An evening with KIPP

In a fit of edugeekery I spent yesterday evening listening to Mike Feinburg, the founder of a prominent American charter school KIPP (Knowledge is Power Programme).  Feinburg was bought all the way out to New Zealand by the Roberston foundation, a charitable foundation set up by American hedge fund manager Julian Robertson.

Despite being a strong supporter of public schooling and pretty much in opposition to just about everything that the Robertson foundation has to say about education I was intrigued. I first came across KIPP when I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. The central thesis of Outliers is from a study by Ericsson that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practising a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.

That idea of 10,000 hours to become proficient at a task is something that undoubtedly drives KIPPs pedagogy . Teachers know that kids do not come to school at age 5 as a blank slate. Early childhood experiences and out of school extra curricula activities can set children up for success in life and conversely failure too. KIPP seeks to redress this discrepancy by lengthening the school day and year to give kids from low-income backgrounds the trips, the orchestra practice that is common in middle class homes and helps unlock doors to success. It’s what sociologists call cultural capital.

Feinburg is obviously a fan of Malcom Gladwell’s work because I heard him reference the concept of a Tipping Point from Gladwell’s first book a couple of times during his speech. Gladwell argues that small decisions can actually have huge impact on society and enable new ideas to spread like a virus. Which is why Feinburg himself admits that actually charter schools aren’t the silver bullet or the demon that either side of the debate claims them to be.

Feinburg argues that by opening up even 10% of the schooling to charters the system will start to improve. It is through providing families, particularly low-income ones, with choice from that forces public schools to lift their game if they want to keep students and quality teachers. Which is interesting because that is what we have in the New Zealand educational system.

In another fit of educational geekery I went to the Education counts website and found out that 85% of New Zealand students attend public schools, a further 11% attend integrated schools (Catholic, Kura, Montessori etc.) that teach the New Zealand curriculum but have special character and the remainder are in private schools. However as Feinburg points out the ability to set the school year, hire unregistered teachers and teacher salaries are still decisions that are out of the control of each school which he argues is integral to KIPP’s ability to get results.

Which is really the crux of current educational policy reform in New Zealand, teacher pay and conditions.  On one hand, you have those arguing that the current pay system is cumbersome and puts off young-go getters like Feinburg from getting into teaching and setting up new schools. While on the other, are the group that support traditional collective bargaining rights because so long as the money is good enough for money not to be an issue, then they are happy.  I’m going to out on a limb and say most teachers in New Zealand probably fall into the second camp.

However from what I saw last night educational policy debate is becoming increasingly polarized and for the most part not being driven by the people who are charged with making changes work for kids, teachers. Because sitting at that room I was depressed how disinterested the audience seemed in what was going on in KIPPs classroom.

What makes good teaching and learning at KIPP schools?

I don’t think many in the audience really cared even if the speaker himself could clearly articulate those goals.

What’s more it seemed as if large section of the audience last night simply didn’t like teachers and in particular public school teachers. Perhaps they believe that New Zealand teachers don’t arrive at 7 school and leave at 5. Perhaps it is because most of the New Zealand teaching workforce opposes National Standards and performance-based pay because we want to protect our easy ride at the expense of our students’ future

Like most educators what I reject is this notion of imposing economic models into schooling is good for kids’ education.  Having taught in a junior classroom during placement last year I know that our kids come to school with this joy for learning and natural enthusiasm yet even by the middle years kids are already hating school.

While failure is an obvious sign of disengagement from school so too is the question  ‘is that on the test?’  By boiling learning down to a series of skills to be passed on a test we run the risk of disengaging students. What use is it teaching kids to read if they hate reading due to spending hours on end filling out worksheets? I’m not sure that charter schools to the problems that are associated with industrial schooling. If anything, it seems to be literally more of the same.

But perhaps what made me feel most uncomfortable was that although it was never explicitly said, this meeting was talking about Maori and Pasifika kids education. Yet when I looked around there didn’t seem to be many Maori or Pasifika faces in the audience. If we were to learn anything from our recent history, you’d think it would be that we need to engage with our communities to find out what they need before we rush into fix problems but apparently we missed that particular NCEA credit.

One thought on “An evening with KIPP

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  1. You hit the crux of it when you said:

    What’s more it seemed as if large section of the audience last night simply didn’t like teachers and in particular public school teachers.

    Most people do not understand what teachers do, how they do it, or why they do it. They think we read picture books and finger paint all day.

    I was heartened when during the political panel at NZEI AM on Tuesday John Minto (representing the Mana party) said 20 people turned up to the Christchurch KIPP meeting, 80 people turned up to the Wellington KIPP meeting and approximately 100 turned up to the Auckland KIPP meeting (held in a venue that holds over 500 seated). He said a third of the Auckland attendees obviously were against Charter Schools, a third were obviously ACT party faithful and the other third were hard to tell.

    John Minto declared that it was obvious that the New Zealand public has no stomach for Charter Schools.

    I guess it is up to the education profession to educate the NZ public that a quality public education system is worth defending and to mobilise against NACT and their intentions.


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