Outliers 2: We need KIPP

When we last discussed Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book Outliers we reviewed the disconnect between the philosophies of how poor families raise their children vs. wealthy families, regardless of race.  What we learned is that wealthy families are more likely to challenge their children via a parenting style referred to as "concerted cultivation", which is an attempt to actively "foster and assess a child's talents, opinions and skills." This in contrast to poor parents who follow a strategy of "accomplishment of natural growth" who see their responsibility as caring for their children but to allowing them to grow and develop on their own.

Next up we discover later in the book Mr. Gladwell’s research into education and what creates a divide between rich and poor.  Here he uses the example of research undertaken by Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander to demonstrate how the biggest problem between wealthy and poor students is that wealthy students are exposed to environments of continued learning during their evenings and summer breaks while poor students are not and tend to lag behind as they are more likely to forget elements of what they’ve learned.  Summer breaks, he suggests, are the biggest disadvantage to the success of education.

As an example Mr. Gladwell provides the story of Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and how it has dramatically changed the lives of underprivileged youth.

KIPP Academy seems like the kind of school in the

kind of neighborhood with the kind of student that would

make educators despair—except that the minute you

enter the building, it's clear that something is different.

The students walk quietly down the hallways in single file.

In the classroom, they are taught to turn and address anyone

talking to them in a protocol known as "SSLANT":

smile, sit up, listen, ask questions, nod when being spoken

to, and track with your eyes. On the walls of the school's

corridors are hundreds of pennants from the colleges that

KIPP graduates have gone on to attend. Last year, hundreds

of families from across the Bronx entered the lottery

for KIPP's two fifth-grade classes. It is no exaggeration to

say that just over ten years into its existence, KIPP has

become one of the most desirable public schools in New

York City.

What KIPP is most famous for is mathematics. In the

South Bronx, only about 16 percent of all middle school students

are performing at or above their grade level in math.

But at KIPP, by the end of fifth grade, many of the students

call math their favorite subject. In seventh grade, KIPP students

start high school algebra. By the end of eighth grade,

84 percent of the students are performing at or above their

grade level, which is to say that this motley group of ran-

domly chosen lower-income kids from dingy apartments

in one of the country's worst neighborhoods—whose

parents, in an overwhelming number of cases, never set

foot in a college—do as well in mathematics as the privileged

eighth graders of American's wealthy suburbs. "Our

kids' reading is on point," said David Levin, who founded

KIPP with a fellow teacher, Michael Feinberg, in 1994.

"They struggle a little bit with writing skills. But when

they leave here, they rock in math."

There are now more than fifty KIPP schools across the

United States, with more on the way. The KIPP program

represents one of the most promising new educational

philosophies in the United States. But its success is best

understood not in terms of its curriculum, its teachers, its

resources, or some kind of institutional innovation. KIPP

is, rather, an organization that has succeeded by taking

the idea of cultural legacies seriously.

KIPP was founded on the realization that the biggest problem with education today does not lie with the teachers, nor does it lie with the resources or the curriculum.  Instead it was realized that it is the structure of schooling that is the biggest problem and thus KIPP is fundamentally different from traditional western schools.

"They start school at seven twenty-five," says David Levin

of the students at the Bronx KIPP Academy. "They all do

a course called thinking skills until seven fifty-five. They

do ninety minutes of English, ninety minutes of math

every day, except in fifth grade, where they do two hours

of math a day. An hour of science, an hour of social science,

an hour of music at least twice a week, and then you

have an hour and fifteen minutes of orchestra on top of

that. Everyone does orchestra. The day goes from seven

twenty-five until five p.m. After five, there are homework

clubs, detention, sports teams. There are kids here from

seven twenty-five until seven p.m. If you take an average

day, and you take out lunch and recess, our kids are

spending fifty to sixty percent more time learning than

the traditional public school student'

Alexander’s research showed that the problem wasn’t that schools weren’t working, the problem is the long breaks in between.  KIPP aims to change this by restructuring schooling and expands on it by taking extra time to make schooling more relaxed and a better environment for learning.

He continued: "Saturdays they

come in nine to one. In the summer, it's eight to two." By

summer, Levin was referring to the fact that KIPP students

do three extra weeks of school, in July. These are,

after all, precisely the kind of lower-income kids who

Alexander identified as losing ground over the long summer

vacation, so KIPP's response is simply to not have a

long summer vacation.

"The beginning is hard," he went on. "By the end of

the day they're restless. Part of it is endurance, part of

it is motivation. Part of it is incentives and rewards and

fun stuff. Part of it is good old-fashioned discipline. You

throw all of that into the stew. We talk a lot here about grit

and self-control. The kids know what those words mean."

KIPP spends extra time in the classroom but uses it more effectively.

"What that extra time does is allow for a more relaxed

atmosphère," [teacher Frank] Corcoran said, after the class was over. "I

find that the problem with math education is the sink-or swim

approach. Everything is rapid fire, and the kids who

get it first are the ones who are rewarded. So there comes

to be a feeling that there are people who can do math and

there are people who aren't math people. I think that

extended amount of time gives you the chance as a teacher

to explain things, and more time for the kids to sit and

digest everything that's going on—to review, to do things

at a much slower pace. It seems counterintuitive but we

do things at a slower pace and as a result we get through a

lot more. There's a lot more retention, better understanding

of the material. It lets me be a little bit more relaxed.

We have time to have games. Kids can ask any questions

they want, and if I'm explaining something, I don't feel

pressed for time. I can go back
over material and not feel

time pressure." The extra time gave Corcoran the chance

to make mathematics meaningful: to let his students see

the clear relationship between effort and reward.

On the walls of the classroom were dozens of certificates

from the New York State Regents exam, testifying

to first-class honors for Corcoran's students. "We had a

girl in this class," Corcoran said. "She was a horrible math

student in fifth grade. She cried every Saturday when we

did remedial stuff. Huge tears and tears." At the memory,

Corcoran got a little emotional himself. He looked down.

"She just e-mailed us a couple weeks ago. She's in college

now. She's an accounting major."

The entire chapter (Chapter 9, Marita’s Bargain) is an excellent read and identifies some clear cut solutions we should be trying in our own public system.  For that matter the entire book is worth a read and study of how we can improve things locally for the betterment of Bermudians.

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6 thoughts on “Outliers 2: We need KIPP

  1. Excellent post. I like the idea of KIPP.
    The only complaint I can see is to do away with the summer holiday, there will be some opposition to that. As a parent though, I would welcome keeping the children in school for longer.

  2. They suggest 3 extra weeks in July which shortens the summer holiday but doesn’t do away with it.
    The evidence given in the book is quite telling regarding the testing of student knowledge before and after the summer break but it was too long to post here. Summer breaks in poor families are quite detrimental in contrast to wealthy families where students of poor families forget parts of what they learned while students of wealthier families improve upon what they’ve learned. It creates a growing gap that causes students of poorer families to fall behind in the long run.
    Really we need to decide what we want. Do we want a great education system that provides real opportunities or do we want kids to continue being disadvantaged?
    The way KIPP was originally implemented was to create one small school and hold a lottery for those who wanted to get in. Students and parents would apply and then it would be a random draw. I would think something similar would be good here allowing you to separate out those who want to participate in such a program from those who don’t.

  3. I can hear the civil libertarians now…
    The problem with the lottery is that you can be seen to be discriminating against people who aren’t in the program. You MIGHT be able to float it as a pilot program initially, but, once it was successful, everyone else would complain about being excluded.
    I remember vaguely some study showing the average student forgot about 40% of their material learned during the year prior over their summer break. It would definitely be higher for the disadvantaged.
    I am all for a new and improved system. KIPP would do it, but it would have to be all or nothing to get through.
    Mind you, people will complain no matter what.

  4. Renaissance Man,
    One second you’re complaining that you wouldn’t want your kids to give up their summer holiday, the next it’s that not everyone would be included.
    It’s rather confusing.
    For an introduction, sometimes life isn’t fair. Indeed, many people have no problem discriminating when it comes to the lottery for conscription do they?
    If the program is highly successful than there would be no reason why it shouldn’t be rolled out across the board. As you said, some people want to keep their summers so starting small and working larger would provide the opportunity for those are not interested to not apply.
    It would be worthwhile to give Karl Alexander’s study a read either via Malcolm Gladwell’s outlier book or via a copy of it that I’ve found online: http://www.asanet.org/galleries/default-file/April07ASRfeature.pdf
    If we truly want to see a difference then we’ll need to explore realistic changes that can be made. If this program has achieved great success doing something fundamentally different than it is worth exploring.

  5. Sorry, I wasn’t being clear.
    What I was trying to do is play Devil’s Advocate, just trying to show what the inevitable naysayers would say. Please note, I am not one of them.
    My personal view is, go for it. I would love not to have to find summer camps for an additional month. Also, I like the pilot program, because it does give a choice for parents. Plus, anything that works that well should be attempted here. But for some reason, our education ministry to date has chosen systems that were being phased out by others as being ineffective. It remains to be seen what, if anything, transpires with the Cambridge curriculum.

  6. Thank you for bringing to our attention Dennis. You can introduce many things and you will always have the skeptics that think they know it all.
    I tired of written words. We need to hear more voices with a face.
    Give everyone $1Million dollars, a new house, free health, free education and the same ones that are affluent will cry foul.
    A degree is a piece of paper. Common sense and gratitude..

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