School Choice & Charters Opinion

Trying to Understand the KIPP Approach

By Deborah Meier — April 02, 2013 5 min read
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Today, Deborah Meier starts a month-long blog conversation with Elliott Witney, a former KIPP educator who now serves as the executive director of strategic initiatives and innovation in the Spring Branch independent school district in Houston, Texas. Mr. Witney was school leader at the first KIPP—Knowledge Is Power Program—charter school for 10 years.

Dear Elliott,

First, thank you for agreeing to take part with me in this public discussion. I think this is a particularly interesting and important discussion to have because we are associated with reform movements that, in many people’s minds, could hardly be further apart. And, probably, I’d have agreed, until our mutual friend, Emily Gasoi (with whom I rarely disagree) studied KIPP Houston, for her dissertation research. She suggested that we might find considerable common ground.

Emily’s commendations aside, however, I’m generally predisposed to a negative reaction to the KIPP model—both for its reputation for accomplishing testing “miracles” and for its approach to discipline. Some years ago I visited a KIPP school that both challenged and reaffirmed some of these preconceptions. Talking with the KIPP teachers I felt more comfortable than I expected. They said they had a lot of autonomy in directing the work of their classes—in terms of pedagogy and subject matter; that there was a high degree of adult collegiality; and that they thought its disciplinary practices were probably useful for “these kinds of kids.”

And, many thoughtful education critics claim there’s a connection between KIPP’s discipline system and high achievement (i.e. high test scores). Whether the improved test scores many students achieve at KIPP schools are really indicative of academic or intellectual growth, they surely create opportunities for young people who might otherwise have few. But, I thought in response, if KIPP’s disciplinary policy is, at least in part, intended to produce those high test scores, isn’t there a point at which the sacrifices involved aren’t worth the price?

So let’s begin perhaps by discussing the use of what seems to me to be a military style of discipline. What I find problematic is that it asks young people to tolerate actions taken by those in authority that are aimed at humiliating them into compliance. In contrast, I want to arm kids from day one with the qualities of heart, mind, and body that dispose them to resist such treatment—ideally and above all, to resist internalizing such humiliations, while developing strategies, with our help, for coping with them! At schools I’ve been associated with—Mission Hill, Central Park East, and others aligned with the Coalition of Essential Schools—we hope that our “habits of mind” translate into a skeptical mind toward authority and see such habits as central to democracy.

During my visit to the KIPP school, I missed the normal back-and-forth that I was accustomed to at the schools I’ve most admired and which I believed were at the heart of what helped young people join the adult world. However my visit was not long enough to be sure whether my perception of these student and staff interactions was accurate—but I’d like your thoughts on this, Elliott. I was, however, acutely embarrassed by one example of the KIPP approach I witnessed. One of our adult hosts called a young girl over to our circle of visitors to demonstrate how the discipline system worked. She asked the girl how many demerit points she had accumulated, then whether she knew what she had done wrong, how she felt about it, and what the consequences would be. The young girl responded dutifully and apparently accurately to these inquiries, always looking into her teacher’s eyes. I felt I had taken part in a ritual in which I didn’t want to be complicit: a public shaming. But I tried my best to hide my embarrassment and the demonstration was shortly completed. I’ve read about other KIPP practices, such as children being “exiled” to a special table at lunch, required to wear their KIPP shirts backwards, and other forms of public embarrassment. Even if this produced higher test scores, I have a higher regard for the habit of treating others with dignity.

The ritual called SLANT (I’ve forgotten what each letter stands for) has the same marks of military style behavior, which again may or may not be critical for preparing men (or women) for battle. But have we reason to believe that the habits of the military help soldiers treat others with respect? No, I would argue. Possibly I’d be one of those recruits or students who, if needed, would engage in some form of inner rebellion while following the CODE (keeping my eyes always on the authority figure, nodding often, etc., etc.) As a result when “subordinates” of any age treat me that way I generally feel they are mocking me! However, that didn’t seem to be the case at the school we visited; rather the children seemed to have internalized their shame. I suppose some individuals are drawn to such a hierarchical structure and others, like me, wouldn’t last long in a KIPP-style environment. Even if some young people are responsive to this degree of structure, I ask, how does this kind of regimentation prepare them for active citizenship in a complex, democratic society? Not to mention its academic drawbacks?

Given all of this, some questions I have are these: Would KIPP’s founders and leaders argue that it would be a good experience for all kids or only for “certain types”? And what leads them to such a conclusion—what past experience, studies, and investigations went into developing this approach? Do they wish they had been students in such a school, and do they send their own kids to KIPP? What lies behind that phrase “these kinds of kids”?

So let’s start here, if we can. I apologize if the tone of the above is in any way offensive to your colleagues because what I’m trying best to do is understand what leads many smart, compassionate educators to embrace this approach. Also, feel free to hold off on this issue and respond in a different vein if that seems more appropriate.

I’m hoping we both end our blogging time feeling it was well worth it, and it led us to better understand what is going on in the current so-called Reform Movement and in each other’s heads!

My best,

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