When Lisa Suben was 23 years old, she accepted a job as a fifth-grade math teacher at a KIPP school in our nation’s capital. Although this Teach for America graduate didn’t yet have a shining track record and was still a little wet behind the ears, she believed that she could improve upon the math program KIPP was already quite successfully implementing in their schools.
Suben had guts and determination and the KIPP adminstration trusted her instincts. They handed her the ball with the expectation that she would run with it, and boy did she run!
After a grueling 10-hour day at KIPP, Suben would spend another 3 hours at home writing her own lessons on her trusty laptop. She created her own math workbook to get her kids where they needed to be. Fast forward one year and Suben’s students jumped from the 16th percentile to the 77th. It was more than any other KIPP school (or any school, for that matter) had ever seen.
This is inspired teaching that touches the lives of children forever. Could it have happened in our public schools? I’m afraid that given the current models in place—probably not.
The trust placed in this teacher was certainly a risk, but a risk worth taking. It takes an administration with a vision and the guts to take on change in such a dynamic way.
But one of the secrets of KIPP's success in attracting the brightest young teachers and raising achievement for low-income children throughout the country is its insistence on letting good teachers decide how they are going to teach. KIPP principals, such as Johnson, have the power to hire promising young people such as Suben and let them follow their best instincts, as long as the results -- quality of student work, level of student classroom responses, improvement in standardized test scores -- justify the teacher's confidence in her approach.
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Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to find a public school teacher who has hung in there long enough to make a significant difference. Rafe Esquith comes immediately to mind. But at what personal, financial and emotional cost to these visionary teachers? Where are the Rafe Esquiths that our public schools so desperately need?
Public schools make it difficult, if not impossible, for such dynamic, engaging teachers to survive the bureaucratic rhetoric and the endless red-tape. Too many potentially life-changing teachers decide it’s just not worth the effort to fight the uphill battle everyday. These individuals are lost to our children forever. In turn these children and their potential are lost to our society as well.
Would Lisa Suben have been such a force in a public school setting? Would she have had the freedom and responsibility to make such a difference? The honest answer is NO. This could only happen outside the confines of our typical public school system.
Lisa Suben and KIPP are but a glimpse of how it could be if we had choice. This story is precisely why I believe in it.