Monday, June 6, 2011

Great news! Boot camps for poor kids!

America’s education reformers are fawning over the “Knowledge is Power Program” for charter schools, the latest manifestation of our national love affair with authoritarian -- er, I mean, “tough love” approaches to education. KIPP schools believe in a long school day (some schools go from 7:30 am to 5 pm, with two hours or more of homework a night) and a long school year (with Saturday classes and three weeks of summer school) -- resulting in 67% more time in class than typical public school students. Discipline is emphasized. Students are taught to “sit up straight,” “nod,” and “track the speaker with your eyes.” Teachers use chanting, repetition, and clapping and posture rituals. (See FedUpMom’s posts on the topic here.) KIPP’s promoters claim that it boosts achievement as measured by test scores and college acceptance rates, though these claims are, of course, disputed.

Many people love the idea of making the KIPP option available to the urban poor. But Dana Goldstein reports that there are “troubling questions” about whether middle-class and affluent parents are willing to send their own kids to KIPP schools, which present “particular challenges to parents who are accustomed to the schedules and social routines of high-quality neighborhood public schools.” She describes one suburban mom’s experience of enrolling her child in a regionally-based KIPP kindergarten:
Kerryn Azavedo, a graphic designer in Lincoln, Rhode Island, pulled her son out of Blackstone Valley after his kindergarten year, dismayed by what she calls the school’s overly strict discipline policies and lack of after-school activities. She complained that Blackstone Valley’s extended school day, from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m., left her son exhausted and with little opportunity to participate in organized extracurriculars. (Extended learning days were originally intended to provide enrichment for poor children whose parents are unable to provide after-school supervision or activities.)

When Azavedo brought her concerns to the Blackstone Valley administration, “I never felt welcome,” she said in a phone interview. “They say, ‘This may not really be for you, somebody else might really need your spot, you’d be okay wherever you went.’” Azavedo didn’t like the fact that the school lacks an independent parent-teacher organization; instead, administrators organize parental involvement. And she was surprised to learn her son had sat for standardized tests five times during the school year, and unhappy that the school did not notify parents of each individual testing date.

Though initially attracted to the idea of an integrated charter school, Azavedo is now actively organizing against the opening of new Rhode Island Mayoral Academies throughout the state. “If it’s not good enough for mine, dammit, it’s not good enough for yours,” she said. “I can do something about it because I’m an in-tune parent. I bought it for a year, but I caught on.”
I can see why parents who are poor and stuck in a really bad school district might enlist their kids in a KIPP school. They’re trying to beat some tough odds and could reasonably decide that KIPP is their least bad option.

But is it surprising that the KIPP model might be unappealing to middle- and upper-income parents? Maybe they’re happy to leave KIPP schools to the urban poor for the same reason they’re happy, on the whole, to let poor people staff the prostitution industry: Because they’re not that desperate yet. Maybe they can see how oppressive and dehumanizing the KIPP model is, and are fortunate enough that they don’t need to do that to their kids.

Does that necessarily mean we should take the KIPP option away from the urban poor? No. But it’s hardly cause for celebration that urban poor families are so bad off that they’re grateful for options that more fortunate people won’t even consider. If we support prison-like schools for the urban poor while declining to impose those schools on our own kids, we have good reason to feel queasy -- especially at a time when the government seems uninterested in addressing urban poverty in any systematic way.

Goldstein, by the way, notes “that although other charter school models are less trendy, they do exist.” She mentions Community Roots, “a diverse Brooklyn charter based on more traditional philosophies of educational progressivism and activity-based learning. The school is overwhelmingly popular with both middle-class and poor families in its neighborhood.” How much money is being poured into studies designed to show that those schools “work”? How much attention is being lavished on them by educational pundits and “reformers”?

I’ve been mixing it up with people on this issue in the comments over at E.D. Kain’s blog. For someone who claims a big libertarian streak, Kain is surprisingly unbothered by what goes on in KIPP schools -- disappointing.

1 comment:

FedUpMom said...

Chris, it's astonishing how people fawn over KIPP, including many who would never send their own kids to such a school.

It's sad to me that well-meaning parents send their kids to these schools, at the cost of the kid's childhood, in the hopes that it will be a ticket out of poverty.

I think it's a shell game. I don't see anybody lining up to employ KIPP graduates in solid middle-class jobs, if those jobs even exist any more.