Saturday, February 3, 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

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