The Ends Do Not Justify the Mean(ness)

Amputation is an instant and effective weight-loss strategy, but I don’t recommend it.

Mathematica Policy Research releases a new report on Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools Tuesday, February 26, 2013: “The new KIPP evaluation covers 41 KIPP middle schools in 13 states and in the District of Columbia.”

Let me state for the record, and using a George W. Bush-style pre-emptive strike, that regardless of Mathematica’s conclusions about whether or not KIPP middle schools are succeeding, regardless of the myriad data points, metrics, or outcomes upon which the report bases those conclusions, I remain steadfast in my rejecting KIPP charters, along with their relationship with Teach for America (TFA), their obsession with college-readiness grounded in test-prep, and their most corrosive commitments to “no excuses” and zero-tolerance practices.

I welcome reviews of the Mathematica study, and I anticipate that Mathematica, KIPP, and the media will offer less credible conclusions from the data than the reviews (and I suspect those reviews will receive far less coverage by the media). But, all in all, I cannot support KIPP and KIPP-like “no excuses” charter schools anymore than I can recommend amputation as a weight-loss strategy.

And while my skepticism bordering on cynicism about what political, public, and media perception of the KIPP report will entail is firm, I also see a tiny glimmer of hope on the horizon of education reform. So let me offer here a few hints that the tide may be turning, a tide away from “no excuses” and school-only reform discourse and policies and toward a recognition that a free people must commit to equity for all if any of us are to remain free.

(1) Equity is now on the public, media, and political radar. And with that recognition, some headway is being achieved in also acknowledging that social inequity contributes to education inequity, and then educational inequity is both a reflection and a perpetuation of that social inequity. Consider a few points related to equity:

• In “The Case for Investing in Disadvantaged Young Children,” James J. Heckman offers some evidence-based and sobering realities:

“Families play a powerful role in shaping adult outcomes. The accident of birth is a major source of inequality….About 50 percent of the variance in inequality in lifetime earnings is determined by age 18. In shaping adult outcomes, the family plays a powerful role that is not fully appreciated in current policies around the world.” (pp. 49, 56)

• In Equality of Educational Opportunity: A 40-Year Retrospective, Adam Gamoran and Daniel A. Long reinforce that the inequity identified in the Coleman Report remains today:

“Forty years on, the findings of the Coleman report hold up remarkably well, in some ways distressingly so….First, policies could be enacted across the board that have greater benefits for disadvantaged students than for their more advantaged peers. Second, policies that have similar effects on all students could be focused mainly on disadvantaged students.”

• Report: U.S. should focus on equity in education, by Valerie Strauss at her The Answer Sheet (Washington Post), and For Each and Every Child represent a media and political recognition that education reform has failed to address social and education inequity.

• Research is revealing a powerful pattern showing that community schools tend to reflect the inequity of the community they serve. As disturbing, however, is that education reform committed to charter schools, TFA, and new standards and high-stakes testing tends to replicate and even intensify where traditional public schools are struggling.

(2) “No excuses” and zero-tolerance practices, implemented almost exclusively in urban and majority-minority schools, are being exposed as classist and racist solutions fit only for “other people’s children.” The Mathematica report will be a quantitative-data-orgy of the type that I tend to loathe. Numbers can be useful, but often they aren’t. Stories, however, better help us to confront the means regardless of the outcomes:

• Hope against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children by Sarah Carr gives those stories voices, faces, and lives as she details the rise of “no excuses” charter schools in the wake of disaster capitalism in post-Katrina New Orleans.

• In Police in the Hallways, Kathleen Nolan examines how zero-tolerance policies reinforce the school-to-prison pipeline but also create schools-as-prisons (and helps lend credibility to why KIPP students often refer to themselves as “kids in prison program”).

• Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom and “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, by Lisa Delpit, present a scholarly response to policies aimed only at “other people’s children,” practices that in fact fail the populations they claim to serve.

(3) High-stakes, standardized testing is being unmasked as not only a failed solution to social and educational inequity, but also a key mechanism in contributing to inequity. Maybe, just maybe, the wheels are starting come off the corporate scam that is high-stakes testing.

• Garfield High teachers have awakened a national consciousness about the misguided power of testing, but much work is left to be done to help political, public, and media voices recognize that testing is more than flawed as a high-stakes mechanism for education reform (note Campbell’s Law).

• High-stakes testing creates inequity, but few will admit this; in fact, many progressive and social justice activists remain convinced that the problem is how tests are used, not testing itself. For example, on Twitter, Michael Roush offered support for addressing the equity gap, but then stated: “But an eye test didn’t give me astigmatism.” This comment makes a false analogy because an eye exam identifying astigmatism is a direct observation of a condition, and thus is analogous to taking attendance, not administering a test. Tests are approximations of learning, and often very poor ones at that. As long as most people continue to ascribe to testing qualities it doesn’t achieve (objectivity, perfect validity, perfect reliability), testing will both quantify and contribute to inequity, as Hickman warns: “Currently, public policy in the United States and many other countries focuses on promoting and measuring cognitive ability through IQ and achievement tests. A focus on achievement test scores ignores important noncognitive factors that promote success in school and life.”

So as I noted above, I will not be looking for what the Mathematica report on KIPP claims—although I will not ignore that or the reviews of how credible those claims prove to be—but I do look for how we all respond to the report as another step either toward failed reform narratives or another glimmer of hope that many are starting to see that inequity is the primary problem that we are not addressing, but should.

At no point, however, am I willing to allow the ends to justify the meanness.


  1. And all it takes is a minority of corporate evangelicals in our US Congress to listen to what they want to hear and disregard and just say no to the rest. Overarching requisites to changing the narrative: reverse the austerity of our macro-economic vision; overwhelm the forces behind the corruption of financialization of public schools, their imminent demise, by subordinating the gerrymandered voter fraud brought to bear in states and counties through that minority’s far right thinking and the ALEC rewrite of libertarian homogeneity to the ash heap of some gone world.


  1. […] based on the Mathematica press release and almost none at all on the reviews to follow—I have stated repeatedly that the outcomes and data-fetish surrounding KIPP cannot justify for me the “no […]

  2. […] The Ends Do Not Justify the Mean(ness) – @ the chalk face. […]

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