KIPP’s New Mantra: ‘Slack Off. Be Mean.’

Jul 11, 2020 by

Last week, just before the Fourth of July, the influential KIPP charter school network announced it had decided to abandon its longtime mantra, “Work Hard. Be Nice.” KIPP’s leaders explained that the affable slogan had to go because it hinders efforts to “dismantle systemic racism,” “places value on being compliant and submissive,” “supports the illusion of meritocracy,” and doesn’t “align” with KIPP’s “vision of students being free to create the future they want.”

What to make of all this? Well, KIPP has pledged its 240-odd schools to the cause of anti-racism. Generally speaking, that’s certainly admirable. But anti-racist education today can mean many things. What KIPP has embraced is a fairly radical vision that retreats from defending even time-tested, broadly supported, foundational virtues if someone hints that they’re freighted with wrongthink.

I’ll get into the larger issue of anti-racist education some other time. Today, I just want to offer a few thoughts on KIPP abandoning its hope-filled, successful, quarter-century-old motto. This is a decision that’s puzzling, disheartening, and short-sighted.

It’s puzzling. This move is so focused on placating the wild demands of the woke cadres that it suggests KIPP has lost its bearings. In 30 years in and around schools as an educator and scholar, I’ve yet to meet the parent—of any race or background—who doesn’t want their child to be nice and to work hard. I’ve yet to meet the responsible teacher who doesn’t want the same. As a parent, I certainly want my kids to work hard and be nice. I think that’s pretty typical. And I haven’t met many people who are seeking lazy, nasty neighbors or colleagues. It will be telling to see how KIPP’s new posture is received by parents, longtime supporters, and public officials who believe in hard work and kindness.

It’s disheartening. Of all the virtues, hard work and kindness have got to be among the most appealing and universal. The fact that KIPP’s leaders won’t stand by these shows a stunning lack of civilizational confidence. After all, anti-racist activists have suggested that a subculture of online, alt-right weirdos was able to poison the settled meaning of the 250-year-old Betsy Ross flag. Even if one accepts the dubious notion that “Work Hard. Be Nice.” has somehow been tainted by systemic racism, educators with any confidence in their cause should relish the opportunity to remove that taint from a relatively baby-faced slogan.

Now, perhaps “nice” is too mild for our superheated times. Okay. Perhaps KIPP needed a more ambitious-sounding mission. Fair enough. With confidence, its leadership might have built on what they had. They could’ve gone with “Work Hard. Be Kind. Change the World.” Or “Work Hard. Be Good. Show Courage. Fight Oppression.” Instead, they retreated.

It’s short-sighted. Universal, aspirational values offer a moral language for rallying support. In retreating from these, one is left without a way to win new allies and bring them along. Indeed, when you declare that those who value hard work or kindness are part of the problem, you’ve kind of painted yourself into the corner. And, for what? I’ve known a number of KIPP leaders over many years, and I find it hard to believe that they don’t want their kids to live in a world that values kindness and hard work.

One has to wonder whether the KIPP cognoscenti have really thought this through. Do they honestly think that working hard and being nice is in tension with the “future” that KIPP’s students want to be “free to create”? If so, exactly what kinds of students does KIPP’s brain trust think it has and what kind of future does it imagine they want to create? In the meantime, KIPP slouches towards its new mantra: “Slack Off. Be Mean.”

Frederick Hess

I’m director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where I study K-12 and higher education. My books include “Spinning Wheels,” “Common Sense School Reform,” “The Same Thing Over and Over,” “Cage-Busting Leadership,” “The Cage-Busting Teacher” and “Letters to a Young Education Reformer.” My work has appeared in scholarly outlets such as Urban Affairs Review, Harvard Education Review and Social Science Quarterly, and popular outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, National Review and The Hill. I’ve edited academic volumes on topics including education philanthropy, educational entrepreneurship, college costs, educational research, the Common Core and the politically correct university. I’m a former high school social studies teacher and teach or have taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Georgetown, Rice, and the University of Virginia. I hold an M.Ed. in teaching and curriculum and a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University.

Source: KIPP’s New Mantra: ‘Slack Off. Be Mean.’

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.