Wednesday, August 29, 2012

KIPP and Racial Assumptions

It has by now become fairly well-known that KIPP often has unprecedented success in teaching poor minority urban kids.

Critics are thereby aroused to argue that KIPP's success is explained by selection and attrition, rather than because KIPP is actually doing anything better.

One of Ravitch's correspondents says, "I am sick of hearing the same old KIPP talking points. The issue about KIPP, as well as other 'no excuses' charter schools, is that regardless of incoming scores, the kids with the toughest behaviors and often lowest scores are getting pushed out. . . . there is nothing miraculous about teaching an easier group of kids. Nothing."

Another correspondent says, "I do not think you cherry pick students, but the students who choose to go are different in motivation and peer effects do come in to play." Another (one-note) KIPP opponent says, "It’s not an inherently bad way to operate, providing a setting for motivated and compliant young people from supportive families without the pull of what sociologist Elijah Anderson calls 'the street.'" And in this interview, Ravitch herself is oddly resistant to admitting that KIPP's longer school day could possibly be making even the slightest difference; instead, she says the only lesson to be learned from KIPP is that they "take out the low-performing kids and get high scores."

Here's my counter-argument: It would be one thing to say that part of KIPP's success is due to selection and attrition, maybe even 30% or so. But to suggest that most or all of KIPP's success is due to those factors is actually one of the more racially insensitive things that anyone ever says in mainstream debate.  (Or at least it would be, if any of these critics ever had the clarity of thought to specify exactly what percentage of KIPP's success is due to selection/attrition.)

It's unwitting, to be sure; most of the critics haven't thought through the logical implications of what they're saying, and they would sincerely deny being racist in their thoughts or intentions. But even granting their personal good will, what they are saying is full of racially problematic implications. These KIPP critics are effectively saying that poor minority children are incapable of genuinely learning anything more than they already do. If poor minority children seem to be learning more, it can't really be true; there must be some more sinister explanation for what's going on.

To spell this argument out a bit more, one of the key factors behind KIPP's success (and that of some other charter schools) is that they spent substantially more time teaching kids. Angrist, Pathak, and Walters analyzed the success of Boston's urban charter schools in this paper, concluding that "urban charters push their students well beyond ambient non-charter achievement in central cities." They attribute this striking success partly to the extra time that "No Excuses" schools spend:
The average urban charter year lasts 189 days and has a school day of 464 minutes, compared to 183 days and 422 minutes at non-urban schools. The additional time appears to go to increased math and reading instruction; urban schools spend 35 extra minutes per day on math and 40 extra minutes per day on reading. Urban charter schools are also 38 percent more likely to have Saturday school.
Adding that up: (183 days times 42 extra minutes per day) plus (6 extra days times 464 minutes) = 10,470 minutes or 174.5 extra hours per year.

KIPP goes even further: while it's difficult to generalize, KIPP's longer school days, Saturday sessions, and summer sessions can end up spending 400 hours more per year than the other public schools.

Now, it's a paradox that only in education does one find the fundamentally anti-intellectual attitude that spending more time is a bad idea. In any other endeavor in life, everyone knows that practice makes perfect. If you practice the piano 3 hours a day, all else being equal, you'll be better than if you practice one hour a day. If you run 5 miles a day, you'll be a better runner than if you run 3 miles a day.

To be sure, there are obvious qualifications. If you're practicing sloppily and without thinking, extra piano practice might just cement the errors rather than improve your technique. Or if you're running at a snail's pace, you might do better with shorter but more intense runs. So the deliberateness and intensity of practice matters, not just the length.

There are points of diminishing returns as well: if you try to practice the piano 16 hours a day, or run 25 miles a day, you'll end up burned out and injured. But very few of us are in any danger of getting anywhere near those limits as to any activity.

For the vast majority of us, the following is true: as long as you are practicing a skill with a deliberate and thoughtful strategy in mind, more practice is better, with the limit being so much practice that you'll probably never approach it. 

Indeed, even KIPP's critics are aware of this principle when their own ox is gored. That is, if the question is the value of Teach for America, whose teachers tend to be fairly young, the same people who criticize KIPP wax eloquent about how much value is obtained by extra years of experience. In other words, KIPP's critics are well aware that more time doing something usually means getting better at it.

So here comes KIPP, saying that it is going to spend 400-600 more hours every year teaching kids, not by having them do inane projects, but by giving them creative and deliberate lessons aimed at getting them to improve at both basic skills and critical thinking. This allows KIPP students not only to spend extra time on reading and math, but to study all of the other subjects that Diane Ravitch says that she wants in a good curriculum. See what this KIPP teacher says (starting at 2:40 or so):


Transcript: "Our students go to school much more than their peers at traditional public schools. . . . So there's time for study of music, time for study of art, time for them to get extra help from their teachers during office hours."

Now here's the key point: If selection and attrition is what explains KIPP's good results, then that logically means that several hundred extra hours a year being instructed in reading, math, music, art, etc. do NOT explain KIPP's good results. But wait a minute: what does that really mean?

Nothing less than this: several hundred hours a years instructing kids doesn't actually make much difference. Recall that KIPP's critics say that if KIPP's students seem to be learning more, it must be an artifact of how KIPP selects kids and then pushes out the low-performers. In saying that, KIPP's critics are implying, however unwittingly, that no amount of effort or study could possibly get poor urban minorities to learn anything more. 

What a depressing and cynical thing to suggest.

So here's the message to KIPP critics: Criticize selection and attrition to the extent that they actually happen, if you like. Argue, if you want, that KIPP's model is so demanding that it's not scalable. But stop being so oblivious to the implications of what you're saying. If your anti-KIPP jealousy drives you to say that selection and attrition are the whole story, then you need to take a breath and rethink your argument. Perhaps you should even acknowledge that it might do some kids some good to spend more time learning.


Blogger Unknown said...

Excellent post. I'm 90% with you. 95% actually.

One nit. Or at least a question.

I'm curious how you process some of the fairly solid studies showing the failure of extended day programs. MA, DC come to mind. More time, no gains.

It could be that the additional time was used inanely, to use your term.

But my sense of these schools, particularly in MA, was that the time was used "reasonably." Just not optimally.

12:52 PM  

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