03 September 2010

On KIPP, and the question, does philosophy matter?

Sometimes the field of battle expands. That's OK, right? Those of us who gather on Twitter or via Blogs or in the corners of conferences always talk about being more aggressive at getting the ideas of real educational change out into the public eye, so when we get a chance to fight on the pages of the Washington Post, we're winning, right? Yes, right. (Just, don't leave me out there alone folks)

When Jon Becker tweeted to tell me I was being "called out" in the Post by educational columnist and KIPP school biographerJay Mathews, I knew we had a chance to bring an argument into The Beltway even if the US Department of Education refuses to listen (literally blocking me from receiving their twitter feed as well as refusing to even see mine @EdPressSec - hi Justin and Sandra (includes phone number)!).

Mathews, regarding my most recent post re: KIPP education:
"Sadly, Socol makes the same mistake Jim has made many times. He cites as evidence for his views of teaching at KIPP and Sidwell some descriptions he found on their Web sites. Any good teacher would tell you that is no way to judge a school. Socol gives no indication he has ever spent time inside a KIPP school, or Sidwell. Neither has Jim, unless I have missed something. They are among the many KIPP critics who consider it sufficient to judge schools by what they read on the Internet." WashingtonPost.com
Or judge the schools by what Jay Mathews writes in his bookI suppose. This is a kind of funny argument coming from a guy who has just judged me by reading one part of something on my website, but, sure...

And I have seen KIPP education live and in person, and we'll get to that, but the issue I was writing about in that blog post was philosophical, and philosophy matters.

As I told a KIPP teacher who commented on that previous post, "...you describe great teachers, so does Mathews, but Jayson (and Jay), I see fabulous teachers, administrators, and schools in a lot of places, and the Federal Government is giving none of those people or schools huge amounts of money to expand and serve more children. They are giving that money to the KIPP Foundation (which argues that they have a "system" and a "philosophy," not a bunch of autonomous and totally different schools). So the underlying philosophy matters." Which, from the reviews I've read of Mathews' book, is something Mathews' claims as well.

And here is why it matters. I described, in my follow up comments on the Post site, three scenes from KIPP schools:[1]
"In Chicago I saw a young teacher working one-on-one with a series of students who needed reading help. A few things stood out. The students who came to him were all, quite obviously, struggling with different aspects of the reading process. One had essentially no phonological awareness, one was really struggling with the symbols (he could not, as an example, associate the lower case letters with the equivalent upper case letters), a third read fluently but with almost zero comprehension.

"The teacher, very clearly untrained in any of this, repeated the same efforts with all the kids. He was clearly operating from a script. And as his efforts inevitably failed, he became angry with the students, repeatedly blaming them for "not trying hard enough." The child with no phonological awareness was called "lazy" repeatedly. KIPP only phenomenon? Of course not, but I saw similar scenes throughout all the buildings.

"In Gary I saw more than one teacher encourage students to belittle and demean students who were struggling to stick with the "SLANT" program. As I believe most WaPo reporters would struggle if these rules applied in staff meetings. The encouragement of "pack cruelty" was something else I observed in all three schools. [Jay asked for quotes and details, and I responded, "Suffice it to say that in KIPP classrooms I have seen teachers encourage children to humiliate others. And this is done with the "pack" using the same words, as if scripted."]

"In Indianapolis I saw appalling student-to-student behaviour, but honestly, I thought it fairly closely mimicked the communication system between the school's adults and the children. That school (and there were echoes of this in the others) was all about "top down power" - yes - very old-school British in the "hidden curriculum" - which is, in every school, the curriculum which really matters."
These are, of course, just scenes. They could, indeed, be seen in many American schools, KIPP or otherwise. But what unites them, what gives "us" as educational researchers (and by "us" of course I mean "me") is the philosophy which allows these kinds of behaviours to flourish in these schools.

When KIPP says, for example, on their website, that, "KIPP schools relentlessly focus on high student performance on standardized tests," that is important to know. It explains the instructional forms I have seen in KIPP schools. And when KIPP embraces "SLANT" (the creation of KIPP's founders) and insists that students, "sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the speaker with their eyes,"[2] That is important as well. And that explains the differences you will see between KIPP classrooms and those I provided video links to on my previous post - the classrooms which the children of the rich and powerful (and future leaders of the nation) attend.

So, with the philosophies in mind, I can say that the video below might show many things, but I'm not sure how this is (or any of the many KIPP chanting exercises you can see on YouTube or in their schools) is preparing these kids for the critical thinking and independent creativity I see as essential for real success in universities.

 I'm not against rhythm and rhyme and song in school, but why are all KIPP chants to military boot camp marching rhythms?

You see, I said nothing about dedication or that these people have "good intentions," nor did I doubt that if you "relentlessly" do test preparation scores on tests might go up, or that if you keep schools open later (as wealthy communities have always done), kids have a safe place to go. What I was discussing was the philosophy which drove Arne Duncan and Barack Obama to give a huge percentage of the funds available for school innovation to the KIPP Foundation. And what I was discussing was why an organization (and its highly vocal supporters) which claims, "KIPP schools have clearly defined and measurable high expectations for academic achievement and conduct that make no excuses based on the students' backgrounds," also believes that poor children of color need a system so radically different than their wealthier, whiter peers.

Bart Simpson once said, "We're behind, and we're going to catch up by going slower?" It is a fair statement of too much of what I see in education today. If the students at KIPP begin behind, I don't want to start by "whitening" them, I want them to begin by finding a path that allows them to use the knowledge and skills they have (which are considerable, in my experiences with this population) to rush ahead. Because while KIPP stops to "whiten" (I know they disagree with this term, but it is what SLANT is to me) the wealthier, whiter peer group is not standing around waiting for them. While KIPP stops to teach chanting, the wealthier, whiter peer group is not standing around waiting them. That group is rushing ahead, learning creativity, real collaboration, real leadership, and leaving the KIPP cohort chasing that for the rest of their lives.

- Ira Socol

[1] There you go, Alfie

[2] Attention, as it is discussed here, is a cultural construct, not a brain fact. Before The Reformation there was little belief that staring at a speaker  meant attentiveness. In fact, the entire design of, say, the Catholic Mass in a Cathedral is based around a very different idea. What "attention" looks like in KIPP Schools is the Calvinist - northern European vision of subservient focus.


mcstowy said...


I've read many of your blogs and followed this discussion closely on Matthews' Post blog. My expertise is not education, but I became interested in education issues because of my experience with my step-son who had a severe reading disability. Since he did not respond to their one, scripted reading program, he was subjected to abuse by both teachers and peers, labeled lazy, stupid (yes a school official actually said that) and emotionally disturbed (his frustration and their abuse lead to tears and anger). In fifth grade, his special ed. teacher told him he would never graduate from high school, which was confirmed by his principal who shared her assessment. During this time his mother (before we met) had been repeatedly admonished for letting him watch too much TV and told she should read to him more at home. This despite the fact that they did not even own a TV, and she read to him for 2-3 hours a day, beginning the day he was born, and this occurred in one of the wealthiest school systems in the country.

The reason I'm writing, however, is to note a parallel between your observations on education, and my observations on Criminal Justice (my area of expertise, CJ Department Chair at Trinity Washington University) The Conflict Theory of Criminal Justice, which I explore specifically in one of my classes, suggests that the true purpose of criminal justice is not to protect society and its citizens, but, rather, to identify the culture, values and behaviors of the poor and minority groups as dangerous, justifying the need to to control and assimilate them or isolate them. This is not a "conspiracy" per se, but those with the power to change the system, are the very people who benefit most from it, because a permanent underclass that can be feared by the middle class majority, diverts attention from be more harmful behaviors of the corporate and political elite, such as environmental hazards, unsafe products and working conditions, and corporate and political corruption.

I seem to recall a study that showed that the black/white achievement gap closed most during the era between Brown v. Board and about 1980; an era marked by bussing for desegregation, and Kennedy's emphasis on education after Sputnick. Interesting that when schools were most desegregated, the education and opportunities for the poor and powerless improved. Perhaps that is the reason bussing ended and we have re-segregated our society over the last 30 years: Too much competition from those poor and minority kids. I suppose that might happen again is DCPS provided the same education as Greenwich, CT.

narrator said...


I share your sense of this. I have for a long, long time.


- Ira Socol

narrator said...

Wanted to quote McStowy from the Post site:

"for mcstowy---I don't have the expertise in tribal culture and the BIA to pull that off, but i would be very interested to read anything you wrote about it"

My area of expertise is Criminal Justice, not education, but my research on alternative systems lead me to explore the circle justice system of the native peoples. This inevitably led to talk of the damage done to their culture by the imposition of European (white man's) culture and values at the expense of their own. Their hair, dress, language, religion and behavior all had to be changed to fit the expectations of the dominant culture, but with no promise or expectation that they would ever be accepted or provided the opportunity to succeed. They were forced to exchange the rich culture and traditions they had created for themselves for the bottom rung of an alien society. Every time I see DC kids going to school in uniforms that would have fit right in at my preppy New England high school, I’m reminded of photos of young native boys, hair cut, combed and plastered down, dressed like they were attending and English Boarding school, obediently looking up at the teacher and a Christian cross.

mcstowy said...

Followed your link. 1992 and King. Influenced the push for community policing, but most of that momentum died on 9/11. Here in DC, we abandoned Community Policing at the same time we embraced school Rhee-form; with the election of Mayor Fenty.

Anonymous said...

" poor children of color need a system so radically different than their wealthier, whiter peers."

Why? Because they're several years behind their whiter peers and several times more likely to drop out of school. So they need extra work on some stuff that wealthier whiter people take for granted, such as, oh, learning to read.

This has been another easy answer to a stupid question.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous says: "[Poor children of color are] several years behind their whiter peers and several times more likely to drop out of school. So they need extra work on some stuff that wealthier whiter people take for granted, such as, oh, learning to read."

The very idea of 'behind'-ness is what's under attack here, A. When you standardize what it means to be an educated child, you create a line in the sand that defines some kids as 'ahead' and some kids as 'behind.' As anyone with a learning disability knows, these sorts of lines are increasingly arbitrary the more you examine them. They shut you out for all manner of reason. They create a situation where those who are 'ahead' get a free bonus happy career, and those who are 'behind' get either the short stick or the sanctimony. Or both.

If I had been in a class that demanded I make eye contact at all times, I would have become a discipline problem, because I am autistic. There is no room for me in a 'SLANT' classroom. So the teacher would then be allowed to humiliate me for non-compliance, or send me off to 'special ed.' Either way, it's amply demonstrated that I'm valueless to the class or the school.

Such an application of 'SLANT' philosophy immediately turns me into someone who is 'behind,' even though I come from a wealthy, white, upper middle class background.

Defining some people as 'behind' is what allows the school to abuse them in this way, and really that's what it is.


Jim Horn said...


I thought you handled the flailing dunce, Mathews, like a pro. My congratulations. Regarding your comment about the good intentions and dedication, etc., of the KIPP machine, to me all of that is no more relevant than the good intentions and beliefs of, say, George Bush or Dick Cheney. We cannot judge what is in their dark hearts, but we can judge, must judge, their actions and the effects of those actions.

I do not care why Levin and Feinberg consulted with Martin Seligman to fine tune the learned helplessness and learned optimism regimen that they use at KIPP, but we know the effects when we see classrooms of children acting like automatons, the same children who are eager to shovel upon themselves the responsibility for the corrosive effects of poverty that they can do nothing about. If they fail, it is no one's responsibility but their own. No Exuses. Work hard, be nice.

To me this represents the most dangerous perversion of good intentions, or whatever you may call the psychological sterilizations that result in these behavioral treatment facilities. It is educational reform on the cheap, without the requisite spending and planning required to change the realities that poverty created. As such, it is a representation of Jim Crow SLANTing, of social justice in blackface.

narrator said...

Homer (htb): Thank you for the most compelling comment made on this issue. As always, you are an incredible observer of the way the world works, and I learn from you continuously.

"Anonymous": Two things. First, you received the finest answer possible to your embarrassingly uninformed questions/declarations. Second. New blog rule, you want to be rude and obnoxious, you sign your name and provide a link indicating who you really are, or your comments will not remain. I guess you are conclusive proof that no incoming KIPP students have social skill deficits greater than yours.

Jim: Yes, I agree, it does not matter, but "intentions" are not the argument I want to have. The problem with the entire "missionary position" in education http://www.scribd.com/doc/25224676/Pushing-Past-the-Missionary-Position, of which KIPP and TFA are the most extreme cases, is that they are driven - at least (usually) among the practitioners themselves - by "good intentions." (What's that famous Bill Buckley line, "You give good intentions a bad name.") Anyway, as a student of Irish history, I know that collaborators bring evil, that colonizers do evil, but it is tough to worry the grey area of human intent. So I focus "on the text" - these people are doing great harm, no matter what they think they are doing.

- Ira Socol

Dan McGuire said...

Thank you, Ira, for doing so much of the heavy lifting. The WaPo should be paying you as much as they're paying Mathews.

I'm with you if not quite on as big a stage; here's an exchange that's one of 46 posts I've made to the MPS (Minneapolis Public Schools) Parents_Forum where a Kipp debate has raged for years.

This exchange was in Dec. of '06

Another parent said :
> Do I want my children in a KIPP school? No, I do not.
> I think we should rally--strongly--to bring the KIPP model under the umbrella of MPS.

I said:
It sounds like you're saying this is not good for your kids, but it would be a good thing for other people's kids.

When I later said that KIPP was the Wal-Martization of our school system, I was labeled an unflinching union activist, which is a label I don't mind wearing most of the time.

Keep up the good fight, Ira.

Anonymous said...

"Defining some people as 'behind' is what allows the school to abuse them in this way, and really that's what it is."

Look, this is really very simple. You have two children, age 13. One of them is whizzing through algebra. The other never got good math instruction, and struggles just to subtract 3-digit numbers. It's not an artifact or a definitional issue to say that the second child is "behind" the other one. That's just reality. And it is NOT doing the second child any favors to pretend that he's really doing equally well at math.

Like it or not, if he doesn't get a lot of remedial drills and help, he's never going to be able to take the SATs and do well, he's never going to be eligible for many careers in science or medicine, etc.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: "Look, this is really very simple. You have two children, age 13. One of them is whizzing through algebra. The other never got good math instruction, and struggles just to subtract 3-digit numbers. It's not an artifact or a definitional issue to say that the second child is "behind" the other one."

You don't help yourself understand what I'm saying by examining only the edge case. You are comparing two people, one of whom is far 'ahead' in the current system, and one who is far 'behind.'

However, what about two kids who are at about the same level in the current system? So let's say two kids in math class who both understand the curriculum. Both are doing OK. Neither is a genius in math, and neither is really 'behind.' However, one is dyslexic, or autistic, or somehow 'different' enough that they can't sit still in class, or they can't keep their eyes focused on a person for the whole class period. If those requirements are made, then instantly the 'different' person becomes 'behind.' Not because of the material, but because of the BS requirements of the 'teaching system.'

Do you see it yet? The definition of 'behindness' is arbitrary, and has little to do with 3-digit subtraction. It has everything to do with whether a kid can keep eye contact or sit still or generally be someone that they are not.

So let's go back to your example. The math-deficient 13-year-old represents an opportunity for the whole class. With the student's consent, the whole class could, for instance, design a remedial curriculum for their friend who wants help with that subject. However, this beautiful act of generosity and multi-faceted learning would be wholly unthinkable, because it would cause the whole class to fall 'behind' while helping their friend. They would miss out on the proscribed staring at their teacher for the required number of hours, so therefore they can't possibly engage in a complex problem and feel the joy of helping someone for class credit.

Both example kids, their teacher, and in fact the whole class are now victims of 'behind-ness.' Opportunities are cut off because of the 'teaching system.'

-- htb

Anonymous said...

That's swell, but I originally referred to the well-known achievement gap between blacks and whites. Like it or not, black kids right now finish high school at a level that is years behind the average white kid. You can't wish away that gap just by pretending it's all "arbitrary" or invented -- it's a harsh reality that black kids on average don't known algebra as well, can't read and understand written text as well, etc.

The real question is whether you want to HELP the black kids catch up, or whether you want them to stay way behind the white kids out of some misguided compassion.

narrator said...

Ahh, now we get to the issue... brain differences are easy, but racial differences... that's impossible.

This is really sad. Because I am so tired of people telling me what poor kids of color can't do, when, in reality, the only things they can not do is (a) make themselves white and (b) get America to spend equitably on them.

The reason Universal Design for Learning works, the reason it worked before the name was invented back in troubled school districts like Philadelphia in the 1970s, is that it avoids the issue of labelling either a start point or a specific finish line, and that it specifically avoids laying out a specific path where those being forced to "start behind" are made to chase others.

Now, my guess, Anonymous, since you won't sign your name, is that you are an amateur expert on learning theories, on cognition, and, this may be scary, on racial theory, but to begin with, learning to read at age five does not - in any way - depend on learning alphabetic decoding. Not for white kids, not for black kids, not for htb, not for myself. It depends on being offered access to text in forms kids can work with. After all, traditionally, European schools are almost all oral their first few years. In the nations with the most universal literacy, school itself does not even begin before age seven, and decoding waits longer than that.

In that environment there is no advantage offered to rich white parents with their alphabet flashcards. Kids get to be kids, and learning happens in a more natural environment.

It has, in fact, been shown that the obsession with "early literacy" and "early numeracy" skills in the US and UK has actually lowered secondary math and science achievement - across the board but most significantly among the poor - because the essential math and science learning which occurs between ages five and ten through play and observation is wiped out. (A generational study in England showed this in shocking clarity.)

So, the question is not at all what you ask, but whether we can stop racing and chasing and give kids the schools they need? That will not be accomplished through chanting and staring, through untrained teachers, through hedge fund managers getting rich off of public education - the whole Obama plan. Rather it will be accomplished through better, continuous teacher training, through equitable distribution of resources and expertise, and through the full embrace of Universal Design.

In other words, building a school where "behind-ness" is never an issue, a school designed for human learning and resourced to support that.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

I'm tired of people who can't understand what the achievement gap is: it's not about what black kids "can't do," but about what they haven't been taught how to do over their lifetimes. (But if you're questioning whether the gap exists at all, that's really amazing.)

Anyway, black kids are perfectly well able to learn math and reading and science, etc., but they often come from impoverished and broken families where no one is giving them a head start.

It's not the fault of school spending; there isn't any average different in spending on high-minority schools nationwide; those schools get just as much or more money on average.

But it IS the fault of: family background, poverty, and yes, schools (incompetent teachers, etc.) Devising clever utopian schemes in which black children never need to learn the same skills that white kids learn isn't helping anybody.

narrator said...

Fascinating to watch someone revealing themselves despite trying to hide. Now we see the politics here clearly as you quote Heritage Foundation lies with such assurance.

Equal? We're joking, right. Actual studies show that even within the same school district - say NYC - rich kid schools spend double per pupil what poor kid schools spend. Better lobbying, and of course, better fundraising. I've seen, in the same district, one elementary entirely tricked out with the best 1:1 technology, great labs, beautiful libraries, while across town - nothing.

But then I observe education, in ways I'm now certain you never have.

I also grew up in a district where - still today - walking across NY120 doubles the salaries of teachers. And I'm friends with a superintendent whose district has so little property value they simply cannot renovate or build anything. And that's in Michigan, a state with "equalized" funding.

So, that's a lie. So is your attempt to dismiss proven redesigns as "utopian" because your own experience/politics are too limited.

You also dismiss the work of "utopian" educators all across the US, who despite political hostility and funding inequity are offering their students great educations, and getting great results.

But I understand - your goal is to maintain the competitive advantage of "your kind." And you will lie and twist facts and bribe politicians to ensure that the poor remain poor.

That's not unusual in the world, but it is always disappointing.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

Anecdotes are nice, but they're a dime a dozen. If you care about more systematic evidence, even back in 1995, spending on minority schools wasn't the issue (and things have only improved since then with school finance lawsuits).

As NCES found (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs95/web/95300.asp):

"More money is spent in districts with the highest percentages of minority students compared to districts with the lowest percentages of minority students ($4,514 versus $3,920)."


"Public education expenditures per student are highest in low poverty districts."

You're acting as if it's still the 1950s. Get with the 21st century -- school spending is more equal today than it's ever been, and most states deliberately give more money to schools that serve poor kids and/or minorities.

Anyway, it takes a huge amount of cognitive dissonance to say that I'm trying to maintain a competitive advantage for myself when I'm the very one who wants black kids to learn more math, more reading, more science, etc., so that they can go to college and do well in society.

narrator said...

You can keep misquoting statistics all you want, but the range of funding is dramatic, and it makes a difference. Join Chris Christie in bitching about NJ Ed all you want, but they spend the most and get great results (though neither across the board). http://epsl.asu.edu/eprp/EPSL-0206-102-EPRP.doc You also mistake reported "per pupil expenditures" with total expenditures, which are often tied to millages supporting structures and equipment, as well as by contributions from parents. http://swirlinc.wordpress.com/2009/09/22/separate-and-unequal-a-structural-analysis-of-educational-inequality-in-america/ and http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Education/SavageInequal_Revisited.html

Interestingly, nations with the highest level of equality of opportunity and the greatest social mibility, also have the most equalized education (and early childhood) funding.

But I'm willing to test all this. I say, take the six figure teachers of Scarsdale, NY and send them and their salaries into some of these poorest districts, with all the equipment they have in their schools. We'll send the KIPP and TFA "teachers" into Scarsdale with the equipment of the impoverished schools. Let's let that run for 5 years, and we'll see where we are.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

Anonymous says: "That's swell, but I originally referred to the well-known achievement gap between blacks and whites. Like it or not, black kids right now finish high school at a level that is years behind the average white kid. You can't wish away that gap just by pretending it's all "arbitrary" or invented -- it's a harsh reality that black kids on average don't known algebra as well, can't read and understand written text as well, etc."

Right, there are achievement gaps. I agree. Some kids don't do as well as others, some kids fall way 'behind' for all kinds of reasons. Like I mentioned: I grew up in a very affluent white neighborhood and did far below my level because I'm autistic and was undiagnosed. I know exactly what you're talking about in terms of all manner of reasons for kids to be 'behind.' I was left behind by my school district; they had no idea what to do about me.

And you argue that there is a racial difference that might be equivalent in some way. Certainly there are socio-economic challenges: Schools in poor areas don't have as much money to provide materials, poorer parents are less able to provide support after working three jobs, increasing poverty leads to poorer nutrition and health, stressful homes and neighborhoods turn schools into PTSD clinics.... All of that. It's not as strongly tied to race as you say, but certainly race and poverty correlate, unfortunately.

However: None of these things are solved by forcing a student to stare at you while you speak, under threat of humiliation.

Anonoymous says: "The real question is whether you want to HELP the black kids catch up, or whether you want them to stay way behind the white kids out of some misguided compassion."

Personally, I want to help everyone, and compassion that's misguided isn't really compassion. That's what I'm talking about when I say there's a problem with sanctimony; using black kids as a political prop doesn't really help the black kids.

-- htb

Anonymous said...

I didn't misquote anything. I just quoted facts that you aren't aware of, because it's more convenient to spin a cherrypicked anecdote than to think more rigorously about what's true on average. (Hint: two distributions can have equal means and equal variances, but one can always cherrypick anecdotes from the tail of either distribution.)