In the wake of famed charter school network KIPP’s decision to retire its “Work hard. Be nice.” slogan, some have pilloried the decision as evidence that the network is moving away from its origin as schools that will do all they can to ensure their students succeed and is instead accepting a narrative that students from minority backgrounds can’t succeed given the barriers they face.

But as KIPP cofounder Dave Levin argued in The Wall Street Journal in response to the newspaper’s editorial criticizing the decision, quite the contrary. KIPP, he said, is simply acknowledging that if its students work hard and be nice, that may not be enough to succeed, and so they are seeking to revise the motto.

On balance, I think Levin’s point in the letter is right—although notably, it’s different from the reasons KIPP cited when it retired the slogan.

In that spirit, here’s an unsolicited suggestion for KIPP’s new motto: Work hard. Be nice. Lead. Connect widely. 

Behind KIPP’s success

In Robert Pondiscio criticism of KIPP’s choice, he made a compelling argument:

If there’s any institution in America that could rightly claim to have made a significant effort to dismantle systemic racism, it’s KIPP. Far from ‘compliant and submissive,’ the network has served as an emphatic rebuke to a complacent public education establishment that impotently accepts as inevitable that low-income Black and Brown children cannot perform as well as well-off white kids. Thousands of its alumni have been admitted to more than 200 colleges and universities, results that are hard to square with a view of meritocracy as ‘an illusion.’

There’s an important nuance worth adding to Pondiscio’s point. As Julia Freeland Fisher and I wrote in The Educator’s Dilemma, to the extent KIPP and other schools have been successful with students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it’s not simply because the network has “done school better” in the classroom alone.

Yes, that’s part of its success. But its success is also because KIPP has done school differently. KIPP has integrated into its schools services that touch many other parts of children’s lives—such as requiring parents to guarantee that homework is done, treating trauma, providing health care, and more—to combat directly the challenges and inequities that its students face. 

To take one simple example, it unsurprisingly turns out that if children are sick, learning is less likely to happen. Rather than accept the challenges that its students face in getting reliable health care, KIPP Houston, for example, stepped in to provide access with a campus-based health clinic.

Simply providing health care still doesn’t mean students will learn, which is partially why many community school designs that provide such services as health care and counseling have failed to move the academic needle. But doing so in the context of intentionally helping students achieve academically with better learning opportunities, as KIPP has done, does produce results.

KIPP similarly realized that it needed to integrate college support services into its network because too many of its students got into college but then did not succeed. For example, in 2011 KIPP revealed that, of those who were old enough to be eligible, 33% of its 8th-grade graduates had graduated from a four-year college. Given that KIPP serves a predominantly low-income population, this number was remarkably four times the national average. But it was far lower than the goal KIPP had set for itself to make sure its students got to and then successfully through college.

KIPP consequently launched “KIPP Through College,” which provides its graduates with alumni coaches and counselors to help them navigate the academic, social, and financial challenges they may face with an eye toward making sure students possess a purpose, passion, and plan; focus on their academics; network and navigate to build a strong team around them; are financially fit; and know who they are. And it has produced positive results.

What students need to succeed

In my mind, KIPP’s decision to change its motto doesn’t change any of those efforts that the network and its schools have put in place.

What its motto has historically done is not talk about the effort KIPP must make, but about what its students must do to succeed. Levin observed correctly that working hard and being nice aren’t enough.

On the one hand, that this is true—that working hard and being nice isn’t enough—is unremarkable. How could any catchy motto capture all that students must do in life to succeed?

Identifying all the habits of success or character skills they must develop and exhibit and all the knowledge and skills they must possess in a simple motto is of course absurd, as would be adding elements of healthy living and the like. 

But I think there are two aspects that KIPP could add to its new motto that it is developing given the context: Lead. Connect widely. 

Although, from my perspective, KIPP’s protestations about the subservient nature of the phrase “Work Hard. Be Nice.” ring hollow (yes, they are values that I want to ensure my children learn and exhibit), adding the notion of leading further mitigates the concern. Individuals should learn to lead well and help marshal followers to moral goals, regardless of whether they are in formal positions of leadership.

Even more vital for life success is connecting widely. As Julia Freeland Fisher showed in her book, Who You Know, success isn’t just about what you know. It’s also about who you know. 

Having strong caring relationships aren’t the only thing that matters, Fisher documents. Those are important, but they aren’t enough for opening up opportunity.

It’s instead “weak ties”—“those with whom we interact less frequently” who “can offer real value in our lives,” as they offer something that strong ties in our lives can’t: “access to new information, supports, and opportunities,” as Fisher wrote.

For example, research shows that 70% of jobs are not published publicly on job sites. As much as 80% of jobs are filled through personal and professional connections.

This reality is the evidence of the invisible structures and webs of entanglement in society that create frustrating and maddening ceilings on people’s opportunity. It’s also just how the world works.

Combatting it means that KIPP and other schools must not just focus on closing the academic gap, but also the opportunity gap. And that means intentionally helping students not only build social capital, but also learn how to activate and leverage it.

Just as KIPP supports students in learning to work hard and be nice, students then will have a role to play as they build their social capital. Their work will be to connect widely to help throw off the invisible structures that hold them back and create life-changing opportunities for them to succeed.

Given the barriers that KIPP wants to tackle in society and how it seeks to empower its students, lead and connect widely are worthy of being mentioned explicitly in its new slogan as part of a powerful formula for its students to succeed in life.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.