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

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Learning About KIPP: Lesson 3, Social Justice in Blackface

Update November 22, 2015:  My new book, Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys through "No Excuses" Teaching is available now for pre-publication ordering.  It will be published February 2016.

Below is Part 3 of this chapter on KIPP.  Here are links to Parts One and Two.

. . . . KIPP’s organizational compliance model
In response to an extensive New York Times Magazine article by Paul Tough (2006) that lavishly praised KIPP and its methods, researcher Howard Berlak (2006) reported at the online discussion group, Assessment Reform Network (ARN), his recent own visit to a KIPP school in San Francisco:
When I was there children who followed all the rules were given points that could be exchanged for goodies at the school store. Those who resisted the rules or were slackers wore a large sign pinned to their clothes labeled "miscreant." Miscreants sat apart from the others at all times including lunch, were denied recess and participation in all other school projects and events.
. . . . I've spent many years in schools. This one felt like a humane, low security prison or something resembling a locked-down drug rehab program for adolescents run on reward and punishments by well meaning people. Maybe a case can be made for such places, but I cannot imagine anyone (including the Times reporter) sending their kids there unless they have no other acceptable options. What is most disturbing is the apparent universal belief by KIPP staff and partisans that standardized tests scores are the singular and most important measure of a truly good education.
While reporters like Paul Tough and Jay Mathew would, no doubt, balk at Berlak’s comparison to a prison, low security though it may be, their own descriptions of KIPP’s harshness are not inconsistent with what Berlak found, and the documentary reports of others (Smith, 2005; Brancaccio, 2007) offer visual evidence that readers may judge for themselves in terms the Berlak’s accuracy.  As noted below, even researchers friendly to the KIPP cause have found this picture to be accurate as well.

            The three weeks that KIPP students spend in summer school is devoted to an intensive socialization and enculturation process for new students soon to begin fifth grade, and for other students who are learning the compliance demands of the next grade level.  New students must learn the SLANT rules, which means to “sit up straight, look and listen, ask and answer questions, nod to show understanding, [and] track the speaker” (Browne 2008, 58). They must learn that any rule infraction will bring an instant corrective response, and they must learn that the smallest misdeed will be no more tolerated than the most egregious offense.  New recruits practice walking, getting off the bus, sitting in the cafeteria, and going to the bathroom the KIPP way.  Students must learn that KIPP rules apply inside and outside of school.  “Miscreants” must learn, for instance, that isolation and ostracism from the KIPP family is total as long as the punishment lasts, and children who talk to “miscreants” at or away from school risk the same punishment if apprehended.   In fact, it becomes the duty of other students to report offenders who are associating in any way with “miscreants.”  If they do not, they, too, risk the same punishment.  New recruits, then, learn compliance through the exercise of coercive power and constant surveillance.
New students must also learn by the remunerative power of the “paycheck,” and at KIPP, the “paycheck” accompanies student at all times, thus offering any teacher a handy way to keep track of student academic and behavioral performance in other classes, which may cause dollars to be added to or subtracted from a student’s paycheck (Jones 2004, 38-39).  At the end of each week, students may use accumulated KIPP dollars to buy KIPP gear or candy in the school store, or they may apply earnings toward future “field lesson”[i] participation.  At the completion of the three weeks of intense KIPP-notizing, students are properly tuned for the culminating normative power exercise embodied in the ritual to grant the KIPP uniform shirt (Browne 2008, 58).  This symbolic reward and acknowledgement of new students becoming part of the KIPP team or KIPP family marks the conclusion of the initial indoctrination into a new school life that will be characterized by “choosing” total compliance or, else, an abbreviated enrollment. Some uniform shirts will carry the message, “Work Hard, Be Nice;” other will read, “No Shortcuts, No Excuses.”
As reported in the New York Times Magazine, Dr. Martin Seligman’s influence has been and continues to be central in shaping the “non-cognitive” behaviors described by the KIPP compliance model as self-control, adaptability, and patience (Tough 2006):
Toll and Levin are influenced by the writings of a psychology professor from the University of Pennsylvania named Martin Seligman, the author of a series of books about positive psychology. Seligman, one of the first modern psychologists to study happiness, promotes a technique he calls learned optimism, and Toll and Levin consider it an essential part of the attitude they are trying to instill in their students. Last year, a graduate student of Seligman’s named Angela Duckworth published with Seligman a research paper that demonstrated a guiding principle of these charter schools: in many situations, attitude is just as important as ability.
Not mentioned in Tough’s laudatory piece on KIPP and the bold reformers who back KIPP are the historic experiments conducted by Dr. Martin Seligman in the 1960s and 1970s that demonstrated “animals receiving electric shocks, which they had no ability to prevent or avoid, were unable to act in subsequent situations where avoidance or escape was possible” (Gale Research 1998).  Dr. Seligman’s unexpected finding brought behavioral assumptions in psychology face to face with a phenomenon that behaviorism could not explain, a phenomenon Seligman termed “learned helplessness.” Dr. Seligman’s role in developing the KIPP instructional model surely deserves further investigation, and central to that research should be this question: how does one tell the difference between a manifestation of learned helplessness and a display of self-control, or self-regulation, particularly when the depressive effects of learned helplessness could be masked by continual ministrations of its antidote, “learned optimism,” through the happiness training (Hedges 2009) of positive psychology?
And so it is, then, that KIPP children are initiated into a state that may be easily mistaken for learned helplessness if it were not for the KIPP promotional literature (Tough, 2006) that labels it “self-control.”  However we choose to characterize the resulting submissive detachment that these KIPP children exhibit, it is achieved by unrelenting and constant surveillance, harsh and sure verbal castigation, public humiliation and labeling, manipulative reinforcement, and ostracizing isolation. From this depressive state of total dependency, KIPP then applies ample and on-going doses of Dr. Seligman’s (Seligman 2007) “learned optimism” techniques that aim to instill resilience and to temper reactions to the unalterable compliance mechanisms by encouraging the illusion of individual choice. By doing so, any anger or resentment among students arising out of punishments becomes internalized and accepted as the resulting consequences of improper individual choices and actions, rather than being directed outward toward questioning the organizational structure of total control and constant surveillance. 
            Students are converted, then, from potentially bad actors to good audiences, from recalcitrant resistors to eager, hard workers, from a former state of victimization to a kind of delusional empowerment masking the full embrace of total submission to KIPP compliance demands. And if things don't work out for these children in terms of not working hard enough or being nice enough to survive in KIPP, as is the case for over half the children in the Bay Area KIPP schools, then perhaps they will at least have learned along the way that they can blame no one but themselves for their own shortcomings and  failure. No excuses. No shortcuts. Work hard, be nice.  Hedges (2009) sums it up this way for those whose efforts fail to attract the best things in life, which is the promise that positive psychology makes to those who try hard enough or wish hard enough to earn that attraction: “for those who run into the hard walls of reality, the ideology has the pernicious effect of forcing the victim to blame him or herself for his or her pain or suffering” (119).
As long as the focus remains on fixing the insides of children's heads while ignoring the conditions that these kids must return to after their 10 hour days of working hard and being nice in their apartheid schools, all manner of indoctrination and extraordinary educational renditions may be deemed necessary and appropriate to achieve KIPP goals. At its unacknowledged core, KIPP remains an intervention aimed at cognitive and behavioral control that occurs when we use the happy talk manipulations of corporate psychology as a means to turn poor minority children into the white Ivy League teachers' version of middle class children. In the meantime, poor children are taught to turn away from their communities, rather than learning to change them by challenging the system of privilege that now proclaims their liberation while embracing a renewed form of segregated confinement. The KIPP charter phenomenon and its imitators represent the corporate colonization[ii] of urban America, with all the zeal that we might expect from missionaries looking to save souls by shaping their converts to openly accept the omnipotent forces emanating from the Market’s invisible hand.
Even though our history should save us from shock, it remains, nonetheless, a breathtaking expression of blind hubris and Orwellian irony that the wealthiest in our society should come to embrace KIPP’s self-serving educational shortcut as the preferred way to pay down our vast educational debt to those oppressed by poverty and discrimination for the past 400 years.  The longer KIPP’s abusive and extreme measures are allowed to function as a palliative, or excuse, for our society’ refusal to act against urban poverty, apartheid schools, and racism, the closer that this dominant culture comes to the forced moral bankruptcy that awaits those societies that proclaim equality while practicing torturous interventions against the children of its least equal citizens as an inexpensive shortcut to preserving the façade of equal opportunity.
For white philanthro-capitalists, the KIPP charter schools offer an urban reform solution based on non-stop behavioral control, cultural sterilization, and psychological character interventions aimed at producing compliant, delusional, and hard-working children who will offer “proof” that the effects of poverty can be overcome by interventions less expensive[iii] and easier to control than the public schools.  KIPP, then, remains the billionaire philanthropist version of social and education reform on the cheap, where a dubious economy of scale is more important than the children who are sacrificed through the unethical and experimental excesses that are imposed under the shredded banner of equal access to quality education.  There are humane ways to run schools and increase academic achievement at the same time. KIPP is not one of them. In fact, KIPP and its imitators represent the antithesis to education reform based on caring and fairness, quality and equality.  As such, KIPP offers us a policy version of social justice in blackface, an institutionalized caricature whose legacy and ultimate cost we cannot yet begin to fathom.

[i] KIPP prefers “field lesson” (Mathews 2009) to field trip,” as “field lesson” conveys to students the fact that the larger world is an extension of the KIPP classroom, thus reinforcing the bubble effect that helps to sustain the total control that the KIPP organization demands of its charges.
[ii] Where KIPP and most of its “no excuses” knockoffs limit their direct indoctrination to character building and psychological control, The American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland openly disparages multiculturalism and openly advances the philosophy of Milton Friedman.  Consider this teacher recruitment ad from the AIPCS website that became part of a story (Landsberg 2009) in the Los Angeles Times: "We are looking for hard working people who believe in free market capitalism. . . . Multicultural specialists, ultra liberal zealots and college-tainted oppression liberators need not apply."  And this ad is not intended as a self-parody.
[iii] An AFT report (2008) found that charter schools in the forty states that have charter laws pay teachers, on average, 20 percent less public schools.  This is a rarely acknowledged reason that politicians of both parties find charters so attractive, especially for the urban poor.

 References for Lessons 1-3:
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