KIPP

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Before you read anything else in this week's U.S.News & World Report, including my column, please read the special report on KIPP—the Knowledge Is Power Program. My colleague Susan Headden has done a terrific job of describing KIPP and its founders, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg. I've observed classes at two KIPP schools, Key Academy in Washington and Academy in San Francisco, and have come away terrifically impressed with the program. Here are some excerpts from Susan's article that describe it well.

Today, KIPP boasts 44 middle schools, two high schools, and one prekindergarten from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. And the results are raising eyebrows throughout the educational world. KIPP students consistently outperform their counterparts in traditional public schools on standardized tests, and more than 80 percent of KIPP students from the classes of 2004 and 2005 are enrolled in four-year colleges.
The premise of KIPP is simple: Do whatever it takes to learn. Under a contract signed by students, parents, and teachers, students go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday, every other Saturday morning, and for an extra month in the summer–over 60 percent more class time than the average school year. Teachers are on call 24-7 to answer questions about homework (the better they teach, the fewer the calls), and parents are held accountable.
Carrot–and stick. A "no excuses" culture of strict discipline prevails. Should a student forget his homework, he is banished to the doorway of the class–forbidden to speak to classmates, yet still taking in the lesson. If a single child fails to look at the teacher, the instructor will stop the whole class until he does. Once, when an exasperated Feinberg couldn't get a student to do her homework, he went to her home and, with her mother's permission, hauled the family's 37-inch TV out of the living room and installed it at the front of his classroom. When the student delivered, she got the TV back.
At the same time, KIPP students are offered novel incentives to work hard and behave. They earn–or lose–points toward a weekly "paycheck," a chit that can be cashed for books or T-shirts at the school store or the privilege of attending a weeklong field trip at the end of the school year.

KIPP schools take in students from underclass neighborhoods. Typically, they enter the fifth grade reading far below grade level and leave the eighth grade reading far above. The teachers I saw are incredibly energetic and syncopated—in Levin's words, "traditional education for the hip-hop generation." Most KIPP schools are charter schools—public schools liberated from most of the rules and regulations imposed on ordinary public schools. KIPP picks its principals carefully, trains them at the Haas School of Business at the University of California–Berkeley, and then gives them full control over hiring and firing teachers, who are paid premium salaries. Students are admitted by lottery from those who apply and can be expelled if they don't stick with the program.

It's important to note that Levin and Feinberg came to teaching not from an education school but from the Teach for America program. They are not bogged down by the nostrums that ed schools tend to peddle. If the question is how do you educate kids from the toughest neighborhoods in America, KIPP has the answer—or at least an answer. That's also the conclusion of Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom in their book No More Excuses, which praises KIPP and several other similar charter school programs. KIPP and similar programs work. Nothing else seems to.

But is KIPP universally applicable? I fear it's not. To claims that KIPP parents are more motivated than average, Feinberg responds in the article, "More motivated? They have to answer a knock on the door and listen to us for an hour and sign their name." But that's only part of it. One KIPP principal told me that the program doesn't work unless either the pupil or at least one parent is committed to it. Parents have to sign weekly report cards, and one can imagine that some parents of uncommitted kids just wouldn't push them hard enough to succeed. But KIPP is certainly capable of vast expansion beyond its current size—44 middle schools, two high schools, one prekindergarten. Its success and the continuing failure of ordinary inner-city public schools suggest that the prevailing model—teachers with education school credentials and strong teacher unions—is gravely flawed. I've written on this subject before.

KIPP is one of the most encouraging social programs in America today. Much praise should go not only to Feinberg and Levin but also to Donald and Doris Fisher, founders of the Gap, who have been KIPP's major benefactors and have been closely involved in its work, and to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has funded KIPP's expansion into high schools. The Fishers and the Gateses are following in the footsteps of great philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.