The Softer Side of "No Excuses": A View of KIPP Schools in Action

Article excerpt

Since their start in Houston in 1994, KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter schools have been the most celebrated of the No Excuses schools. Employing strict discipline, an extended school day and year, and carefully selected teachers, No Excuses schools move disadvantaged students who start behind their peers academically up to and above grade level in reading and math, and on the path to success in college. Studies conducted by Mathematica Policy Research show that KIPP schools achieve significantly greater gains in student achievement than do traditional public schools teaching similar students. Recent large-scale research at Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) also finds that KIPP teaching is highly effective, with individual students learning far more than their statistical "twins" at traditional public schools. KIPP's own studies find that the schools substantially increase the odds that a disadvantaged student will enter and graduate from college. Not surprisingly, the 144 KIPP charter schools across the nation have no shortage of fans, including President Barack Obama, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Also not surprisingly, KIPP and other No Excuses schools have no shortage of critics. Furman University education professor P. L. Thomas, who admitted in a recent speech at the University of Arkansas to never having been in a No Excuses charter school, complains in a widely referenced 2012 Daily Kos post that in such schools, "Students are required to use complete sentences at all times, and call female teachers 'Miss'--with the threat of disciplinary action taken if students fail to comply." Regarding KIPP in particular, Cambridge College professor and blogger Jim Horn, who admits to having never been inside a KIPP school, nonetheless has referred to KIPP as a "New Age eugenics intervention at best," destroying students' cultures, and a "concentration camp" at worst.

Such criticisms could be dismissed if held on the margins of American public education. Unfortunately, within many education schools and teachers unions, KIPP detractors are more prevalent than KIPP backers. All too many professors and education administrators think that KIPP, and schools like it, succeed by working their students like dogs. Like all charter schools, KIPP schools are chosen by parents, but critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children's best interest at heart. Leaving aside whether the critics patronize the people of color KIPP schools serve, we propose that KIPP and similar schools are not nearly as militaristic as critics, who may have never been inside them, fear.

Inside a KIPP School

We have done hundreds of hours of fieldwork over the past eight years in 12 KIPP schools in five states, interviewing scores of teachers, students, and administrators. It is true that an atmosphere of order generally prevails. We found that schools that begin by establishing a culture of strict discipline, in neighborhoods where violence and disorder are widespread, ease off once a safe, tolerant learning environment is secured. "KIPPsters" and their teachers live up to the Work Hard, Be Nice motto but also play hard when the work is done. A schoolwide focus on academics is palpable. The schools nonetheless make time for band, basketball, chess, prom, and any number of clubs.

Student interactions are atypical. The KIPP schools we observed emphasize teamwork and assuring success for all ("team beats individual"; "all will learn"), encouraging more-advanced students to help their peers rather than just fend for themselves, in contrast to more individualistic traditional public schools.

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Teachers in KIPP schools have to be willing to go the extra mile. We demonstrate in a forthcoming Social Science Quarterly article that in advertisements for teaching positions, KIPP schools consistently emphasize public service incentives, serving kids, while nearby traditional public schools emphasize private incentives, namely salary and benefits. …