Friday, February 29, 2008

Another Perspective on KIPP:

UPDATE: See alternative view of KIPP from a teacher in comment #1.

This email is from St. Louis.

Another Perspective on KIPP:

An Interview with Educator and Activist Peter Campbell

Over the past week, I have had several public school teachers in my classes ask me questions about KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program). I, like them, am faced with the media barrage celebrating the arrival of KIPP to St. Louis. On 2/3/08, The St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a story called "Corporate Leaders Welcome KIPP" written by David Hunn. The story, like much of the information that has been circulated, was one-sided in its praise of KIPP. Wanting to find answers to their questions that dig a little deeper than the flashy cover page stories, I brought their questions to Peter Campbell, educator and activist who has conducted extensive research on KIPP.

Rebecca Rogers: What is the background/history of KIPP?

Peter Campbell: Here's the official story:

"KIPP began in 1994 when two teachers, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, launched a fifth grade public school program in inner-city Houston, TX, after completing their commitment to Teach For America. In 1995, Feinberg remained in Houston to lead KIPP Academy Middle School, and Levin returned home to New York City to establish KIPP Academy in the South Bronx."

"In 2000, Doris and Donald Fisher, co-founders of Gap, Inc., formed a unique partnership with Feinberg and Levin to replicate the success of the two original KIPP Academies across the country through the non-profit KIPP Foundation. The KIPP Foundation focuses its efforts on recruiting, training, and supporting outstanding teachers to open new, locally-run KIPP schools in high-need communities."

"There are currently 57 KIPP public schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia enrolling more than 14,000 students. Across the KIPP network, 55 of the existing 57 schools are charter schools. The majority of KIPP schools, 48 of 57, are middle schools designed to serve fifth through eighth grade students. The remaining nine are five high schools, three pre-kindergarten/elementary schools, and one pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school."

"Over 90 percent of KIPP students are African American or Hispanic/Latino, and more than 80 percent of KIPP students are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price meals program. Students are accepted regardless of prior academic record, conduct, or socioeconomic background."

source -

My take on the KIPP origin story:

The story of the two bright, highly-educated, white male crusaders who went out of their ways to save poor minority children from the ravages of the failed system of public education too closely resembles tales of white missionaries, explorers, and anthropologists not to be noticeable. In darkest Africa at the turn of the twentieth century, white men descended into the jungles to convert, trade with, and study the savages they encountered. Implicit within all their encounters was the unquestioned axiom that defined these exchanges: the white people were civilized, the black people were uncivilized; the white people were advanced, the black people were behind. To this day, "Third World Debtor Nations" are looked down upon as drains upon the world economy, as incompetent at managing their own affairs, and in need of a good lesson or two.

The KIPP origin story is told with a great deal of pride, that the two young crusaders (both from Ivy League schools) displayed enormous courage and commitment to turn things around to produce "schools that work." I'm reminded of Kenneth Saltman's point from his book _The Edison Schools_:

"The two questions most asked about Edison by liberals and conservatives are whether it works to raise test scores and whether it works financially to decrease costs. Asking whether or not something "works" brackets out of consideration the broader goals, purposes, and underlying assumptions about what something works to do. The focus on test performance and finances has thoroughly eclipsed discussion of whether Edison facilitates democratic education and a democratic society. If one assumes that the democratic potential of public schools should be at the forefront of debate, then the question of whether or not Edison "works" may be the wrong way to approach the company and public schooling more generally." (p. 68)

So what do KIPP schools work at doing? What do they accomplish? What do they produce? Or, more precisely, who do they produce and by what means? And at what cost?

Foucault's chapter on discipline in Discipline and Punish keeps coming to mind, "the body as object and target of power" and the notion of "docile bodies" that are "subjected, used, transformed, and improved."

These docile bodies in KIPP schools are uniformly brown and black. No white body is subjected to this same kind of disciplined transformation. Indeed, the school motto is "Be nice, work hard." What white, suburban, middle-class parents would want this to be the goal of their child's education? It may be worthwhile to some to "tame the savages" and turn them into productive members of white-dominated society. But I worry about the costs of such "improvements."

Rebecca: Where does the money come from for KIPP?


KIPP Foundation -

National partners -

includes the Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation

Rebecca: Many sources are reporting that KIPP schools individualize instruction to make sure that every child succeeds. How do they do this?

Peter: I've heard anecdotally that KIPP does this. But since a KIPP student spends about 70% more time in class than his/her regular school counterpart, it would only make sense that they would get more attention. I have not come across any hard evidence that shows that KIPP schools individualize instruction. But I could be wrong on this.

In addition, many of the opportunities for inclusion in extra-curricular activities is based not on student interest but on student behavior. "(KIPP co-founders) Feinberg and Levin say they want discipline, attention and steady, measurable progress that supplants the distractions of their students' homes and neighborhoods. Their secret is what they call 'the joy factor': excursions in Central Park, games, songs, trips to Disney World or Los Angeles, and music. The 180-piece orchestra at KIPP New York gives bewildered and frustrated preteens an incentive to go to school each morning. They must earn the right to play by being nice and working hard. . . At the end of each week, students receive up to $40 in virtual cash that can be redeemed for snacks and other favors at the student store, and also count toward day excursions like the trip to Central Park or what KIPP calls year-end 'field lessons' to Washington, D.C., California, New England, Utah, Florida or Tennessee. " (source - Washington Post, August 24, 2004)

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. Middle-class whites assume that it is the duty of schools to provide our children with a high-quality education and that every child, regardless of whether he or she is deemed "good" or "bad," has a right to such an education. Student behavior might influence the kinds of options that white middle-class children are exposed to, but good or bad behavior is not the sole determinant of these options.

Why, then, should poor black and Hispanic parents not have the same assumptions? Why should poor black and Hispanic students not have the same rights and the same options? Ultimately, it appears that approved behavior is the key to success at KIPP. I can think of no middle-class white school that makes this kind of bargain with its students except for military academies.

Rebecca: How is KIPP different from/similar to other charters schools that exist in St. Louis?

Peter: KIPP makes heavy use of public shaming as a discipline tactic.

"Students must walk in quiet, single-file lines at all times. There is a contract for each student – a document signed by parent, principal and child attesting to their commitment to education. All KIPP kids learn chants and hand signals that teachers use for everything from teaching multiplication tables to getting them to recite their college hallways are decorated with posters bearing KIPP slogans such as 'There are No Shortcuts'....KIPPsters everywhere earn or lose weekly ‘paychecks' that can be spent in the student store. Miscreants are placed on the bench, must wear signs around their neck that say ‘BENCH,' eat at a quiet table and write letters of apology to each student before explaining to the class how they will change their behavior." (source - San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 29, 2003)

"(S)ending (students) to the principal's office or sending them on suspensions is what we don't want to do. So in its place, we've come up with the idea of the bench in terms of not being on the team. And on the bench what we've taken away is the social aspect which the kids at the middle school level so crave. So they're still in the classroom, they're still learning but they have to sit apart from their teammates and the only one they can talk to in that classroom is the teacher. They can't talk to their friends and their friends can't talk to them. So it applies not just to the classroom but the entire school day so when they go eat lunch, they have to sit at a separate table. Once again, they can't eat with their friends, they have to eat either in silence or they can work on their homework and reading when they're at the table. Then over the weekend, if they're on the bench, they have to do some deep reflection on the bad choices they made to go to the bench because that means they either weren't doing their work, or they weren't being nice and respectful to their teammates, they have to write letters of apology to their teammates explaining what they did wrong and what they're going to do the next week to get off the bench and contribute to the team again." - Mike Feinberg, co-founder of KIPP (source -

Rebecca: Will KIPP take money away from public education?

Peter: Yes and no.

Yes - KIPP schools are public schools, so local, state, and federal funds are spent on these schools to organize them, market them, and run them; because of the work of its foundation and its ties to the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, as well as to Teach for America, KIPP schools also attract lots of private funding, dollars that might otherwise be spent on regular public schools

No - most KIPP schools are charter schools, and charters typically are not funded by local education associations at the same level as their regular public school counter-parts

Rebecca: What does the curriculum look like at KIPP?

Peter: From what I've read, the curriculum of each school is designed by the principal; this is one of the few things I admire about KIPP, i.e., there is no one-size-fits-all, top-down instructional program that has to be implemented at every school in the same way; this, however, might be different now as KIPP grows and tries to replicate its "success"

Rebecca: Can teachers join a union if they work at a KIPP school?

Peter: Yes, they can. There is nothing preventing them from organizing. But, because most KIPP teachers come from TFA and have no prior experience in teaching or being a member of a union, they see no need to organize. And, since being a KIPP teacher is all about working 12 to 15 hours a day and on Saturday, who among them would raise work issues? If you join KIPP, you drink the Kool-Aid (so to speak).

Rebecca: What are the success rates with other KIPP schools?

Peter: KIPP will tell you this: "Since their founding, the original KIPP Academies have sustained track records of high student achievement. While fewer than one in five low-income students typically attend college nationally, KIPP's college matriculation rate stands at nearly 80 percent for students who complete the eighth grade at KIPP. In addition, KIPP alumni have earned over $12 million in college scholarships."

Here's why this is misleading: 80% of those that make it through KIPP go on to college. But how many make it through KIPP?

There were nine KIPP schools in California as of the 2005-2006 school year. Six of the nine schools saw decreases in enrollment as their 5th grade kids moved up from the 5th grade to the 7th grade (the 8th grade at one school).

* KIPP Academy Fresno went from 60 to 48 kids from 5th to 6th grade, a 20% decrease in enrollment.

* KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy in San Francisco went from 73 to 56 kids from 5th to 7th grade, a 23% decrease in enrollment.

* KIPP Academy of Opportunity in LA went from 88 to 66 kids from 5th to 7th grade, a 25% decrease in enrollment.

* KIPP Bayview Academy in San Francisco went from 81 to 55 kids from 5th to 7th grade, a 32% decrease in enrollment.

* KIPP Los Angeles College Preparatory in LA went from 88 to 57 kids from 5th to 7th grade, a 35% decrease in enrollment.

* KIPP Bridge College Preparatory in Oakland went from 87 to 36 kids from 5th to 8th grade, a whopping 59% decrease in enrollment.

These decreases in enrollment were especially noticeable for African-American boys at four of these schools. Enrollment of African-American boys went from 35 to 23 at KIPP Academy of Opportunity in LA, a 34% decrease in enrollment; 19 to 10 at KIPP Academy Fresno, a 47% decrease in enrollment; 24 to 12 at KIPP Bayview Academy in San Francisco, a 50% decrease in enrollment; and 35 to 8 at KIPP Bridge College Preparatory in Oakland, an extraordinary 77% decrease in enrollment.

Drop-outs, or at least transients, are a common phenomenon in low-income schools, even good ones. So these numbers would not be surprising if they were associated with your average public school. But KIPP is not your average public school. Many supporters of KIPP see it as the answer to the problems that vex inner-city schools. But it seems, at least from what we can tell from the California enrollment data, that even KIPP cannot solve the drop-out/transient problem.

But then you start to wonder: is KIPP causing this high drop-out rate? If it's not causing kids to drop out, then there might certainly be a correlation between KIPP's "unique approach to educating low-income kids" and the fact that so many of them, at least in California, don't make it out of KIPP.

Consider what we know about KIPP:

* KIPP students are required to go to school Monday to Friday from 7:30 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon.

* They go to school on Saturday from 9 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon.

* They are required to complete two hours of homework every night.

* They are required to attend an extra month of school in the summer.

* They are required to wear a uniform.

KIPP students are subject to a strict code of discipline that punishes offenders by forcing them to wear a sign around their neck that says "bench" or, according to one source, "miscreant." So it seems reasonable to ask this question: is KIPP contributing to this drop-out/transient problem? I doubt rather seriously that anyone at KIPP wants any of their students to drop out. But declining enrollments actually benefit KIPP by making their achievement data look better than it might actually be.

Now it gets even more complicated. According to a recent SRI report, Bay Area KIPP schools in California are attracting already high-performing students from local schools. Some KIPP principals expressed concern about "creaming" these already high-performing students from other schools when there remains a large number who are low-performing and underserved. One principal expressed dismay with the school's struggle to enroll Title I students, whom she considered to be her target population. (see p. 18 of the report)

So it seems reasonable to ask this other question: how much is KIPP actually contributing to the achievement of these already high-performing students? As class numbers decrease, the performance of these high-achievers shines brighter and brighter. Supporters claim this is due to KIPP's unique approach. They might be right, but not for the reasons they suspect. It might be possible that KIPP's unique approach forces enough of the low-achievers out to make the achievement of those that remain seem better than it really is.

For example, let's say there were 5 students taking a test. The scores (out of 100 possible points) were as follows: 45, 47, 52, 98, 99. The average of these five scores is 68.2 So you could truthfully and accurately say, "Student scores were near the 70th percentile." But how many students scored a 70? None. If you look at the scores, 3 out of the 5 did really badly. But 2 of the 5 did really, really well. The result? It looks like great things are happening when, in fact, they are not.

This is especially relevant to the issue I mention above, i.e., the ever-shrinking number of kids at KIPP as they move from 5th to 8th grade. For example, let's say there are 20 kids at KIPP in the 5th grade. Two of the kids score really high - 98 and 99 out of 100. But the other 18 score either 47, 45, or 52. This results in an average of 51.5. The next year, in the 6th grade, there are only 15 kids left -- 5 dropped out, were "counseled out," or simply are no longer there. Same scenario: two of the kids score really high - 98 and 99 out of 100. But the other 13 score either 47, 45, or 52. But this results in a slightly higher average of 53.4. In the 7th grade, only 8 kids are left. Same scenario: two of the kids score really high - 98 and 99 out of 100. But the other 6 score either 47, 45, or 52. But this results in yet another higher average: 59.75. And by the time they reach 8th grade, there are 5 kids left. Now the 2 high scorers really skew the average, all the way up to 68.2. But the other 3 are still scoring 47,45, and 52.

What's going on here? KIPP is getting statistically better because more kids are dropping out. So should we blame KIPP for pushing them out or praise them for raising the scores of the two that remain?

KIPP needs to come clean and reveal what actually happens to its enrollments and whether or not the scores are skewed by a small number of high achievers.

In part 1 of a Hedrick Smith piece on KIPP, a Latino boy named Ray, a 16-year-old 8th grader enrolled in KIPP 3D Academy in Houston, talks about his first experience at KIPP.

At 3 minutes, 14 seconds into this video segment, ( there is a glimpse into how KIPP achieves its results.

Here's the transcript:

Hedrick Smith (voiceover) - At the start of school, Ray had his first confrontation with 3D Academy's principal, Dan Caesar.

Ray: We were going over our chants, and -- just being myself, still trying to figure out how this school works and everything . . .

Dan Caesar - We say, "Is 3D in the house?!?!" and all the kids raise up their hands and say, "YES!" and Reynaldo raised up his hands and said "NO!"

Ray: I waved my hand. I said, "No." And then he looked at me and he said it a second time. And I said "No" again.

Dan Caesar - I knew right then, "Here's the first test, the first person testing our culture." So I let him know in front of everybody in the room that that's not going to be tolerated. We all want to be here. We chose to be here. If you don't want to be here, find the door.

So much for KIPP's motto, "No excuses."

Rebecca: Where should people go if they want to learn more about KIPP schools?

Peter: I have most of this stuff on my blog. Go to and enter "KIPP" in the search box.

Peter Campbell is an activist, educator, and parent. He volunteered as the Missouri State Coordinator for the Assessment Reform Network, part of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (better known as FairTest). Peter holds a BA from Princeton University and an MA from New York University. He has been involved in education for 20 years and has taught a number of different subjects in different academic settings, ranging from English as a Second Language at a Japanese high school in Tokyo to compositional writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia to public speaking at Manhattan Community College in New York City. In the area of assessment, Peter worked for the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in the Assessment and Evaluation division. Currently, Peter is the Lead Instructional Designer for the Office of Information Technology at Montclair State University, the second largest public institution of higher education in New Jersey. In this role at MSU, Peter leads workshops on assessment and helps instructors use technology to enhance teaching and learning.

Rebecca Rogers is an associate professor of literacy education in the College of Education at the University of Missouri St. Louis. She routinely teaches courses on literacy assessment and literacy instruction for teachers. She has written several books including: Critical Literacy/Critical Teaching: Tools for Preparing Responsive Teachers (with P. Johnston & C. Dozier, Teachers College Press, 2005), Adult Education Teachers Designing Critical Literacy Practices (w/ M.A. Kramer, Routledge, 2007), A Critical Discourse Analysis of Family Literacy Practices (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003). She is co-founder of a grassroots professional development group, located in St. Louis, called The Literacy for Social Justice Teacher Group.


Anonymous said...

How open is this forum? Will the blog author allow criticism?

This post was run-of-the-mill KIPP criticism, and all of it seems to miss the mark. Having visited a few KIPP schools to see for myself what goes on there, I now know the following:

1. KIPP schools actually use more progressive educational practices than the regular public schools I have seen (including the high-poverty school where I currently teach).

2. The practices WORK there because the students have enough respect for their teachers to actually follow directions. (Just try, my esteemed ivory tower education experts, to lead students in collaborative group work in your typical chaotic inner-city classroom.)

3. Unlike leftist academics, the KIPP teachers are not ideologically beholden to progressive education models. When learning needs to be rote (e.g., learning automaticity in basic math) it's rote! (But they still succeed in making it fun for the kids.)

4. Dave Levin--who I've actually talked to about student discipline--understands that what kids need most is consistent, high expectations that come from a place of caring. Yes, he's white, and most KIPP students are of color. While some leftist academics are so paralyzed by issues of race and class that they dare not assert authority as an adult to a 10 year old kid (being a smart aleck to teachers and administrators is really a noble form of dissent to the injustices of free-market capitalism, right?), let those who actually live under the weight of poverty decide what they want--the squalor and chaos of our urban public school districts or the chance for their kids to go to college?

There's a reason the waiting lists for KIPP schools run into the thousands.

I suppose KIPP critics can claim that these parents are really just uneducated and don't know what's best for their kids...but wouldn't that seem a bit, I dunno, classist? Racist?

Anonymous said...

Real-life Teacher is dead on. Peter Campbell has a history of posting misinformation about KIPP on his blog, based on whatever rumors and innuendo about KIPP he's chosen to believe. As he readily admits, he's never so much as visited one of the 60-or-so KIPP schools, but lest you think that makes him hesitate in offering up his best guess about what KIPP is like, you'll want to read this:

These unsubstantiated lies about KIPP are getting old. It's an embarrassing commentary on the quality of academia in the field of education today that a couple of professors would engage in this speculation.

And yes, Mr. Campbell has racist views of what kids and families in our urban areas are like. He supposed that our inner cities are full of parents who are so out of it and so disinterested in their child's well-being that scads of kids are thus precluded from ever being entered in a KIPP lottery. Poor parents, Mr. Campbell, actually do care about their children, and they actually will make a phone call to get them on the list for the lottery.