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

Friday, November 19, 2010

Learning About KIPP: Lesson 2, Kipp Crusaders

 Number 2 of 3 posts, based on a book chapter published this fall in a volume edited by Dr. Philip Kovacs: The Gates Foundation and the Future of US Public Schools (Routledge Studies in Education and Neoliberalism):

. . . . KIPP Crusaders
In an interview posted at the weblog, Open Education, on December 11, 2008, David Socol makes the case that KIPP and TFA embody the zeal of well-heeled colonialist missionaries on a crusade to save the souls of indigenous urban poor children by converting them to middle class values and middle class mindsets.  The history of missionary efforts is replete, or course, with examples that good intentions offer no immunity from very bad results, with the conversion process often lapsing into indoctrination, exploitation, cultural genocide, or other bad outcomes that would never be accepted in more civilized settings with less primitive souls to save. Socol (2008) makes the same point when he angrily suggests that we should
. . . go to those “best schools in America” in the wealthiest suburbs of New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles. Why aren’t they run like KIPP Academies? Always ask this when rich people offer “solutions” for poor people which [sic] those rich people would never accept for themselves. . . . So, sure, convert Scarsdale High into a KIPP Academy, show me how it works there, and then offer it to those “less fortunate.”
Socol’s rhetorical question confronts the fact head on that KIPP, as secular sect, provides a path to socioeconomic salvation that would never be acceptable in Scarsdale, because those children already display the signs required of having been saved, or Elected, by the grace, shall we say, of market forces. 
The salvation of the children of the poor, however, depends upon deliverance from the bad habits and traits derived from cultural deficits for which society has too long offered excuses that are no longer acceptable to the tough love missionaries.  This mission becomes clear, if we follow our analogy a tiny bit further, to the “No Excuses” ideology (see Pillar # 2 in the endnotes) handed down first in the Thernstrom and Thernstrom (2003) inspirational text, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning.  The solemn and difficult crusade to educate black urban children is laid out plainly there:
The process of connecting black students to the world of academic achievement isn’t easy in the best of educational settings—and such settings are today few and far between.  But that only means that in order to “counter and transform” African-American “cultural patterns,” . . . fundamental change in American education will be necessary—change much more radical than that contemplated by the most visionary of today’s public school officials.  Recognizing the problem is the first step down that long and difficult road (147).
The Thernstroms (2003) view race as defined by culture, which they claim exerts twice as much influence on academic achievement than family income, accumulated wealth, and skin color. Culture defines race, then, for good or bad, in much the same way that genetic inheritance was believed to defined race by eugenicists at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Cultural characteristics, according to the “no excuses” creed, are racial characteristics, and they can be separated out from economic or class characteristics.  The Thernstroms preach that two-thirds of the achievement gap between black and white children is attributable to culture, whereas one-third is shaped largely by poverty, parental education, and the environment (147).
Richard Rothstein’s (2004) research, however, clearly demonstrates how social class functions as the primary contributor to achievement differences, with family income, accumulated wealth, skin color, and culture comprising the elements that make up social class.  Rothstein concludes “the debate about whether the low achievement of black students is rooted in culture or economics is largely fruitless because socioeconomic status and culture cannot be separated” (51).  According to Rothstein, then, the neat separation of elements that is achieved by the Thernstroms (2003), with the larger chunk of achievement influence reserved for the role of culture, misses the larger point that culture, too, cannot escape the systemic influence of poverty, or lack thereof, in the formation and activity of culture.
In the KIPP schools and the charter school knockoffs that continue to be inspired by KIPP, this forced separation between culture and socioeconomic class is required in order to draw attention away from the effects of poverty, which, in turn, exacerbates the kinds of callous cruelty by KIPP personnel acting with little oversight, while under unrelenting pressure to achieve the unsustainable. The “no excuses” ideology, then, not only ignores the documented and substantive effects of poverty on the poor, but it becomes the all-pervasive, blinding excuse for justifying dangerous, damaging, and morally-repugnant acts that, otherwise, would not be entertained in a society grounded by humane values and ethical rules of conduct. This pervasive “no excuses” mentality results in an authoritarian organizational model that spawns a dark moral nihilism (Hedges, 2009a) that gets played out against the most vulnerable children in schools that operate from public funds but without the benefit of any credible public oversight:
This moral nihilism would have terrified Adorno. He knew that radical evil was possible only with the collaboration of a timid, cowed and confused population
. . . . He feared a culture that banished the anxieties and complexities of moral choice and embraced a childish hyper-masculinity.
. . . . “This educational ideal of hardness, in which many may believe without reflecting about it, is utterly wrong,” Adorno wrote. “The idea that virility consists in the maximum degree of endurance long ago became a screen-image for masochism that, as psychology has demonstrated, aligns itself all too easily with sadism.”
Jay Mathews's (2009) book, Work Hard Be Nice, offers a friendlier gloss on the “hyper-masculinity” exhibited by KIPP founders, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, whose exploits and excesses are presented as the over-exuberance of two irrepressible young uber-educators who drive through any roadblock on their road to prove that poverty is no obstacle to learning the “no exuses” way.  And despite the fact that Feinberg and Levin have created a corporate organization whose ethos of total compliance is often described as harsh, cruel, and abusive, the documented moral lapses, ethical breaches, and other excesses by the poster boys for “No Excuses” are simply pooh-poohed by Mathews as the cost of not letting anything stand in the way of achieving a mission that, in the end, requires the psychological alteration of children to achieve the organizational goals that mirror its oppressive ideology. Yet even through the soft-focus lens of smitten reporters like Mathews (2009), the applicability of Adorno’s observation, nonetheless, stands out in the recounting of the KIPP story.  The exhausting commitment, for instance, of Levin and Feinberg in the early years in Houston has become the benchmark for all KIPP teachers since, as alluded to earlier in KIPP teacher comments documented by SRI researchers (2008).
During the early days of KIPP Houston, an infantilized form of contested endurance, in fact, was played out quite literally in a legendary one-on-one basketball game that ended only after both Levin and Feinberg succumbed to utter exhaustion.   Beyond the schoolyard macho exhibitions of endurance that border on masochism is the pervasive and perverse expression of hardness in the classroom that sometimes careens over into sadistic excess, as is documented in many cases of screaming at children, unsupervised segregation of children, and explosive tantrums—as when an enraged Mike Feinberg, with children present in the room, threw a chair through a large plate glass window because of an unsatisfactory apology for a minor disciplinary infraction (Mathews 2009, 235-239). 
More recently, other disturbing events have been reported by parents at the Fulton County KIPP (Vogell 2009), and still other more serious allegations involve excessive punishment, child endangerment, and violations of state and federal laws (Grannan 2009) by school officials at KIPP Fresno, a school that was shut down within a few months after Fresno Unified School District filed a detailed report (Fresno Unified School District 2008) with the State of California.  Fresno Unified’s 63-page “Notice to Cure” alleged legal and ethical lapses at the school by the principal and staff that involved abusive treatment, risks to student safety, breaches in test security, copyright infringement, teacher credentialing irregularities, and mishandling of school funds. Among the long list of allegations in the “Notice to Cure” are these published by Grannan (2009):
. . . Student (name deleted) said that in December of 2007, Mr. Tschang [the school principal] told him to get on his hands and knees and bark like a dog. (Name deleted) said it was a metaphor to get him to stop joking around in class.
. . . It was reported by Kim Kutzner that students who were late to school would not be allowed to eat their meals provided by the state. Student (name deleted) stated that Mr. Tschang told her, “People who are late don’t get to eat.”
. . . Parent (name deleted) reported that Mr. Tschang took student (name deleted) glasses away from him because (name deleted) was constantly adjusting his glasses. (Name deleted) is totally dependent on his glasses and cannot see without them. Mr. Tschang admitted to taking (name deleted) glasses away.
. . . Several students stated that students are not allowed to talk or socialize at all during school hours. When asked about this policy, Mr. Tschang stated, “If parents are not happy with the school program, it is a school of choice. They are free (and indeed encouraged) to remove their kids from the school. There are plenty of other public school options for their children.”
[Note: Mr. Tschang is apparently at it again, according to this recent report by the NYPost.]
With a robust public relations apparatus, however, that effectively contains incidents like these within the local media, and with the national media consistently uninterested in stories like these, the bipartisan party of “No Excuses” continues to move forward (or backwards, as one may argue) to open new KIPP charters and KIPP imitators, each intended to expand the mission of transforming children of the urban poor into pliable future assets schooled in positivity and age appropriate versions of corporate groupthink (Hedges 2009, 115-139. 
The near-religious zeal of reform-schoolers like the Thernstroms and philanthro-capitalists like Bill Gates becomes eerily reminiscent of the social reform crusade fueled by the pseudoscience of eugenics that was loosed during the first half of the previous century.  It is beyond the scope of this chapter to tease out all the similarities, but there are disturbing overlaps that are too apparent to ignore.
The ministrations, for instance, that reform schoolers require to save black and brown urban children today from their defective cultural traits provide reminders of the ways that the disabled, the petty criminals, and those, otherwise, disadvantaged by poverty of the early 20th Century were treated.  Deemed to be saddled at birth with what was believed to be defective, inheritable, germ plasm  (Selden 1999; Black 2003; Rosen 2004), the urban and rural poor of the early 20th Century were targeted by both conservative and liberal eugenics enthusiasts for containment, segregation, remediation, and even involuntary sterilization.[i] Elite reformers, from Harvard dons to clergymen and philanthropists, embraced eugenics techniques as entirely respectable measures to protect society from the spread of crime, feeble-mindedness, and negative habits and attitudes that were thought to be inheritable traits among the dispossessed.
Today’s behavioral and character training at KIPP is a thinly-veiled effort to impose a new variety of cultural eugenics by those who view the transmission of urban cultural traits as a threat to white middle class values and economic prosperity.  As such, KIPP constitutes a widely-lauded special treatment by both conservatives and liberals for this generation’s delineation of the depraved, and it is built, too, upon conditions of segregation, containment, remediation, and an attempt to impose a form of cultural sterilization that purportedly will allow children who receive the treatment to enter, at some future date, the middle class corporate world without threat of perpetuating their own kinds of defective cultural memes into the world of privilege to which they desperately aspire.  The transplantation of new cultural values to replace those that the KIPP regimen negates requires children to transfer their loyalty from community and family to a new loyalty to the KIPP family and its group values.
As previously noted, the same blame-the-poor mindset thrives among less conservative supporters of KIPP, as evidenced in Malcolm Gladwell’s (2008) mega-bestseller, Outliers. Gladwell blindly attributes the educational achievement disadvantages of the poor to the failure of poor families, in fact, to provide the cultural perks that poverty has made impossible for them to provide. As sad evidence of his myopia, Gladwell offers us the example of 12 year-old Marita, whose “community does not give her what she needs,” and, thus, is placed into the KIPP crucible:
Marita's life is not the life of a typical twelve-year-old. Nor is it what we would necessarily wish for a twelve-year old. Children, we like to believe, should have time to play and dream and sleep. Marita has responsibilities. What is being asked of her is the same thing that was asked of the Korean pilots. To become a success at what they did, they had to shed some part of their own identity, because the deep respect for authority that runs throughout Korean culture simply does not work in the cockpit. Marita has had to do the same because the cultural legacy she had been given does not match her circumstances either -- not when middle and upper middle class families are using weekends and summer vacation to push their children ahead. Her community does not give her what she needs. So what does she have to do? Give up her evenings and weekends and friends -- all the elements of her old world -- and replace them with KIPP (266).
It is, then, the sacrifice of childhood and family that becomes the price demanded of poor children for the ultimate shortcomings of a well-heeled society that, in the most basic ways, has turned its back on the plight of minority children trapped by poverty and racism.  The education, or miseducation, of the urban poor must be driven, then, by a draconian psychological and socio-cultural intervention that leaves to fester the socioeconomic contexts whose attempted alteration by a more caring and less cavalier society would have offered the kinds of humane pedagogical, health, housing, and job treatments preferred by the middle and upper classes.
Gladwell’s modern day version of blaming the poor for the effects of their poverty is widespread, and it is not so far as it may seem from our Puritan forefathers’ preferred explanation of poverty as the result of moral depravity and sin.  Today’s public punishment of the poor comes, however, not in physical humiliations on the public square, but in the pedagogical interventions grounded in an economic-behavioral catechism enforced in segregated neighborhood schoolrooms by mostly white and inexperienced teachers.  These missionary-minded teacher recruits are supplied from among the members of the Economic Elect, teachers who most often share neither cultural nor ethnic likeness to those they would save, and whose concern for poor children’s cultural salvation is neatly contained within a covenant that, in the case of Teach for America, expires at the end of two years.[ii]
For KIPPsters (as students are referred to by their teachers), the “long and difficult road” that the Thernstroms (2003) envision starts during the first week of KIPP-notizing.  Children are introduced to KIPP’s organizational compliance demands through exposure to KIPP’s system for communicating and embedding power relations, a system that conforms to Etzioni’s (1961) threefold typology: coercive power, remunerative power, and normative power. In the remaining space, I will briefly outline the dimensions of KIPP life that embody these three modes of control. . . .

[i] During the last century, 33 states (Lombardo n.d.) had at one time or another statutes requiring involuntary sterilizations of more than 60,000 citizens nationwide, a practice that did not end until the mid-1970s.
[ii]  Those TFA alums who do well during their two-year stints as teachers are often recruited into leadership CEO, CFO, COO positions at KIPP schools, thus maintaining an organizational purity that is untainted by outside practices. 
Tomorrow Part 3:  KIPP's Social Justice in Blackface

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