Demographics do not define destiny

In one of his TED talks, Ken Robinson briefly mentioned the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a system of free ‘college-preparatory’ public schools that serves students from low-income communities, who are typically at risk of under-achieving at school (see Ch. 3): their stated mission is to ensure that every student graduates from university. Their model serves over 32,000 students from communities where 10% of students graduate from university. 85% of KIPP students graduate.

An analysis by Angrist et al. (2010) found that typically under-served students significantly benefited from KIPP, arguing that this is due to their “No Excuses” approach (Carter, 2000; Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 2003). But is this really the secret to their success? According to the teachers, the success of KIPP in giving students who, as far as anyone can tell, would otherwise under-perform, the opportunities and drive towards learning and self-improvement, lies within high expectations placed upon its students and consistent ‘behavior [sic] management’. Whilst Ross et al. mentioned that we can only speculate about which elements of KIPP were effective, their conclusion was that KIPP schools appear to achieve such high standards for a number of reasons, including their emphasis on expectations of high standards from students (Wentzel, 1997, suggests that perceived caring predicts motivational outcomes, which will inevitably affect any student’s attainment), consistent behaviour management, teachers’ commitment to the program, extended learning hours (which encouraged teachers to vary their strategies to avoid boring their students)… students’ complaints were mostly directed towards disciplinary measures.

Ross et al. (2007) found that, in a survey of students, staff and parents at one KIPP school, perceptions of KIPP climate attributes such as high expectations (“preparing students to be competitive for the schools that they will attend after 8th grade”), involvement, and collaboration were significantly higher than national norms – notably, 100% of respondents agreed that “teachers have high expectations for all students”. These results could be a result of selection bias – a criticism of KIPP is that their admission process not only requires parents to commit to a certain amount of involvement, thereby excluding children from dysfunctional families, but also self-screens for motivated and compliant students (cf. Bulkley & Fisler, 2002; RAND, 2001); alarmingly high attrition rates for some low-performing students, as well as teacher turnover rates, are also evident in some KIPP schools. (KIPP schools are run independently of one another, however, and this study only looked at San Francisco Bay Area KIPP schools.) It is also clear, however, that for those students who did not leave, the benefits are substantial.

We have evidence that the negative effect of poverty on chances of leaving school with qualifications applies here in the UK, too (Ermisch & Francesconi, 2001), so the benefits of such a system in terms of low-income children’s qualifications are apparent – but more importantly, is academic achievement the best score of success? Clearly academic achievement is preferable to underachievement, but standardised test scores aren’t, and shouldn’t be, the arbiter of a successful school. Maybe a measurement such as PISA (see p. 119) would be a more appropriate measure of a school’s success.

Overall, the KIPP program has been shown to produce significant benefits in students who would otherwise suffer in school. Considering the recent news about underachieving students in the UK, and the evidence that such a system would improve educational mobility in poor households, which we could really do with (p. 133), we might benefit from some of the lessons learnt from KIPP.

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One response to “Demographics do not define destiny

  1. Pingback: A working class hero is something to be | PSP-3003 Science of Education 2011/12

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