believed that when I met Mike that first night, when I heard him talk about KIPP back in 2002, sort of drew me to want to be a part of this movement.

Eric Gurna: Mmm-hmm. So there’s a few things in what you were just saying that I want to kind of pull out and see if we can examine a little bit more. One of them I had actually noticed from the one-pager about your schools, and it says in, you know, slightly different words than what you just said, “zip code does not define destiny.” But then, what it has underneath that just sort of spelled that out, is a couple of charts that show the test scores, that show what the results can be of, I believe, it’s like kids from equivalent backgrounds and what they can score on the tests. Now, when I saw that, what came to mind for me was if it’s saying “zip code does not define destiny” and then it’s showing the test score results, does that mean that the test scores are equivalent to the destiny in that equation?

Marc Mannella: I’m glad you asked that question. I mean, obviously not, but at the same time there needs to be some scoreboard to point to at the end of the day, to understand how we’re doing. For KIPP, the goal is not a seventh grade math score. That in itself isn’t a goal. The seventh grade math score lets us know how we’re doing against our goal. Our goal is for all of our students to have a happy, independent life. And the way that we sort of make that tangible for our students is talking about college. Because increasingly in this economy and in this world that we live in, a Bachelors degree or an advanced degree is going to be, sort of, one of the things that you need in order to have that happy, independent life. And so when we’re talking to our fifth graders, when we’re talking to our kindergarteners, when we’re talking to our ninth graders, we’re talking about college. And so test scores are, like I said, they’re like a benchmarking more than they are the goal. If test scores were the goal, then why would I have music class? Why would we put science education, when there’s no science test, into our curriculum? We have to be careful not to only think about the tests, because then that leads to four hours of math and four hours of reading every day. There’s more to a college preparatory education than just math and reading, but you have to have math and reading. It’s a false choice to say that we can’t have great scores and have a robust college preparatory education that includes all the things that I was fortunate enough to have with my suburban public school that I attended when I was a child. We want that for our kids here in KIPP Philadelphia as well.

Eric Gurna: So the test scores are a benchmark to see if you’re making progress towards these larger goals, that’s what you’re saying, right?

Marc Mannella: Yes.

Eric Gurna: So, but what do you think about the tests themselves? Like, how good of a benchmark are they? How good of a measuring system are they?

Marc Mannella: They’re just OK, right? I mean, ultimately it’s fun to have these types of conversations because we can talk about whether the test is appropriate or not. I would love to see more performance-based testing out here. I would love to see it structured differently. I would love to see a portfolio be able to sort of, be a substitute for a written, bubble-in, standardized test. But the reality is, my kids have to take the test that’s in front of them. And that they’ll be judged and our school will be judged based on how they do. And,  you know, we can talk all we want to about whether or not the tests are fair or whether or not they are an accurate indicator. At the end of the day, our kids have to perform on them. President Obama had to nail the LSAT or else he wasn’t getting into Harvard Law. Now there are things about President Obama that make him a great leader, and let’s not get political, like whether you think he’s a great leader or not. There are things about him that make him a pretty incredibly successful guy, right? Ultimately he had to nail the LSAT or else he doesn’t get into Harvard Law, and if he doesn’t get into Harvard Law, all those other doors aren’t open for him. He could have said, well, the LSAT is an unfair measure, and so I’m not going to take it, or I’m not going to prepare for it or whatever, but he didn’t do that, all right? And our kids can’t or shouldn’t do that either.

Eric Gurna: OK, but in that analogy, I agree that the young Obama saying the LSAT’s an unfair measure, I’m not going to take it, is unreasonable to expect that. But your school in that analogy is Harvard, right? So, if Harvard said, and I don’t know anything about the LSAT…

Marc Mannella: I don’t know anything either.

Eric Gurna: …so you’re using that as an example. But I like the example because it’s at the, it’s clear and it’s at the highest level of education in terms of the hierarchy. So, if Harvard decided to say, we think the LSATs are an unfair measure. We don’t think they measure the intellectual capabilities of students. We don’t think they measure the aptitude towards being a good attorney. We’re no longer gonna care about the LSAT. You can take it, you can show us your scores, but we’re not gonna care about it. If KIPP did that, I mean, doesn’t KIPP as an entity, as an institution, have that kind of, I don’t want to say it has as much influence as Harvard does, because nothing has as much influence as Harvard does, um, except maybe Yale already so calm down. But, you know, I don’t think it’s really a fair analogy to say well, our kids shouldn’t be expected not to take the test but, um, why does KIPP have to care so much about the test?

Marc Mannella: At the end of the day, our kids are going to be judged. Whether it’s when they apply to high schools, if they decide to leave our middle schools and try and get a scholarship to a private school or try to earn acceptance into a magnet. Or whether it’s at the end of high school when they’re gonna try to get into college. Our students will be judged. And so to that end, we aren’t doing our job if we’re not preparing them to be judged. And if we’re not setting them up for success on that. And so, you know, when a college is looking at whether or not we’re doing a good job preparing them, they’re going to look at test scores. Whether they’re looking at the individual student or whether they’re looking at the school.

Eric Gurna: Right. But if you, as a leader in education, you yourself or KIPP as an institution, believes that there should be more, as you said, there should be more portfolio assessment, there should be more performance-based assessment, there should be more varied measures, that aren’t just multiple-choice tests? If you believe that, couldn’t you then value the multiple-choice tests less and implement more of the portfolio-based and multiple measures, and then lead the field in that happening?

Marc Mannella: Yeah, I think we could. I think there is, if you’re focused on everything you don’t actually have a focus, right? And I think for us, as we’re looking at what it is that we’re trying to accomplish, and how much farther we have to go, you know, I mean we went and put together a study of how our alumni are doing in terms of college completion, we called it the KIPP College Completion Report. And what we realized was that, despite the fact that we are incredibly proud of every single one of our alumni, our aspirational goal of making sure that all of our students have the ability to not just get to college but get through college, we’re falling short of that goal. We have about 38% of our students who are currently graduating with either a 2- or a 4-year degree, and that’s of a subset of students, we’re saying like, the students that we’re measuring there are students who finished eighth grade with us, right? So the students who finished eighth grade with us, it’s something like, you know, 8 years later, 9 years, 10 years later, 38% of them have a 4-year degree. And so we’re trying to push on that, that’s our focus. Our focus is increasing the college completion. I don’t think our focus can be that, and also trying to overhaul the way that the nation assesses learning. I think that there are some schools that are going sort of above and beyond on that type of work right now, that’s not our sort of core focus. In some classrooms, in our schools you’ll see a totally different way of assessing, and that’s part of the power of KIPP and what we call power to lead. Where at every different level there are different decisions that folks get to make. Teachers get to decide, ultimately, a lot about the way they deliver curriculum, the way they assess students. And so in some individual classrooms you’ll see, in some science classrooms you’ll see a huge percentage of the child’s report card grade be based on labs and that type of work, and I think that’s super appropriate. At the end of the day though, I don’t think you’re gonna see KIPP stepping up to be a leader in reforming the way students are assessed, because all of our energy is really being focused on helping our kids get to and through college, and I don’t think we necessarily, and I’ll speak for myself actually, and say that I don’t necessarily see that as my fight.

Eric Gurna: Right. I mean, I see that it seems like KIPP is a leader in focusing more on high-stakes testing by emphasizing the success based on that measure. So it’s hard for me to sort of accept that you can say you value the performance-based assessment and all of that at the same time as it seems that the pressure has been put on so much more by, I don’t mean just by KIPP, but by what’s often referred to as the KIPP model. Because it’s really not just KIPP, it’s a whole coalition of charter schools and others. Certainly, you know, Michelle Rhee and Arnie Duncan and Joe Klein, you know, are not directly representing charter schools per se, but are sort of part of that same approach to measurement of success. But I understand what you’re talking about, about the focus thing. I, you know, my concern is that there’s not, and I’ve talked about this before, there’s not a shining example for the alternative to standardized tests. There are pockets, as you referred to, but they’re not well known.

Marc Mannella: Right. No, I think that’s right. It’s really interesting, like you said, I think that as practitioners on the ground, and because KIPP is a decentralized model, right? And because we run very, sort of, lean and mean, and so at the KIPP Foundation level there are some folks who get to spend a lot of time thinking about these greater issues, but on the ground here in Philly, like, we are so lean, and that’s because ideologically we believe that the revenue that we’re bringing in should be directly impacting students as much as possible. So I don’t have a research team, I don’t have, you know, a whole sort of office full of cubicles of people working so solve x, y, and z, right?

Eric Gurna: Right, you’re not a think tank.

Marc Mannella: Yeah, exactly. And so, no, I totally understand where you’re coming from, and it’s really interesting. It is, you know, one of the criticisms I have of what’s happening in education right now is that folks who don’t believe the same things don’t talk to each other enough, right? I think that we tend to surround ourselves with people who think like we do. And so then you have folks who are sort of in this one camp that don’t want to see testing, that don’t want to see, you know, we were just talking about Alfie Kohn before the taping we were talking about Alfie Kohn, punished by rewards. Folks that are sort of in THIS camp, and then there’s sort of the, I think they’re called sometimes the no-excuses charter crowd, right? We talk to each other, and never shall the two meet, it seems like. That’s a detriment. I don’t think that we need to agree on everything but I do think that 95% of what we want is completely in line. I really do firmly believe that. Our conflict or what we don’t agree on is the tactics. So what is the way to get the results that we’re looking for? Like, we want to be able to have an educated work force. We want to be able to have a democracy where people understand, a well-educated democracy so that we can make good choices and we can run our country in a way that is going to be living up to the democratic ideals of our founding fathers, except maybe a little more inclusively than maybe our founding fathers envisioned it, right? We all want that. So how are we going to get there, is the question that we’re grappling with. And I think the movement would benefit from people actually talking to folks who don’t necessarily agree with them. And that’s not gonna happen, I think.

Eric Gurna: Well, I’m taking a step in that direction. At least, you know…

Marc Mannella: I know.

Eric Gurna: …we’re not actually getting it on the same episode, you know, we’re trying to talk to people who have different approaches. I would say that I agree with you except for one part of what you just said, which is I don’t think it’s just tactics, I think that it’s values, too. I think that there are, and by values I mean some people value certain things more than they value other things. I don’t mean that people have, um, I don’t mean morals. So, you know, I agree with you on the side of, I think the vast majority of people who are just in the field of youth development education in general, have the same sort of morals. They want to work towards a more idealistic, better world. But I think what we value is different. And maybe we could get into what I mean about that a little bit.

Marc Mannella: Great.

Eric Gurna: Because it definitely connects to where I wanted to go. So, a couple of things you were saying that before we even got started, you were talking about how there can be a challenge of how, sort of, open and candid that you can be at times, because there’s, and you didn’t say, this is me editorializing, there’s your institution, and there’s your own personal views. But at the same time, from the things that I’ve read before I came down here, KIPP is making an effort in general, and KIPP Philadelphia in particular, at being more transparent, being more accountable.

Marc Mannella: Yes.

Eric Gurna: I read an article about the KIPP open book transparency and accountability in schools in the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal, and it seems like there’s a real genuine dedication to addressing some of the criticisms that have been sort of thrown at KIPP through being more transparent. But I want to connect that to what you just said, which is that your work is really focusing on point of contact with young people. Your work here is not really about, necessarily, the national policy debate, although you obviously are informed on that and you connect to that. But it’s really about what’s happening in the classroom. And, so I want to sort of ask if we can take that open book concept and apply it to what’s happening in the classroom a little bit.

Marc Mannella: Mmm-hmm.

Eric Gurna: And just to ask you just first of all, what’s your own, what’s your pedagogic approach, what’s your philosophy about how young people learn, what kinds of learning environments are best, that sort of thing?

Marc Mannella: Sure. And I will say that I agree with everything you’re saying and I will say that actually the open book concept came not from any slings and arrows that may have come the way of KIPP, but it was a specific response to what was happening in Philadelphia.

Eric Gurna: Oh, OK.

Marc Mannella: And for folks who are familiar with what’s going on here, I mean, there’s something like 17 charter schools that either have officials under indictment or are under federal investigation for things ranging from nepotism to corruption to, you know, to just outright theft and everything else. And so I think you know we’re trying to lead through KIPP open book, which is a KIPP Philadelphia initiative. We’re trying to lead our community, locally more so than nationally. I think KIPP has always been pretty good with transparency as we think about the report card that is published every year, and the fact that all of our schools are an open book, and people can come in and visit anytime that they want. We have open houses, we have an open door policy for parents, et cetera. And so really, as we think about what’s happening here in Philadelphia, there is, you know, this notion of charter schools as an entity where there’s going to be greater accountability in exchange for greater freedoms, right? And so there’s some of the bureaucratic stuff doesn’t exist and we don’t have to follow some of the same rules, but in exchange there’s greater accountability. And that’s sort of, it’s a missed opportunity here in Philly, it’s not happening that way. And because charter schools can’t be held accountable or aren’t being held accountable, then the sector suffers and then just, but really what I care about is that kids suffer. And there are schools that should be open or should be pressured to improve and it’s not happening. And so, you know, it is really open book and transparency as we think about KIPP, is really focused on that. And now I’ll segue back, because I want to answer that question…

Eric Gurna: You know, I appreciate that, thank you.

Marc Mannella: And again I think that the conflict between sort of being able to operate in a totally transparent way with having to talk in sound bites and not feel like you can be totally candid, I think for me has nothing to do with the difference between what I believe and the organization. Because KIPP is so aligned to what I believe, and because as the head of KIPP Philadelphia schools, if we’re ever drifting in a direction that I don’t like, I pull it back. And that’s one of the benefits of being the boss. And so, really as we think about what it is that forces us or makes it really difficult to be candid, I think, is sort of how brightly glaring the spotlight is. Open book is not necessarily, like, a PR play. There’s stuff in there that doesn’t look the way I want it to. There’s stuff in there that’s frustrating, there’s places where we have failed, or at the very least where we have disappointed. And we’re committed to owning that and to getting better. Around here we embrace the Stockdale Paradox that Jim Collins talks about, this notion that we have to be real with ourselves about our brutal facts, but at the same time never give up faith that in the end we’re going to succeed. And so for us, that guides everything that we do. We can’t sugar-coat the fact that, you know, sixth grade math has been a trouble spot for us historically for years, for whatever reason our kids do great in fifth grade math, and then we don’t see the same thing happening in sixth grade math. And, you know, so we have to own that and we have to do better, we can’t give up and say it’s hopeless, our kids will never do well on the sixth grade PSSA, they’ll never make the types of gains in sixth grade as they do in fifth and seventh. But at the same time, we can’t kid ourselves and say sixth grade math isn’t really a problem for us. Naah, you have to do well. So when I think about sort of pedagogically what I believe and what we believe, we believe a lot that students have to be able to access material, and so that means sort of like when we think about teaching as an art and a science, so as we think about the science of art, we have to think about the Vygotsky‘s zone approximate development, and I won’t get too sort of jargony with you, but this notion that if you’re teaching kids something they already know, they’re not learning anything. But if you’re teaching kids something that they can’t access because they don’t have the background knowledge or because they don’t have the three prerequisite skills in order to do the new skill, then they’re not going to learn anything either. So trying to hit our kids where they are is a key critical piece of what we’re doing. So what does that look like? Well, in our reading classrooms that looks like a lot of differentiation, a lot of readers workshop-style lessons, where maybe we’re doing an author study on Roald Dahl, and our lowest readers are reading one of Roald Dahl’s simpler books, like The Twits perhaps, and our more advanced readers are reading James and the Giant Peach or the Big Friendly Giant, The BFG, one of those types of books, so that there’s leveling inherent. So that they’re going to receive the same basic lesson, but then we’re going to be able to access that lesson through a novel that is on the level that they can read. In the math classroom, it largely looks like the science of it is going to be a little bit less evident, other than the fact that you’ll notice it in the fifth grade classroom, we are not starting with fifth grade standards, because our kids mostly have not mastered third and fourth grade standards, so at the beginning of the year in fifth grade we’re doing times tables, we’re doing place value, we’re doing third and fourth grade standard. Really, in math is where you’ll see the art of teaching, and where you’ll see students accessing material through more engaging lesson structures. You’ll see the chance that KIPP has become famous for, thanks to Oprah Winfrey, and some of the publicity that we’ve gotten around just that one methodology that we use. But you’ll see storytelling, you know, Deci and the Chocolate Factory as one of the ways that we teach decimals, with bits, bytes and bars, and just like sort of telling a story and using analogies to help our kids to access what is a traditionally a more intimidating subject like math. So you’ll see the art and science at play in all of our classrooms, our teachers don’t have autonomy over what they are teaching, so we define the scope and sequence for them that is aligned to Pennsylvania standards and the high schools aligned to the college ready standards, but you will see a lot of innovation around the how it is being taught, around sort of that art.

Eric Gurna: So the sort of rap on KIPP pedagogically is that the teachers are not allowed much control over how they teach, and that there’s a heavy emphasis on control and on conformity. And I say that’s the rap on it because I don’t, you know, I don’t want to put that on it when I haven’t experienced it, but I’ve read a lot about it and you know you see things and you hear things and one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because, you know I’m less of a policy person and more of a pedagogic child development person, and what I care about is how kids are treated and the whole realm of the kind of learning environment that we create, and just the cultural environment that we create within our schools and programs. And so, I’m wondering, is that rap, you know, does that come from somewhere, you know, just to get you to sort of think and talk about that aspect of it, the conformity, the culture of control, criticism that’s been put on KIPP?

Marc Mannella: Yeah, I think that, back to you said something earlier about how there’s KIPP, there’s, and sometimes KIPP is thought of as like a leader in this movement, but this movement involves a whole bunch of people, a whole bunch of different organizations, it’s a much more sort of larger patchwork sort of movement, right? I think that you’ll find, and let me just speak for KIPP Philadelphia, I think you’ll actually find that to be pretty false. And let me say that more sort of definitively. That’s false here in KIPP Philadelphia. It’s not true. The distinction between how and what, is how a lesson is taught and what a lesson is taught is clear and distinct. So our teachers have a ton of autonomy over how it is taught, but we are defining teachers what they will be teaching, and we think that is sort of the right level of intervention and the right level of, let’s call it support for a teacher when they’re gonna be coming in and they’re gonna be expected to be expert. I think that one of the advantages that we have here at KIPP Philadelphia, you know, we require two years of urban classroom teaching of all of our teacher candidates, of all of our applicants. And so we really are able to work with some teachers who are already quite, quite good, and are already establishing that they know how to manage a classroom, that they know how to drive results. That they know how to build relationships, and they know how to, and frankly instead of saying know, they believe what we believe about teaching and learning. And so for us, we don’t have to exert that type of command and control because we’re hiring rock stars.

Eric Gurna: Rock stars, in the sense of they have a high level of skill.

Marc Mannella: Yeah, among other things. And what I don’t want to sell short because we think it’s actually the most important thing is they believe what we believe. And when I say that, it really comes down to sort of one critical belief. On our website you’ll find 10 regional beliefs that KIPP Philadelphia holds.

Eric Gurna: OK.

Marc Mannella: But the one that really sort of jumps out and the one that really guides our work in the classrooms the most directly is that we believe that all children will learn when taught in a high quality way and a safe and orderly environment. Like, that is a belief that we hold. And we are testing our teacher candidates when they’re coming in, they’re applying for a job at KIPP, we’re testing that belief. We want to know if folks believe that, because sometimes in our history we have found that that teacher who got 90% of her kids to pass some state test, wasn’t even worried about the other 10%, or said that 10%, those aren’t kids I’m, I can’t do anything for those kids. And that’s just not at all what we believe. We’re here to serve every single child that’s gonna walk in our doors. And we have to make sure that they teachers that we hire believe that as well, or else we have misalignment between what I’m saying right now into this microphone and what’s actually happening on the ground, and that misalignment is gonna be a killer. That’s the type of thing that brings organizations to their knees.

Eric Gurna: So let’s talk about those 10% a little bit, or whatever the percentage might be much higher, right, of young people who are coming in and who are not necessarily performing on the tests at the level that you want them to be, maybe they’re not, they don’t have the sort of attitude to engage with the class as much as you want, maybe they’re not behaving according to the rules and standards of the school. How are those things handled and dealt with? What’s the sort of philosophy on how to manage a large group of kids?

Marc Mannella: Oh, I thought you were going to ask me a different question, so sorry. Our approach to those students is, first of all, it’s guided completely by the Stockdale Paradox. We’re going to be real with ourselves and what is going on, we’re never going to give up faith that our kids are gonna be able to go to and through college and have a happy and independent life. OK? And so we have to be able to come up with, then, the systems and the supports to make that real, because we have our behavior system that we believe, sort of, works for anywhere between 85-95% of our students, but then what about the other 5-15%? We have to exhaust every single thing that we can think of. We have to go outside the box, we have to go outside the room that the box was kept in, we have to go outside the building that had the room that had the box. OK? Like, we never give up. We’re going to try hundreds of different interventions to make it so that that child can succeed.

Eric Gurna: So, before we even get to what’s outside the box, and the room, and out in the car, and the parking lot, um, what’s the box? What’s the behavior system that works for 85% of the kids?

Marc Mannella: Sure, and I can speak most specifically about it at the middle school level, because I think that’s where, you know, that was when I was principal of the school and I think that’s the most developed and most standardized across all of KIPP. So, we have a very simple token economy system for our fifth and sixth graders for the kids in what we call the lower school of the middle school. And so basically, in a nutshell, you make good choices, you earn dollars. If you act in accordance to our values and our beliefs, you earn dollars. When you make bad choices, you lose dollars. These aren’t real dollars, these are KIPP dollars, like I said it’s a token economy. And all of that is captured in what we call the paycheck. Then as the week goes on, they’re earning and losing dollars, and at the end of the week each student is given their paycheck. So maybe at the end of the week, a child has earned $22. You can see that they actually earned $29, but then they lost $7 for this, that, and the other thing. The types of things that you earn dollars for, like I said if you’re exemplifying any of our values, so you’re showing resilience, you’re showing respect, you’re showing any of the values that we have. Love, grit. You earn dollars for that, a teacher can assign a dollar for that. You earn dollars for completing your homework, you earn dollars for showing up to school on time, basically meeting our expectations. And then you lose those dollars for things like chewing gum in class, for being disrespectful, for just making the types of mistakes that middle schoolers, you know, make. 10- to 14-year-olds make mistakes. We all make mistakes, but from 10 to 13, that middle school age, like, we know what the mistakes are, so our systems are built around, sort of, making sure that there is an appropriate consequence for that. At the end of the week you get basically what is equivalent to a behavior report card that the child brings home to their parent, guardian, whomever, and someone at home signs it. When they bring it back on Monday, that money is deposited into their KIPP bank account. They then can take that money from their KIPP bank account to the KIPP school store, where they can buy school supplies, they can buy fun stuff, they can buy basketballs, they can buy whatever. That is, in our school store. I think for the younger kids, having something that concrete, it gives a structure and it gives a sense of, it’s you know, we want to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, but also because we don’t want to receive the consequence that happens when I don’t do the right thing. It is a simple sort of consequence and reward system. As our kids get older, we have to wean them off this system, because if you’re only doing the right thing because you’re afraid of a punishment or because you want a reward, then what are we actually teaching? Well, then we’re only actually teaching obedience, and that is not the point. The point isn’t to teach obedience, the point is to teach kids that their actions have consequences. The point is to teach kids that there is a right way and a wrong way to interact with their peers, to interact with their teachers. And so, as the kids get older, we start to wean them off of this system, and so by the time you’re in eighth grade, you’re not getting a paycheck anymore because you don’t need a paycheck anymore, because you already understand what’s right and what’s wrong in a school environment, and you’re already choosing what’s right. And I think that what some of the notions that are sort of heaped upon KIPP from folks who don’t know or who aren’t in our buildings, is like they hear this paycheck thing and they’re like oh, my god – like, that is, you know, again our friend Alfie Kohn, like punished by rewards, right? Like come on, all they’re doing is teaching them how to sit and stay like they’re some kind of animal, would the most inflammatory thing that someone might say about us, right? Yeah, it’s just not true. I think people want to see a black and white picture of the world, but in reality it is much more nuanced and thoughtful, and it is a specific response to what we’ve seen, which is our fifth graders come to us from a school environment that was not orderly, where no one bothered teach them, or no one was successful in teaching them how to act in a school setting, and so we’re gonna establish that this is not your old school, and this is how we’re gonna expect you to behave, and you’re gonna meet that expectation.

Eric Gurna: But, one of the things you said was that the point of it is not to teach obedience, but it’s to teach that actions have consequences. But do you think that if you didn’t have the punishment and reward system, or just the reward system, that they wouldn’t learn that their actions have consequences?

Marc Mannella: Maybe they would. I think we look at first of all I think that this is working for us, and I think that we’re finding that our kids are able to have sort of these successful, happy lives. Independent lives, that we want them to have now that we’re a little bit older as an organization, we can see, you know, as we’re hiring KIPP alums to come back and be KIPP teachers, and as we’re seeing our alumni be incredibly successful in their fields, I think we’re seeing that it’s sort of an effective strategy. But at the end of the day, we believe that we’re here to teach more than reading, writing, and arithmetic, right? Like, character is as important to academic skills, in terms of a student’s success in having that happy, independent life. And so we want to make sure that character has as thoughtful of an approach, and the way that we’re helping our students to develop that character is as thoughtfully developed as our academic curriculum would be.

Eric Gurna: Right, and certainly, this is where I think it’s different values rather than different tactics.

Marc Mannella: OK.

Eric Gurna: And, so how do I wanna…isn’t the system where you’re paying kids to behave a certain way, isn’t that different from helping them to learn what it means to truly develop their own character? If they’re acting certain ways in order to get certain rewards, aren’t there messages that you’re giving them about the way the world works that are outside of the specific action and the specific reward?

Marc Mannella: I think that our approach is really rooted in sort of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, right? So as we think about that work that Kohlberg did, we look at that sort of baseline stage of moral development as I do the right thing to avoid a punishment. And then it goes to I do the right thing because I want a reward. And then eventually you get to I do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. These are stages of moral development that, you know, the theory is that every person sort of goes through, and you never sort of attain the top. The only person who consistently lived at the top level was like Gandhi or something, right? And so all of us sort of act in different moments and in different times, we’re acting on different levels. So, for example, the only reason I don’t go 90 miles an hour on the New Jersey turnpike when I’m driving up to New York, is cause I don’t want a ticket. Is it because I don’t think it’s – I’m a good driver, I can go 90 miles an hour, right? But ultimately, I don’t want that punishment. I don’t want to get a ticket. I don’t want to deal with it, I don’t want it to go to traffic court in some town in central Jersey, like, I don’t want to deal with that. And so, I don’t speed. I think that the notion of KIPP dollars and, remember, you say we pay our kids and we’re not paying them, like, cash.

Eric Gurna: I understand, it’s a token economy.

Marc Mannella: And the notion that we have set up something for 10 year olds to understand the concreteness of that, we think that it is then a way to have the conversation around, so you know, when you repeatedly speak out and yell out the answer in math class, the result of that is that the other kids who were trying to solve that problem in their head, now they just stop trying and so they learn less. So while I’m proud of you that you know the answer to four times three was twelve, you need to raise your hand like everybody else so that other kids have the time to think. I would love it if our teachers in the moment, you know, could have that conversation like right then and there in that moment. The reality is that the way public schools are funded in this country, I’ve got to have between 25 and 30 students in all our classrooms, and even the very best teachers aren’t going to live in a world where they can have that conversation in the moment. We want them to have that conversation though, and so in essence when that child lost $2 for calling out in class, then that’s the opportunity to circle back and when the system’s working right, then you have the conversation about when you blurt out the answer to the math question in class, the result of that, or the impact of that is that the other kids aren’t learning as much because they’re stopping to solve that problem in their head, they stop thinking. And so we have to change that behavior. There’s sort of a pragmatism to it.

Eric Gurna: Right, I think it’s highly pragmatic. I guess what I’m saying is that it seems to me that what you’re valuing in that is the efficiency of the process over taking the time to help them see in an organic way how their actions actually affect others through actually experiencing dialog with others. So if you, to me the notion that you can take away a KIPP dollar and then tell me that the reason is, is that I was sort of being an obstacle towards learning to the other students by blurting out the answer, I’m thinking less about your reasoning and more about the transaction. If I was in a situation where I could hear from my peers about how my blurting out might impact them, I think a 10-year-old has the capacity to just understand that without the need to have the transactional sort of system, and what I’m saying is that I think, I mean I do think that it’s a really deep philosophical difference that you’re describing between your approach and the one best exemplified or described by Alfie Kohn, that the system itself that’s in place is one that is geared towards helping people see that they need to make sure that they understand their place in the system and that they shouldn’t go outside the lines of their place in the system. If they do the things they’re supposed to do, they’ll get stuff, and if they don’t do the things they’re supposed to do, they’ll get stuff taken away, but there’s also a sort of public image issue there that you’re the kid with less points than everyone else. And so what I’m trying to get at is, like, it feels like that type of token reward system, token economy system, is there primarily to keep control and then justified by things like Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. The explanation for it, the foundational philosophy for it, is backed into as a way to sort of wrap something around it that makes it valid.

Marc Mannella: Interesting. So I would say first of all, I think it’s a bit of a false choice. I think that this is about and not or, to once again rip something off from Jim Collins. And I would say that what you’re talking about is the system when it’s broken. So if it’s not being implemented correctly, if it’s being implemented incorrectly, then it is about sort of power dynamics, I’m the teacher how dare you, and it’s about control. Whereas, we could also talk about the other piece of it, which also is the only way that you’re going to implement sort of any sort of character development, and if it is done incorrectly, doesn’t work either, right? So what I would challenge sort of listeners to think about is this notion of, any system implemented incorrectly with, I think now back to this notion of values, with sort of the wrong ends in mind. If your end is to teach obedience, if your end is to assert the power of a teacher, right? Then yes, that is an abuse of that system, that is the failure of that system. On the other side of it, you know, through having thoughtful conversations and making sure that children understand the impact and the consequences of their actions, without some sort of structure to it, if that isn’t going correctly then I think you have the opportunity, then sadly what it can slip into is how many traditional school classrooms look in America’s inner cities, which is disorganized, not an environment conducive to learning because there is no system, because maybe the conversations are happening 1/8th of the amount of time that they need to because there are so many misbehaviors now at this point that the teacher couldn’t possibly have them all and possibly try drive any kind of results and drive any kind of learning. So I think the one when what we’re doing is working the way it’s supposed to, it doesn’t lead to that conclusion.

Eric Gurna: It’s interesting. Because in my mind, it’s not just about how the classroom is flowing, but it’s the, creating a culture conducive to learning is also about each individual’s attitudes towards the teacher, towards each other, and towards the material. And so, the level of engagement that each young person has might not be evident by looking at a classroom and seeing, you mentioned earlier before we got started recording, it’s very quiet today cause there’s a class trip, a field trip, today. And usually it may be much more rambunctious because I think you said learning isn’t always silent, right?

Marc Mannella: Oh yeah.

Eric Gurna: Right. But just by looking at a classroom you can see a very orderly system, or you can walk into a classroom and see kids working together in groups. You don’t necessarily know how conducive to learning the situation is until you have a chance to really find out what’s in kids’ heads. So part of my reluctance to accept this sort of token economy system as a means of, as the centerpiece of a culture, of a centerpiece, of one cornerstone I really should say to be fair, of a culture, is that I was the kid who when you tried to pay me to do something, I immediately hated it. You know, so it’s like, you know, oh, you’re going to give me a gold star? I mean, from pretty early on, it was like, I always felt like, are you kidding me? You think I’m going to do all this work for a gold star? You know, surely if someone had said, well how about $10? Then that would have changed my mentality, but probably only until $10 became more normal, and then I’d, you know, I’m going to do all this for $10? And I do think that’s all just scale, you know, what the prize is, is all just scale and can have diminishing returns over time. But do you see that? Is there at least a subset of kids who seem to sort of disengage with the whole thing because they feel like they’re being condescended to?

Marc Mannella: We don’t, I don’t think see that terribly often. I can’t say that with the 1000 children that we serve that at some point, someone’s not thinking that. I think that the, you alluded to a little bit, but, I think that the thing that we must make sure that we talk about is the relationship between the teacher and the student, because ultimately this, any of this only works if you have that strong relationship. First of all, if a teacher knows that Eric Gurna in the back of class is not into gold stars, then it would be our expectation that the teacher doesn’t give Eric Gurna gold stars. And not that it means that he’s got to get $10, but that it means that there’s clearly something else that motivates Eric Gurna. Whether it is seeing his name on the list of kids who got 100 on the test, or whether it is a positive formal call home to mom, or whether it is frankly remaining a little bit in the back and not having that spotlight. Whatever it is, like, our teachers have to know that. And when we talk about the art and the science of teaching, there’s an art and a science to any kind of school-wide discipline system as well. And so yes, chewing gum we want that to be minus five in every single classroom because we want students to not pit teachers against each other. How come in Mr. Gurner’s classroom that was only minus two? You’re unfair, you don’t like me. Like, so we try and have those consistent rules so as not to blow the mind of an 11-year-old, and to make it very predictable. But at the same time, you have to know as the teacher sort of what the vibe is of your room. Each individual student as a person, as a child, as somebody who is putting an unbelievable amount of trust in your hands that you’re going to keep them safe that you’re going to make the learning environment safe, a safe one to take risks. And at the end of the day, those relationships are the biggest reason why our schools are experience the success that they are. More so than a token economy system. More so than the fact that we wean them off it. More so than sort of the way it’s rooted in Maslow.

Eric Gurna: In Maslow?

Marc Mannella: Sorry, not Maslow, Kohlberg. I forget my psychologists.

Eric Gurna: No, I would love to hear about how it’s rooted in Maslow.

Marc Mannella: Well, I can tell you, right? I was a psych major once upon a time. I mean, the bottom line is safety is at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And to your point about what’s conducive for a learning environment, if a child doesn’t feel like it’s safe to take risks, I need to know that every single one of my kids is willing to raise their hand if they think they know the right answer, not when they know they know they have right answer. Because that’s when those learning moments happen. If I say four times three is seven, then my teacher needs to be able to help me understand what I just screwed up. And that needs to happen in a room where other kids aren’t laughing. Because if other kids are laughing, next time I’m just not raising my frigging hand, and I do not learn as much.

Eric Gurna: So I don’t want to be unfair by jumping on that example, but the reaction that I have on my mind is, wouldn’t the level of risk for, you know, the kind of situation we want to create where our kids can actually take a risk, to me is more about when there’s conversations where there is no right answer, and they feel that they’re free to raise their hand and create an idea, or add to an existing idea, and that it doesn’t seem to me like those are the examples that are at your fingertips because it seems to me like the right answer/wrong answer, do I get a point, do I not get a point, do I get a KIPP buck, do I not get a KIPP buck, is much more prevalent. Am I wrong, is that unfair?

Marc Mannella: I think it’s a little unfair, I’m just trying to use the most concrete examples that I can. I think that it is going to be really hard for me to say something right now, sitting in my office, that can convince you or anybody else that we are working really hard to make sure that we have the higher order of thinking in our classrooms, to make sure that this isn’t about, you know, the old criticisms of KIPP, about drill and kill, and the only thing we care about is computation and math, and things like that. Although I totally see how the example that I picked would potentially reinforce that sort of bias, I would invite you or anybody else listening to come and see a KIPP fifth grade math class, a KIPP tenth grade biology class, a KIPP second grade classroom, and sort of make that decision for yourself, about the way we’re approaching that.

Eric Gurna: Yeah, and that’s why I ask it like, is this unfair?

Marc Mannella: No, I’m glad you called it out because I didn’t even realize, but I was trying to make simply a more concrete example, that’s all.

Eric Gurna: Yeah, no, and it’s not just that one example. It obviously ties in to everything else that we’re talking about. As we get towards wrapping up, there’s one, you know I mentioned to you, you know, the rap on KIPP is this, and the rap on KIPP is that. And a big part of my wanting to talk to you is, you know, I was starting to feel as I refer to the KIPP model in a rather cavalier way that I’m being unfair, that I need to learn more and not just read the criticism but go and talk to KIPP, and learn more about it, understand more about it. And certainly when you sit across the table from someone and talk to someone who clearly, like yourself, who clearly has the passion and dedication for helping young people succeed, it helps to, like, sort of make the whole thing more human. But, so I want to ask you about some of the, one or two more of these things that are sort of in my mind, like oh KIPP does that.

Marc Mannella: OK

Eric Gurna: Silent lunches. I keep hearing that over and over again. When kids don’t behave, they’re not allowed to talk at lunch. Is this a thing, or is this a myth?

Marc Mannella: Is it a thing, so we don’t have silent lunches but we do have, there are consequences when kids screw up. You know, the thing about a consequence as you pointed out with a reward, if it’s not something that kids care about then it’s not a consequence. And so, have I told a lunchroom that they’re going to be silent for the next 5 minutes forward? Heck yeah I have, cause that felt like the appropriate consequence based on whatever the heck I saw on that moment. Are KIPP kids allowed to talk in lunch? 99% of the time, at least KIPP Philadelphia students, the cafeteria looks like any orderly, like, respectful, but certainly it’s loud, middle school/high school/elementary school cafeterias anywhere else.

Eric Gurna: The other one was, and I’m not going to remember it exactly right, something about when kids misbehave, they have to walk around with their shirt untucked so everyone knows it, or some signifier like that? Am I, um?

Marc Mannella: So, there, every school is going to have a different discipline system, and that may be – I haven’t heard of the shirt untucked one before, I have heard about the shirt inside out before.

Eric Gurna: It may have been that.

Marc Mannella: And in various stages of our evolution we’ve done that and not done that at different points in time. The bottom line is that we’re very focused on a pragmatic approach, and this is something that we have found to be effective in certain situations. The notion that, for us it was always that everything at KIPP is earned, including the right to wear a shirt that says KIPP on it. And so if a student does something that is such an egregious violation of what it is that we believe and what it is that we stand for, so this is a type of consequence that would happen in a more sort of, a more serious situation. Sadly, it’s still middle school, and 11- and 12-year-olds sometimes make really bad choices, and so a student who makes like a devastatingly bad choice, we might say to them, you know, you’re not going to wear the KIPP name on your chest anymore until you’ve earned that back. And so in that moment we would tell them to go in the bathroom and turn their shirt inside out so the KIPP on their chests or on their back wasn’t visible anymore.

Eric Gurna: And, but there’s uniform policy, so everyone’s wearing a KIPP shirt?

Marc Mannella: Yes, yes that’s right

Eric Gurna: So everyone’s wearing… it’s mandatory that kids wear a shirt with KIPP on it?

Marc Mannella: Yep, we have a uniform policy.

Eric Gurna: Right, but it’s – but they have to earn their right to wear the shirt.

Marc Mannella: That’s right. When a new student starts with us they wear a blank shirt. Like, we’d tell their parents and we start our relation with every family with a home visit, where after they’re selected through our lottery, then we go and we explain the expectations of the school to the child and the mom and let them ask any questions they have about their new school. And one of the things we tell them is that for the first few weeks in summer, excuse me, they have to wear a blank t-shirt, it should be a blank white t-shirt, until they earn their very first KIPP shirt, and we have a big ceremony for when they’ve earned their right to be a…

Eric Gurna: Is it at the same time every time, or is it like, is it actually each kid, like you have to decide have you earned it yet?

Marc Mannella: There is a t-shirt ceremony where about 90-95% of the kids have earned it, but then there’s going to be a couple of kids who’ve made bad choices early on in the school year, who then have to earn that anew.

Eric Gurna: And, do you feel that that creates a pressure on, that they create a pressure for themselves to adhere to the behavior policies, because they don’t have the, they haven’t earned the right to the shirt?

Marc Mannella: I mean, yeah, it does. I think that ultimately one of the things that we’re trying to establish is that we’re a team and a family, and that there is a way that we’re going to act. There’s a way that we’re going to carry ourselves both academically, as well as in terms of the choices that we make in the cafeteria, and the hallways, and the bus stop, etc. And so, yeah, part of this is like a positive peer pressure where, look, that’s not what we do here. Like, why are you being mean? Like, we don’t do that here. And we’re trying to establish that sort of positive peer pressure in that way.

Eric Gurna: But isn’t the tactic to get there public humiliation?

Marc Mannella: I would not call it public humiliation. I mean, it is not the type of thing where we’re, like, putting on blast and just, you know – you, stand up, everybody else let’s throw rotten vegetables at this kid. That’s not at all what’s happening. There is a positive peer pressure that comes from wanting to be sort of on the team, and yeah. I mean, that’s ultimately what we’re trying to tap into there.

Eric Gurna: So, I mean, I know you’re not throwing rotten vegetables at the kid, but I mean it’s a…

Marc Mannella: Or verbal rotten vegetables

Eric Gurna: But the point of the shirt thing, it’s not like you really think that the shirt matters that much, the shirt itself. What matters is that everyone sees that they have, they don’t have KIPP on their shirt, that their shirt’s inside out, that they’re wearing the white t-shirt after everyone else got their t-shirt. The point is that they’re, they stand out from everyone else as being, sort of like, they have an X on them, or whatever you want to call it, right? I mean, that’s the tactic.

Marc Mannella: I mean, for there, one of our schools has a sticker, like a name sticker, my name is, and says I’m turning it around. At our elementary school, it is just like probably, you know, I can’t say the percentage, at hundreds and thousands of other schools across the country there’s your clothespin system where your clothespin is either here or it’s there or it’s there, and it’s on green, yellow, red, or whatever else it is.

Eric Gurna: On a board or something, not on you

Marc Mannella: Yeah. But I could argue that if it’s on the board and I’m in that classroom, I can see who’s green, yellow, red.

Eric Gurna: Right, sure. Sure.

Marc Mannella: I mean, it’s the same idea. It is trying to teach a kid that there is a way that KIPPsters act. There is a curiosity that they bring to the classroom, there is a respect that they bring to their interaction through their peers and their teachers, and we’re going to be pragmatic about that approach and we’re going to do what we think works.

Eric Gurna: Right, no I get that, but if you wouldn’t call it public humiliation, what’s the tactic? I get the point of it is, and why you’re doing it, but…

Marc Mannella: It’s positive peer pressure, is the answer.

Eric Gurna: It’s positive peer pressure.

Marc Mannella: That’s right. I want to, I want that privilege. I want to be able to talk in the cafeteria, so I’m going to, you know, next time the teacher says you’re getting too loud, or next time someone decides to whip a green bean across the room or whatever the heck it was that prompted this, I’m going to choose not to do that, or I’m going to help sort of maintain this culture that we have, this strong culture, on a peer level. Student to student.

Eric Gurna: But it’s, the reason I’m gonna choose that is because I feel humiliated for not being able to have my shirt on right side out.

Marc Mannella: Yeah, I don’t think we’re gonna agree on that at all. OK?

Eric Gurna: So what’s your reason? As a kid, why do I want to earn my shirt back, or what’s my motivation for, how do I feel? And let me ask like that, as a kid, how do I feel when I’m not allowed to wear the KIPP shirt?

Marc Mannella: Hard to speculate, I don’t know. But what I do know is what I want them to feel, which is pride and belonging on the team. I want them to feel pride that they’re a KIPPster, they’re taking control of their own future, they’re going to and through college and have a happy, independent life. That’s what I want them to feel. In the absence of that…

Eric Gurna: But is it certain what they actually feel?

Marc Mannella: In the absence of that there’s going to be all the, sort of, the counterpoints. At the end of the day though, I just don’t think this is about, it’s not about public shaming. And I think that we’re locked into a dichotomous debate when it doesn’t need to be. Like, at the end of the day, what we’re looking for, is we’re looking for students to understand that there’s a set of choices, there’s gonna be many forks in the road, and that we believe in you and you’re going to make it, to have this happy, independent life, and we’re going to teach you.

Eric Gurna: But, when I ask how does that kid feel, and you say I can’t speculate on that, I just know how I want them to feel, isn’t that at the crux of a lot of this, like, doesn’t it actually matter what that kid actually is feeling? And isn’t it our job as educators to try as hard as we can to learn what’s going on inside of them?

Marc Mannella: Don’t I want a child to feel a negative emotion after they just chucked green beans across the cafeteria?

Eric Gurna: I don’t know, do people do better when they feel worse?

Marc Mannella: I think that you remember the choice that you made that made you feel that way, and then you choose a different path next time. I think that’s learning.

Eric Gurna: OK.

Marc Mannella: And so whether it’s a red X next to number 3 on the higher order thinking question, their math test, or whether it is a consequence that’s delivered in the form of a negative on a paycheck, or it is in the form of being told that you’re not on the team anymore, and you’re gonna have to turn your shirt inside out or you’re gonna get your clothespin moved to yellow, I’m learning now. This is learning.

Eric Gurna: OK. I’ve thrown a lot of things at you to respond to, I’m wondering is there anything else that you feel like is, you know, a criticism that’s out there or just sort of how KIPP’s referred to or anything that you’d want to clear up. Or is there just anything else that you’d want people to know about your work?

Marc Mannella: I think that what we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and working on, and this is an incredible point of pride for me and for us, is this notion of college completion for our kids. We are a lottery system, in terms of how children come to KIPP, and so that means that we are, you know, we’re actually in our open enrollment period for right now. And so, you are as a parent, you have the choice of entering our lottery. And we work really hard to make sure that every single parent in our neighborhoods that we serve know about our lottery. And we walk around with clipboards signing people up. On the weekends, in the evenings, we go to parks, we go to churches, we go to community centers, we go to supermarkets, just making sure that everybody has the opportunity to sign up. And after that lottery happens, with the students who come in there’s an incredibly wide range of ability. There’s an incredibly wide range of previous knowledge and educational attainment that our children come to us with. You know, of our KIPP Philadelphia, when you put all three of our schools together, 17.8 or something percent of them have a special education need of some kind, have an IP, so there is that one criticism out there that we don’t serve special ed. kids, it’s just patently false here in Philly. And then, you look at the, for the students who are with us at the end of eighth grade, how many of them are graduating with a 2- or a 4-year degree from college? The notion that 38% is, first of all, more than four times the average for kids who grow up in poverty in this country, that number is 8%. So 38% is almost five times that number. But yet we’re still not satisfied, because for the top quartile by income in this country, that number is between 75 and 80%. We see that as the real achievement gap in this country. That is the thing that has caused the institutionalized poverty. That is the thing that is holding our country back from realizing what it could become. The fact that there are 8% of children who are going to have that opportunity, have that happy, independent life because they’ve got that college degree, compared to 75 to 80% for the top quartile. KIPP and others like us are trying to totally reverse that. And we’re not going to be satisfied until we have closed that gap, not the seventh grade reading gap, you know, as measured on some state test, not even the ACT or the SAT, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to close that gap in terms of college completion. And, you know, we have come an incredibly long way, and we have an incredibly long way to go. It’s going to be incredibly hard for us, and those who are working alongside us, to close that gap, but we are not going to stop until we’re there. I mean, there is nothing that we see as more important than that, and so we’re going after it.

Eric Gurna: Well, thanks Marc Mannella. I really want to thank you for being on Please Speak Freely and for having this conversation with me. I know that there was a lot of things that I was raising that were, you know, trying to sort of, I certainly wasn’t trying to poke holes in your argument but really trying to have an authentic conversation about different viewpoints, and I really appreciate you engaging in it with me, and, you know, I learned a lot, and I hope to learn more, thank you.

Marc Mannella: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, and yeah, I hope you get a chance to come back and see the classes in session, we can see some good higher order thinking, and we can see what that paycheck system looks like in practice when it’s done correctly.

Eric Gurna: I’d love to, thanks.

Marc Mannella: Great, thanks Eric Gurna.

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Please Speak Freely

On Please Speak Freely, Eric Gurna, founder of Development Without Limits interviews leading thinkers, artists and others to shed light on key issues and explore different perspectives about youth development and education. The idea is to get past the platitudes and institutional positions, and have honest, nuanced conversations about things that really matter to young people and communities. Please Speak Freely guests include:

  • Raffi, Children’s Troubadour and Founder of the Centre for Child Honouring
  • Alfie Kohn, Author of several books including Punished By Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve
  • Dr. Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education at New York University
  • Karen Pittman, President & CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment
  • Tony Smith, Former Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District
  • Lenore Skenazy, “America’s Worst Mom” and Author of Free-Range Kids

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