Friday, December 8, 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.

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