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

Monday, January 01, 2007

KIPP and the Stepford Children

Picked this up from the ARN listserv from a teacher:

Sorry for lurking and posting, but I can rarely let a KIPP reference pass without making some kind of comment. I am a former public school teacher and journalist who volunteered at the original KIPP Academy, warmed by the personality and charm of Mike Feinberg and his publicity. It's been a while since I've made my passionate arguments against KIPP -- and I hardly have the educational background of an advanced degree-- but I would make some broad statements about Early KIPP:

KIPP's original success was personality driven, no different than the success of Thaddeus Lott and his "miraculous" elementary schools in Houston ISD. There was no tremendously superior curriculum, no amazing secret axiom, no incredible structure. (These were guys who sometimes forgot to order the school buses!) If you walked past the classrooms, the textbooks and discussion were the same as they were in any other HISD schools. I was not in every classroom, but the skills of the teachers were, from what I could see, the same as they were in any other school. The textbooks were the same. The writing curriculum was New Jersey Writing Project. Some teachers were hired for their skills; others were simply hired because they were Ivy League friends of Levin and Feinberg. It was, from all appearances, just like any other school, except for the tremendous discipline, which I would compare to a rigidly disciplined private school.

The secret of KIPP, of course, was the buy-in from the kids and parents. They signed contracts. They agreed to extra hours. They felt honored they were picked for the school. And after the media picked up on KIPP, families were even grateful to be at the campus. They did not question authority. They were Chosen. If only that could be transferred to the public school system!

I was on a KIPP campus recently in Austin, and I have to tell you it was odd to me. It appears the drill-and-skill fast-paced parrot-the-teacher sort of activity is now a high art form on KIPP campuses. Margaret Spellings, who was with us, called it inspiring. (One kid came up to here and told her he had been accepted at an exclusive Eastern seaboard prep school, and I am sure that was inspiring to the child and his family.) Most of it, however, is what I would call creepy as hell. You wouldn't call this a place where children were encouraged to think. it was classroom after classroom of creepy Stepford children.

I'm a high school journalism teacher who values children who know how to think. That is not what is valued at KIPP. Conformity is what is valued at all cost. I think rigid controlled instruction is fine at the 4th grade, but if you're still controlling children that way at the 8th grade, you have problems. (I think that is why KIPPsters have such a problem going on to high school and why Feinberg has a problem pulling the KIPP experience into the high school grades.) This is a school that instills the discipline that most children could and should learn at 8 or 10. They just like to hammer it home at 10, 12 and even 14.

My own thought? At some point in the middle school years, kids need to move into their own, think on their own, learn how to be creative. I'm sure others would argue with me, but that just didn't happen at KIPP, in my mind. KIPP and I parted ways after I wanted to take the kids to a junior high journalism conference in San Antonio, and Feinberg wouldn't agree because the kids hadn't "earned" the trip. It occurred to me -- and I probably am not as artful I could be when I say this -- that when a rigid discipline code trumps valuable student learning, then the ones who lose are the kids. Period.

To me, that was profound. No system of discipline, no method of teaching, should ever get in the way of learning.

You'll hear a lot about the Myth of KIPP. The fact is that KIPP is a fine charter school, but it is no better or worse than many other charter schools. It will work for some kids and not for others. (I would have been miserable at KIPP!) I don't care how selfless it may be -- the great noble story of two Teach for America grads pioneering a new way for education -- but the whole "Harriet Ball was our inspiration" (blah blah blah) is, I suspect, some part truth and then
just a whole lot of spin. I imagine KIPP has evolved -- they have learned to order the buses, take the grant money, hire better teachers, whatever -- but I never saw any incredible magic at KIPP that couldn't be replicated at a public school with a good principal and concerned parents.

And all these interviews about how selfless these guys are... I mean, what Kool Aid did Jay Mathews drink? When I was there, everything at KIPP was about Feinberg and his ego. His approval meant everything to the kids. I won't go into his particular temper tantrums, but they would never be acceptable at a public school. His point system for
rewarding the kids was above everything else. And don't think every teacher agreed with his methods. I think Feinberg likes to paint teachers who disagreed with him as simply not being "with the program" or unwilling to do the work. But there were plenty of teachers on the campus who simply got there and just didn't agree with the way that Feinberg ran his school. A number of us wondered aloud whether this brave experiment could be replicated anywhere at all.

When I actually criticized KIPP at an Education Writers Association meeting, Feinberg had a class of eighth-grade students write me letters about how wonderful KIPP was. Co-opting kids to do your PR campaign? I just was repulsed on so many levels, and it just reminded me why I was so opposed to KIPP in the first place.

So... my fair assessment... I don't know what makes me madder... Feinberg so self-satisfied with his great KIPP experiment or the media that is so willing to make KIPP a great school simply because it's a great story to tell.

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