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Posted at 11:16 AM ET, 02/10/2011

The amazing Harriett Ball

By Jay Mathews


Here is my obituary for the Post of one of the most influential teachers of our era:

Harriett Ball, a well-known teacher trainer who inspired the most successful charter school network in the country, died Feb. 2 at a Houston Northwest Medical Center after a heart attack. She was 64.

A lively classroom performer with a rich sense of humor, the elementary school teacher stood 6 feet 1 inch tall and had a deep, vibrant alto voice. Most of her fame stemmed from the role she played in the creation of the Knowledge Is Power Program, now known as KIPP, which has grown to 99 schools in 20 states and the District.

She trained the KIPP co-founders, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, when they were novice members of the Teach For America program. She gave them a host of original songs, chants and games to encourage learning. They took the name of their network from her most popular chant:

"You gotta read, baby, read.

You gotta read, baby read.

The more you read, the more you know,

'Cause knowledge is power,

Power is money, and

I want it."

KIPP's initial fifth-through-eighth-grade public charter middle schools used some of Mrs. Ball's methods, her iron doctrine that all children will learn, and a longer school day and year to produce the largest gains in achievement ever seen in low-income children.

The founders say that would not have happened if Levin had not lied about a non-existent English as a second language certificate that got him his first teaching job in 1992 at Bastian Elementary School in southeast Houston.

Across the hall he met Mrs. Ball, the school's star teacher. She had developed what she called "disposable crutches," a stream of mnemonic chants that attached essential rules of grammar and mathematics to the brains of fourth-graders. They learned the words as easily as rap lyrics. The more they used them, the more they became second nature.

She showed Levin and Feinberg how to move quickly to quell any rebellion, protect children from teasing and motivate learning. Often she used a practiced urban lingo.

"You're not doing the work?" she said to one child. "You got three choices." She spoke slowly. "You . . . can . . . change . . . rooms. You . . . can . . . change . . . schools." Her pace quickened: "But don't nobody else want you but me."

"Or you can change your attitude and actions . . . because I'm not changing. . . . You gonna pick one. This ain't Burger King. You don't 'have it your way.' Change rooms, change schools, or you change."

She was particularly close to Levin, sometimes pointing at his curly hair and suggesting he was one of her children.

He begged her in 1995 to transfer with him to Feinberg's school, where they had permission to start the first KIPP class. She said she was comfortable at Bastian and would not move.

He tried again when he moved to the south Bronx to start a second KIPP school. She said she couldn't take the risk, as a single mother with four children and a mortgage. "You're young and can start over," she said. "I don't have that luxury."

She gave Levin and Feinberg permission to use her chants and methods. Mrs. Ball believed she got her inspirations from God. In 1996 she received what she considered divine guidance to vest her pension, borrow on her mortgage and start her own business helping other teachers improve.

In a statement, Levin and Feinberg said "KIPP would not exist without Harriett." Watching her, they said, "was akin to watching any genius in action - she made one of the world's most difficult endeavors seem effortless." KIPP schools, including seven in the District, have 27,000 students and are growing rapidly, particularly in Houston.

Harriett Jane Hill was born July 1, 1946, in Rosenberg, Tex. She received a teaching degree from Huston-Tillotson University in Austin and then taught in Austin and Houston for 35 years.

Her first and third marriages, to Paul Franks and Duke Lacal Johnson, ended in divorce. Her second husband, Herman Ball, was shot dead in 1991 while trying to protect his sister's car from a reckless driver.

Survivors include four children from her first marriage, Rochelle Franks of Houston, Pamela Franks of Austin, Paul Franks of Greenwood, Miss., and Priscilla Franks of Spring, Tex.; a brother, Hubert Hill of Houston; and nine grandchildren.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | February 10, 2011; 11:16 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Dave Levin, Harriett Ball, KIPP, Mike Feinberg  
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Comments

"knowledge is power,

Power is money, and

I want it."

Is it just me, or does this strike you as sort of disgusting?

Posted by: tfteacher | February 10, 2011 12:44 PM | Report abuse

It's not just you.

But how about this?

""You're not doing the work?" she said to one child. "You got three choices." She spoke slowly. "You . . . can . . . change . . . rooms. You . . . can . . . change . . . schools." Her pace quickened: "But don't nobody else want you but me.""

At what point is Jay going to understand that when we say KIPP plays by different rules, this is what we're talking about? Any teacher who said this would be fired. In fact, Jay would write a disapproving blog post if it were anyone else.

And of course, the "change schools" is a big part of what we've been trying to tell him, too.


Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 10, 2011 2:15 PM | Report abuse

For Cal---If you can cite one case of a teacher being fired for saying anything like that, I will write a column about it. It is the sign, in my experience, of a good teacher who knows how to motivate. Jaime
Escalante told kids all the time that he could arrange for them to transfer to Jordan if they didn't apply themselves. I have seen lots of teachers do this, and make it work. It is somewhat tongue in cheek, of course, since the teacher knows she has no such power, but the kid gets the message.

As for the chant, Levin and Feinberg also found that it grated on their middle class ears, so they changed the word "money" to "freedom," although Feinberg still used money with fifth graders because it was hard for them to understand what the word freedom meant.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 10, 2011 3:00 PM | Report abuse

"As for the chant, Levin and Feinberg also found that it grated on their middle class ears, so they changed the word "money" to "freedom," although Feinberg still used money with fifth graders because it was hard for them to understand what the word freedom meant."

Posted by: Jay Mathews

In the warped value system of America, Inc., money is freedom and vice-versa. Interesting that the chant itself was not a problem. The BIA schools were also big on chanting. Not surprising that 5th-graders taught by the TFA/KIPP ethnocide cult would not know what "freedom" meant; certainly not freedom of conscience.

I don't think this will work as the new SACRED STORY, now that the original has been debunked by edharris and GFBrandenburg.

Posted by: mcstowy | February 10, 2011 3:54 PM | Report abuse

For mcstowy---Fifth grade is the intake grade for most KIPP middle schools. They didn't know what freedom meant because they had not been taught that in the schools they had previously attended. After a year in KIPP, they knew what it meant, and so they could switch to using it in the chant.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 10, 2011 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Oh please, Jay. You blame the previous teachers for the fact that incoming 5th graders didn't know what freedom was. That's rich.

Dude, these kids are raised by TV and consumerism, and KIPP uses that rather than countering it.

You should find a new focus; education seems to confound you.

And I guarantee if a certain principal heard a certain teacher talk that way, that certain teacher would get reprimanded. And you know it.

Posted by: tfteacher | February 10, 2011 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Jay, "fired" is probably too strong. Reprimanded, without question. Praised for it? Never. Not in the real world of public education. And if it were reported, the teacher would be held up for condemnation.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 10, 2011 6:09 PM | Report abuse

I'm disgusted by the power and money chant. I'm sure I'll be crucified for writing this, but if given a choice how many Christian parents wouldn't prefer their children start the day with The Lord's Prayer? Those days of prayer in public school are long gone. Do they still put their hands over their hearts and pledge allegiance to the flag of the USA or is their allegiance to the almighty dollar? And if the KIPP founder would lie about not having a teaching certificate that other teachers had to earn, honesty isn't a virtue. What makes these Teach for America people think they are above state certification requirements when other teachers must EARN it? They only have to come from privileged lives and top colleges for the rules not to apply for them? What arrogance they have.

Posted by: dcsmartie | February 10, 2011 6:29 PM | Report abuse

To hate on this wonderful teacher who actually touched and changed children's lives is shameful. Mcstowy, dcsmartie, tfteacher and cal...you are sick, sad people. SHAME on you.

Posted by: HappyTeacher | February 10, 2011 8:33 PM | Report abuse

@happyteacher: Excuse me if I sounded disrespectful to the memory of Harriett Ball. I forgot I was reading an obituary of a teacher when Mr. Matthews decided to turn an obituary into another ad for KIPP and TFA. I am tired of reading about them. They are hogging the national spotlight and getting way too much press. How about profiling real teachers who stay longer than two years?

Posted by: dcsmartie | February 10, 2011 9:08 PM | Report abuse

I suspect the comment about the teacher lying about his teaching certificate was meant to warm readers to the idea that a lie is OK now and then if it serves a greater purpose -- like the lie Rhee told about her students' scores soaring from the 13th percentile to the 90th

Posted by: efavorite | February 10, 2011 9:29 PM | Report abuse

Good heavens, efavorite. I missed that completely.

"The founders say that would not have happened if Levin had not lied about a non-existent English as a second language certificate that got him his first teaching job in 1992 at Bastian Elementary School in southeast Houston."

I do believe you are right.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 10, 2011 11:27 PM | Report abuse

One thing that I've noticed recently in perusing various chat and response forums is a particularly singular lack of empathy by people who take the time to post comments.

(Actually, the the first time I noticed it was in 2004, when folks were discussing the economy and jobs. One poster stated "the downturn in the economy hasn't affected me, I've still got three cars, and steaks and chops on the table every night". Nice)

But I digress.

What on earth is wrong with Ms. Ball laying out the options to a student that did not want to learn, or hadn't been taught how to learn in previous classes? You'd prefer that they'd just be passed along?

As to the chant, Mr. Matthews points out in his column that the teachers that she mentored were, in fact, uncomfortable with the "Money is Power" aspect of the excersize.

Now here's where the empathy comes in, from actually two perspectives.

The first perspective is simply this: If you are from a lower income strata, a family that barely has enough money to put food on the table, don't you think that this would resonate with you? That money can represent power and/or freedom. Would you prefer that such goals not be mentioned, so that the children continue to lack understanding of why they are learning and what the benefit of there work will be? If it's over the top, it's at least over the top in a positive direction.

The other place where empathy comes in is to look at who the heroes are in many lower income black families. They are in many cases, black athletes, those that were able to get out of a poor/lower class environment, and make huge amounts of money. Realizing that a very small percentage of athletes succed in this fashion, isn't it a good thing that students are taught that there is a reason to learn? A reason to be in school other than playing ball?

I realize that I'm probably generalizing quite a bit here, but most other posters aren't interested in a dicussion, they are just want to use this particular subject to validate their own views of America, without looking at the whole pictue.


Posted by: JohnDinHouston | February 11, 2011 6:58 AM | Report abuse

dcsmartie wrote "I'm disgusted by the power and money I'm sure I'll be crucified for writing this, but if given a choice how many Christian parents wouldn't prefer their children start the day with The Lord's Prayer? Those days of prayer in public school are long gone. Do they still put their hands over their hearts and pledge allegiance to the flag of the USA or is their allegiance to the almighty dollar?"

Wow, maybe you needed to have someone teach YOU how to critically evaluate a set of facts.

First - prayer is NOT outlawed in public schools; it is the practice of prayer organized by the school in an official fashion. You can pray anytime you want. Really.

Try to NOT see issues through your own political prism sometimes. You'll find that this is a great country, and that no one is really planning to "steal its honor" as so many have said recently.

And you think you'll be "crucified"? That's probably an overstatement, don't you think? Try to see an argument from another perspective once in a while. At the end of the day, we absolutely have freedom of religion.

Really

Posted by: JohnDinHouston | February 11, 2011 7:18 AM | Report abuse

For Cal--- If you can cite me one instance of a teacher being just reprimanded for saying anything like that, I will still write a column about it. Or at least, if you want to protect confidentiality, tell us how many instances you know of this happening, in which districts, and what the teacher said and what actually happened to the teacher. I think both you and tfteacher are arguing from assumptions, not facts, and would be all over somebody who tried to counter one of your arguments that way.

As for the mention of Levin's lie, it was a big part of the book, from which almost all of that obit was derived. I didn't think of it in the context of Rhee because Levin knew he was lying, told me years later he had been lying and assumed the principal who hired him anyway knew he was lying. She needed a teacher and was willing to overlook a technicality to hire him. And that brazen act of a 22 year old made all the difference, because if he had not met Ball there would have been no KIPP.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 11, 2011 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Jay,one thing I've noticed about you is that you move effortlessly between unwarranted assertions or observations and then insisting on hard core facts.

So answer this hypothetical:

A teacher deals with a misbehaving student by saying "Look, if you don't like it here, get out. Oh, wait--you can't. No one else wants you."

The parent complains. The teacher is reprimanded.

In that hypothetical, would you argue that the teacher had been cruel? Yes or no.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 11, 2011 12:10 PM | Report abuse

I guess it would be safe to name a municipal building after her.

Posted by: buckdharma | February 11, 2011 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

You book "Work Hard. Be Nice." offers the clearest depiction I've read of the very real, human factors which make great schools great.

What comes across so clearly in the book is that not only that Hariett Ball's innovative hip-hop teaching methods did work, but that they could be replicated -- even by a pair of clumsy Jewish kids kids and prim and proper blue-bloods. You do a tribute to poor children and to young teachers by showing that great results don't come easy and can't be replicated by fiddling with class size or paying everyone in the building more money. The kind of commitment required to implement Ball's techniques is serious: on the order of learning ballroom dance.

Why do we so often cheapen school reform by suggesting easy fixes and not identifying clearly that teachers unwilling to do what it takes, shouldn't be in the classroom? Ball's methodology would seem completely foreign to most teachers and hard to learn without deep, personal commitment AND ability. You can't just turn that on and some teachers just aren't going to cut the mustard. Any big-city superintendent who says it can be taught during a few days of staff development is lying. Bottom line? We need every teacher to be as committed to the success of our children as the staff of KIPP. There is no other way forward.

Ball was a prophet who showed one extremely effective technique to transform the lives of poor children. Like those who slander KIPP here in this page, the naysayers would rather disavor her prophecy than to embrace her work, which requires real effort and determination to implement and bring to scale.

About the money stuff? I performed wonders with a roll of nickels in 1994. If money motivates: just do it. I think a Harvard professor proved something similar recently. This is just fingernails on the chalk-board for socialists who would rather preserve the public school shrine to workers' rights than to consider that students should come first.

You immortalized Ball in your book and KIPP immortalizes her pathbreaking techniques in classrooms around America today.

Thank you for painting such a spectacular portrait of this genius before her unfortunate passing. She must have delighted in your account.

Sincerely,

Anthony

Posted by: anthonykrinsky | February 13, 2011 7:55 PM | Report abuse

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