Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Comment on "Lies My KIPP Teacher Told Me"

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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting that. I wanted to comment on Horn's blog, but I was too angry to write anything coherent. I really don't think KIPP teachers are going to work today just to lie to their students, and I'm glad you pointed that out. I think Horn forgot that he was talking about humans, and not walking embodiments of philosophy.

Jenny said...

I have been frustrated with the media passion for the KIPP schools, but I appreciate your reminder that I need to think about the educators in those schools. They work exceptionally hard, long hours for those students and deserve to be commended for it. Thanks for reminding me.

Robert Pondiscio said...

<<< 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.<<<

Well said, EW. Education is at its soul an act of optimism. It represents a belief in progress and the triumph of hope over despair. It is certainly not hard to understand the anger and frustration Mr. Horn feels, but to somehow connect that to the work of KIPP and especially its teachers seems unfair. Cruel, actually.

AMG said...

I agree strongly with you on two things: KIPP is not the be-all and end-all in education reform and that KIPP teachers deserve more respect than they are often given.

What I take worry about with KIPP, however, is the follow through of the program. I want to know what happens to KIPP-sters who, after graduation, don't go to a high-achieving private or charter school, but are put back into the public system (and often, failing public schools). Does the "Work Hard. Be Nice." motto carry them all the way through high school and college?

I know that KIPP follows up on its students post-graduation and their college enrollment is generally high (80%), but I would like to see come statistics about that 20% who don't enroll in college and college graduation statistics (though maybe it's too early for those).

I am heartened by KIPP's high school projects, though, so I'll be keeping an eye on them.

Leonie Haimson said...

And how about those students who by their own choice or through persuasion leave KIPP schools -- and return to their neighborhood public schools? What happens to them?

Have there been any studies looking into this?

Anonymous said...

The link to Horn's post is this:

What a contemptible post by Horn. Here is the classic example of an educational "progressive" who shouldn't be allowed within a million miles of a poor or black kid. All he would do is tell them, "Don't bother working and studying, nothing you do matters, the system is out to get you." What a poisonous message to send to youngsters. Yes, poor black kids face a lot of hurdles in life. Horn wants to make it impossible for them to scale any of those hurdles.

tjmertz said...

I don't think some of this is fair to Jim Horn. When I read his post (and I haven't reread it) my impression was his emphasis was on the "be nice," not the "work hard"; that Horn's larger point was that the KIPP schools' simplistic embrace of meritocracy as an accurate description of our society and to the exclusion of any real critique of the sources inequalities, along with the related lessons about being nice as the way to get ahead did not prepare these students to fight for themselves or for change.

I’m sure Horn believes in hard work, he just doesn’t like corporate funded educators telling kids to work hard at being nice. Work hard to better yourself. Work hard for change…

This is the culture of poverty fight again. When the system is corrupt, we need to teach students how to both succeed in the system and how to resist and reform. It isn’t an either/or; it is a both.

None of this is a slight at individual KIPP teachers and shouldn’t be spun as such…that’s like saying those of us who are against the continued occupation of Iraq are “against the troops.”

Anonymous said...

As a part of a KIPP school, I will agree that the social inequality difference is hard to break. The point is that we can start to be the change or tipping point. There is real injustice done to people of lower economic communities but if we can help the community see that their students can achieve excellence they will help to demand it from more and more schools in their communities. We want to be a part of change not be the complete change. It will takes many years to change these communities.

Anonymous said...

I just found this article and I know I am a little late in the commentary. But thank you for the counter-point. KIPP teachers work hard because they think/know/believe they can change the system.