Teachers: Show Them the Mission, Not Just the Money

by James V. Shuls and Robert Maranto

Knowledge is power. That is the belief, and subsequently the name of, one of the nations most acclaimed charter school networks, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). KIPP has been branded as a No Excuses network of schools because of their incessant focus on improving student achievement. It seems their no excuses mentality is paying off. The question many are now asking is how KIPP has been able to achieve such remarkable success.

A recent study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research concluded that KIPP middle schools produced learning gains that were significantly larger than their comparison schools. After three years in KIPP, the average student experienced approximately 11 months’ worth of additional learning in math, 8 months in reading. After three to four years, students learned an additional 14 months’ worth in science and 11 months’ worth in reading. In essence, students gained an extra year’s worth of knowledge from just three or four years at a KIPP middle school.

The Mathematica researchers attempted to delve into the black box of KIPP to discover what factors led to the increased student achievment. They noted that KIPP students spend much more time in class. They also noted that the KIPP schools with school-wide behavior systems tended to perform better. Ultimately, they determined “it is difficult to isolate the elements that create a successful KIPP school.”

We agree with the Mathematica researchers, it is difficult to know for sure why KIPP has been so successful, but we have a strong hypothesis. In a study published this month in Social Science Quarterly we document what might be one of KIPP’s secrets to success, teacher recruitment. Using strict search criteria, we had multiple coders search the websites of local KIPP networks and their surrounding school districts. We wanted to see what types of appeals the schools made to prospective teachers during the recruitment process. What we found was not all that surprising.

We noted that district websites were much more likely to appeal to materialistic incentives, like benefits or salary. In contrast, KIPP schools used idealistic or service oriented appeals much more frequently. Approximately 91% of KIPP websites appealed to some type of public service work ethic. They made references to closing the achievement gap or doing whatever it takes to help students succeed. Some even noted that the job would be difficult, “teaching the hardest working students requires the hardest working teachers.” Meanwhile, only 32% of district websites made similar appeals.

There are a few lessons that other schools might learn from KIPP in this regard. For starters, teacher recruitment should be a top priority. Schools should identify the traits they want their teacher to possess and they should cast a wide net to attract those types of individuals. Secondly, schools, especially schools serving disadvantaged students, should appeal to the public service ethic of prospective teachers.

KIPP schools may be No Excuses. They may have a longer day. They may even do a better job of implementing school-wide behavior systems than district schools. However, none of that would be possible if the schools did not have a teaching staff that bought into the mission. It seems obvious, that KIPP’s success starts with teacher recruitment.

Teaching is a noble profession and as we conclude in our paper, “If you want to recruit great teachers show them the mission, not just the money.”

James V. Shuls is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.

Robert Maranto, Ph.D. holds the 21st Century Endowed Chair in Leadership at the University of Arkansas.

James Shuls

James Shuls

James V. Shuls, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and a fellow at the Show-Me Institute.