Educator and national activist Dr. Deborah Kenny was interviewed by Bill Cosby about her new book, "Born to Rise" at the National Charter Schools Conference, held recently on the 20th anniversary of the charter movement.
In discussing how to attract and develop great teachers, Kenny said, "We should not be too quick to fire teachers. We have a sacred responsibility as charter schools because we have the ability to hire and fire by performance. We need to reflect as a movement on what we are doing to hone our own abilities in hiring in the first place."
Kenny started the Harlem Village Academy in 2003, that has since expanded into several schools with hundreds of low-income and underprivileged students who are beating the odds in New York's public education system.
The school is noted for being at the top among Harlem schools for eighth grade reading and math, boasting 100 percent proficiency in math for three consecutive years. But it has also been criticized for high student and teacher attrition. A June post by Gary Rubenstein on TeachForUs, a blog by a Teach for America alumnus, points out that following the same class of students from fifth to ninth grade, the number in that class fell 75 percent between while the public school district's same class of students grew 45 percent.
And while Harlem Village Academy also has an impressive 100 percent passing rate for the state's Regents exams, Rubenstein notes that in math, all students through grade 12 only took the 9th grade level Algebra exam.
Still, Kenny remains a vocal and prominent figure in discussions on American education. In 2010, she told The New York Times' Bob Herbert that there exists an overemphasis on "the program elements... things like curriculum and class size and school size and the longer day." But a greater focus should be on the quality of teaching, she said.
In a 2011 interview with MSNBC, Kenny called for more teacher accountability as well as more freedom and individuality in the classroom. She also supports President Barack Obama's call to place teachers in high regard, pushing for young adults to choose teaching as a career path over fields like investment banking.
"I was up at Harvard speaking to a group of students, and something really kind of disturbing happened," she said. "One of them said to me, 'I really want to be a teacher and all my friends feel sorry for me'...So we really need to reinvent the profession."
Kenny's recent chat with Cosby at the National Charter Schools Conference wasn't their first. They previously sat down together nearly two years ago to talk public education and revolutionary schools.
"Teachers are immensely better in their second and third year, even if you'd give them a C- in performance, if they have the desire and the values, even if they messed up in the first year, if you give them support and encouragement and continue their professional development, they can dramatically improve," Kenny told Cosby at the conference.
Watch the rest of their conversation above.