KIPP schools are designed for black and Hispanic kids from inner-city ghettos. The success of these schools proclams, "Here is how you raise the achievement of poor minority kids." In fact, most of the press I read about them says this explicitly.
I'm concerned that KIPP, Edison, and other "back to basics" approaches operate under the implicit assumption that the best we can hope for (re: the achievement of black and Hispanic children) is to give them nothing but the basics. Yes, KIPP, et al, might improve test scores, but at what price? Less social studies? Less art, foreign languages, and music? Yes, KIPP might offer a trip to Central Park as a reward for good behavior, but middle-class white parents such as me cringe at the idea that our children would be taken on field trips only as a reward for good behavior. Middle-class whites assume that it is the duty of schools to provide our children with a high-quality education and that every child, regardless of whether he or she is deemed "good" or "bad," has a right to such an education. Student behavior might influence the kinds of options that white middle-class children are exposed to, but good or bad behavior is not the sole determinant of these options.
Why, then, should poor black and Hispanic parents not have the same assumptions? Why should poor black and Hispanic students not have the same rights and the same options? Ultimately, it appears that approved behavior is the key to success at KIPP. I can think of no middle-class white school that makes this kind of bargain with its students except for military academies.
By "docile" I don't (necessarily) mean "quiet" and "inactive." Students may be noisily and actively engaged in practices that (1) confirm their own thoughts concerning their self-perceived racial and intellectual inferiority and (2) fail to interrogate or critique systems of government that produce institutionalized racism. For example, "skills-based" programs like Open Court, Direct Instruction, and Success for All are -- by definition -- created for low-achieving populations of students. "These programs have proven to be especially effective for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have limited proficiency in English, or have special needs. Lesson plans are highly structured." (from The McGraw-Hill Companies "2005 Investor Fact Book") If you've read the Report of the Subgroups from the National Reading Panel, you know that this claim is completely groundless. Nevertheless, poor children are given strict instruction in unproven literacy and numeracy programs because they are poor children. The curriculum itself -- designed for "disadvantaged children" -- creates an artificial ceiling on achievement and, thus, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How many wealthy districts use these programs? What kinds of ceilings are imposed on the achievement of wealthy children?
As for interrogating and critiquing socio-historical systems that produce the status quo, I'd be willing to bet that the name "Malcolm X" is not uttered at KIPP schools. I'm sure there's not enough time to cover everything. But, then again, what do they cover in the time they have? Surely black children should know not just who Malcolm X is, but why he believed what he believed and how he conducted his activist work.
I don't mean to suggest that these kinds of racist practices are intentional. They are not. They are undertaken with the best of intentions. But they start with the unexamined premise, "This is how you teach these kind of children." Simply by asserting that "these kind of children" exist empirically and that "they" have certain a priori needs and inherent limitations on what they are capable of achieving as reflected in the curriculum and the structure of the schools (with their heavy emphasis on "the basics" and large doses of rewards and punishments), KIPP schools contribute directly to the educational achievement gap between wealthy whites and poor blacks. Yes, it may appear that this gap has been closed by these same poor black children scoring higher on standardized tests. But I would seriously question these gains as anything other than illusory, especially when these gains are made at the expense of these children knowing about themselves and their oppression as well as at the expense of their intellectual potential.
Here's the troubling thing: KIPP schools appear to work. But what they work at remains in question. What does it mean for a school to "work"? Some would say that KIPP works because it produces high test scores and gets kids into elite prep schools and then on to college. But others would say that KIPP fails because it does not produce democratically-engaged, independently-minded critical thinkers. In its worst form, KIPP represents a failure of imagination and an abdication on the part of educators who are convinced, albeit with the best of intentions, that this is the best "these kids" can hope for.
But would the KIPP approach be welcomed by a mostly white, affluent school? After all, if KIPP works so well to get black kids into good schools, then why don't the best elementary and middle schools -- both public and private, black and white -- immediately adopt its approach?
Are KIPP schools serving as surrogate parents for their students, given the amount of time students spend at school? To what extent does the apparent success of each KIPP school serve to mask the underlying problems of the neighborhoods where KIPP schools are found? In other words, is KIPP a way to treat the symptoms of the achievement gap, with its insistence on personal triumph over adverse conditions, and turn attention away from the more pernicious causal factors at the root of the achievement gap?
KIPP works because it brings a kind of suburban, middle-class milieu to an urban, working-poor milieu. But let's imagine the implications of this for a moment. KIPP schools are basically charged with raising these children. That in itself may or may not be a good thing, e.g., should a publicly-funded educational institution overseen by the state be charged with unofficially raising children? Maybe yes, maybe no. But if yes, what kinds of parents are these KIPP schools? And whose interests do they have in mind? Biological parents have an investment in the well-being of their children that differs on several different orders of magnitude from the interest that a state-controlled parent might have. In some instances, the KIPP parent might actually be better than the biological parent. But in other cases, the biological parent might do a better job inculcating in the child the values that are important to his/her family, race, religious tradition, and practices of ethnic origin.
If we leave it to KIPP to raise poor black children, how will they raise them? With what outcome in mind? As many social dominance theorists have suggested, the most stable societies are those in which historically oppressed groups accept the legitimacy of the hierarchical structure, thus internalizing their oppression by rationalizing to themselves their place in the order of things.
Left to choose its own priorities, surely the state (through the mechanism of KIPP) will choose stability over something else. The effect and impact of this choice can only be guessed at, but I'd venture an educated guess and say that stability means more phonics and less Malcolm X. Again, this is by no means a consciously-constructed plan to exert racial dominance. It is, in a word, efficient. And, according to the KIPP people, what these children need.
Until we look at the totality of education reform and stop insisting that education reform should be exclusively about school reform, we will never come close to closing the gap. Even a best case scenario with KIPP -- where KIPP schools flourish across the country -- can only hope to educate an extraordinarily small percentage of poor urban kids. So in praising KIPP, we actually lose sight of the bigger issues and the bigger challenges. And, with KIPP, we say, "This is good enough for them" while we send our kids to private schools or the best suburban schools.