What KIPP Has to Offer...and What It Doesn't
I recently saw the “good news” about KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) getting another ton of money—$50,000,000 from the feds—to ramp up dissemination of its program. I am no fan of KIPP and believe it is not a healthy model for schooling in a democracy. It focuses too narrowly on low-level skills and content, and it uses coercive methods to keep students in line when they do not meet its expectations or follow its rules. (Could this be why you will never see the children of policymakers and philanthropists in a KIPP school?)
But I am not surprised that the rich and powerful favor KIPP and similar programs for educating disadvantaged kids. KIPP does have some strong points. And there are some plausible reasons that progressive methods are out of favor.
Why is progressive education less popular? Because:
- Progressive education is done sloppily too often—poor enactment of sound principles. One reason is the belief in progressive circles that each teacher should invent his/her own curriculum. There are some good reasons for this stand, e.g., teachers should have the autonomy to adjust instruction to the moment, and more broadly, to shape what is learned to the needs and interests of their students. But in its “pure” form, this notion that each teacher should create the curriculum is problematic. Most teachers don’t have the time, let alone the skills, to create curricula. And when they try, quality of instruction suffers, along with continuity and coherence across grade levels. (I can’t resist mentioning that this has shaped what Developmental Studies Center has been doing for 30 years—creating powerful instructional programs that encourage teachers to exercise personal judgment, while providing the scaffolding they need to become steadily more adept at progressive practice.)
- For progressive methods to work best with truly disadvantaged kids, one needs to start early—in the primary grades and even before—in order to achieve foundational socialization, academic preparation, school bonding, etc. The challenges multiply when progressive methods are introduced after students are older.
- Standardized bubble tests are insensitive to progressive instruction, which produces thoughtful, creative, independent learners rather than compliant formula followers. Higher-order skills and other progressive outcomes (e.g., social, emotional, and ethical growth) are much more difficult and expensive to measure than low-level skills and knowledge.
Which leads me to why KIPP is ascendant:
- It seeks to achieve a narrow, shallow set of outcomes that are more readily a) measured than progressive outcomes by the bubble tests that are today's currency, and b) achieved by middle and senior high kids who come from traditional elementary schools.
- It is concretely specified along a number of dimensions, including instruction, making it appear to be a replicable model. (I use the word "appear" deliberately; teacher burnout is a big problem in KIPP schools.)
- Its schools are tightly managed and closely held to the specified model.
To be sure, KIPP’s success may be more apparent than real, stemming from semi-hidden creaming (i.e.., selecting more motivated students) and attrition (i.e., getting rid of “problem” students) factors. But still, KIPP’s model is well specified and comprehensive, and it takes fidelity of implementation quite seriously.
We progressive educators are right to want more than KIPP for the least as well as the most advantaged among us. But we would do well to emulate KIPP’s close attention to implementation.