Jay Mathews' Work Hard. Be Nice.

Reading between the lines.
March 23 2009 6:58 AM

The Educational Experiment We Really Need

What the Knowledge Is Power Program has yet to prove.

Work Hard Be Nice by Jay Mathews.

In his new book, Work Hard. Be Nice., Jay Mathews claims that the Knowledge Is Power Program is the "best" program serving severely disadvantaged, minority-group students in America today. Let me begin—before I'm denounced as a traitor to the cause of educational reform—by saying that I'm inclined to agree. The improbable story of how KIPP was founded in 1994 by David Levin and Michael Feinberg, two young Teach for America alumni in Houston, is thrilling and worthy reading. KIPP's mission has been akin to putting the first man on the moon: an all-out education race, requiring extraordinary, round-the-clock dedication from parents, students, and teachers alike. But the program is not the proven, replicable model for eliminating the achievement gap in the inner city that Mathews imagines, and this distinction is crucial. KIPP may be something more important: a unique chance to test, once and for all, the alluring but suspect notion that there actually is an educational panacea for social inequality. As of yet, the evidence for such a thing doesn't exist.

There have always been model school programs that work. There have even been some that have been successfully replicated in different parts of the country. But no program has shown it can work for all, or even most,disadvantaged children within a single city or neighborhood. Instead, as critics point out, such model programs tend to skim off those kids who are already better positioned (thanks to better home environments, greater natural gifts, savvier or better-educated parents, etc.) to escape the ghetto. Meanwhile, regular public schools are left with a more distilled population of struggling students. Similarly, model programs tend to attract young, talented, and adventurous teachers, who are willing or able to work long hours for low pay. (Model schools also tend to attract the most philanthropic dollars, which effectively boost per-pupil expenditures, even as such programs can still brag they use no more tax dollars than traditional public schools.) Indeed, Mathews likens KIPP to a cult "without the dues or the weird robes." But by definition, a cult is a fringe movement. To date, no one—including such mighty players as the Gates Foundation—has figured out how to take an educational cult and make it the predominant religion within any urban system.

Mathews insists that KIPP has solved this riddle. It's true that perhaps no other model program has risen so far so fast, with such consistently strong test scores. KIPP now has 66 academies in 19 states. Still, 66 academies amount to just three schools, on average, per state. Houston has far and away the highest concentration with, currently, seven middle schools, three elementary schools, and one high school. But this is in a school system with 200,000 students, nearly 80 percent of whom qualify for reduced or free lunches. At the moment, like every other model program before it, KIPP serves only a tiny fraction of disadvantaged students within any given district. And as education researcher Richard Rothstein has rightly noted, comparing students from different schools, even within the same disadvantaged neighborhoods, is very difficult to do in a rigorous, scientific way. Just because KIPP uses a lottery for admissions, for example, does not tell us anything about the self-selecting nature of the pool from which this lottery is drawn. (Rothstein's own research—here and here—has shown that KIPP students come from families that are better off, or better educated, than their regular public school or special-education counterparts.)

What is more, KIPP's approach is implicitly, but obviously, not designed to suit all students—or, for that matter, all parents or teachers. For decades, educators argued that disadvantaged children could succeed if only they received the same education as more advantaged, middle-class students. Many, if not most, of the nation's best public and private schools are decidedly progressive, with less emphasis on test scores and more on critical thinking skills, with rich arts, music, sports, and other extracurricular programs. Why shouldn't poorer children enjoy the same?

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But KIPP is not the same. The program has usefully changed the debate by acknowledging the obvious: Kids who grow up poor, with no books or with functionally illiterate parents, in crime-ridden neighborhoods, with destructive peer influences and without access to basic medical care (such as glasses to help them read), need something significantly more than—and different from—kids who grow up with every economic and educational advantage on which to build. For one, the academic program at KIPP is relentless in its back-to-basics focus: a boot camp that runs nearly 10 hours a day, from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., not including transportation and homework, and half a day every other Saturday.

There is a lot of rote learning and test prep, born of the program's emphasis on demonstrable results. Enrichment programs exist (one Bronx school has a remarkable orchestra) but are necessarily limited, because precious time must also be devoted to teaching social skills that middle-class students take for granted—for example, how to follow a speaker with one's eyes and nod as one takes in information. In addition, KIPP includes an extended summer school. (Research has shown that middle-class students consolidate and even improve on their educational gains during the summer months, while underprivileged students slip backward, negating their progress during the academic year.)

As a result, KIPP teachers typically work 65-hour weeks and a longer school year. Recognizing that students need more out-of-school aid to supplement their educations, the program also requires its staff to be available to students by phone after hours for homework help and moral support. For this overtime (which represents 60 percent more time in the classroom alone, on average, than in regular public schools), teachers receive just 20 percent more pay. Unsurprisingly, turnover is high. The program has relied heavily on the ever-renewing supply of very young (and thus less expensive) Teach for America alums, whose numbers, while growing, are decidedly finite. Indeed, it's unclear whether KIPP would exist were it not for TFA (and its own philanthropic investment in recruitment and training, which has not come cheap).

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