In his new book, Work Hard. Be Nice., Jay Mathews claims that the Knowledge Is Power Program is the "best" program serving severely disadvantaged, minority-group students in America today. Let me begin—before I'm denounced as a traitor to the cause of educational reform—by saying that I'm inclined to agree. The improbable story of how KIPP was founded in 1994 by David Levin and Michael Feinberg, two young Teach for America alumni in Houston, is thrilling and worthy reading. KIPP's mission has been akin to putting the first man on the moon: an all-out education race, requiring extraordinary, round-the-clock dedication from parents, students, and teachers alike. But the program 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.
There have always been model school programs that work. There have even been some that have been successfully replicated in different parts of the country. But no program has shown it can work for all, or even most, disadvantaged children within a single city or neighborhood. Instead, as critics point out, such model programs tend to skim off those kids who are already better positioned (thanks to better home environments, greater natural gifts, savvier or better-educated parents, etc.) to escape the ghetto. Meanwhile, regular public schools are left with a more distilled population of struggling students. Similarly, model programs tend to attract young, talented, and adventurous teachers, who are willing or able to work long hours for low pay. (Model schools also tend to attract the most philanthropic dollars, which effectively boost per-pupil expenditures, even as such programs can still brag they use no more tax dollars than traditional public schools.) Indeed, Mathews likens KIPP to a cult "without the dues or the weird robes."
There is a lot to be said for cults. A fair amount can be accomplished by developing an espirit de corps based upon some explanation for why we are superior to them, no matter whom we or them happen to be. The French Foreign Legion, for example, has been turning German criminals on the lam into war heroes for generations.
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. ...
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.
There is a lot of rote learning and test prep, born of the program's emphasis on demonstrable results.
Basically, KIPP is nonstop boot camp. This is an important point. What works best for poor people is order, discipline, shame, repetition, and all the other uncool stuff that liberals have worked for decades to remove from our societies. White liberals have done a great job of liberating themselves, at great expense to the poor.
As a result, KIPP teachers typically work 65-hour weeks and a longer school year. Recognizing that students need more out-of-school aid to supplement their educations, the program also requires its staff to be available to students by phone after hours for homework help and moral support. For this overtime (which represents 60 percent more time in the classroom alone, on average, than in regular public schools), teachers receive just 20 percent more pay. Unsurprisingly, turnover is high. The program has relied heavily on the ever-renewing supply of very young (and thus less expensive) Teach for America alums, whose numbers, while growing, are decidedly finite. Indeed, it's unclear whether KIPP would exist were it not for TFA (and its own philanthropic investment in recruitment and training, which has not come cheap). ...
One obvious question that I've never seen asked is whether America as a whole would be getting a better return on investment if it was pouring these kind of resources into high potential kids instead.
After all, in every other field, we assume that the best teachers will want the best students. For example, I've never heard anybody criticize Barack Obama for teaching very smart, mostly highly affluent young people at the University of Chicago Law School, instead of choosing to teach struggling law students at a fourth tier law school, of which Chicago has several. Everybody just assumes that that of course it's best for all concerned that a radiantly beneficent being like Obama should exude his ineffable influence all over tomorrow's leaders at the U of C rather than over some fourth tier law students who probably won't even pass the bar exam.
For example, many of KIPP's now-lauded approaches were first developed not by Levin and Feinberg but by a career public-school teacher in Houston whose methods they admired back when they were TFAers. Levin and Feinberg tried to recruit their mentor to help launch KIPP, but as a middle-aged single mother, she felt she couldn't afford to join their revolution.
Basically, it's not that hard to find people who will slave for the betterment of other people's children ... until they have children of their own. The usual solution down through history has been celibacy for teachers (e.g., "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.") What KIPP is doing is using up the primes of energetic young women, much like law firms do.
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.
Of course, it's a good thing that the most determined parents and children have a way to distance themselves from the slacker masses.
Finally, even with such gargantuan efforts, KIPP helps to close, but does not remotely eliminate, the achievement gap in the inner city.
How big would the gap be if they ran KIPP programs in the suburbs? If somebody proved that a KIPP school in the suburbs raised test scores even more than one in the 'hood, thus making society even better off, would that be hailed as good news or bad news? I suspect it wouldn't be hailed at all.
... Given this, what mystifies me about KIPP is that it has scattered its resources across the country—opening just a few schools in any one state—instead of trying to concentrate its resources more fully in one community.
Because KIPP is skimming the cream. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, that's a good thing. If you were a hard working kid in some ghetto school, it would be great if KIPP provided you an alternative.
... But since the biggest debate about KIPP, on both the ideological left and right, is whether or not its methods can work for all disadvantaged children (instead of just a handful of self-selecting families), why wouldn't it—and its financial, ideological, and media backers—have a strong interest in answering this question once and for all by taking on an entire urban area or even, for that matter, a single neighborhood as, say, Geoffrey Canada has tried to do in Harlem with his Harlem's Children's Zone?
There's something perversely evasive about KIPP's opening up just one school in Dallas, one school in Albany, N.Y., one school in Oakland, Calif., one school in Charlotte, N.C., one school in Nashville, Tenn., and so on—as if the program recognizes that its best chance at success is to be the exception rather than the rule in any city where it operates. ... Until KIPP tries to succeed within an entire, single community, it is, for all its remarkable rise and deserved praise, just another model program that has yet to prove it can succeed with all—or even most—disadvantaged children.
Okay, let's answer that question. It can't succeed with all—or even most—disadvantaged children.
But, so what? How come Harvard hasn't opened Harvards everywhere? Because they wouldn't be Harvard.
KIPP is doing a good job for a tiny percentage of the nation's schoolchildren who are way above average in diligence. Good for them.
The problem, I guess, is that KIPP is sold not as a way that can help a small minority of poor people undo the damage done by liberalism, but as The Way to Prove Charles Murray Wrong.