"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Why KIPP Is Not a Model for Urban Education

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.


  1. Good points, darkblue03. Perhaps a "back-to-basics" education will do the trick. Or not.

    Why not? Consider two points.

    1) Why are we even having this conversation about poor black and Hispanic kids getting or "deserving" a back-to-basics education? As I wrote in my post:

    "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."

    2) As I argued in this post and as I suggested in another, KIPP's slogan -- "Work hard. Be nice." -- has some troubling implications for historically oppressed people.

    Imagine the poor African-American and Hispanic kids at KIPP wearing shirts that read, "Stand Up for Your Civil Rights" instead of the required slogan, "Work hard. Be nice."

    Imagine if the original colonists had worked hard and been nice. Imagine if Susan B. Anthony, Julia Howe, and Lucretia Mott had worked hard and been nice. Imagine if Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, or Cesar Chavez had worked hard and been nice.

    For more and more kids, especially kids in urban apartheid schools, working hard and being nice is all that is expected of them. Some might say it's all that's required.

  2. kippster - as the famous New Yorker cartoon reminds us, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." Maybe you went to a KIPP school. Maybe you didn't.

    Even if you did, and your comments are to be believed, why should your experience be the basis for what others believe about KIPP?

    Moreover, your comments do not address crucial aspects of my critique.

    As I argued in this post, KIPP can't scale. Right now, there are 45 KIPP schools with 400 teachers serving over 9,000 students in 15 states and the District of Columbia. 9,000 students out of the total population of 54,593,000 students in all of public K-12 schools means that KIPP serves 0.00016486% of the population. And yet, 0.00016486% of students makes us stand up and say, "This should work for the remaining 99.999835% of students!"

    The average KIPP teacher is in his/her early 20's, is single, and has no kids. They are clearly very dedicated young people who are not only willing to work longer hours and on Saturdays, but who are ABLE to work longer hours and on Saturdays. Teachers with families simply can't do this. They have to go home, fix dinner, do the dishes, walk the dog, and help with their kids' homework.

    Moreover, the "success" of KIPP is tarnished when you consider where the students come from. Interviews with KIPP teachers indicate that they refer mostly already high-achieving students to KIPP who come from intact families and whose parents are unusually involved in the school (Carnoy, M., Jacobsen, R., Mishel, L., & Rothstein, R. (2005). The charter school dust-up: Examining evidence on enrollment and achievement. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute and New York: Teachers College Press., p. 58).

    So again - a TOTALLY remarkable, unique, unreproducible model is held up as the hope for all.

    To achieve the tipping point, we have to trash the logic that underlies the "Poverty Is No Excuse" crap. Certainly some kids like you can pull themselves up out of the inner-city despite the tremendous odds. Certainly some great schools have formed and will continue to form in poor neighborhoods and attract motivated teachers, students, and parents to work together to improve the educational outcomes of poor kids. KIPP is a good example of this. But the dozens of examples of personal success like yours pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of personal failures. The 45 KIPP schools make up a tiny fraction of the thousands and thousands of schools where children are ground up and spat out. So why do so many poor kids fail? Why are so many poor children chewed up and spat out?

    We obviously need to craft both short and long-term stategies. TFA, KIPP, etc. are short-term strategies. But we have to get at the source of the problem if we are serious about leaving no child behind.

  3. kippster - you argue, "(KIPP is) working to become a long term strategy for all kinds of all types of schools."

    If you read what I wrote, you'll see that this is not possible. In other words, KIPP can't be a long-term strategy. There are only so many energetic 20-somethings who are willing to work 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, 4 hours on Saturdays, and an extra month in the summer. This is a niche labor market. Because it is a niche, it -- by definition -- can only reach a certain size. A "solution" that is inherently limited in terms of growth and impact is no solution at all.

    Furthermore, KIPP is wildly celebrated in the mainstream media. There is very little critical analysis done. Each laudatory puff piece, each congratulatory high-five, and each paean to KIPP founders Levin and Feinberg takes the focus away from the root causes of the achievement gap and turns instead to feel-good stories such as this. At best, all KIPP can do is make an infinitesimally small dent in the gap. At worst, KIPP creates the illusion that "poverty is no excuse" and, therefore, undermines the efforts of those who are committed to social and economic justice.

  4. Anonymous10:18 PM

    Liz Ditz here, from I Speak of Dreams.

    Relative to the comment that "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."

    "Back-to-basics" private, for profit schools are growing at a very fast clip, at least in the west. Two such chains are Challenger School Chain and the Stratford Schools Chain.

    And there are "back to basics" public schools in wealthy districts. I direct your attention to Faria School in the Cupertino School District. It is a "school of choice" meaning that any student in the CSD may attend...if the student wins the enrollment lottery. I believe that families enrolled in the lottery are about 4x capacity.

    "The mission of Faria A+School is to provide a traditional, structured, teacher directed, back to basics environment for student learning. The academic program strongly emphasizes the development of critical thinking and deep conceptual understanding of the basic core academic subjects of reading, language arts and mathematics including social studies and science. This program also emphasizes the development of social skills and character traits to enable children to be successful, responsible citizens in school and the community."

    Faria has scored at the top or near the top of API for the last several years.

    As to the issue of KIPP's weakness being that "it isn't scaleable". That is true. But are there non-KIPP schools that are changing achievement? Some...but many use similar methods. I direct your attention to Mathson Middle School

    Lee Mathson Middle School in East San Jose is proof that an ordinary public school can transform itself radically and rapidly. Its experience refutes the fatalistic notion that demographics -- poverty, ethnicity -- are destiny.

    Three years ago, Mathson hit rock bottom in Alum Rock. Test scores were abysmal; staff morale was terrible; parents were concerned enough about safety in school that the district shipped sixth-graders back to the feeder elementary schools, leaving Mathson with only two grades.

    Since then, Mathson has been a textbook case of change. With a 198-point rise in its Academic Performance Index, the state's primary test score, Mathson went from worst to first among the district's six neighborhood middle schools. (KIPP Heartwood, a charter middle school, and Renaissance Academy, a small school, actually had higher scores.)

    A combination of factors led to Mathson's progress: extensive use of data to place students and monitor their progress, a constant effort by teachers to perfect methods of instruction, an extended school day, and high expectations. Then there was the leadership of Glenn Vander Zee, the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce's Principal of the Year and the driving force behind the changes.

    The first step was to counter the myth that low-income students of immigrant parents cannot or do not want to learn. One strategy was enforcing rules and discipline consistently; another was persuading teachers to collaborate and not to rationalize away poor results. That is not easy in schools filled with doubters. Dropping the sixth grade, with one-third of the faculty, made it easier to weed out teachers who didn't believe in the new ethic."

    Read the rest of the article. Or go to Schools Moving Up: Mathson one teacher's presentation on what worked.

  5. Anonymous6:35 PM

    I recently spent the day at a KIPP school in an impoverished Chicago community. I witnessed a brutal, oppressive, and dehumanizing scene that I will not soon forget. I saw young, overworked, and poorly-skilled teachers who seemed much more interested in dolling out cruel and constant discipline than teaching children. I remember a little girl humiliated before her class for innocently forgetting to push in her chair. I watched another teacher brutally debase a disabled boy for slouching in his seat. Menacing hall-monitors enforced absolute silence in the hallways and no talking was permitted in the lunchroom. It felt much more like a prison than a school. Please go and see for yourself. The school seems to have a liberal visitation policy (i.e., they allow people to come observe). The more people that see what is going on the better. At the very least, it will contribute to this important discussion.

  6. Anonymous7:48 PM

    Check those stats again, Kipp San Lorenzo does not have that percentage of Caucasian.
    In fact if you are white you get sent to the bottom- my kids waitlist #50 and 33. We have lived in this community my whole life and it's a shame that everyone here knows that the kids from Oakland (20 to 30 minutes away)get accepted here before the local kids get a shot to attend the school. They say on the application they reserve the right to except the monitory kids with free lunch programs and broken homes first.. even if they aren't even from this community!! so how is this a random lottery?
    I think it's just a scam.