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.

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For example, many of KIPP's now-lauded approaches were first developed not by Levin and Feinberg but by a career public-school teacher in Houston whose methods they admired back when they were TFAers. Levin and Feinberg tried to recruit their mentor to help launch KIPP, but as a middle-aged single mother, she felt she couldn't afford to join their revolution. If KIPP's success is ever to become widespread, it's going to have to find more room for such everyday heroes, who are not less talented than eager, young TFAers but who do have lives, families, and financial needs outside their jobs.

Parents or guardians, too, must be hardy souls at KIPP. They have to sign a contract saying they agree to KIPP's exacting schedule, which serves, intentionally or not, to eliminate kids from less involved or determined families. While KIPP does have outreach efforts to broaden its applicant pool, only the most determined parents are likely to respond to such overtures and sign KIPP's demanding contract. This dedication suggests a higher value on education within these families, and thus kids better able or willing to learn. And the weakest students, not surprisingly, get disproportionately winnowed. In KIPP's schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, the worst-performing kids have dropped out (or been expelled) in greater numbers in the higher grades; the result has been to inflate the schools' grade-to-grade improvement.

Such a regimen isn't for everyone, but KIPP has shown that with the right underprivileged population, it can make a significant, consistent difference—which is a lot more than most charter programs can say. (A 2006 report by the Education Department—i.e., under a Republican administration—revealed that traditional public schools significantly outperform charter programs in reading and math.) Far from finding the boot-camp atmosphere dispiriting, kids—at least, those who stay—clearly adore KIPP. This may be the program's singular accomplishment: It's made "back to basics" fun. However, even Mathews, the KIPP champion, describes an approach to discipline that sometimes seems unduly harsh; in less expert hands, such an approach could easily deteriorate into something more disturbing, and if implemented on a wide scale, might well turn off as many students and parents as it helps. Finally, even with such gargantuan efforts, KIPP helps to close, but does not remotely eliminate, the achievement gap in the inner city. It is not the answer to urban ills that Mathews proposes.

But because KIPP has done so much better than so many other charter programs, it has earned the right to shoot not only for the moon but beyond. Given this, what mystifies me about KIPP is that it has scattered its resources across the country—opening just a few schools in any one state—instead of trying to concentrate its resources more fully in one community.

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No doubt the strategy partly reflects practical hurdles. States may limit the number of charter programs (although this may change if President Obama gets his way with his new education plan). In addition, there may be union or administrative opposition, although until recently, KIPP and the teachers unions had peacefully coexisted. (Now, a dispute between one KIPP school in Brooklyn and New York's United Federation of Teachers threatens this détente.)

But since the biggest debate about KIPP, on both the ideological left and right, is whether or not its methods can work for all disadvantaged children (instead of just a handful of self-selecting families), why wouldn't it—and its financial, ideological, and media backers—have a strong interest in answering this question once and for all by taking on an entire urban area or even, for that matter, a single neighborhood as, say, Geoffrey Canada has tried to do in Harlem with his Harlem's Children's Zone?

There's something perversely evasive about KIPP's opening up just one school in Dallas, one school in Albany, N.Y., one school in Oakland, Calif., one school in Charlotte, N.C., one school in Nashville, Tenn., and so on—as if the program recognizes that its best chance at success is to be the exception rather than the rule in any city where it operates. Perhaps this approach made sense in the program's early years, when it needed to build credibility and attract financing. But now it has done both. Until KIPP tries to succeed within an entire, single community, it is, for all its remarkable rise and deserved praise, just another model program that has yet to prove it can succeed with all—or even most—disadvantaged children.

Sara Mosle, a former member of Teach for America in Upper Manhattan, writes frequently about educational issues and is finishing a book on the London Consolidated School explosion, which killed hundreds of children in the East Texas oil field in 1937.

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