Mathematica Study Reveals KIPP Cures Cancer!

No it doesn’t. [1]

But the Press Release, filled with italicized boldface reminded me of the Sniffling Accountant episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine champions the exclamation point.

Among the dramatic claims of “x months of additional learning growth,” I felt there was an underlying sense of “Methinks they doth protest too much”: “KIPP’s gains are not the result of ‘teaching to the test.’

And while KIPP benefits regardless of how accurate the report is about their accomplishments—because KIPP and other “choice” charters are compelled to pursue branding and the media will report often and inaccurately 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 excuses” policies that also characterized the charter chain.

“No excuses” policies are often called a “new” paternalism, as David Whitman explains in an article praising “no excuses” schools in Education Next:

By paternalistic I mean that each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance….But many paternalistic programs remain controversial because they seek to change the lifestyles of the poor, immigrants, and minorities, rather than the lifestyles of middle-class and upper-class families. The paternalistic presumption implicit in the schools is that the poor lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through to live according to the middle-class values that they, too, espouse.

The numbers and statistics (inane claims such as “months of learning growth” that are as pointless as identifying a book as being on the 4th-grade reading level) used to justify and praise KIPP charters are as accurate a portrayal of what happens to the students, parents, and teachers involved with those schools as Game of Thrones is realistic, with its inordinate amount of clean white teeth and topless women that make the airbrushing in Playboy seem rather shoddy.

I am more compelled by the stories drawn from KIPP and other “no excuses” charters in New Orleans as portrayed in Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope, notably one comment included in that book from principal Mary Laurie:

“I think we’ve done good work, but I don’t know that the numbers (test scores, attendance and graduation rates) will always reflect our good work because of the kids we take on,” said Laurie, referring to the fact that the school accepts some of the city’s most challenged and challenging students….“Walker’s a twenty-four-seven school. We believe we’ve got to find a way to give kids a safe place to be,” Laurie said. “And that’s not spoken for in these numbers.”

I believe Laurie’s concern is the comment of our time related to how we misunderstand and misrepresent every aspect of schooling because we keep the political and public gaze on the numbers and not the people involved.

We have become a people obsessed with the ends justifying the means when those means involve the least among us, specifically children, and disturbingly when the means impact children of color living in impoverished homes and communities.

And I also remain troubled that KIPP along with other highly segregated “no excuses” charter schools and Teach for America are tolerated and even empowered to flourish because they are experimentations with “other people’s children,” again mostly of color and mostly from poverty.

It is easy now to look back at something like the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and feel horror and disgust because of the dramatic details but also because of the luxury of this seemingly being something of our dark naive past.

And is also easy to focus on the inexcusable details of Tuskegee or to assume that prisoners are somehow less than human [2], thus deserve indignity, and fail to recognize that “missionary zeal,” [3] deficit views of certain people, and an “ends justify the means” mentality all lurked beneath decisions to perform medical experiments on those prisoners.

But it is often much harder to pull back the veil when the details are contemporary and not nearly so dramatic.

A “missionary zeal,” deficit views of impoverished children and their families, and an “ends justify the means” mentality characterize KIPP and TFA, and thus, I am cautioned, I am concerned, I am deeply skeptical.

Because of the Mathematica report, KIPP will be announced as doing something many have refuted: Succeeding with high-poverty students.

While that may prove to be technically true (although I doubt that), few if any will note that KIPP has achieved those results through advantages that do not exist in public schools and have been categorically rejected by the exact same people who will praise KIPP—much higher levels of per-pupil expenditures, lower class sizes, higher teacher compensation for more experience and qualifications (see Bruce Baker). Not to mention selectivity, attrition, under-serving ELL and special needs students, options public schools do not, and should not, have.

And those advantages of KIPP, not their “no excuses” policies, may very well be at the core of why they have raised test scores. But who will examine that? Who will ask that? Who will report that?

What remains most disturbing of all, however, is that almost nothing will be said about the inherent classism and racism running through how KIPP functions and why KIPP is so widely embraced.

Those of us who do ask these hard questions are likely to be attacked instead.

While I expect and welcome more lucid discussions of what KIPP has achieved, I believe above all else we must have a frank discussion of how that has been achieved. Or as Elaine would prefer, let’s discuss how KIPP achieves the scores they do!

[1] See the Press Release, In Focus, and Full Report

[2] If you assume that criminals and crimes are obvious, read The Reader.

[3] If you are not skeptical of “missionary zeal,” read The Color Purple and The Mosquito Coast.


  1. Dr. Thomas:
    As someone who teaches at a charter school, as part of TFA, I’m very open to self-criticism and introspection about “the movement”–that’s why I’m reading blog posts and articles like yours. However, I can’t make out a single actionable suggestion for closing the achievement gap among low-income and minority students in your posts, beyond “shut down the charter school-TFA nexus,” which doesn’t get us anywhere new and helpful in a search for education equality. I want to do what’s best for my 100 ELL, low-income students, and my charter school offered me one way of doing that. What are the good, recommended alternatives in your view? What non-charter, non-TFA affiliated schools are successfully educating inner-city, low-income, low-literacy students using methods that you would recommend and hope to emulate nationally? What positive political steps are you suggesting we take, beyond “abolish poverty and unjust socio-political structures in America,” which is unhelpfully vague? How do you suggest we hold schools accountable to serving their students with excellence? I dislike standardized test too, and loathe myself for “teaching” to them, and yet, I’m not sure I have a better solution for determining what schools are building up, and which are failing their students. Is funding for early childhood literacy your suggestion? Is it the hiking up of minimum wage? Totally integrated public schools, socio-economically and racially? 100% equal funding for all schools everywhere? These are honest and not rhetorical questions. I haven’t read your research specifically, however, a superficial glance at “anti-charter school” “anti TFA” criticisms online has left me without any idea of what your academic community is positively proposing. I’m certainly young and still ignorant about education best practices, but I’m very willing to be educated.

    • I’ve taught my summers at a charter school and am a regular faculty member the remainder of the year. I am sympathetic to the charter movement, but it is nothing close to what it once was and could be still. I work very closely with student teachers over the course of an entire academic year in an intense internship. Despite its flaws, I find it uncomfortable that you are able to find full-time employment in a school, with some of the most at-risk children, after a brief summer training. My trainings, when I was an elementary teacher, on just reading curriculum alone were more extensive. You know the answers, you just don’t want to admit them. It is indeed as you state, that schools should be funded equitably 100% and not based on property taxes. I’m sorry to say this, but folks like you without teaching degrees should not be full-time classroom teachers. If anything, you should begin your days as assistants or interns. This denigrates the profession. We should work towards integration of schools based on social class and not just focus on black and brown faces. And, we bag the accountable talk. As you know, you are accountable to your students, not some outsider who wants to sell a testing product. The answers are there.

    • As the education debate is currently fashioned—with those in power NOT being educators—those of us who have been educators, researchers, and scholars for DECADES are often pushed into a position of reacting. My post above is not intended as a methods class on teaching populations of students, thus, none of that should be expected in a blog about a misrepresented study and a national push to support flawed programs such as KIPP and TFA. My only recourse to your questions, then, is to suggest you read:

      Best Practice, Fourth Edition:

      Pedagogy of Freedom, Freire:

      Your questions are evidence of how TFA fails to introduce properly future educators to a rich field of seeking ways to create the social justice, equity, democracy, and universal public education that a free people want and deserve—regardless of the coincidences of their births.

      My most positive message, though, would be that I am positive KIPP/TFA, etc., are hurting the exact children who need universal public education the most; thus, first, do no harm:

  2. Plain and simply: we need to educate America’s children, especially our poor children… even if it kills them (or their spirits)

  3. hermanados says:

    “Paternalistic schools teach character and middle-class virtues like diligence, politeness, cleanliness, and thrift.”

    Ugh, one of the many disturbing things about the “no excuses” style “moral” education is that it presumes that what poor people have entirely different values than the middle class. In fact, poor people don’t need morality lessons; they need money. (I’ve said this elsewhere as well:

    Good article debunking this here:
    “Standard theorizing about poverty falls into two camps. Social scientists regard the behaviors of the economically disadvantaged either as calculated adaptations to prevailing circumstances or as emanating from a unique “culture of poverty,” rife with deviant values. The first camp presumes that people are highly rational, that they hold coherent and justified beliefs and pursue their goals effectively, without mistakes, and with no need for help. The second camp attributes to the poor a variety of psychological and attitudinal short-fallings that render their views often misguided and their choices fallible, leaving them in need of paternalistic guidance.

    We propose a third view. The behavioral patterns of the poor, we argue, may be neither perfectly calculating nor especially deviant. Rather, the poor may exhibit the same basic weaknesses and biases as do people from other walks of life, except that in poverty, with its narrow margins for error, the same behaviors often manifest themselves in more pronounced ways and can lead to worse outcomes.”

    If anything, it appears we should be more paternalistic towards the education of the rich ( “ In fact, a number of new studies suggest that, in certain key ways, people with that much money are not like the rest of us at all. As a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you’d behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you’re probably wrong: These aren’t just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.”


  1. […] Mathematica reports and journalists have proven to be problematic—as I noted about the Mathematica claims about KIPP middle schools. […]

  2. […] Mathematica Study Reveals KIPP Cures Cancer! – @ the chalk face. […]

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