Are poor kids failing our schools?

“Are poor kids (especially poor black and Latino kids) failing our schools, or are schools failing our poor, minority kids?” asks Whitney Tilson in the Huffington Post. It’s hard for schools to make a difference for children from troubled communities with poorly educated parents, he concedes.

In fact, if I could fix either all of the parents (broadly defined, meaning ending childhood poverty, making sure every child had plenty of books and both parents in the home, etc.) or all of the schools in America, I’d choose the former in a heartbeat. But I’m not sure it’s possible to fix the parents — and I know it’s possible to fix the schools.

Disadvantaged children will do as poorly as their parents if they attend “mediocre (or worse) schools,” Tilson writes. But “a high-quality school with excellent teachers” can improve life outcomes for many.  He’s “visited over 100 schools that are generating extraordinary academic success with the most disadvantaged children” and serves on KIPP‘s New York City board.

How do KIPP and a handful of other (mostly charter) schools succeed with the same students who are failing in regular public schools?

  1. They identify and train top-notch school leaders who are empowered and held accountable for building outstanding schools.
  2. The school leaders focus on recruiting, training, motivating and retaining top teachers.
  3. There is an extended school day and school year (KIPP students get 60% more class time than they would in regular public schools).
  4. There is an intense focus on character (as discussed in this recent NYT Magazine article). One study showed that grit and determination were twice as powerful as IQ in predicting life success. At KIPP, work hard, be nice, there are no shortcuts, we’re climbing the mountain to college, etc. aren’t just slogans.

It’s very hard to change the life prospects of disadvantaged children, Tilson writes. But it can be done.

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  1. 5. They serve only the poor and disadvantaged with parents interested enough in their child’s education to apply to the school, and agree to provide transportation as well as volunteer their services.

    6. Remove those kids who can’t meet their standards.

  2. Adding Mike’s No. 5: Also those kids must be compliant enough to sit through a test during the enrollment process, as I learned firsthand when I started the application process for my daughter at KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy.

    The family and child must also have enough faith in the child’s academic abilities not to be deterred by the test requirement.

    The family must be also motivated enough to be willing to participate in a lottery process in which they are told (falsely, sometimes if not at all times) they have little chance of succeeding.

    The family must also participate in a counseling session in which they are told what’s expected of them and must agree to comply.

    The family must also be willing to accept it if they’re told that they must agree to repeat a grade if they enroll their child in the KIPP school.

    And there are probably more hurdles that I’m not aware of, since I didn’t follow through with the application process for my daughter beyond “it’s time to schedule your pre-enrollment test.”

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    As usual in various efforts to find differences in social issues, the question of chicken-egg arises. Do the kids doing well come from the occasional good home stuck in a bad area? Or are they the average kid in a lousy home in a bad area lifted up by the school? Who’s interested in finding out?
    It’s tough to fix a school in that kind of situation, impossible to fix the parents. Easiest to run Affirmative Action at the higher levels and pretend the problem’s solved. You don’t get all sweaty that way and you don’t have to go into rough neighborhoods and you don’t have to tell a bunch of folks who might resent being told they’re inadequate that they’re inadequate.

  4. Stuart Buck says:

    Caroline — it must have been disappointing that you couldn’t convince your daughter to follow through with the (almost certainly insincere) stunt of applying to KIPP.

    Anyway, I don’t get the incessant criticism of KIPP. There’s no doubt that KIPP spends 60% more class time than regular public schools. Yet whenever anyone says that this actually makes a difference to kids’ learning, the KIPP-haters come out of the woodwork to attribute KIPP’s success to all sorts of other factors that are supposedly stacking the deck.

    But here’s where unconscious racism comes in: your criticisms really amount to an accusation that most black kids aren’t capable of learning more, even when 60% more time is spent on their education.

  5. Caroline’s repeated critique illustrated the limits on the power of induction.

    moreover, her observation is more about her hypotheses about her observations. While I am certain that she can imagine more hurdles – these barriers apparently go unmirrored in the thousands of applicants.

    unless, of course, Caroline is arguing for a vast expansion of the charters so that the lottery can be done away with and enrolling schools can have a clear idea that grades completed are actually completed.

  6. I think its racist to claim black kids need to spend 60% more time to school to learn the same as their white counterparts

  7. In one sense, the lowest SES kids are failing the school; failing to value the opportunity to get an education, failing to dress appropriately, failing to behave appropriately, failing to pay attention and failing to work hard. None of these things require additional money and none require the parents to be well-educated; just to act like responsible parents and teach the kids their responsibilities. Doing so has enabled multiple generations of kids, native and immigrant, to become productive adults.

  8. Stuart Buck says:

    Do you not know about the achievement gap? The reason white kids are ahead (on average) is because they’ve spent more time (on average) in academic activities at home throughout their lives. So saying that black kids might need more time in school just means that they need the same amount of total academic time (home + school) that white kids already have.

    This is the opposite of a racist belief.

    What’s really racist is suggesting that black kids can’t possibly be learning at higher levels, and therefore KIPP’s success has to be due to some kind of trickery (i.e., selecting the good students).

  9. For the record, I chose to halt my hands-on investigation into KIPP’s enrollment processes before having my daughter take the test because I wasn’t comfortable continuing the process (which definitely was insincere) to the point that KIPP staff had to devote that much time to it. My daughter was uncomfortable about the acting required, but she enjoys taking tests and would have done it if I’d asked.

    KIPP spokespeople and supporters have denied over and over and over that they test applicants. That’s false; they do.

  10. Stuart Buck says:

    I’m sure KIPP tests for placement, and there’s not a thing in the world wrong with that.

    But if the implication is that KIPP is trying to discourage bad students from enrolling, all I can say is that you are seriously misunderstanding the whole purpose of KIPP. KIPP doesn’t exist just to engage in a horserace with the other public schools, where the only thing that matters to KIPPsters is being able to say “we won” (even by hook or crook).

    To the contrary, KIPP was founded for the express purpose of seeking out the worst students and trying to get them to improve. KIPP deliberately opens up schools in neighborhoods that Caroline probably wouldn’t even drive through, and principals often go door to door trying to rustle up applicants (I’ve heard Dave Feinberg describe this personally).

    • No, KIPP has always resoundingly denied testing for placement, and its supporters have always echoed that denial.

      I did my little experiment proving that that’s a lie after a happy KIPP parent posted on our local schools listserve that his daughter had “tested into” KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy. Then when I posted to question “testing into” a school that denied giving placement tests, he clammed up. So, to restate, I started the KIPP application for my daughter, then beginning seventh grade, to see if they would tell us she had to be tested, which they did.

      (And actually, I did my hands-on investigation on the spur of the moment when I was driving past the school one day with my daughter in the car and was inspired. I used to live in the Western Addition, where the school is located — many years ago when gentrification hadn’t yet begun — so yes, that did mean I drove through the neighborhood.)

      Here’s my take. KIPP may have been founded for the intended purpose of seeking out the “worst students,” but it rapidly learned that it couldn’t cope with the “worst students” and couldn’t function without some screening mechanisms to keep out the “worst students” and bring in the more motivated, compliant and high-functioning of the students in those neighborhoods. Read Elijah Anderson’s “Code of the Street” to see what I mean.

      KIPP has to exist in a horserace with public schools so as to appeal to private funders. KIPP’s ongoing claims of superiority over public schools are the basis of its obviously successful fundraising. I mean, it’s self-evident that that’s the reason for the entire charter movement’s ongoing campaign of claiming superiority to public schools — it’s all about the private funding.

      • You really can’t extrapolate something about all charter schools nationwide based on KIPP, you know. For example, my daughter goes to a charter school run by the local school district, so it really isn’t all about the private funding for all of them.

        • Catherine, I’d be surprised if yours were one of the charter schools that targets low-income children of color, though correct me if I’m wrong. It’s those charter schools (sometimes called “mission” charter schools) that are the focus of the discussion. I’d guess that your charter school probably doesn’t engage in all that loud crowing about its superiority to the public schools too, though again correct me if I’m wrong.

          I and other critics will readily acknowledge that there are different types of charter schools operating in different ways. But in this case we’re talking about the schools that serve low-income kids.

  11. The title of this blog post seems like it should be from the Onion. For younger children at least, the general public believes and expects that the schools are supposed to be lifting children from bad situations. How completely unfair to little ones to say that they are failing a large organization such as a school! Parents failing to be good parents, teachers and schools failing to use good methods/curriculum, school districts using money unwisely on bloated management and cool-sounding fads, unions failing to put the needs of young children over their ineffective teacher members, education colleges failing to focus more on proven effective teaching practices than on nebulous concerns of “social justice”, society failing to promote proper self-discipline or support school discipline of unruliness, etc., all fair headlines…but blaming children? They are basically the products/victims, not the perpetrators. Go, KIPP and any other organization that tries to lift children from disadvantaged situations. It’s a hard job and impossible to do perfectly, but at least they’re trying to do something other than defend a failing status quo.

  12. Stuart Buck says:

    “KIPP’s ongoing claims of superiority over public schools are the basis of its obviously successful fundraising.”

    KIPP’s motivation is much more likely to be, “Let’s raise some extra funds so that we can help more poor low-scoring kids,” as opposed to what you seem to think, i.e., “Let’s pretend to help poor kids so that we can raise extra funds.”

    I think you’ve got the horse and the cart mixed up — a bit of projection, perhaps.

  13. You seem to have a policy of never posting a comment without a gratuitous personal insult, Stuart, but the point of the one about the projection and the cart and the horse is escaping me. It would probably benefit everyone — and even enhanced your own credibility — if you just dropped that practice and made your points without the gratuitous personal insults.

    You’re confused about what my point was regarding KIPP’s fundraising. What I’m saying is that KIPP has to proclaim its superiority to the public school down the street so as to woo the eduphilanthropist funders who might otherwise decide to support both schools.

    I don’t think there would any reason for KIPP to continually proclaim its superiority if it weren’t for the quest for private funding.

    I’m not so cynical as to believe that KIPP’s reason for being is to attract private funds.

    • Stuart Buck says:

      Projection in the sense that you’re always imputing to KIPP some sort of sinister motives where there’s no evidence for their sinister motives beyond your own imagination. In turn, your own imagination is almost by definition affected by your subconscious assumptions about what you’d be doing if you were in their shoes.

  14. Roger Sweeny says:

    At the risk of being crushed between Caroline and Stuart, I’d like to propose a few things that I hope we can all agree on.

    1) Everybody has mixed motives. We tend to do things that both increase our standard of living and increase our sense of self-worth. Sometimes that means deluding ourselves, believing like Tom Lehrer’s Old Dope Peddler, that we are “doing well by doing good.”

    2) Where money comes from doesn’t automatically make it good or bad. Money isn’t necessarily good when it comes from an eduphilanthropist and bad when it comes from a city council, or vice versa.

    3) KIPP schools offer a harder, more rigorous, and more time consuming program than the public schools that their students would otherwise go to. Many young people find this unacceptable and either never go or leave KIPP schools after some time attending one. This means that KIPP schools can never solve the problem of the “achievement gap.” Some students will go to KIPP schools and do better than they would have at the local public school. Some will go and do about the same. Very few will do worse. On average, the students at KIPP schools will come out ahead. On the other hand, the local public school will have fewer strivers and near-strivers.

    • All agreed, Roger.

      Yes, it’s true that where money comes from doesn’t automatically make it good or bad.

      However, the process involved in soliciting private funds requires emphasizing why those funds should go to the applicant and not to others.

      In my opinion, that’s most of the reason that the charter school movement overall (including KIPP as described here) has turned itself into an often-dishonest operation attacking public schools, proclaiming its own superiority, concealing and denying confounding factors like the KIPP pre-enrollment tests, and of course juking the stats.

      When we see the press fall for that stuff– as happens far too often — it’s easy to see how the resulting puff piece will be a showpiece in the next application for funds.

      So that’s why the dependence on private funding is problematic — it encourages the attacks on public schools as supposedly inferior and the ongoing dishonesty and “it’s a miracle!” hype from the charter operations.

      (Imagine if public schools had to compete with each other and make a case why they should get public funds and not the next public school — ouch!)

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Thanks for the kind words Caroline. Of course, public schools do have to compete for funds: with other things governments could do, and with leaving the money in people’s hands. Which, as you intimate, leads to public school’s exaggerating how much they can accomplish. As you have pointed out, two similar schools, one in a rich area and one in a poor area, are going to have very different test results.

  15. I love KIPP –I’ve visited several of their schools –and I support them. I urge the principal of our non-charter middle school to visit KIPP to see what no-nonsense schooling looks like. However I don’t see how anyone can claim that they educate “the worst”. Few dysfunctional parents would make it over the bars to entry, low as they seem to us functional folks. And it’s the dysfunctional parents’ kids that make so many classrooms chaotic and ineffectual. Stuart, you may need to spend a prolonged spell in a classroom to see how one or two chronic troublemakers can seriously undermine the educational enterprise. Let’s do an experiment: let a computer pick KIPP’s students at random, not let KIPP expel any of them, and see what happens.

    • This is what Diane Ravitch meant in a public forum when she said she’d like to see KIPP take over an entire school district. Most listeners were baffled — you criticize KIPP and at the same time you want to give them an entire district? But yes, she meant just what Ben F. said.

      • Stuart Buck says:

        Hmm, yes, why would it make any difference to have an entire district that pays closer attention to teacher quality and spends lots of extra time on a rich curriculum? (Subtext of what you’re saying: most of these kids are too hopelessly ineducable for anything to make any difference.)

  16. Stuart Buck says:

    Further implication of what you’re saying: since so many of these kids are hopelessly ineducable regardless of how much time anyone spends trying to teach them, one might as well just give up on them and let the few educable kids have a fighting chance. (In other words, you just backed yourself into supporting what you claim is the KIPP model!)

    • Well, you had a “gotcha!” (if an invalid one) in there, but you left out the personal insults, Stuart — you’re slipping.

      No. I’m saying a school that takes in only the more compliant and highly motivated students from its target population can be more successful than a school that accepts the full spectrum of students. Duh, as my kids would say.

      Frankly, I don’t even necessarily oppose that. I’ve speculated on whether public schools could create the same type of model — openly and honestly (unlike the ongoing deceit* around KIPP’s selectivity).

      *As I said above, that deceit is necessary because of KIPP’s ongoing need for enormous amounts of private funding; the funders are attracted by KIPP’s claim to enroll “the poorest of the poor.”

      • You need to be more specific, though: are you really saying that KIPP’s greater success is ONLY because it (supposedly) takes “more compliant and highly motivated students”?*

        Really? Extra time on a rich curriculum has nothing to do with it? That can’t possibly be true, and you know it.

        • Stuart, I don’t know, but my commentaries over the years (including, BTW, when I was the first known commentator to look at KIPP attrition and expose it, on the now-defunct blog) have stated over and over and over again that we need to study what’s working at KIPP.

          But when it’s studied, we have to be honest about the selectivity, the testing, the pre-enrollment counseling, the attrition — all the practices that result in KIPP’s excluding the non-compliant, dysfunctional and unmotivated.

          But first KIPP and its boosters need to BE HONEST and STOP LYING about the selectivity and attrition, or we can never study it and effectively find out what impact that has.

          I appreciate that you have broken off from the party line and are openly acknowledging these things.

          In following coverage and commentary on KIPP over the years, I can tell you that very often the commentators *assume* that one or another KIPP practice is the magical miracle solution — while denying or being oblivious to the selectivity factor.

          So, we are in total accord here. KIPP and its boosters need to STOP THE DISHONESTY and acknowledge the very high selectivity and attrition that impacts the nature of the student population at KIPP schools. Then perhaps KIPP schools can be studied in a way that examines the impact of KIPP’s various distinctive practices on student achievement. A control school that employed the same practices that lead to aggressive selectivity and high attrition would be an essential part of the study. But one problem with that is that KIPP’s practices themselves are part of what leads to the selectivity — students who won’t/can’t get on board with the SLANT policy are gone for that reason, for example.

          I read in once place that KIPP schools teach students to “walk briskly down the hall” (if that job is ever posted I’m there — I am so good at walking briskly that I could surely be a master teacher). Sometimes I look at young people slouching around in public and wonder if ANYthing could teach that kid to walk briskly down a school hall — another practice that eliminates a group of less-compliant students? Caveat that I’ve never seen this confirmed and read it in only place.

          By the way, the most recent major study of KIPP that I’m aware of, by Mathematica, appeared to have been designed to attempt to show that selectivity and attrition are not factors. So, that’s an example of the opposite of what I’ve been calling for years — a study that not only failed to examine the effect of selectivity and attrition, but attempted to show that they weren’t factors (very unconvincingly).

          KIPP commissioned the study, of course, and he who pays the piper calls the tune.

    • You have to start somewhere, and breaking the problem into chunks by implicit ability/desire grouping is going to benefit at least one subgroup.

  17. Roger Sweeny says:

    So can we agree on one more thing:

    4) Any school that tries to be academically rigorous is going to be resisted by a number of students (maybe just passively–by not doing the required work–or maybe more actively: being disruptive). In order to enforce rigor, these students have to be separated–either in a separate program, or at a different school. Even if the people who run the school want to educate everyone, they will have to force some students to go somewhere else.

  18. Stuart Buck says:

    Re: Mathematica. The study was designed to eliminate the effect of selection (as much as possible) by continuing to count any KIPP student who left as still being part of the KIPP school. So even if you’re right that KIPP intentionally or unintentionally gets rid of every kid that has trouble following rules, who isn’t succeeding academically, who isn’t with the program, etc., the Mathematica study tracked down THOSE students and still held their performance against KIPP.

    Even though KIPP was being credited with the performance of students who had long ago left KIPP schools, KIPP still managed to look like a miracle worker compared to just about every other educational study you could find.

    Now I already know what the KIPP-hater talking point is, because I’ve seen you make it before. Namely, something like this: “Well, with a few of the bad students gone, the better and more motivated students are really able to excel and push each other forward. So that’s the secret of academic success” OK, leaving aside the fact that you have just made one of the most over-the-top pro-tracking arguments I’ve ever seen, there’s no evidence (none) that this accounts for any substantial part of KIPP’s success. It’s just speculation by people who are eager (for whatever ulterior motive) to sneer at KIPP.

    • No, I never say anything so simplistic as “bingo — that’s the secret of academic success.” It’s the reformy types who chronically engage in simplistic magical thinking and hoodwink the hapless press into doing the same.

      I think that the selectivity and attrition are probably quite a significant factor in KIPP’s success; I think the whole program needs to be studied, and we need to know to what DEGREE they are a factor; and KIPP and its supporters need to stop the constant lies and denial. (Which, as I appreciate, have stopped here.)

  19. Roger Sweeny says:


    I am not eager to sneer at KIPP. I am a high school teacher and my experience tells me that the more motivated and prepared students I have, the better the class will go. On average, students will perform better. On the other hand, if there are enough kids who really don’t want to be there and/or would have a hard time doing the work, everyone in the class will suffer academically.

    One of the reasons that public schools do poorly in some areas is that everyone is thrown together. The teacher cannot impose academic rigor. This may be close to heresy at the ed schools but to me it’s like saying water is wet.

  20. Stuart Buck says:

    Roger — I respect what you’re saying, as it doesn’t seem to arise from such an obvious ax-grinding mission.

  21. Stuart,

    Let me add to what Roger said. I teach the exact same lesson plan six times a day to my six sections of 7th grade world history. I would say that last year my eighth period class learned at least 25% less than my other classes because of a Bermuda Triangle of horribly disruptive students. There were a number of days when I simply could not teach at all because of the incessant interruptions. In other periods kids learned reams, and I had many kids and parents tell me that they learned more from me than from any other teacher at our school. Getting rid of five of the incorrigible kids in that eighth period would have significantly increased the learning of the remaining kids. You need to appreciate the CENTRALITY of behavior to the educational mission. I fear you can only appreciate it if you’ve been a teacher in a public school.

    Sadly I think there ARE some kids who are beyond help, and whose continued presence in our schools only drag down the others who want to learn. That’s why I support KIPP’s de facto triage enterprise.

  22. Roger Sweeny says:

    Some of those kids who are “beyond help”–and a lot who are chronically uninterested–are just not oriented to academics. There should be other things that they can do rather than attending class for six hours a day.

    To require them to stay there is cruel to them. And it hurts those who are more positive toward academics.