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?

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).

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.

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.