Saturday, March 28, 2009

This Just In: There’s No Such Thing as a Miracle Cure. Especially for Public Education. (Especially for Public Education!)

We’re not sure what the world needs at this particular point in history, but we’re almost certain what it doesn’t need is another story in the media extolling the KIPP program as the savior of public education (the examples are many so we’ll not single out any particular one). You’re probably familiar with the formula: a journalist drops in at a KIPP school (or at KIPP’s cousin in Houston, YES Prep) for a few hours, consults the voluminous clips on the Houston-born-and-raised charter schools, then knocks off a quick piece on the supposed wonders that KIPP has wrought with allegedly hard-to-educate “minority” and “inner city” students. It’s an easy space- or time-filler, and the kind of tale the media digs: a pre-scripted feel-good story with a foregone happy ending and nary a hint of ambivalence.

One journalist who’s actually probed beyond the conventional story line is Jay Mathews, the Washington Post’s respected and knowledgeable education reporter, whose stories and blog entries, at least the ones we’ve read, still come down very (very) favorably for KIPP. Mathews has new book out on KIPP, Work Hard. Be Nice. (the KIPP slogan---it beats “Down With Ossified and Dogmatic Thought,” but just barely), which this week received a thorough going-over in Slate from Sarah Mosle, who casts a hard but not wholly critical eye at both the book and KIPP itself. (Yeah, we’re approaching this subject at a second-hand remove, at least, not having read Mathews’ book, but we’re invoking Blogger’s Prerogative, whatever that is.)

One thing that’s always bugged us a little about all these KIPP success stories, whether based on statistic or anecdote, is that the media invariably fail to acknowledge the obvious built-in advantages that charters have over their non-magnet public-school counterparts. We’re talking about two things: The fact that parents who seek to place their kids in charter schools, even if admittance itself is “random,” obviously have more wherewithal (mental, for sure, if not financial and moral) than parents who are unable or can’t be bothered to try to get theirs out of low-performing neighborhood schools (the ones trying to raise their rankings from “hellish” to “nightmarish”), or aren’t aware of the alternatives (or can’t get out of bed to fill out the application). The second advantage is that the charters contractually obligate students and parents to meet standards of behavior, effort and involvement---something that public schools generally can’t do (outside of grade requirements that must be met at magnets, or most magnets). If the charter’s imposed standards of time and effort aren’t met, the kid gets a one-way ticket back to his zoned school.

The danger in all this is that it risks turning many public schools into default holding pens for the discipline problems and chronic low-performers. You can see this happening in Houston at the middle-school level, where savvy working- and lower-middle-class Hispanic parents scramble to get their kids into KIPP or YES or anywhere but their sorry, gangsta-incubating zoned schools---where, just like at home, they have to take you in.

This doesn’t mean that KIPP’s success isn’t real, but it does means that it merits at least a small asterisk, and raises questions about whether that success can translate on a wider scale. Slate’s Mosle, a former Teach for America teacher, has the goods, and we’re going to break with tradition here and quote at length from her piece, the thesis of which she states at the outset, declaring that KIPP
… 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.
After voicing that sobering heresy, Mosle points out that
… 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.

... 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.
If you’re interested in this sort of thing, or just admire the stripping away of an artfully arranged veneer, you should read Mosle’s entire piece. It’s another reminder that if something’s sold as too good to be true it most certainly is, as Sir R. Allen Stanford may have remarked (in private).

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