An early and consistent proponent of Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, Jay Mathews has joined a rising group of KIPP advocates directly criticizing KIPP critics, offering two arguments: KIPP charter schools are not abusive or excessively authoritarian, and KIPP critics are prone to misleading hyperbole because they fail to visit the KIPP schools they criticize.
I have heard these concerns before, but in a previous example at Education Next, I had to raise my own caution  that if KIPP advocates will knowingly misrepresent critics to make their case, we may be well advised to be skeptical of the claims that there is now a softer side to KIPP.
Mathews, however, makes a balanced call for confronting whether or not KIPP schools practice what critics challenge and has posed a valid concern about KIPP critics not visiting actual KIPP schools. I want to address these concerns here, and also offer my own recommendations to KIPP advocates in the spirit offered at the end of Matthews’s piece: “KIPP welcomes visitors. Interested critics should stop by and see how it works.”
My concerns with and criticism of KIPP charter schools began in 2009, based on an Education Next article praising the “no excuses” ideologies of the schools (Whitman, 2008). That piece does exactly what I have done in my work criticizing KIPP: it associates KIPP practices with “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and practices, which are reinforced in KIPP’s own words, among its Five Pillars:
KIPP schools relentlessly focus on high student performance on standardized tests and other objective measures. Just as there are no shortcuts, there are no excuses. Students are expected to achieve a level of academic performance that will enable them to succeed at the nation’s best high schools and colleges.
My initial criticism of KIPP charter schools as the recognizable brand among many “no excuses” charter schools spreading across the U.S. (and influencing practices in public and private schools that directly note they are modeling their practices on KIPP) was also reinforced by Whitman’s article that included, for example, American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS), Oakland, CA, along with a KIPP school in a broader endorsing of “no excuses” charter schools.
Landsberg (2009) captured for me why the “no excuses” model was deeply troubling:
Students, almost all poor, wear uniforms and are subject to disciplinary procedures redolent of military school. One local school district official was horrified to learn that a girl was forced to clean the boys’ restroom as punishment.
So my first request of Mathews and other KIPP advocates is that they offer clarification on the initial associations between KIPP and other “no excuses” charter schools: If that association is flawed, are advocates in part to blame for that association? And if KIPP, either in those early associations or more recently, has distanced themselves from those associations, will KIPP and its advocates please detail that for critics and the public?
Here, then, is my central problem with KIPP advocacy and their criticism of KIPP critics. My criticism of KIPP is one example of my larger rejecting of “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and practices (please see “No Excuses” and the Culture of Shame: Why Metrics Don’t Matter). And I am not in any way concerned about KIPP outcomes because I refuse to fall into the trap of allowing the ends to justify the means. The claims of “miracles” associated with outcomes are discredited, and ultimately, I am not interested in test scores, graduation rates, or college admittance rates decontextualized from how children are being treated in the schools each day.
I appreciate and accept Mathews’s direct evidence from KIPP schools in DC, and accept his evidence of changes and hope that the success is valid and potentially illustrative of education reform more broadly.
But in his brief critique of KIPP critics, Mathews does not offer any evidence about my primary concern about how students are treated —a concern that I do not limit to KIPP but to any and all schools (I reject zero-tolerance policies, for example, and their disproportionate and negative influence on urban schools and students).
A second request is that KIPP leaders and advocates help those of us criticizing KIPP for direct and indirect connections to “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and practices with what I believe are legitimate concerns based on, I admit, secondary evidence .
Here, then, are my remaining concerns:
- When Gary Rubinstein accepted the KIPP invitation to visit actual schools, his responses to that visit and my interpretation of his visits do not change my position. Thus, visiting KIPP isn’t necessarily going to end criticism, but if Rubinstein’s impressions are misleading, I’d like some clarifications.
- The public narrative around KIPP is based on embracing an authoritarian and highly structured model for high-poverty and minority students. Public schools have failed high-poverty and minority students in terms of disproportionate discipline and academic policies, including expulsion, suspension, failure, and retention; it appears by the evidence that KIPP and other “no excuses” charter schools mirror those failures instead of alleviating them. The school-to-prison pipeline and the school-as-prison dynamic are key elements of the larger mass incarceration era; KIPP’s association with strict discipline, high attrition, and selectivity are problematic for those of us who wish to break those cycles.
- Public and charter schools are experiencing an increase in segregation of students by race and class; KIPP appears to be a part of that troubling pattern, again not a solution.
- A powerful reinforcement of both my criticism of charter schools implementing “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and policy as well as my direct criticism of KIPP schools is Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope. Like Whitman’s Education Next piece, Carr associates KIPP charter schools in New Orleans with other non-KIPP charter schools. As well, she details how KIPP and the other “no excuses” charters do in fact practice the sort of discipline policies about which I am critical: (1) a strict discipline code that includes SPARK (Carr, p. 11) and SLANT (making and maintaining eye contact, shaking hands, and other highly regimented behavior demands on students), (2) the Bench as as shaming discipline technique (Carr, p. 23), (3) a demanding culture that stresses “no excuses” for teachers and students (Carr, pp. 42-43), focusing almost exclusively on minority students from poverty (and not being implemented in white or affluent schools), and (4) depending so heavily on structure and external rewards that students falter once they enter college and have those elements removed (Carr, p. 188).
- KIPP, specifically in its relationship with Teach for America (see Waiting for “Superman” and Carr), contributes directly and indirectly to several harmful and inaccurate claims about teaching and education: teaching quality is primarily a function of being demanding and not of experience or expertise (although this appears true only when dealing with high-poverty minority students since white and affluent students tend to have experienced and certified teachers), and public schools are failing because of corrupt unions (although non-union states n the U.S., mostly in the South, are routinely ranked at the bottom of educational quality).
If and when these concerns above are not applicable to KIPP specifically, I extend an invitation to KIPP leaders and advocates to set the record straight, and I offer my support when they do. I will apologize and join in with setting that record straight.
That I haven’t visited KIPP schools doesn’t discount my ability to raise concerns about large and evidence-based examples of how almost all types of schools are mis-serving children. In all of the issues above, I also criticize public education (re-segregating of schools, inequitable discipline policies, inequitable teacher assignment, tracking—just to name a few concerns).
But since much of my direct criticism of KIPP is based on secondary evidence, I must ask: Is Carr misguided in her depiction of KIPP in New Orleans, or is that situation unlike many or even some KIPP schools, such as the ones visited by Mathews in DC?
I think we all need to know and then remain vigilant about painting any set of schools with too wide a brush.
I also want to stress that Mathews’s concern about hyperbole is important because that hyperbole is unlikely to benefit either advocates or critics. KIPP leaders and advocates depend on the “miracle” school myth as much as critics depend on provocative prison  or concentration camp comparisons. I suspect both sides would be wise to set such hyperbole aside.
For my role in criticizing KIPP, I want to stress that I am not as concerned about criticizing any specific type of school as much as I am about exposing where we fail and calling for ways to reform all education so that we are more likely to address inequity in the lives and schools of children.
In that quest, I have no right or desire to misrepresent KIPP, but as I have detailed above, I have ample evidence that KIPP schools are one part of a set of large and pervasive problems that are not unique to KIPP.
I plan to take up Mathews on his invitation to visit some KIPP charter schools when I am in DC this fall, and I hope KIPP leaders and advocates will accept my invitations here to address my remaining concerns and not misrepresent my claims (as Education Next allowed) or simply discount my concerns since I have yet to walk the halls of a KIPP school.
Landsberg, M. (2009, May 31). Spitting in the eye of mainstream education. Los Angeles Times online. Retrieved 29 June 2009 from http://articles.latimes.com/2009/may/31/local/me-charter31
Whitman, D. (2008, Fall). An appeal to authority. Education Next, 8(4). Retrieved 29 June 2009 from http://educationnext.org/an-appeal-to-authority/
 Again, for the record, the Education Next article misrepresented me three times in the opening, and when I contacted a co-author, Bob Maranto, he admitted in an email exchange the article was unfair, promising to correct the piece and never following through on that promise. The ugliest and demonstrably untrue aspect of that piece was the charge “critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart,” which my body of work directly disputes and about which I directly alerted Maranto that I in no way hold that position.
 Mathews notes that his Work Hard. Be Nice. does address discipline and his rebuttal to KIPP critics.
 I have direct experience with local public and charter schools that practice “no excuses” ideology and narratives, but openly acknowledge, that since no KIPP schools are in my area, I haven’t visited the KIPP schools in Arkansas or DC (or elsewhere). I don’t believe, still, that disqualifies me from rejecting “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and practices; as well, my criticism of KIPP within that larger concern is only unfair if KIPP isn’t embracing and practicing both. As I discuss above, the evidence I have suggests KIPP is a part of that larger dynamic.
 And let’s not ignore that Michel Foucault and Giles Deleuze have offered substantial examinations of why all schools and prisons are comparable.