I've finished Jay Mathews's Work Hard Be Nice. (previous posts) I'm really glad I read the book, something that will please Mathews, I'm sure. I genuinely enjoyed the book. I'm exceptionally impressed with Levin and Feinberg and all they have done. They are two of the hardest working individuals of whom I'm aware. They deserve a lot of credit.
That said, I still have some issues with KIPP and the view of KIPP.
1. It's all about the test scores. I had this same issue with Geoffrey Canada's work in Harlem when I read Whatever It Takes. In some ways I don't blame Levin, Feinberg, or Canada. They are playing the game as it stands in our country today. I do hold the media somewhat responsible, however. In the chapter near the end of Work Hard Be Nice in which Mathews address the critiques of KIPP he focuses almost exclusively on test scores. There is a bit about drop-out rates and demographics, but not much. If what we present to the public is all about test scores, that is all that will matter. There are so many other important things to consider.
2. When KIPP is discussed in the media (main stream, blogs, everywhere) the focus is on the wrong things, in my opinion. The focus is always on the longer day, week, and year and on the skill and drill part of the instruction. If Mathews has made an accurate presentation of KIPP, beyond the schools Levin and Feinberg started originally, then there is much more that is critical here. The cultural events to which they took students as well as the huge trips each year are rarely discussed. I would consider those aspects a huge part of what made KIPP work for students.
3. The skill and drill part of the instruction. I don't believe that all the instruction is this way, but it is a part. It seems to me that KIPP teachers are working so hard to bring their students up to grade level and able to pass the tests that they sacrifice deeper understanding for broader skills. It is unfortunate that students reach middle school and that choice has to be made because they are behind, but I still don't believe in memorization without understanding (such as rolling their numbers for multiplication).
4. I don't believe that KIPP is the savior for our inner cities. KIPP administrators get rid of teachers quickly if they don't cut it. That's not a bad thing. However, if enough good teachers were out there already we wouldn't be in this position. Not every inner city child will be able to have a teacher of the caliber of KIPP teachers, there just aren't enough fabulous teachers out there. That's an issue that needs to be addressed in some way and it is a critically important one.
5. I don't believe most middle class parents would want their kids to attend KIPP. I don't believe they would want the discipline level that KIPP employs, at least in the beginning. I don't believe they would want the skill and drill part of the instruction. That makes me wonder why we believe that disadvantaged kids should have things that we wouldn't want for our own children.
I have two close friends who taught at a KIPP school in Houston. In addition, I chatted with a bunch of teachers and students on the metro many years ago from a Houston KIPP school. They were here on their annual trip to DC and we just happened to be on the same train. I noticed the shirts and heard the chants and took the opportunity to talk with them.
I don't want to get rid of KIPP. I just want to know that we are looking at it closely, considering the positives and negatives, and moving forward from there. I'm bothered by the presentation of KIPP as THE answer. That's how Mathews presents it here. The book is worth reading, but not unless one is willing to go beyond it to learn about KIPP.