If you have been in education circles for any significant amount of time, then you are probably familiar with the charter school network KIPP. There are over 200 KIPP schools, servicing around 100,000 students. Their slogan “Work hard. Be nice.” is just as ubiquitous as the schools themselves. It is even the namesake of the book about the school and its founders. Recently, the nation’s largest charter school network has decided to drop its iconic slogan.
KIPP announced that they were dropping the slogan due to what it implies:
We are retiring ‘Work hard. Be nice.’ as KIPP’s national slogan; it ignores the significant effort required to dismantle systemic racism, places value on being compliant and submissive, supports the illusion of meritocracy, and does not align with our vision of students being free to create the future they want.
This of course comes on the heels of the fallout of the George Floyd protests. With the advent of the protests, companies have been making lots of changes. As an inner-city teacher, this particular change hits me in two ways:
Another superficial change that nobody asked for by a company pandering to people of color due to the current racial tension in the country.
A long overdue change that is only the beginning of a long journey to true racial equality within the organization.
In regard to my first thought: I had honestly never had a problem with the slogan. Don’t get me wrong; I have heard and seen the recent discussions around all of the ed-reform jargon like “achievement gap” and “grit.” I don’t necessarily disagree with the arguments but it also doesn’t rise to the level of issues that I would care about either. This is particularly the case with the slogan “Work hard. Be nice.” I suppose I could see how it would imply a meritocracy that doesn’t exist, but I don’t inherently have an issue with trying to instill the values of hard work and being nice.
On the other end if we are to interpret the slogan not just for what it says but also what it might imply then simply removing the slogan is not even remotely enough. If you can pick apart a seemingly benign slogan to this level of depth in pursuit of equality, then the same is doubly true of policies and practices which are far more important.
To be fair KIPP has acknowledged the latter. They announced five other policy, practices, and goals aligned to racial equity in the same message they announced the slogan change. These other changes included actions like creating Senior Equity Officers and re-evaluating discipline practices. This is all a step in the right direction.
I don’t know what I think about KIPP dropping the slogan. In my mind, it occupies the weird space of things I logically understand but still wouldn’t care enough about to act upon, especially because I typically see companies do things like this not as a precursor to serious equity introspection but as an alternative to serious racial introspection. To KIPP’s credit, they are pledging not to that.
Either way, when I think about things I want to fix at schools the slogan on the letterhead rarely comes to mind. I’m not opposed to changing it, but let’s make sure that’s not all we are doing.