Jay Mathews' seven myths about the KIPP charter schools

Jay Mathews’ new book on KIPP challenges the truth of some popular ideas about the school. I’m working on a review of Jay Mathews’ new book about the KIPP charter school network, which I just devoured over the weekend. (Preview of my thoughts: Extremely readable, honest, and — best of all — contains excellent advice for how to force Dave Levin to return your phone calls. Apparently one must call twice in fast succession.)

While I finish that up, here’s an executive summary of the book’s take-aways according to Mathews, a list of seven myths about KIPP. Mathews shared the list at a book talk at Education Sector, the Washington D.C. think tank. You can listen to the talk here.

1. KIPP is militaristic. Mathews’ account describes schools that are strict about discipline, often denying privileges like annual trips to students who do not behave or perform well academically. But he concludes that teachers are also warm and supportive. The chants KIPP is famous for, by Mathews’ account, are more like songs shared around a camp fire than grunted military rites.

2. KIPP’s curriculum is characterized by “drill and kill.” Work Hard. Be Nice. tells the story of a 25-year-old teacher in D.C. who asked to use a different math curriculum than the one Levin, a math teacher, favors, and then won a teaching award for her results. Every KIPP school, Mathews writes, gets to pick its own teachers and curriculum.

3. “KIPP is just a lot of white people telling black people what to do,” is the next conception Mathews declared a myth. The book describes the major role played by two non-white educators who mentored Levin and Feinberg early on: Rafe Esquith and Harriet Ball, who came up with the characteristic chants that help students memorize math facts. “KIPP started with a black person telling two white people what to do,” Mathews said.

4- “KIPP always brags about how they are saving the inner-city,” is the next myth. “They don’t believe they are saving the inner city and they almost never say that,” Mathews said. “It is us starry-eyed education writers who sometimes get sloppy and make it seem like the KIPP people are bragging.”

5- KIPP resists outside analysis. “This is the most studied charter school network there ever was,” Mathews said, citing an ongoing randomized sample study by Mathematica, annual reports on the national network’s progress, and a recent report by Jeff Henig at Columbia that summarized the findings of seven studies.

6- KIPP kicks out misbehaving or low-performing students. The book describes student attrition that stems from parents who do not want their children to continue with the rigorous, time-consuming demands — not children pushed out by their teachers.

7 – KIPP students come from families that are more active in their lives than the families of traditional public school students. Mathews says the case on this so-called “creaming” effect is so far inconclusive. Though some data from the Bronx and Baltimore suggest students arrive with more family support, other data provided by KIPP disputes that conclusion. Mathews also argues that the reverse argument is possible. “KIPP I think draws some lazy parents who like having a free afternoon daycare,” he said.