A quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute, edited by Brian C. Anderson.
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Why KIPP Schools Work
Jay Mathews shows how theyre revolutionizing education in America.
13 March 2009
Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America, by Jay Mathews (Algonquin Books, 329 pp., $14.95)
The informal motto of KIPP, the network of public charter schools that stands at the vanguard of Americas burgeoning education-reform movement, is Work Hard. Be Nice. Thats also the title of an important new book, by veteran Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews, which chronicles how KIPPs network of 66 schools developed and offers some lessons from KIPPs extraordinary success. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently praised KIPP as a proven strategy ready to go to scale and mentioned the need for schools across the country to embrace KIPPs example of a longer school year, making Mathewss book even more timely.
Mathewss story starts in 1992 with David Levin and Michael Feinberg, two tall, gregarious seniors at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively. Not sure what to do with their lives, Levin and Feinberg signed up with Teach for America (TFA), the nonprofit that places Americas brightest college graduates in classrooms teaching the nations lowest-performing students. Levin and Feinberg both got teaching assignments in Houston, whereinitially overwhelmed by the difficulty of imparting knowledge to rambunctious fifth-graders from the inner citythey began to develop a revolutionary new education model.
From one Houston teacher, Harriet Ball, they learned the importance of classroom managementthe need to maintain order while keeping the classroom vibrant, enjoyable, and full of energy. From Rafe Esquith, an award-winning instructor in Los Angeles, they discovered the merits of extended class time and a rigorous, content-rich curriculum that holds low-income and minority students to high academic standards. Levin and Feinberg immediately appropriated one of Balls secrets: the use of mnemonic chants that, as Mathews puts it, firmly attach essential rules of grammar and mathematics to the brains of nine-year-olds. They used the chants to great effect, getting kids to commit important facts to memory in the same way they memorize lyrics from the latest hip-hop song. (Education-school professors frown on such devices as rote memorization. But today, all KIPP fifth-graders can recite their multiplication tables by hearta skill that eludes 80 percent of their peers nationwide, according to a recent study.)
Levin and Feinberg did add a few twists of their own. They implemented a broken-windows-style discipline policy, believing that leaving any misbehavior unaddressed would increase the likelihood of further misbehavior and distract from lessons. They stayed after school to work with struggling pupils, assigned mountains of homework, and encouraged students to call them at home if they needed help with their assignments. Perhaps their most important step, however, was reaching out to parents. Against the wishes of school administrators, they visited students at home and enlisted parents as active participants in their childrens education. Among many memorable stories that Mathews tells: Feinberg goes to the home of a television-addicted student who has repeatedly failed to turn in her homeworkand with her mothers permission, exits the house with the familys 36-inch TV in his arms.
Levin and Feinberg achieved remarkable results: nearly every one of their low-income minority students passed the Texas math and reading tests with flying colors. But they were often stymied by bureaucrats who didnt appreciate their aggressive style and unorthodox teaching methods. In fact, after his fellow teachers voted Levin Teacher of the Year, the principal fired him for insubordination.
As their two-year Teach for America commitment ended, Levin and Feinberg began to hound the Houston School District for permission to start a special initiative that they called the Knowledge Is Power ProgramKIPP for short. It would feature a 7:30 AM to 5:00 PM school day, Saturday classes, and a three-week summer prep program. In exchange for hard work, students would be rewarded with perks, such as lunch at McDonalds, weekend excursions, and an end-of-the-year field trip to Washington, D.C.
The Houston school authorities finally agreed to let Levin and Feinberg launch an experimental fifth-grade programif they could find 50 students willing to sign on to the long hours and academic rigor. The young teachers canvassed neighborhoods, asking students and their parents to sign the KIPP Commitment to Excellence, a contract listing the specific obligations of teachers, parents, and students. In August 1994, the first 50 KIPPsters walked into Levin and Feinbergs classroom. Half the students began the school year having previously failed both the math and English portions of the Texas state test. By June, all but one had passed both tests, with an average class improvement of two full grade levels.
From there, the KIPP story became one of growth and replication. Levin and Feinberg hired other talented, dynamic teachers and added a sixth grade, then a seventh, and then an eighth. Homesick for his native New York, Levin approached Sy Fliegel, president of the Center for Educational Innovation (then a part of the Manhattan Institute), to help him establish a KIPP program in one of the citys low-performing school districts. By 1998, with Fliegels help, KIPP had two fifth-through-eighth-grade middle schools in Houston and New York that were successfully preparing some 600 students for high schoolmany KIPP students win scholarships to attend private high schools or pass tests to attend competitive public onesand then college. Levin and Feinberg also added cultural enrichment programs, such as orchestra and choir, which become important KIPP hallmarks.
According to Mathews, the tipping point for KIPP occurred in 1999, when 60 Minutes broadcast a heartwarming piece profiling students who had started at KIPP years behind in math and English and who, by eighth grade, were doing high-school-level algebra and reading a dozen novels a year. Politicians and school superintendents across the country began to reach out to Levin and Feinberg, asking them to open KIPP schools in their cities. Fortunately, Don and Doris Fisher, founders of the Gap clothing store, also saw the 60 Minutes piece and decided to commit $15 million to bankroll KIPPs expansion. (The Fishers have since contributed another $35 million, and major education philanthropies, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation have also joined the KIPP movement.)
Its difficult to replicate a successful school model on a grand scale, but KIPP, after trying a few different approaches, figured out a way to develop and monitor new schools. The process starts with the recruitment and training of Fisher Fellows, the handful of people selected to become potential leaders of new KIPP schools. They attend a rigorous six-week summer leadership course at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, where they study topics such as curriculum, how to choose effective teachers, school management, and fund-raising. (Its telling that the Fisher Fellows have no involvement with Berkeleys education school; KIPP adheres to a results-oriented business-school ethos, rather than the soft-headed nonsense taught at most ed schools.)
Those Fisher Fellows deemed KIPP material (many dont make the cut) then spend the fall semester observing and assisting at an existing KIPP school. In January, they begin seeking space and recruiting students for their own schools. They must sign a legal licensing agreement that allows them to use the KIPP name so long as they follow the basic KIPP model. The national KIPP Foundation raises money to pay for training and start-up costs of the school, and once its off the ground, Foundation staffers periodically evaluate and audit it. Theyve closed down several, or stripped them of the KIPP name, for not meeting the organizations high standards.
Today, 66 KIPP schools in 20 states enroll more than 16,000 students, and the network has expanded to include elementary and high schools as well as middle schools. (KIPPs goal is to have 100 schools and 25,000 students by 2011.) In every city, KIPP students surpass district and citywide performance. In New York last year, for example, 94 percent of KIPP eighth-graders scored at or above grade level on the state math testand 78 percent did the same on the English testwhile in the city as a whole, those numbers were 60 percent and 43 percent, respectively. In fact, in many citiesincluding New York, Washington, Baltimore, San Jose, and New Orleansthe top-performing public middle school is now a KIPP school. Its worth noting, too, that KIPPs impact reaches far beyond its own network of schools, as scores of other charter schools across the country now emulate the KIPP model.
KIPPs many admirers offer various explanations for the schools success. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell notes that KIPP students, like children in Asia, spend about 60 percent more time on task than students in traditional American public schools. New York Times columnist David Brooks has written extensively about how KIPP transmits to low-income minority students the cultural capitalhow to speak effectively, how to look attentive, how to fill out a college applicationthat middle-class suburban kids take for granted. Oprah Winfrey has praised KIPPs ability to raise students expectations of what they can accomplish if theyre willing to work hard.
Mathews attributes KIPPs success to a combination of such factorsits instituting high expectations for all students, a longer school day, a principal totally in charge, an emphasis on finding the best teachers, rewards for student success, close contact with parents, a focus on results, and a commitment to preparing every child for a great high school, and, most important, college. But he might offer the best explanation for KIPPs success when he notes how KIPP recalls the best inner-city Catholic schools . . . with warm but strict teachers whose commitment to their students is motivated by far more than a weekly paycheck.
KIPP fosters the sense of community that noted sociologist and education reformer James Coleman singled out many years ago as the key difference between public and private schools. At KIPPs small schools, every teacher and school official knows every student by name. For many students, KIPP provides an oasis of affection and stability in their otherwise chaotic lives. And just like the Catholic schools of old, KIPP doesnt simply teach facts and figures but unapologetically seeks to instill values, build strength of character, and forge good habits of mind and behavior.
Mathews also acknowledges two developments that coincide with the KIPP story and have been instrumental to the schools success: the advent of Teach for America and the rise of the charter-school movement. Mathews makes clear that KIPP wouldnt be the success story it is without the synergistic relationship that it has developed with TFA. (In fact, the synergy between the organizations runs all the way to the top: TFA founder Wendy Kopp is married to KIPP CEO Richard Barth.) From KIPPs earliest days, a significant portion of its teachers have come from TFA, which is now one of the nations most selective and sought-after postcollege programs. This year, 11 percent of the Ivy Leagues graduating class applied to become TFA teachers; only a handful were selected. Today, some 60 percent of KIPP school leaders and 33 percent of KIPP teachers are TFA alums. (For a less sanguine view of TFA, see How I Joined Teach for Americaand Got Sued for $20 Million.)
As for charter schoolsindependently operated public schools free from union work rules and other bureaucratic impedimentsthey first arrived on the scene in the early 1990s in Minnesota and California, and the idea spread to other states during that decade. (Over the strenuous objection of the powerful teachers unions, New York State passed its charter law in 1998.) KIPP schools, all of which are charters, enjoy flexibility with staffing decisions and can hold teachers accountable for student performanceso far. A recent move to unionize KIPP teachers in two New York City schools is a worrisome development.
KIPP is not without its detractors, and Mathews gives them a fair hearing. While some critics claim that KIPP is too authoritarianthe Kids In Prison Program, some call itMathews points to the schools overwhelming popularity among students, parents, and alumni. Some condemn KIPP for teaching to the test, but Mathews retorts that it is precisely KIPPs relentless focus on student progresswhich is, yes, measured by frequent quizzes and even standardized teststhat makes the schools so successful. As former education secretary Margaret Spellings liked to say in response to complaints about the testing requirements mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act: What gets measured, gets done.
Mathews also addresses the most serious criticism of KIPP (and other charter schools): that the schools cream the best and most motivated students. Though KIPP schools are open-enrollment public charter schools and students are chosen by lottery, critics contend that because of its long school day and rigorous standards, only the most promising students from the most intact families apply to KIPP and stay enrolled. There may be a grain of truth in this argument. KIPP officials, however, offer statistics that show little difference between KIPP students and their public-school peers, at least with regard to race, socioeconomic status, and previous academic achievement. Two limited independent studies have confirmed KIPPs claims, and KIPP has recently hired the research firm Mathematica to conduct an extensive multiyear, longitudinal study comparing KIPP students with non-KIPP students.
Mathews devotes substantial space to the personal lives of Levin and Feinberg, which may or may not interest readers. Overall, however, his book provides a compelling look at Americas most successful charter-school network and debunks the dispiriting notion that low-income minority children should not be expected to make much educational progress. As Mathews makes clear, KIPP has proved that great teachers, high expectations, extra class time, and much encouragement and commitment can close Americas educational achievement gap.
Charles Sahm is a program officer at the Manhattan Institute.