Lessons from KIPP

Image taken from: KIPP: Taking Kids to College in INSPIRATION by PYNTK — February 6, 2010

One by one they each pronounce the same words. One by one they smile shyly, but with determination. “I’m going to college.”

For each student who enrolls in one of the coveted KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools across the country in dozens of underserved communities, these 4 simple words are the ultimate goal. Founded by two former Teach for America members, the inspiring methods of teaching that have become the KIPP standards have become big news. As rave after rave review continues to fly in for KIPP, curious researchers wonder if KIPP’s success can be translated into a formula to be implemented in other public districts.

75% of KIPP alumni graduate from college. In a matter of years, it is expected that this statistic will reach 100%. KIPP is a charter school designed by two teachers who once thought they could “change the world by lunchtime” as Teachers for America, but soon realized that life in an inner city classroom is nothing like the movies. They quickly formed relationships with two black teachers who seemed to be getting results–Rafe Esquith and Harriet Ball. These were the women who developed the now famous “KIPP chants” to help memorize math facts. Learning from these two teachers who were connected to the community their students lived in and who committed to each and every one of them, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin built a “dream.” They began by going door to door. There was no glamour or glory. They sought out kids in need of a better education. They talked to their parents. They made sure their students had a support system that would ensure success (www.kipp.org).

KIPP schools are notorious for being demanding. They hold high expectations. School runs for 10 hours a day, and there are mandatory classes for elementary and middle schoolers on Saturday mornings (Mathews, 1). KIPP schools aren’t just schools, they are a part of a movement. Community becomes central to the educational experience, and teachers are required to be exceptional. Picture frames filled with graduation caps depict the heart of the KIPP mentality. Sharing the overarching goal of college achievement, each teacher and each school have the ability to create unique curriculum. Teachers are trusted to think outside of the box. They are rewarded for ingenuity (kipp.org).

Watching several of the dozens of videos plastered across the KIPP website, I can’t help but be inspired. These kids are excited. Their parents are thrilled. The community thrives. The “KIPPsters” are stars.

It’s significant that  the video medium is used so prominently on the organization’s website. Seeing teachers and students speaking genuinely says much more than text on a computer screen. The statistics pale in comparison to the vivacious little girl talking about how hard she works and how much she loves to learn. The mission of KIPP is tangible. Even as you sit isolated with your personal computer, there is a connection. KIPP schools are all about connections– bringing the outside world into the classroom. Navigating the faces of this organization, viewers want to jump in too.

However, I cannot have an informed opinion about KIPP after merely browsing its website for an hour. I know that I have not come close to grasping the complexity. I have to assume that there is a conundrum in KIPP.

Like any college researcher in this library on a Tuesday night, I googled to find out who critiqued KIPP and why. This was much harder to do than I originally imagined. When you’re discussing the achievement gap or budget bills the debate jumps out at you like a loaded spring. With KIPP, there is a different story. Even the critical articles I selected had positive things to say about KIPP.

In a Policy Brief by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice called “What Do We Know About the Outcomes of KIPP Schools?” Jefferey R. Henig examined seven studies that sought to determine whether or not KIPP schools actually raise achievement to the degree they say they do. Though he went out looking for corruption, it was largely absent. KIPP seems to be the real deal. In a  short summary of the conclusions drawn from his research, Henig tells us:

  •  Students who stay in KIPP perform better than those in public schools
  •  Except for a tendency to attract more girls than boys, there is no evident selection bias
  •  Teacher enthusiasm is high, but demands are high as well and because of this there is a high turnover of teachers and school leaders

Henig also notes that “A September 8, 2008 search of newspapers on Proquest Direct uncovered 334 articles mentioning KIPP and charter schools in either their citations or abstract, many with positive claims embedded in the headlines” (Henig). The positive feedback is overwhelming. However, Henig makes an effort to point out potential “flaws” in the system. For example, studies done on the KIPP schools focus largely on test scores, particularly reading and math. This leaves potential for “teaching to the test” and less focus on other subject areas and activities. He also alludes often to the argument made in early studies that parents who seek out charter schools like KIPP are more likely to be the “better” and more supportive parents. This means the children entering KIPP schools are supposedly already more motivated, and that thus more likely to succeed. In KIPP’s beginnings, the attrition rate was also fairly high. This led to accusations that the underachieving students dropped out or were expelled, and the statistics naturally shifted into higher percentiles. Each of these dissensions was acknowledged and then eventually discounted.

“Teaching to the test” isn’t necessary in KIPP schools because the school day is so long (Mathews). No selection bias can be found. The rate of attrition as KIPP progresses has dropped significantly. 85% of KIPPsters now go on to college. As for the standardized tests, there is admittedly an over-reliance upon them. This is a topic that surfaces again and again. In the discussion of education, it is a common thread. In this discussion we must also acknowledge that there are different tests in every state. They vary in difficulty, and some states adopt easier tests to meet the daunting and impossible requirements of NCLB (Henig, 6). This is part of the American mentality. We want the “right” to be different. We believe that each state should have the ability to choose what it teaches. I can see both sides of this argument.

I recognize that each state is unique, and that this individuality can work its way into the classroom. However, the extreme differences in testing among the states make it difficult to truly measure progress. Furthermore, how can two children from California and Alabama, held to very different standards when it came to testing for most of their lives, be expected to test comparably in their junior years of high school when it comes time to take the nationalized SAT or ACT? When schools are allowed to do whatever they want, questionable liberties are often taken. For example, in an article written today for the New York Times Education section titled “High School Courses May be Advanced in Name Only,” it was revealed that the percentage of high school graduates who have taken “rigorous sounding classes” over the past twenty years has tripled, while their standardized test scores have remained the same. The titles of the courses are designed to dupe. More now than ever, we have become a country obsessed with the appearance of success. How might we measure student outcomes more effectively? How will we evaluate students on what they can apply to real-world situations?

Bringing the discussion back to KIPP, it is interesting to note that teachers in the program are fully trusted to develop their own curriculum. Each school is given the same trust. This trust in instilled in an effort to encourage KIPP schools to become completely intertwined with the communities where they are built–fitting the curriculum to the local context. I love this idea.  When I think about what is necessary to create a “good” school, I believe that a sense of community is key. If we must apply national standards, we might consider giving community members a hand in writing them–teaching our students the skills they will need for work in their home towns.

The question remains: Can we bring the model of KIPP to  any public school? Using the current model, I’m not sure it’s the right answer to simply say “KIPP for all.” As is true with almost every issue I’ve explored this term, it is too easy to fall into the trap of “easy answers.”

Looking at the success of KIPP, the proposal of a silver bullet answer is inevitable. However, the KIPP model only works so well because it developed to fit each of its specific school locations. It built a community and fit its curriculum to these connections.  If we want to apply the progress of KIPP on a large scale, it will take a lot of time, energy, and care. We have to take it one school at a time. One classroom at a time. The interactions between a school and a community are complex.

Recommending that we pay attention to what KIPP has done and use the program as a tool, Henig leaves us with a strong closing point:

“Recruiting better teachers and school leaders, spending more time in school, motivating families, unhinging school assignment from strict attendance zones: are these what matters? If so, perhaps we can turn down the flame of clashing systems and confront more directly the question of how these can be institutionalized” (Henig, 26).

The system needs to be changed, that much is clear. But we can’t keep overturning it and adopting one “successful” model after another on an incredibly large scale without considering the complications. We need to look at why each of these models works, and take pieces of each to create the best system possible for our children.

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8 Responses to Lessons from KIPP

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