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

Monday, May 17, 2010

Jay Mathews Gets Another Wrong Answer to His Own Question

Most people who know of Jay Mathews are accustomed to his unabashed cheerleading for KIPP, but his column today takes the cake, as they say down south. So here in its full frontal stupidity, Jay Mathews (with some comments interspersed):

Does denying dreams help kids learn?

A key lesson in the No Excuses variety of public schools, which use firm measures to raise achievement for impoverished students, is that behavior has consequences. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a No Excuses-style charter network, does that by denying some students the traditional year-end trip to Orlando or Utah or New York or Washington or other places they desperately want to go.

Does it work? Here comes an unusually qualified expert. Kyrien Curtis arrives in Washington Monday night as a volunteer chaperone for 60 fifth graders from the KIPP STRIVE Academy in Atlanta. He is a short, lean freshman at Morehouse College. He grew up in Houston and attended the KIPP Academy Middle School there all four years, from fifth through eighth grade. Because of foul moods and other distractions, he missed the trip every time, so this will be his first.

Just two paragraphs in, Jay has already answered his question, obviously without noticing. If the ultimate isolating punishment of missing the annual "field lesson" for four years in a row did not work for Kyrien, that seems pretty conclusive evidence that KIPP's dream crushing did not work for Kyrien, does it not, Jay? Or perhaps Kyrien secretly longed more for some escape from the total compliance of the KIPP drill instructors' demands. For even away from school, the annual trips are called field lessons rather than field trips, as a way to convey the message that the larger world is an extension of the KIPP classroom, thus reinforcing the bubble effect that sustains the total control that the KIPP organization demands of its KIPPsters.

Denying children cherished prizes is a controversial part of the No Excuses model. The idea is to build self-restraint. It has had an impact. Former KIPP students, now adults, tell me that losing a year-end trip was the most dramatic moment of their middle school years. They are still trying to measure its influence a decade later.

Squashing a student’s dream is something that most schools, public and private, rarely do. Some educators think it is cruel and destructive of a learning environment. But KIPP achievement gains are large. The co-founders of KIPP, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, were appalled at the lack of meaningful consequences for students who misbehaved when they were novice teachers in the Houston public schools. When they started KIPP in 1994 they devised a system of KIPP dollars for good behavior, and a loss of privileges (like being prohibited from talking to your friends) for bad behavior. Getting a good education and going to college, they said, was the consequence of good decisions. Bad decisions set you back. Some students did not believe that until they lost a trip.

Yes, Jay, denying "cherished prizes" is pretty awful, alright, but not nearly so awful as the ongoing psychological neutering that occurs on a daily basis at KIPP, with the application of Martin Seligman's learned helplessness and learned optimism techniques. Or the brutality of segregated, total compliance work camps, where the slightest infraction leads to solitary confinement or being shoved out. And let's not forget the horrors of KIPP Fresno (here, here, here, and here) or Fulton County, or the yet undiscovered atrocities being committed for the sake of containing, segregating, and indoctrinating minority children.

In middle school Curtis spent much time on the Porch, a KIPP word for the isolation imposed on students who miss homework, interrupt class, insult other students or talk back to teachers. “I never lied, cheated or stole,” he said, “but I also was not always nice.” A teacher would urge his class to have a clean week---no demerits. But by Thursday he would succumb to a destructive mood, miss an assignment and be back on the Porch. He had to sit separately from other students in class and at lunch, and speak only to teachers, not his friends. Good behavior freed him from the Porch, but that often took awhile.

Curtis credits KIPP’s nine-hour school days and heavy homework for teaching him how to manage his time. He does not think he would have a 3.2 grade point at Morehouse without that. But as he moved on to the KIPP Houston High School, becoming active in student government and eventually student body president, the lost trips stayed on his mind. He was struck by a high school teacher’s observation that so many of the middle school students who landed on the porch were African-American males raised by single parents, just like him.

Curtis talks like a business leader remembering rowdy days as a prep school student. He learned about rules, but had to break some. Each KIPP school has a different system. At STRIVE each student has a chance to get off its version of the Porch in two days and are only isolated at lunch.

But 25 STRIVE students will still miss this trip. Curtis is a computer science major, interested in robots. But he said he might also become a teacher and help kids like him who get left behind.

No doubt Curtis was impressed when he was introduced to a Washington Post "reporter" and told that he might get his name in the paper. No doubt the KIPP training kicked right in with Jay's desired result: another feel good story about the dark value of mistreating poor children into total submission as a way to get them to act like middle class kids, all the while ignoring the sociological and psychological effects of poverty that remain unaddressed.

One has to wonder, Jay, if Curtis's valuable lesson of "time management" did not have a cost that remains invisible to those like you who refuse to acknowledge the potential or real harm that is embedded in this kind of neo-eugenics penal pedagogy movement. It does not surprise me that Curtis is interested in robots: maybe he can learn to build one that does not have all the flaws and imperfections that he obviously was unable to extract from himself during those four years of repeated failure to make the school trip. Or maybe he will become a KIPP teacher, where he can have a career extracting those imperfections from other children, the ones he was never able to get out of himself.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this, Jim. I am continually amazed that Jay Matthews manages to get paid for writing. Of course, he writes what people with money want to hear. I'm glad you don't, because I honestly think you'd be much better at it--being cursed with carefully considering situations before addressing them.