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Defending the Indefensible: KIPP

Ohanian Comment: Mostly, I ignore KIPP. I can't cover everything and I choose not to do much with charters and other entrepreneurial efforts. Not because they aren't important but just because I can't. 

Schools Matter does a very good job with this. 

Praise be. 

That said, I decided to post Paul Thomas' ongoing fine challenge to KIPP here. And I've added a bit, something I think is critical to the argument. 

Thomas links to a piece by Jonathan Schorr. Well, who's Jonathan Schoor? If you don't follow all this controversy as closely as a louse follows garbage, then you might not know that Jonathan Schorr was in the first cohort of Teach for America acolytes and then went on to become a partner in the San Francisco office of the NewSchools Venture Fund, where he oversees public relations, among other things. 

It just seems like this is relevant to any word about public schools that leaves his mouth. 

There's also a Ravitch link to Katie Osgood. Who's Katie Osgood? According to her fine post on Anthony Cody's blog, she works as a teacher on a child/adolescent inpatient unit at a psychiatric hospital in Chicago. She reports, "My students come from all over Chicagoland and attend all types of schools: neighborhood, charter, turnaround, private, suburban, alternative, and sometimes no school at all. The vast majority of my students, however, come from low-income minority neighborhoods." 

Bruce Baker is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and he often blogs about the economics of the matter. In his vita, he quotes this observation: The tricky thing about a smarty pants like Baker is he uses statistics to back up his claims. (Justin Kendall, The Pitch, Kansas City) 

Just thought a bit about these three was worth mentioning. I mean, given the backgrounds, whose education commentary do you trust? 

Both the challenge offered by Paul Thomas and the one offered by Diane Ravitch are worthy.

Advocacy that remains blind to evidence is a dangerous thing--especially in the pursuit of equity and democracy. 

Recently, Diane Ravitch addressed the misleading charter movement by challenging Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charters: 

If that is the lesson they want to teach, then I reiterate my challenge of two years ago: KIPP should find an impoverished district that is so desperate that it is willing to put all its students into KIPP's care. Take them all: the children with disabilities, the children who don't speak English, the children who are homeless, the children just released from the juvenile justice system, the children who are angry and apathetic, and everyone else. No dumping. No selection. No cherry picking. 

I have also questioned the motives and genuine support for KIPP and Teach for America (TFA) by offering my own challenge

I suggest that we test the new reformers' commitment to TFA and KIPP. How? 

Let's fully fund TFA and KIPP initiatives, but only if TFA and KIPP serve top students, releasing the most experienced and well-qualified teachers to teach students living in poverty, students of color, and students speaking home languages other than English.

So far, no one at KIPP (or TFA) has accepted either challenge, of course. But that doesn't stop advocates for charters, school choice, and KIPP/TFA specifically to maintain their talking points. 

As expected, then, Jonathan Schorr has replied directly to Ravitch's latest blog, prompting a counter-response from Katie Osgood, in which she expresses her exasperation: "I am sick of hearing the same old KIPP talking points." 

Bruce Baker also offers detailed evidence responding to KIPP's responses, leading him to wonder:

I actually hesitate to write about KIPP and perhaps that's just what they want. Apparently no one should write about them that hasn't been paid by them to write about the. Those who do should be forewarned that you'll have to waste inordinate time responding to their complaints--excuses-- about what you wrote. As of this post, I hope to be done with this topic. 

As it stands, KIPP advocates remain mired in talking points and hollow advocacy, refusing to address the evidence and refusing to stop defending the indefensible [1]. 

Schorr's defense of KIPP is typical of nearly fanatical KIPP advocacy narrowly and the problem with advocacy broadly. First, Schorr's post spends an inordinate amount of time attacking Ravitch directly and indirectly, suggesting that his argument fails to hold water if he simply were to address evidence on KIPP (and research on all charters--all of which paints no clear picture of any form of schooling outperforming any other because its type[charter, public, private]). 

Simply put, any claims of "miracle" schools, as Ravitch has correctly explained, are either unmasked as inaccurate ( most of those claims) or outliers, thus not representative of possible reform solutions for all of public education. 

Next, the technical arguments leveled by Ravitch (but refuted by Schorr) against KIPP are important and accurate: 

  • KIPP results are powerfully impacted by selection, even when lotteries are involved because parents self-select by entering the lotteries. This dynamic is absent in public schools; thus, comparisons are distortions.
  • KIPP does reap benefits of attrition. Students and their parents must sign highly restrictive agreements, and once those agreements are broken, KIPP can send a child packing. Public school cannot (and should not) have this option.
  • KIPP, and other "miracle" charter schools, often have funding advantages, and combined with all of the above, are thus not scalable--making KIPP advocacy a distraction in the public school reform argument.

All of these evidence-based concerns are well documented and thus show that making comparisons between KIPP outcomes and public school outcomes is an agenda-driven campaign of misinformation that benefits primarily KIPP advocates. 

Finally, however, these are not my primary reasons for rejecting KIPP, and I regret that the main reason KIPP defense is indefensible remains mostly unspoken. 

KIPP's "no excuses" ideology is racist and classist. 

KIPP is primarily a mechanism for isolating other people's children and "fixing" them, creating a compliant class of children unlike the middle-class and affluent children who have experienced and certified teachers and rich academic programs while sitting in low student/teacher ratio classrooms. 

KIPP's primary focus on authoritarian discipline creates a police state in schools; KIPP's test-prep focus reduces the learning opportunities for some children. 

So I stand with Ravitch in my challenge and hers: I reiterate, If KIPP is so wonderful, when will we see schools treating middle-class and affluent children like KIPP treats their students?

P. L. Thomas
Schools Matter


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Susan Ohanian

Susan Ohanian, a long-time public school teacher, is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Atlantic, Parents, Washington Monthly, The Nation, Phi Del...