Richard Barth, CEO of KIPP, issued a statement on the organization’s Web site on July 1st that the “no excuses” charter network would be retiring its motto, “Work hard. Be nice.”

Barth wrote about the motto, which has defined KIPP since its founding in 1994: “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.”

The statement came on the heels of a letter by Dave Levin, co-founder of KIPP, addressed to KIPP alumni and posted several days earlier on the organization’s Web site.

“This letter is long overdue,” wrote Levin. “Over the years, many of you from all different KIPP schools and regions have talked with me about your reflections on your KIPP experiences. About all the ways KIPP did and did not meet your needs.... It shouldn’t have taken the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and countless others; another wave of violence against Black people; nor the pain of Black and Latinx students, alumni, colleagues and friends for me to write to all of you.”

Levin went on to apologize for the failure of KIPP to do more to combat racism and vowed to be make KIPP a more inclusive organization going forward.

The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal dismissed the decision by KIPP to drop its motto as “woke nonsense” in a critique published on July 7th.

The editorial board elaborated: “We hope KIPP isn’t abandoning its rigorous instruction or standards, though the line about ‘the illusion of meritocracy’ sounds a lot like what George W. Bush called the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations.’ The surest way to guarantee failure is to tell students that their effort and behavior don’t matter.”

This decision by the leadership of KIPP marks a significant turning point. Hard work and obedience have been central to the organization’s mission since its founding. In fact, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews wrote a book celebrating KIPP entitled Work Hard. Be Nice., published in 2009. But the emphasis on diligence and compliance in an era of protests against police brutality and systemic racism is, in the opinion of Levin and Barth, out of step.

In response to The Wall Street Journal's editorial deriding KIPP’s decision to drop its motto, Dave Levin, KIPP’s co-founder, wrote a letter defending the organization’s decision. The Journal published the letter on July 11th.

Levin wrote:

“Regarding your editorial 'KIPP Wokes Up' (July 7): KIPP’s decision to retire our slogan 'Work hard. Be nice.' has nothing to do with abandoning our standards and everything to do with meeting our community’s needs 25 years later. Last year, we gathered 6,000 students, alumni, families, teachers and school leaders to update our mission. In their stories, we heard a common theme: working hard and being nice did not sufficiently reflect the reality of their lives. Simply put, we all want a slogan that does.

“Too many of our students work incredibly hard and get into the college of their dreams—only to face a massive tuition bill, the need to work multiple jobs and a lack of paid internships in most career tracks. And once they enter the workforce, they will still earn significantly less than their white peers, be twice as likely to be killed by police and, now, be disproportionately hospitalized or die from Covid-19. In a world where our students confront anti-blackness and systemic racism at every turn, KIPP’s slogan needs to reflect the importance of identity, excellence and the boldness needed to create a more just world.

“Hard work is essential. Character matters. But neither is enough. We should not be afraid to tell our children that it takes more. It takes community, access and systemic change. And it takes a belief that we must be a part of this change.

“Ideally, working hard and being nice is all any student needs, but our country isn’t there yet. Retiring our slogan is a step toward both recognizing that fact and working to change it.”

Samuel E. Abrams
Director, NCSPE