A response to a common gripe

When searching for KIPP information for the last blog entry, I found this interesting blog article on SchoolsMatter entitled, “Why KIPP is Not a Model for Urban Education.” It struck me because it includes a number of arguments and ideas that I heard a lot in grad school. Here are some of the arguments against KIPP and other similar systems contained within this article, and then my response to them:

  • “I’m concerned that KIPP, Edison, and other “back to basics” approaches operate under the implicit assumption that the best we can hope for (re: the achievement of black and Hispanic children) is to give them nothing but the basics.” Untrue. The idea is that we have to give kids an excellent foundation in reading, writing, and math in order to get them beyond the basics. If a child cannot read at grade level, he/she will suffer in social studies, the arts, music, and life. The basics are the starting point, not the end, of a good education. If they already had a solid foundation of basics, schools like KIPP would skip it. But they have to meet kids where they are.
  • “Yes, KIPP might offer a trip to Central Park as a reward for good behavior, but middle-class white parents such as me cringe at the idea that our children would be taken on field trips only as a reward for good behavior.”

KIPP and other schools teach their students that bad choices have bad consequences, and good choices have good consequences. I would argue that every school should function this way, no matter where it is or what its kids are like. Many prominent middle class whites in our society were obviously not taught this (Hmm…but I just can’t think of any! White people just act so good all the time, especially the powerful ones with money and influence!). But the consequences of an urban kid’s bad choices are much graver than the consequences for a middle class white child. Those kids at least have th safety net of their parents. Urban kids often do not. If they don’t learn to make good behavioral choices for themselves, they could end up in very bad situations later on. If missing a field trip in 5th grade helps them to understand how the world works and teaches them how to make good choices when they are older, things have happened exactly as they should.

  • “As for interrogating and critiquing socio-historical systems that produce the status quo, I’d be willing to bet that the name “Malcolm X” is not uttered at KIPP schools. I’m sure there’s not enough time to cover everything. But, then again, what do they cover in the time they have? Surely black children should know not just who Malcolm X is, but why he believed what he believed and how he conducted his activist work.”

First of all, I know many, many KIPP teachers who talk about Malcolm X and other such historical figures. It is ridiculous to assume that just because the schools focus on reading and writing that they ignore the historical implications of race in American history. Also, wouldn’t this person want students to know what the terms “status quo,” “historical,” “uttered,” and “activist” actually mean? If so, they are going to need a heck of a lot of literacy training and vocabulary work. Or should we just do read-alouds forever? That way, even though they can’t really read or write very well about it, at least they’ll be sure to know how oppressed they are and have been through history. Think I’m going overboard here? Listen to the next quote:

KIPP schools contribute directly to the educational achievement gap between wealthy whites and poor blacks. Yes, it may appear that this gap has been closed by these same poor black children scoring higher on standardized tests. But I would seriously question these gains as anything other than illusory, especially when these gains are made at the expense of these children knowing about themselves and their oppression as well as at the expense of their intellectual potential.

This person is crazy. The “achievement gap” is defined by test scores! So you can’t say that KIPP schools contribute to the achievement gap if they are helping black children to score higher on tests! Also, the tests TEST SKILLS. THERE IS NOTHING THAT TESTS HOW MUCH CHILDREN KNOW ABOUT THEIR OPPRESSION. And even if there was, would you rather they score high on that and low on tests of literacy and math? How does this benefit the child? This person, apparently, is not in favor of benefitting the child, but rather of furthering a particular type of political agenda. Observe.

Here’s the troubling thing: KIPP schools appear to work. But what they work at remains in question. What does it mean for a school to “work”? Some would say that KIPP works because it produces high test scores and gets kids into elite prep schools and then on to college. But others would say that KIPP fails because it does not produce democratically-engaged, independently-minded critical thinkers. In its worst form, KIPP represents a failure of imagination and an abdication on the part of educators who are convinced, albeit with the best of intentions, that this is the best “these kids” can hope for.

I don’t know about you, but I am in the “some” group that thinks getting underserved, low-income minority children into elite prep schools and then on to college is evidence that a school works. I have a feeling that the author is in the “others” category, a group that doesn’t want college-bound kids, but ones who are “democratically-engaged, independently-minded critical thinkers,” whatever that means. You know, he/she may be right. I’ve always thought that college makes kids really, really love monarchy. And I’m always saying, you know, those college kids wear too many buttons that say I (heart) the status quo and My parents were right every time. We really should stop sending kids to college.

Left to choose its own priorities, surely the state (through the mechanism of KIPP) will choose stability over something else. The effect and impact of this choice can only be guessed at, but I’d venture an educated guess and say that stability means more phonics and less Malcolm X. Again, this is by no means a consciously-constructed plan to exert racial dominance. It is, in a word, efficient. And, according to the KIPP people, what these children need.

So now KIPP is part of the social dominance structure created to keep people down. Why doesn’t anyone else see that phonics is important for empowering people??? Slaveowners kept slaves illiterate for a reason. That’s right, friends and neighbors, because Knowledge is Power. Why is knowledge always being made evil? I just don’t understand. It was this way at grad school, and it’s this way in the education world at large. It makes me angry. Also, “these children” need the basics in fifth grade because NO ONE TAUGHT THEM WELL ENOUGH BEFORE! If the school system they were in beforehand hadn’t been so screwed up and awful, they could start where they’re supposed to, with fifth grade material! And maybe they wouldn’t all have to go to school until 5! Here’s a last bit I want to get in:

And, with KIPP, we say, “This is good enough for them” while we send our kids to private schools or the best suburban schools.

There are a number of excellent charter elementary schools in New York City now, some of them with the Achievement First system. KIPP has an elementary school in Houston now, as well as a high school. I long for the day that the students who start KIPP or other great schools so early start whipping private school and suburban kids in achievement. That will be a great day for them, and for our country. Maybe then we’ll start taking education a little more seriously.

–Guestblogger Newoldschoolteacher

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