Thursday, September 18, 2008

KIPP: Does That Word Mean What You Think It Means?

The new report on the Bay Area KIPP schools is well worth a scan. San Francisco Schools blog provides an analysis of the more critical aspects of the report. I don't have a big problem with KIPP. Clearly it serves some kids well, and I agree with most of their approach. I have more of a problem with KIPP as a rhetorical cudgel, and, in particular, when you read this report it illustrates that KIPP should not be used as an example for EEP-style reform.

For example, there is nothing in the report about how teachers are motivated by the threat of firing. There is nothing about the key role played by KIPP's excellent merit pay system -- as far as I can tell they don't use it. Teachers at KIPP have broad discretion over their practice, moreso than many "regular" school teachers today, within the state standards.

In particular, KIPP provides a good model for thinking through the seemingly common sense assertion that we must "get our best teachers paired up with the students who most need them." Hard to disagree with that, but how does that work, really? If a KIPP school succeeds because it has the best teachers who buy into the design and philosophy, but the neediest students tend to either not go to KIPP or not make it through the program, then what? Shift the KIPP teachers to wherever the neediest students actually are, and make them use a different approach? Find some even better teachers? Bring in some suburban teachers?

This is not an abstract question! My wife is one of the best teachers in the Providence Public Schools. She works at a school which now probably attracts on a somewhat higher achieving students than the average high school, because she and the rest of the staff of the school have made it a good school that good students want to attend rather than being someplace middle school guidance counselors would direct troubled kids who they thought would need extra support (as it was 10 years ago). Following the principle of best teachers for neediest students, it would be time to transfer Jennifer and half of the rest of her school's staff to the worst schools in the city to repeat the process.

Believe me, if the district could do that we'd be out of Providence so fast we'd leave a sonic boom behind us. I've already been in Providence long enough to see what happens when you shuffle your best principals around in attempts to match the best with the worst. It is a shell game. One school goes up and the other goes down. Adding individual teachers to the process does not equal systemic reform.

Anyhow... I think I like KIPP more than I like many of the people who wave its flag.

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