Knowledge is Power

I first learned about the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) college preparatory schools on 60 minutes a few years ago. More recently, KIPP was the subject of a section in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Gladwell’s treatment highlights the role that the extra time (both number of days of the school year and in-class hours each day) plays in KIPP’s success. But KIPP involves far more than that.

In Work Hard. Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America, Jay Mathews writes about the extraordinary success that KIPP’s network of schools has achieved and some of the reasons why. In a nutshell he attributes it to a combination of the following factors:

“---its instituting high expectations for all students, a longer school day, a principal totally in charge, an emphasis on finding the best teachers, rewards for student success, close contact with parents, a focus on results, and a commitment to preparing every child for a great high school, and, most important, college.”

In a review of this book Charles Sahm points to several other factors. They include (1) devoted teachers who stay after school to work with struggling students, (2) “mountains of homework, (3) encouragement of students to call teachers at their home, (4) enriched curriculum, and (5) a strong sense of community among the students, faculty, and parents.

Because of its overwhelming positive results during a time when educators are struggling to improve student learning, KIPP deserves to be looked at closely. Currently the KIPP network consists of 66 schools in 19 states with an enrollment of over 16,000 students. The students represent a wide range of groups—80% are low income and 90% are African American of Latino. What a challenge teaching such a class in an inner city neighborhood must be.

According to the KIPP website, more than 90% of the KIPP middle school students have gone on to college-prep high schools and more than 80% of those who have graduated from the program have gone on to college. Can the KIPP model be widely replicated on a nationwide basis? Surely it will be difficult. But that is what its proponents are currently trying to accomplish.

Sahm concludes his review by writing “KIPP has proved that great teachers, high expectations, extra class time, and much encouragement and commitment can close American’s educational achievement.”

Based on my days of teaching in an academic community, I know how important each of those factors can be, especially in an institution that is primarily devoted to student learning. I also know that much of the pleasure of teaching in a place like that comes from seeing how much academic success can do for a young person.

I taught at Reed College, a liberal arts college in the Northwest, a place of great freedom and intellectual vitality that year after year attracted a group of bright and talented students. They had drawn me to the college and sustained me throughout the 25 years that I was there.

The Reed educational model is not unlike KIPP’s. It is an institution of high intellectual expectations, demanding courses, and a keen sense of community. In turn, it has year after year well surpassed its competitors in the success of its graduates. Reed has consistently ranked in the top five among schools whose graduates go on to earn Ph.D.s in all fields.

Student accomplishment like this is one of the reasons teaching at Reed was so satisfying. I cannot help but believe that teachers at KIPP schools feel much the same way about their students. Student successes contribute to better teaching, which, in turn, enriches the classroom experience. This creates a powerful feedback loop that can make an enormous difference in the lives of the students and teachers who have the good fortune of being in an educational setting like this.