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

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Defending the Indefensible: KIPP

Advocacy that remains blind to evidence is a dangerous thing—especially in the pursuit of equity and democracy.

Recently, Diane Ravitch addressed the misleading charter movement by challenging Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charters:
If that is the lesson they want to teach, then I reiterate my challenge of two years ago: KIPP should find an impoverished district that is so desperate that it is willing to put all its students into KIPP’s care. Take them all: the children with disabilities, the children who don’t speak English, the children who are homeless, the children just released from the juvenile justice system, the children who are angry and apathetic, and everyone else. No dumping. No selection. No cherry picking.
I have also questioned the motives and genuine support for KIPP and Teach for America (TFA) by offering my own challenge:
I suggest that we test the new reformers’ commitment to TFA and KIPP. How?
Let’s fully fund TFA and KIPP initiatives, but only if TFA and KIPP serve top students, releasing the most experienced and well-qualified teachers to teach students living in poverty, students of color, and students speaking home languages other than English.
So far, no one at KIPP (or TFA) has accepted either challenge, of course. But that doesn't stop advocates for charters, school choice, and KIPP/TFA specifically to maintain their talking points.

As expected, then, Jonathan Schorr has replied directly to Ravitch's latest blog, prompting a counter-response from Katie Osgood, in which she expresses her exasperation: "I am sick of hearing the same old KIPP talking points."

Bruce Baker also offers detailed evidence responding to KIPP's responses
, leading him to wonder:
I actually hesitate to write about KIPP and perhaps that’s just what they want. Apparently no one should write about them that hasn’t been paid by them to write about them. Those who do should be forewarned that you’ll have to waste inordinate time responding to their complaints – excuses – about what you wrote. As of this post, I hope to be done with this topic.
As it stands, KIPP advocates remain mired in talking points and hollow advocacy, refusing to address the evidence and refusing to stop defending the indefensible [1].

Schorr's defense of KIPP is typical of nearly fanatical KIPP advocacy narrowly and the problem with advocacy broadly. First, Schorr's post spends an inordinate amount of time attacking Ravitch directly and indirectly, suggesting that his argument fails to hold water if he simply were to address evidence on KIPP (and research on all charters—all of which paints no clear picture of any form of schooling outperforming any other because its type [charter, public, private]).

Simply put, any claims of "miracle" schools, as Ravitch has correctly explained, are either unmasked as inaccurate (most of those claims) or outliers, thus not representative of possible reform solutions for all of public education.

Next, the technical arguments leveled by Ravitch (but refuted by Schorr) against KIPP are important and accurate:

• KIPP results are powerfully impacted by selection, even when lotteries are involved because parents self-select by entering the lotteries. This dynamic is absent in public schools; thus, comparisons are distortions.

• KIPP does reap benefits of attrition. Students and their parents must sign highly restrictive agreements, and once those agreements are broken, KIPP can send a child packing. Public school cannot (and should not) have this option.

KIPP, and many charter movements across the U.S., are segregating schools by race and class. KIPP schools are isolating children by race and class in ways that do not address how public schools are in need of reform (public schools are too often highly segregated also due to the community-based inequity that public schools reflect and perpetuate).

• KIPP schools work in conjunction with TFA and other alternatives to staffing that also perpetuate the ways in which public schools need reform—assigning poor children and children of color inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers. (See my challenge above for more on this indefensible process.)

• KIPP schools, and many charters, underserve bi/multi-lingual learners (commonly called "English language learners") and special needs students—populations that tend to negatively impact test scores and overburden schools in terms of funding and staffing.

• KIPP, and other "miracle" charter schools, often have funding advantages, and combined with all of the above, are thus not scalable—making KIPP advocacy a distraction in the public school reform argument.

All of these evidence-based concerns are well documented and thus show that making comparisons between KIPP outcomes and public school outcomes is an agenda-driven campaign of misinformation that benefits primarily KIPP advocates.

Finally, however, these are not my primary reasons for rejecting KIPP, and I regret that the main reason KIPP defense is indefensible remains mostly unspoken.

KIPP's "no excuses" ideology is racist and classist.

KIPP is primarily a mechanism for isolating "other people's children" and "fixing" them, creating a compliant class of children unlike the middle-class and affluent children who have experienced and certified teachers and rich academic programs while sitting in low student/teacher ratio classrooms.

KIPP's primary focus on authoritarian discipline creates a police state in schools; KIPP's test-prep focus reduces the learning opportunities for some children.

So I stand with Ravitch in my challenge and hers: I reiterate, If KIPP is so wonderful, when will we see schools treating middle-class and affluent children like KIPP treats their students?

Defending KIPP is indefensible, unless you ignore the evidence.

[1] Search "KIPP" here on Schools Matter for a powerful collection of commentaries and evidence by Jim Horn addressing KIPP.


  1. KIPP imposes a number of hurdles for families to jump over in the process of entering the lottery (if indeed there is a lottery; see below), so it isn't just a matter of having to step up to enter it.

    I started my own then-seventh-grader in the application process for KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy after I heard they were giving tests to applicants, to confirm whether that was true, which it was. Tests are likely to deter many applicants for numerous reasons. To start with, the student has to be compliant enough to be willing to cooperate with the test -- remember, these are fifth-graders and up. (One point: the San Francisco KIPP schools are underenrolled and thus don't have to hold lotteries, though they still speak as though they do hold lotteries.) Other KIPP schools give tests to applicants; I read that one school district forced them to stop. Perhaps all KIPP schools give tests to applicants unless forced to stop; we don't know that.

    They also require signed commitments to this-n-that, and a counseling session at which the administrator is of course free to convince the family that KIPP isn't the right fit for their child.

    Also, the fact that KIPP says it's very likely to move the child back a grade or two (based on the aforementioned test) is likely to deter many families.

    The required KIPP mannerisms and behaviors are likely to deter those who value nurturing individuality or developing critical thinking -- or who are oppositional/defiant, for that matter. (I would be deterred by having my kids referred to as KIPPsters, myself. All of it makes me oppositional/defiant.)

  2. Jay Spuck6:20 AM

    Where does Mike Feinberg,Co-Founder of KIPP, chose to live in the Houston area?

    Owner Address: 43 CLINGSTONE PL
    SPRING,TX 77382-5000


    Where does his son, Gus Feinberg, attend school?