Book Review: Work Hard. Be Nice. | By Emerson Csorba

AT THE BEGINNING OF JUNE, I travelled down to Houston with one of my brothers, for what was a much-needed vacation. Staying with our cousins, we were graced with wonderful accommodation and a prodigious library in one of the upstairs rooms. One of our cousins, an age-mate and university student, has a book collection that could leave any avid reader salivating. On the morning of our flight home, I came across a book entitled Work Hard. Be Nice. Taking a brief glimpse at the synopsis, I learned that the book tells the story of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a series of inner-city elementary schools initiated in Houston and New York by two forward-thinking and fresh university graduates, which has now spread across the United States. Having read briefly about KIPP schools in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, I knew that this book would serve as my companion on the flights back to Edmonton.


So what are KIPP schools? Well, they’re fifth-to-eighth grade schools geared primarily toward inner city students, with most of the students being Hispanic or African-American. Unlike most schools, they begin at 7:30 am and run until 5:00 pm, every day of the week. School takes place every other Saturday, and there are three weeks of summer school, rather than a full two months off. KIPP teachers also maintain close contact with students and their families; every night, the KIPP founders would receive dozens of phone calls from their students, asking for guidance on their homework. Though academics are currently conducting research on the potential benefits and drawbacks of KIPP, it seems clear that the rigorous approach to elementary and middle school education has yielded positive results. Over a single academic year, KIPP students’ performance in reading, writing and mathematics skyrockets.


One aspect of Work Hard. Be Nice. that stands out to me is the simplicity of author Jay Mathews’ writing. He is a kind writer, indeed, which reflects the latter half of the book’s title. I found Mathews’ writing easy to digest. It almost reminds me of a children’s story book: short, vivid sentences with plenty of meaning (though no pictures in this case!). Moreover, Mathews was able to weave several different stories together, from the early stages of Daniel Levin and Mike Feinberg’s teaching careers to their struggles to find school space in Houston and New York and the eventual expansion of the schools throughout the United States. Mathews is an experienced education reporter, and this really came across in his rendition of the KIPP story.


One of the major lessons that I learned through Work Hard. Be Nice. is the importance of audacity. The idea that no matter what others tell you, it is sometimes important to keep your head down, moving forward toward realizing your vision. It helps to be bold. On many occasions, Levin and Feinberg encountered stubborn school administrators, or were told that their KIPP classes would not receive classroom space for an upcoming academic year. But in no case did these two school teachers relent. It’s funny how today, KIPP is viewed as one of the prime examples of education innovation in North America. But less than a decade ago, it was only gaining steam.

For individuals that believe that education can transform students’ lives, but who want tangible proof that this is the case, Work Hard. Be Nice. is worth your time.

Emerson Csorba is a third-year Sciences Politiques student, writer, avid runner and fashion magazine addict. You can find him on the River Valley trails or relaxing in Remedy. He is slowly making his way through Alastair I.M. Rae’s Quantum Physics. 


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