A Lesson from KIPP
I’m just back from an 8-day sojourn in the Midwest. It ended up with 2 days in Grinnell, Iowa, which in turn ended up with a panel that left me feeling elated.
Four young(ish) people, graduates of Grinnell, described their life as public school teachers in D.C., Denver, St. Paul and Detroit. They insisted they are in it for the long haul and that while they found it often frustrating, teaching was also wonderful. I found myself drawn in, intrigued, in short—learning from them.
One of the speakers was working in a KIPP school. It’s a middle school model much praised for its impact on test scores. It is built upon many of the characteristics of the “military school” model. Tough love. No talking unless called on (including in the halls), uniforms, rote forms of “good manners,” and rewards and punishments for living by the rule. Some of you might guess that it’s not been my favorite model. So I was not prepared for his enthusiasm. But at the end he told a wonderful story, and it reminded me of why I’m still such an enthusiastic “democrat.” He told us that he had, at one point, considered leaving KIPP for another school. He and some friends had begun to explore what happened to many successful KIPP graduates in high school. They were sad, but not entirely surprised, to see how many of them fell apart later on without the tight structure and scaffolding that KIPP provided. They had learned to do things the KIPP-way but had not built in ways to handle more open-settings. Of course they were particularly disappointed at how poorly the kids’ writing held-up. Following this disturbing data, they—unlike too many of us—decided to visit some schools where they heard there was amazing work going on in writing (the panelist was an English teacher). They were surprised by the lack of “elementary discipline” (gum chewing, loud voices, no lining up, hats, etc.) at the school they had come to learn from. How could they learn this way, they asked themselves? But the kids were fluent and competent writers and readers, enjoyed a good argument, related well to adults and each other—in ways KIPP students didn’t. It gave them pause to think.
The good news? They raised it within KIPP and were heard; it got everyone to do some fresh thinking. Already, he says, his school has begun to re-examine some of their approaches to schooling.
KIPP wasn’t started by experienced teachers or education experts (both founders were Teacher for America graduates)—but they were firm “believers” in the power of knowledge to transform children’s lives. So they responded to issues raised about the school’s impact. If they can learn as they go, who knows where the KIPP experiment will go? But it depends on teachers who are committed to learning from their own teaching and exploring beyond the accepted boundaries.
There’s a lesson here for us all.
It’s one reason why the most impressive data we used at the schools I’m most familiar with were the results of interviews with alumnae conducted years after they left us. But even that only helps us if we’re open to hearing what they say. For the possibility—however unlikely—that we may be wrong about this or that has to be uncomfortably confronted—over and over. Sometimes it’s small things and sometimes it’s the big ones. It’s this that I hope good schools do for both their kids and their staff—because this habit of what I call “skepticism” is what democracy rests on. The “data” that are the most powerful are not all the proxy data—like test scores—which we have been inundated with. What we need to be listening to are the real experiences of our students and our graduates, and over time their impact upon the larger world as well.
More another time about the other three panelists—whose tales were equally compelling if less unexpected. Although… In its detail nothing turns out to be quite the way one “expected.” Not to mention the marvelous three days spent at the North Dakota Study Group (in northern Illinois), my two days spent visiting Chicago schools, and my cancelled speech at the University of Northern Illinois.
p.s. I’m still having trouble locating kindergartens that contain any of the following: paint, clay, living things (plants or animals), water, or blocks. I had one success.
© 2008 Deborah Meier