Saturday, February 03, 2007

Kipp Schools Revisited

I was just reading an interview today with Paul Tough ( the author of the New York Times article “What it takes to Make a Student” from the November 26, 2006 magazine (

The article has been almost universally hailed as a sensible reply to the problem of poverty and American schools. While I’m sure there is some success in the KIPP school approach, there are also serious problems with the article and I think the approach. Included below are a few items for consideration:

1) Much of the discussion in the article surrounds deficiencies in how the poor raise their children. For example, Tough argues that poor children hear less utterances per day than middle-class and rich kids, which relates to lower IQ and later school achievement. He also notes research that shows the nature of the interaction between children and parents can have effects on IQ and cognitive development. He stresses the point by indicating that parental patterns more than class determine children’s intellectual abilities.
These arguments clearly fall under the rubric of what Richard Valencia calls “cultural deficiency models.” Rather than seeing cultural difference as a potential positive source, divergence from middle-class norms are generally seen as innately inferior. The discussion ignores larger structural issues around racism, the longer hours that minority/poor parents work and barriers inside schools (like biased tests, tracking and overrepresentation of children of color in special education). Instead the article invokes the “blame the victim” discourse so popular in America.

2) Second, Tough essentially pushes the arguments for reform away from schools and toward parents and students. If students are forced to work harder and poor parents are “trained” to act like middle class parents, everything will be okay. This seems close to the John Ogbu approach of assimilation. But there are flaws in this argument as well – most obvious those outlined by Jonathan Kozel in his two major works. Essentially poor students receive less funding per student, have less qualified teachers (often with low expectations) and reside in overpopulated/under resourced schools (a point the author does briefly make, to be fair). It is unfortunate that so little credence is given to the argument that schools should adjust to the needs of a more diverse student body, by incorporating culturally-specific knowledge, attaching learning to the real world lives of students, capitalizing on the knowledge and skills they bring into the classroom, using collaborative and nurturing pedagogy with high expectations and ensuring that test instruments are not biased against the students. This is not to discount the argument he offers completely, but to wonder why poor/minority students should have to work so much harder than middle class white students to succeed in schools.

3) A third argument relates to the second.

Here is a quote from the interview . . .

To vastly oversimplify the debate over child poverty, it strikes me there are two camps. People in the first camp are more excited by the idea that if we improve the economic situation of poor families, their children will wind up being better educated. People in the second camp are more excited by the idea that if we improve the education of poor children, we will improve their economic situation. I’m in the second camp.

I agree that poor students should not wait for economic, social and political reform to strive toward educational success. But the problem overlooked in the argument is entrenched racism that doesn’t want students of color to succeed. And a necessary question rarely asked is where the good jobs will be if they do succeed? As Derek Bell has argued, there is a silent covenant between elites and working class whites that seeks to maintain their racial advantage. This manifests itself in many ways, but one obvious one of late are the efforts to eliminate affirmative action of any kind in post-secondary admissions decisions. We are already seeing the results of this push, with the Ivy League increasingly populated with upper middle-class and rich students (according to a recent NY Times article) and the UC System severly underrepresenting Latino/a and particularly black students (my own school, UCLA, only had ~ 92 African American students in last year’s freshman class). Extensive research has shown that minority children in California are offered less AP classes (central to acceptance to the UC because of GPA inflation), receive poor counseling on college and are in many cases encouraged to drop out of school. I believe more substantive change is necessary if we are to change the opportunities available to poor and minority students.

Some of the onus must be placed on these students, given the realistic constraints and barriers that otherwise stand in their way. But a comprehensive approach requires that schools embrace difference and diversity, have high expectations for all students, work to equalize resources and eliminate the mechanisms that track these students for failure.

Richard Van Heertum
Doctoral Candidate in Education
University of California Los Angeles


Anonymous said...

A breathtaking evidence-free response from the racist education establishment.

Anonymous said...


These are all important points -- as far as they go.

I'm puzzled though, that you move so readily to equate "poverty" and "race". Yes, KIPP is targeting kids of color. But a strength of this essay is its consideration of broader policy issues regarding education and poverty raised by programs like KIPP. And while kid of color are more likely to be poor, most poor kids in this country are white.

I wonder if conflating race and poverty obscures the broader arguments you want to make: that racism remains an issue at all levels of the economy, that we have not yet managed to create schools that are effective for any poor kids, that conditions in the broader economy matter in school reform, that simplistic solutions like KIPP are diverting us from the real policy debates that have to happen.

I wonder, too, if you've ventured into the broader field of Working Class Studies for analysis of working class whites and race and policy that are a bit more nuanced (and more current) than Bell's. You might also want to check Kirby Moss' The Color of Class.

Conflating arguments about race, class, and poverty seems not to be helping your argument; nor does it seem to contribute to building the cross-race and cross-class alliances that you (and I) see as important to this work of building a more just world.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I just stumbled upon this blog and I'm so glad to find it! I'm a Teach for America teacher in Camden, New Jersey and I have to say that a lot of my opinions about education changed once I actually stepped into the classroom. I used to be against charter schools for the most part, but now I see them as an important part of the solution. Honestly, the public education system is so broken in some places (ie Camden) that schools like KIPP are the only hope a lot of families have. It says something that these schools have endless waiting lists. While I would like to say we should fix the public education system from the ground up, that takes a lot of time and resources the public just isn't committed to right now. I have a hard time looking in the face of a child struggling to learn and tell her just to wait for us to figure things out. No, I tell her and her parents to get on a waiting list for a charter or scrape up the money for a private school.

L. Alfonso DuLuc said...

I am so very surprised at Mr. Vanheertum's comments on this article. He says that to succeed in schools such as Kipp Academies, U.S. middle class values are being imposed on students and that cultural differences are not welcome therefore shifting the blame onto the victims. My experience has been very different than his. I am a teacher of 20 years, mainly in public scchools. I have worked here in the U.S. and abroad. Moreover, I was brought up in the Spanish West Indies and have also lived in South America. Most of my friends as a child and early adulthood were Black, Amerindian or mixed. We lived in a fairly modern society, and enjoyed or wanted to enjoy the real or perceived advantages of it. What Mr. VanHeertum calls U.S. middle class values, were not U.S. values over there; they were everyday rules to live by so that children may live in peace and have a future. Parents poor and not so poor needed to have high expectations and pushed their children to be their best within the "boundaries" of respect for adults, their teachers and the community at large. These concepts did not clash with the concept of independence, but reinforced the reality of interdependence because they new that it took a village to raise a child; they knew that humans need each other without stepping on ones' innate freedoms. They knew that their children were being guided, more than just academically to have the basic tools to achieve their individual goals and to help society at large.
As a teacher, I have noticed that when a school has specific behavior expectations for and from the community and the children most parents welcome it because of what I just mentioned above.
Sadly, it is usually true that in our U.S. society a large percentage of poor families have not been given the guidance to help themselves or their children. These children need to be given the tools to deal with other people in society at large if they are to really be free when they grow up, tools that will be used to bring upon themselves the respect of others. Tools that will empower them because they will be on time, will finish a product well, will communicate accurately, will know when to wait and when to demand respect, will know when to solve a problem and when to search for help. These tools are not U.S. middle class values; they have been used since time immemorial in civilized societies everywhere.
I do believe that we need more schools and groups to help these poor families in the U.S. It will not be an infringement on their rights but a great treasure that will lift them to the respect that they deserve as human beings. said...

I'm of the same opinion.

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TomSpriggs said...

I feel bad for every person who reads this article and believes the drivel in it. I happen to be from a very poor part of America, Appalachia. I am now 46 years old, and just finishing my master's degree because I was never taught the basic ideas that are necessary to succeed in life. In fact, I had to learn those principles from a Church, because all my teachers thought that as long as I could do a little math and read some, that's all I needed.

Now, when we finally start doing something to help poor children get an education, we are told that we are making their lives better because... we are racists. No, sir, you are the racist, willing to sacrifice the futures of millions of minority children in order to keep them tied to the government and slaves to your socialist dreams.

Fortunately, we are quickly growing tired of your propaganda and are not listening anymore.

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