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What KIPP Has to Offer...and What It Doesn't

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I recently saw the “good news” about KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) getting another ton of money—$50,000,000 from the feds—to ramp up dissemination of its program. I am no fan of KIPP and believe it is not a healthy model for schooling in a democracy. It focuses too narrowly on low-level skills and content, and it uses coercive methods to keep students in line when they do not meet its expectations or follow its rules. (Could this be why you will never see the children of policymakers and philanthropists in a KIPP school?)

But I am not surprised that the rich and powerful favor KIPP and similar programs for educating disadvantaged kids. KIPP does have some strong points. And there are some plausible reasons that progressive methods are out of favor.

Why is progressive education less popular? Because:

  1. Progressive education is done sloppily too often—poor enactment of sound principles. One reason is the belief in progressive circles that each teacher should invent his/her own curriculum. There are some good reasons for this stand, e.g., teachers should have the autonomy to adjust instruction to the moment, and more broadly, to shape what is learned to the needs and interests of their students. But in its “pure” form, this notion that each teacher should create the curriculum is problematic. Most teachers don’t have the time, let alone the skills, to create curricula. And when they try, quality of instruction suffers, along with continuity and coherence across grade levels. (I can’t resist mentioning that this has shaped what Developmental Studies Center has been doing for 30 years—creating powerful instructional programs that encourage teachers to exercise personal judgment, while providing the scaffolding they need to become steadily more adept at progressive practice.)
  2. For progressive methods to work best with truly disadvantaged kids, one needs to start early—in the primary grades and even before—in order to achieve foundational socialization, academic preparation, school bonding, etc. The challenges multiply when progressive methods are introduced after students are older.
  3. Standardized bubble tests are insensitive to progressive instruction, which produces thoughtful, creative, independent learners rather than compliant formula followers. Higher-order skills and other progressive outcomes (e.g., social, emotional, and ethical growth) are much more difficult and expensive to measure than low-level skills and knowledge.

Which leads me to why KIPP is ascendant:

  1. It seeks to achieve a narrow, shallow set of outcomes that are more readily a) measured than progressive outcomes by the bubble tests that are today’s currency, and b) achieved by middle and senior high kids who come from traditional elementary schools.
  2. It is concretely specified along a number of dimensions, including instruction, making it appear to be a replicable model. (I use the word “appear” deliberately; teacher burnout is a big problem in KIPP schools.)
  3. Its schools are tightly managed and closely held to the specified model.

To be sure, KIPP’s success may be more apparent than real, stemming from semi-hidden creaming (i.e.., selecting more motivated students) and attrition (i.e., getting rid of “problem” students) factors. But still, KIPP’s model is well specified and comprehensive, and it takes fidelity of implementation quite seriously.

We progressive educators are right to want more than KIPP for the least as well as the most advantaged among us. But we would do well to emulate KIPP’s close attention to implementation.

Eric Schaps founded Developmental Studies Center (DSC) in 1980 to specialize in developing educational programs that promote children’s social, emotional, ethical, and academic development. He is the author of three books and over 75 book chapters and articles on character formation, school improvement, and program evaluation. He has been principal investigator on over $75 million in grants from public and philanthropic sources. He serves on several boards and advisory panels, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. He earned his PhD in social psychology from Northwestern University, where he also did his undergraduate work.

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Comments (4)

I applaud you in the fact

I applaud you in the fact that you are bring this to light. You are correct in your thinking. I was married to a KIPP teacher for 5 years before the school finally came between us. I can tell you that they pad there numbers at the first of the school year and after October 1 they start putting pressure on the students and their parents that they believe will not test well. If you ask why October 1, for those of you who don't know that is when the number of students the school is servicing is turned into the government for their funding allocations. So after the numbers get turned in they start basically harassing the parents by calling them away from their places of employment to come handle an issue at the school with their child. Now if you don't know the children and their parents MUST sign a contract to attend the school. The contract specifically states  that if the school calls with a problem the parents MUST come deal with it right then. So imagine if your child is one of the students the teachers feel wont make the cut, the school will call you away from your job as many times as it takes for the parent to get tired of taking off work to handle a problem and removes the child from the program. So by the time testing comes around they have only the children that will produce high numbers. 

All these critics are really

All these critics are really hypocrites:you are the one

who destroyed the public school system by your low performances.

Show us what you can do with "these kids" that can't learn.

 what are your results ?


  DSC has had many successes


DSC has had many successes with our programs - check out our research here


And Eric Schaps was only pointing out that KIPPS's successes are more limited in reach than you'd think at first glance. I think the point he is making is that if every public school had the option of selecting motivated students, getting rid of students with behavior problems and having above average resources for implementation do, KIPP's data would not seem so remarkable.

Ok, so as a public school

Ok, so as a public school teacher in Houston, Texas, I take issue with the implication of your criticisms that KIPP is somehow offering substandard educations. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that all of criticisms about KIPP are true. What is the alternative to KIPP? The answer is regular public schools that are directly financed and managed through the school district. Where I teach, the district is HISD, or the Houston Independent School District. Now let's look at THOSE schools. Most schools in the district have students performing well below the standard passing rates on both the STAAR and Standford assessment tests (these are publicly viewable). HISD high schools are graduating students who read on a first grade level. Resources at these schools, both financial and personel, are consistently mismanaged to the detriment of the school's staff and students alike. Underperforming teachers, who signed lifetime teacher contracts in the 1980's and 1990's, are re-employed year after year in spite of the fact that they are terrible teachers. Graduation rates are really low, and that is even after the stats have been "juked" to exclude as many dropouts from counting against the district as possible.  When we take the reality of public education in HISD and hold that up to the image of KIPP that you yourself proffer, HISD still cannot hold a flame to KIPP's results.  On another note, most of the criticisms you make about KIPP are baseless in the sense that they rely on generalized conjecture instead of hard evidence. Still, even if we assume your criticisms are true, KIPP is doing magnificently better than district run public schools.