I've written on KIPP before (see posts archived here), so I wanted to respond to Jim Horn's post on KIPP. In summary, he contends that KIPP teachers force kids to participate in their own subjugation by promising opportunities that don't exist, no matter how hard they work or how nice they are.
Horn is tapping into a long lineage of writing criticizing teachers' endorsement of the "achievement ideology" - the idea that hard work and effort yield success irrespective of one's racial or class background. (The canonical works in this tradition are Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs or Ain't No Makin' It: Aspirations and Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood.)
As a critique of the structure of opportunity and meritocracy, these works are convincing and important. But as texts to guide the action of educators on a day-to-day basis, they are not. It was at this theory/practice divide that I had a hard time with Horn's post. On KIPP, Horn writes:
For black parents, the KIPP appeal is the promise that for those who "work hard, be nice," there is a new world of opportunity waiting to embrace their efforts. Hope, however groundless, remains the only alternative to despair.Horn implies that because of the obstacles that black kids are likely to bump up against, KIPP teachers should tell their kids to slack off and be mean. As a teacher, no matter how aware you are of broader structures of inequality, you want the best for your kids. And if you're a betting woman or man, you know that their odds of making a decent living are much better if they "work hard and act nice," even if the odds are still pretty bad.
Perhaps this post hit home because I got an unexpected call from a former student who I'll call Jannell yesterday. Jannell is easily one of the brightest students I ever taught, and should have had a college degree in hand years ago. But she doesn't, in part because of big picture inequality factors. Jannell was working her way through college since her parents couldn't pay and having a hard time balancing school and work. Then she fell in love with Troy, got married, and dropped out of school to support her husband's higher education. Now her husband has left her and she's stuck in a dead-end job answering phones.
In Jannell's story, there's a story about racial, socioeconomic, and gender inequality. And the truth is that if Jannell re-enrolls and "works hard and acts nice," she's still going to have a hard time making it in an increasingly bleak economy. While in the past Jannell and I have talked about race, class, and opportunity in America, yesterday I advised her to get back to college and work her butt off to finish - essentially, to work hard and be nice. Given the existing structure of opportunity, this will be the best thing for her. And ultimately, when you're on the other end of the line with a kid you care about, what you're concerned about is helping this kid make it, now.
It's easy for academics and bloggers (both of which I am) to stand outside the ring and hand down theory. It's harder to figure out how to integrate these big theories into the work of educating kids on a day-to-day basis. And KIPP is trying to find a way to make this system work, even if it's for a small subset of urban kids. We can criticize the pundits who latch on to KIPP for many of the reasons Horn notes.
But it's important to separate what KIPP supporters say about KIPP from what the educators at KIPP do. As I've written before, KIPP is not a viable solution for the vast majority of urban kids. Nonetheless, KIPP teachers are undoubtedly doing important work with the kids they're serving.
The KIPP teachers don't deserve the derision and disrespect that I saw in Horn's post. They can't change the existing structure of social inequality today, so they're trying to work within the system to get a few more kids a good education. And for that, they deserve our utmost respect.