Friday, January 14, 2011

More KIPP, Charter, & Motivation

After watching the issue of charter schools and KIPP develop around Denver for the past eight years, I was intrigued by the recent exchange in the Washington Post between Jay Mathews and Valerie about KIPP retention rates. Conceding the success of KIPP and Green Dot and HCZ, I have always been an advocate of the "whatever works" approach to reform of failing - primarily urban - schools. Yet, remembering KIPP's retreat from the Cole Middle School neighborhood in Denver - even as another KIPP school had operated in successfully in Denver since 2003 - I would argue the primary factor in success still centers on student/parent motivations and expectations.

Clearly, the greatest evidence for success in charters - especially KIPP - is the self-selecting model of students and families committed to achievement at all costs. That includes the nine-hour days, mandatory summer programs, student contracts, parental requirements, etc. And, we can't discount the social services - nutrition, health care, counseling, baby-sitting - that are integral to the success at HCZ. These are all necessary to bring struggling students back to the standard expectations. Clearly, KIPP doesn't directly cherry-pick students - but the culture and expectations of the school is a de facto cherry picking scenario - and it is one that I support. Certainly, these kids need these high expectations and they need a rigid and rigorous environment that expects - even demands - that they meet them.

Sadly, this discussion among teacher critics too often ignores all the supplemental assistance and the role of student motivation as the charter school leaders often say they simply require the right to hire and fire teachers at will. Geoffery Canada is sadly guilty of this - going on the public stage to tout his model and making his comments all about "firing bad teachers" and rarely about all the student/family assistance he provides. The KIPP that failed in Denver never had the buy-in from the community - thus KIPP's explanation about teachers seems rather ambiguous and unverifiable.

Cole is in the absolute poorest most socially dysfunctional area in Denver - it is textbook case for why communities and neighborhood schools fail. All the ills are in abundance. The failure of the KIPP intervention was primarily because they could not force the changes and expectations on a whole community that was not choosing their model. Despite the school's administration of KIPP principles, the students did not follow their lead. Truancy and discipline problems remained and student achievement made no movement at all. In response, KIPP backed out of the school in a very short time. KIPP may argue that they couldn't find "effective leaders committed to the model," but the reality is they couldn't force an entire school of kids, and their parents, to commit to their model.

The entire theory of charter reform is that if neighborhood schools reformed around KIPP-style ideas, and dedicated teachers implement the philosophy, it will change the culture of the school. That was simply not the case at Cole. That, however, overlooks the fact that a percentage of kids in that neighborhood use "open enrollment" and leave the Cole neighborhood for other schools, including the KIPP Peak Academy and the Denver School of Science and Technology. That is, in fact, what many kids in that neighborhood have done. The ones who didn't remained at Cole - now closed completely - and they were the ones on whom the KIPP experiment made no impact.

Clearly, serious education reformers must consider the importance of student motivation and the self-selecting impact that leads to success in the 20% of charter schools that actually outperform neighborhood schools. I believe Colorado is in a pretty good position with its statewide rule of "open enrollment" and its promotion of charter schools. However, I'm not naive enough to see either as a panacea for larger social ills.


CarolineSF said...

You should post this as a comment on Strauss' blog, if you haven't. The Cole Middle School fiasco deserves much more attention than it received amid the national conversation about KIPP.

By the way, Green Dot schools' test scores suck, to use a technical term. So I wouldn't be so quick to concede their success. I wish the best for their students, but any claims that they are currently showing academic success are just false hype from the charter machine.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece.

If parents and students don't want to become educated, no school can change that. Sure, many schools stink, but this isn't anything new. What may be new in some communities is a resignation that education doesn't matter. It used to be that most parents wanted their children to succeed in school so they could have a better life. In too many cases that aspirational quality is missing, having been replaced with the attitude that "if it was good enough for me..." or "I turned out alright".

Can this be reality setting in? Is the ridiculous mis-distribution of wealth and lack of upward mobility taking its toll on the motivation of some?

P.S. - Mr. Canada surely tries very hard, but even his results aren't anything to crow about.

mmazenko said...

The "I turned out all right" mentality is a significant hurdle. Another problem for reformers is the unrealistic ideas they have about past glories and current realities of how much or how little the education system is accomplishing. Certainly, some miserable schools and teachers are out there, and we should do all we can to change that sad reality. However, motivation must be accounted for.

Anonymous said...

It depends on what the goal is. If the goal is to answer the question, "Would KIPP work if forced down everyone's throats, even kids who are stupid and lazy and don't want to change?," then the question of motivation is very important. If the question is, "For kids who want a good education, is KIPP a better choice than whatever the public system was offering them?", then we know the answer is yes, on average.

Haters like Caroline want to piss all over KIPP because it doesn't work for everyone. Well, it works for some kids -- the kind of kids who live in neighborhoods that Caroline would shudder even to drive through. That's a good thing.

mmazenko said...

Some pretty harsh language there ...

My opinion on ed reform has long followed the "whatever works" model. Thus, in that case, your second question is valid and appropriate.

However, the problem falls with misinformed people who use KIPP success to advocate -even demand in the case of Colorado's Independence Institute - that KIPP or other charter models are "the answer" to all that ills education in America. Many use it, ironically, as an argument to "privatize" education.

So, criticism from people like Caroline is still valid, though all should concede any success that does result.

Anonymous said...

I'm just saying that because Caroline seems to have found every mention of "KIPP" on the entire Internet and always shows up to sneer at KIPP. Even if KIPP has only helped 10 students get a good education, KIPP has done more for children than professional whiners like her ever will.