Friday, December 08, 2006

KIPP As New Age Psychological Sterilization

A version of this piece was posted to Schools Matter 08.12.06: I've seen several commentaries on the Tough advertisement for KIPP in New York Times Magazine a week ago Sunday, but the following comments sent to EDDRA by Howard Berlak get very close, it seems to me, to the heart of the matter regarding KIPP:
I visited a local KIPP school about a year and a half ago after the SF Chronicle published a puff piece announcing KIPP as the answer to failing schools and the race gap --essentially the same story told in the recent NY Times article. When I was there children who followed all the rules were given points that could be exchanged for goodies at the school store. Those who resisted the rules or were slackers wore a large sign pinned to their clothes labeled "miscreant." Miscreants sat apart from the others at all times including lunch, were denied recess and participation in all other school projects and events. They could return to the regular population only after earning sufficent points. The school was orderly and quiet, teachers were working hard and were energetic. The arts and drama teacher was excellent and all classrooms were well provisioned. Several teachers confided that it was impossible to devote the time expected by KIPP and still have a family life. Though they were generally positive about their work , three teachers I spoke to said that could keep it up only for a few years.

I've spent many years in schools. This one felt like a humane, low security prison or something resembling a locked-down drug rehab program for adolescents run on reward and punishments by well-meaning people. Maybe a case can be made for such places, but I cannot imagine anyone (including the Times reporter) sending their kids there unless they have no other acceptable options. What is most disturbing is the apparent universal belief by KIPP staff and partisans that standardized tests scores are the singular and most important measure of a truly good education. The Times reporter appears to buy into this.

John Derbyshire in the New English Review has this take:

The Knowledge is Power Program is a network of intensive . . . schools for inner-city kids started up in 1994 by two idealistic young teachers, David Levin and Michael Feinberg, in Houston. There are now 52 of these schools nationwide.

. . . .

. . . even supposing you could establish a free market in public-school teachers, how could the worst schools—inner-city schools serving black neighborhoods—ever outbid leafy, affluent suburbs for those “best teachers”? And how many “best teachers” are there, anyway? As the Thernstroms point out, a lot of these prescriptions for school reform assume an unlimited supply of “saints and masochists”—teachers like those in the KIPPS schools, who, Mr. Tough tells us, work 15 to 16 hours a day. I am sure there are some people who enter the teaching profession with the desire to crunch their way daily across the crack-vial-littered streets of crime-wrecked inner-city neighborhoods in order to put in 15-hour working days, but I doubt there are many such.

Both of these commentaries offer important insights for appreciating the KIPP lovefest now breaking out across America among conservatives and liberals, alike. What is missing, however, in these comments and in the minds of most Americans, liberal or conservative, is the acknowledgement and the understanding that, even if you could get the best teachers into these mean street schools for any length of time, that would still not be enough to close the achievement gap. Until the sociological and economic realities of poor people are acknowledged and changed, there will be no closing of the achievement gap, which is, in fact, a healthcare gap, opportunity gap, income gap, housing gap, and finally, an education gap.

So what is Tough's favorite pick for a solution? A shortcut, of course--and a shortcut that focuses on the ideology of liberal wishful thinking as a remedy for symptoms of the large problems we have refused to acknowledge, much less solve. Tough's (and the New York Times's) kind of progressive idealism is nothing new, to be sure. It is the same patronizing do-gooderism that bound together both scientific and religious progressives, as well as conservatives and liberals, a hundred years ago in embracing eugenics as the way to engineer a society dominated by healthy, prosperous, and moral white Christan elites.

To be fair, most liberals of that earlier era were more supportive of the positive eugenics than they were of the more hard-nosed negative variety that social conservatives advocated. Positive eugenics focused on the need to breed, if you will, large numbers of white, patriotic, middle-class Christians in order that their numbers dominate the gene pools of the country. On the other hand, negative eugenics, which came to dominate the politics and policy of the movement in the early 20th Century, focused on controlling or eliminating the polluted "germ plasm" from the population by "scientific" social sorting via primitive IQ tests, by the passage of mandatory sterilization laws, and by segregating "defective" populations. In short, the race concerns among the elite could not be addressed simply by producing more citizens with their likenesses; the continuing waves of immigrants and the move by minorites to urban centers required solutions that positive eugenics could not offer.

Now a hundred years later, we are on the brink of falling prey to another pseudo-scientific solution driven by fear, self-imposed blindness, and unacknowledged racism. The present day methods are less dramatic, perhaps, than our eugenicist forefathers, but they are no less dangerous to the future of a democracy. Because we are presently unwilling or even blind to the need to actually end poverty, some, under the guise of happiness training, would change the way that poor kids think about their lives in poverty: let's, in fact, mess with their minds so that they start to parrot and act out the verbal and behavioral patterns of more confident, bright-eyed middle class children who have every reason to expect that they will have happy and successful lives.

Peter Campbell recently had this in a post at his blog that asks a central question regarding the KIPPsters that cannot be ignored:

Michel Foucault's chapter on discipline in Discipline and Punish keeps coming to mind, "the body as object and target of power" and the notion of "docile bodies" that are "subjected, used, transformed, and improved."

These docile bodies in KIPP schools are uniformly brown and black. No white body is subjected to this same kind of disciplined transformation. Indeed, the school motto is "Be nice, work hard." What white, suburban, middle-class parents would want this to be the goal of their child's education?

This does not stop many of the solutions-by-eliminating-symptoms thinkers, both conservative and liberal, from embracing a kind of New Age eugenics that ignores the need to change sociological realities of poor children in favor of working feverishly to change their individual psychologies.

Enter Martin Seligman and the power of positive non-thinking, er, psychology. Seligman is at the hub of an effort that links up the human capitalists of the John Templeton Foundation with the psychological capitalists and the academic drips from the
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi days of Flow, to form a potentially-lethal interdisciplinary matrix aimed at psychological engineering. This movement, in fact, provides the theoretical underpinning for KIPP, as Tough acknowledges in his piece:

Toll and Levin are influenced by the writings of a psychology professor from the University of Pennsylvania named Martin Seligman, the author of a series of books about positive psychology. Seligman, one of the first modern psychologists to study happiness, promotes a technique he calls learned optimism, and Toll and Levin consider it an essential part of the attitude they are trying to instill in their students. Last year, a graduate student of Seligman’s named Angela Duckworth published with Seligman a research paper that demonstrated a guiding principle of these charter schools: in many situations, attitude is just as important as ability.

Less crude, perhaps, than the biological and social engineering of the early 1900s, this new movement has all the potential to represent the contemporay new age equivalent of the eugenics movement applied to schooling. Make no mistake about it: attitude adjustment, or psychological sterilization, is the more important pedagogical goal at KIPP and at the other chain-gang scripted schools in poor neighborhoods. Work hard, be nice, indeed. In the hands of liberal idealists of the KIPP cult, the psychological capital movement stands to become a pernicious indoctrination strategy to alter the thoughts and behaviors of poor children to mimic middle class white children, while leaving them in communities where they serve as targets for gangs as they skip merrily all the way home, where they might or might not find there is something for dinner.

Just as the earlier eugenics movement had its positive and negative advocates, so does this current dystopic incarnation of futuristic mind management. There is the positive human capital group led by psychometric psychologists like Camilla Benbow at Vanderbilt. These folks are interested in accentuating the positive, if you will--by identifying talented and gifted children who can be identified early (with tests) and then provided the enriched learning experiences that their peculiar talents merit. As Benbow reminds us, children with IQs of 200 require different educational treatments than children with IQs of 140. Never mind the rest, who are involved, anyway, in learning to work hard, be nice.

Then, on the negative side, there is Seligman and his disciples, Toll and Levin, whose enthusiasm for the new positive psychology could easily be mistaken for preemptive interventions for imminent psychological abnormalities. Abnormal psychology was, after all, the focus of Seligman's work before he decided to shift to the sunny side of life, if you will.

Here are a couple of quotes from Seligman that put more light on his brave new world that resembles an unending happiness therapy session, where we all may become, regardless of our hunger pangs, capable of exercising mindless optimism over matters of fact that we are unwilling to change:

But perhaps we are blinded to the survival value of positive emotions precisely because they are so important. Like the fish who is unaware of the water in which it swims, we take for granted a certain amount of hope, love, enjoyment, and trust because these are the very conditions that allow us to go on living. They are the fundamental conditions of existence, and if they are present, any amount of objective obstacles can be faced with equanimity, and even joy. . . .

We predict that positive psychology in this new century will come to understand and build those factors that allow individuals, communities, and societies to flourish. Such a science will not need to start afresh. It requires for the most part just a redirecting of scientific energy. In the fifty years since psychology and psychiatry became healing disciplines, they developed a highly transferable science of mental illness. They developed a usable taxonomy as well as reliable and valid ways of measuring such fuzzy concepts as schizophrenia, anger, and depression. They developed sophisticated methods-both experimental and longitudinal-for understanding the causal pathways that lead to such undesirable outcomes. And most importantly they developed pharmacological and psychological interventions which have moved many of the mental disorders from "untreatable" to "highly treatable" and in a couple of cases, "curable." These same methods, and in many cases the same laboratories and the next generation of scientists, with a slight shift of emphasis and funding, will be used to measure, understand, and build those characteristics that make life most worth living.

During the early enthusiasm for the new "science" of eugenics in the previous century, luminaries like Alexander Graham Bell and philanthropies such as the Carnegie Foundation gave their support to those wicked perversions of science. No one at the time could have known that just a few years later, a madman would inspire a nation to implement a killing machine based on that "science" that would end in the deaths of six million individuals.

In this century, we have history to remind us of the capacities of our darker natures. It is worth recalling, I believe, what John Dewey noted way back in 1897, even though his truth then was no less neglected than it is today:
I believe that this educational process has two sides - one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following.


Dan W. Butin said...


Your basic argument is accurate:

“Until the sociological and economic realities of poor people are acknowledged and changed, there will be no closing of the achievement gap, which is, in fact, a healthcare gap, opportunity gap, income gap, housing gap, and finally, an education gap.”

But it seems to come with a lot of unneeded baggage. First, you promote a highly stereotypical depiction of urban environments. You tacitly endorse John Derbyshire’s description: “I am sure there are some people who enter the teaching profession with the desire to crunch their way daily across the crack-vial-littered streets of crime-wrecked inner-city neighborhoods in order to put in 15-hour working days, but I doubt there are many such.” You depict urban environments as “these mean street schools”; you endorse Peter Campbell’s notion of poor youth as “docile bodies”; you link KIPP with “the other chain-gang scripted schools in poor neighborhoods”; you claim that poor children come home “where they might or might not find there is something for dinner.”

I have done long-term case studies in Danville, Virginia and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (where the high school drop-out rates are second and first, respectively, in their respective states). This is not what I saw, nor what the national data tells us. Crack vials were a product of the 1980s. Today the drug of choice is meph. Crime statistics have actually decreased dramatically in the last decade in most urban environments. Hunger is not the prime issue for urban families: lack of access to affordable and decent health care and living-wage jobs are. And docile bodies are found just as often in rich schools as poor.

Second, you ignore the driving point of Tough’s argument, even if it is ultimately misguided, which is that there are known, proven, and replicable programmatic interventions that raise achievement levels of poor and minority youth to the level of white, middle-class youth. Mine is not an argument for high-stakes, standardized assessment or instruction. It is an argument, though, for searching for policy-driven solutions that can positively impact the teaching and learning conditions of schools woefully under-resourced and under-staffed. I think we have to ask why lower-class and minority families send their children to schools such as these. I think the answer is that they want their children to have access to the same success as white, middle-class children have access to. You may not appreciate the way KIPP does it, but that does not take away these populations’ desire to gain what we already have and take all-too easily for granted.

Aaron Schutz said...

I'm not sure I have completely digested Jim's entire argument, but I think Dan's response feels right in many ways, even though I am sympathetic to much of what Jim is saying.

In support of Jim's argument, one thing it's important to point out is that for many of these kids "academic achievement" is something of a false dream. Suburban middle-class parents are never going to let these kids compete with their kids on an equal basis. A recent study showed that an African American male with a clean record was less likely to be hired than a white male with a criminal record.

On the other hand, apparently small differences in class position may make a great deal of difference to folks trapped at the bottom. As Pattillo-McCoy points out, many African Americans in the "middle" class are not in particularly high paying or high status positions.

In any case, in the absence of other realistic options for their children, it is not surprising that parents send their kids to KIPP-like schools. Even knowing what you know now, with no other real options, what would *you* do in their position?

And, in fact, kids are not docile bodies. They are perfectly capable of critiquing the world around them (often very sophisticated at this, actually). The fact that people may be trying to socially engineer them doesn't mean they are succeeding. In general, these kids are tough--like all kids living in difficult circumstances they have no choice. They are not dumb enough to be skipping home and ignoring the issues in their community (although schools have little to say to them about how they might respond). It is quite possible that these kids are taking some useful things from these schools (supported by their apparently safe and ordered if misguided environments) and leaving most of the rest of the treacly crap behind.

Whether they are learning more than a sham of middle-class discourse, a set of practices that might allow them to actually succeed in college and other middle class settings, is unclear to me.

I have to say, though, that the image of a kid sitting alone in a lunchroom with "miscreant" pinned to him or herself makes me sick to my stomach.

Craig A. Cunningham said...

Like Aaron and Dan, I agree with a lot of Jim's skepticism toward the KIPP approach. Dan is correct that Jim's argument is muddled by the stereotypes, which are neither accurate nor necessary. What is compelling, in my view, is the connection between the motivations behind the "attitude adjustment" of KIPP and the motivations behind the eugenics movement. Both seek to alter the behavior of certain classes of people in order to increasse the prevalence of the behavior of other classes of people. (What's difficult is to say how this differs from the social goals of education generally; but let's leave that aside for now.)

The quotes from Seligman about the successful development of "pharmacological and psychological interventions which have moved many of the mental disorders from 'untreatable' to 'highly treatable' and in a couple of cases, 'curable.' We as a society have gradually accepted that it is not only acceptable but noble for people with mental and emotional "disorders" to subject themselves to chemical and behavioral treatments that allow them to think and feel in a more "normal" way (that is, in a way that is more like the majority of people). This almost seems a "no brainer," given that we've accepted the notion that these disorders are "diseases" that "make life less worth living," and hence, deserve to be treated (as an ulcer or injured limb deserves to be treated).

What is troubling is that KIPP (and direct instruction, and other such "educational methods") apply behavioristic treatments not to individuals who have sought treatment for a disease, but to GROUPS of people who fail to otherwise conform to what educational policy makers deem to be "normal" behavior, for example, caring about their performance on standardized tests. Because in many urban communities, the regular public schools are so terribly bad, the parents of many of these kids feel desperate to find a way for their kids to not only "care" about their performance on the tests, but to "achieve" whatever success is indicated by "passing scores" on such tests. These parents, and the educational leaders of the communities that have welcomed KIPP into the public schools, are quite happy with the notion that by "treating" the kids' "disorders" with such behavioristic techniques as candy for good behavior (and "miscreant" signs-around-the-neck for bad behavior) that these kids will conform to social expectations in terms of their displayed behaviors and attitudes. And we all know that such "treatments" are less expensive financially and politically than curing SOCIAL "diseases" such as poverty and racial discrimination.

Again, this is made even more palatable by the "success" of using drugs such as ritalin to "treat" such "disorders" as hyperactivity and attention-deficit disorder. Indeed, I suspect that if there were a "medicine" that could instantly cause children to want to succeed on standardized tests, many many people would jump at the chance to drug their children with this substance.

So what is wrong with parents and policy-makers using whatever means are at their disposal to "treat" the "disorder" of low academic achievement? I can see a few ways to critique this trend.

(1) the treatment of "groups" for their attitudinal disorders smacks of eugenics: the manipulation of minority cultures by the majority for the purpose of snuffing out the minority culture.

(2) the definition of "normal" as doing well on standardized tests is, well, simply unbelievable (but that's where we are at as a society). Who decided that this was even a good thing?

(3) the only people choosing these treatments are the desperate ones. (Desperate people are given to trying anything--including quack cures.)

(4) the whole regime deflects our society's attention to the social issues underlying the "educational" problems of individuals or groups of individuals.

(5) it destroys diversity.

Don't any of these arguments hold any water in educational policy discussions?

Aaron Schutz said...

Good question, Craig. How does KIPP really depart from the usual social functions of schooling?

Peter Campbell said...

The question always arises about KIPP, et al: "What do we make of the fact that there are waiting lists at these schools, and that parents seem to be happy with them?"

As Craig said, desperate people do desperate things. And as Aaron implores us, "What would *you* do in their position?"

These questions and observations always occur as red herrings to me. If we were to imagine an analogous situation, we might look at the "success" that some African-American slaves demonstrated while held in captivity, e.g. that some slaves learned to read and write. We might celebrate theses successes. We might even promote the means by which these successes were made possible. But in celebrating these successes, we take our eye off the larger problem: slavery.

I would argue that, analogously, KIPP looks to celebrate the "accomplishments" of an extraordinarily small percentage of the population. It, along with its proponents, say, "This is how we can solve the problems of minority children." And while it can doubtlessly raise the standardized test scores of the majority of its students, it remains in doubt what else it does to positively benefit this minutely small number of children. Worse, it creates the illusion that *something* can be done for these kids and, in so doing, takes momentum away from the more substantive changes that Jim alluded to in his original post. In celebrating these KIPP "successes", we take our eye off the larger problem: social and economic injustice.

So what would I do in their position? It's like asking concentration camp inmates what they did to pass the time at Auschwitz. The question assumes the immutable, unquestioned reality of the status quo. It implies, "Given that absolutely nothing else can be done by you or by anyone else, what will you do to make your living hell on earth a little more palatable?"

What would I do? I'd demand justice.