Anti-KIPP: All grit, no morality

KIPP’s grit-heavy character education has three major problems, writes Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, a Carleton education professor, in the New Republic.

The first is that we do not know how to teach character. The second is that character-based education is untethered from any conception of morality. And lastly, this mode of education drastically constricts the overall purpose of education.

KIPP focuses on seven character strengths—grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity — which KIPP believes predict success in “college and life.” Founder David Levin  aims for “dual purpose” instruction to reach both academic and character goals, he says in his online course.

But KIPP’s list of character strengths is “devoid of value judgment,” Levin told Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed. “The inevitable problem with the values-and-ethics approach is that you get into, well, whose values? Whose ethics?”

KIPP’s values are “relentlessly focused on individual achievement rather than “good and evil or citizenship and the commonweal,” complains Snyder.

. . . the key virtues taught during the nineteenth-century were piety, industry, kindness, honesty, thrift, and patriotism. During the Progressive era, character education concentrated on the twin ideas of citizenship and the “common good.” . . . In the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, character education focused on justice and working through thorny moral dilemmas. Today’s grit and self-control are basically industry and temperance in the guise of psychological constructs rather than moral imperatives.

. . . This is “tiger mother” territory here — a place where the “vulgar sense” of success prevails.

KIPP’s mission is to help students —  95 percent are African American or Latino — get “into and through” college.  That’s “laudable,” Snyder concedes. But really . . . “Educators who have embraced performance character seem to live in a world where their students are more likely to win a Nobel Prize than earn a living as a beautician, electrician, or police officer.”

We may not know how to teach character, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Perhaps few students will go on to win Nobel Prizes, but that doesn’t mean the school should give up on preparing students for success in college. The future electricians, police officers, teachers and accountants will need that — not just the future nuclear physicists.

I do think that KIPP should consider adding citizenship to its list of character strengths. And stop worrying about whose values the schools are promoting. These are the values of the parents who choose KIPP as their “tiger” school. They want their kids to succeed, however “vulgar” that may seem to others. If they wanted a school that saw their kids as future beauticians, they have other options.

About Joanne


  1. cranberry says:

    My children’s local public school had a “citizenship” category on the report card. Unlike KIPP, though, the grade was a mystery–what criteria were used, who contributed to it, how a student might improve. It seemed to be used as a method to tell parents “we love your child,” or “we hate your child.” Not. Useful.

    Had I had a choice, I would have chosen the KIPP approach. I rather think seven characteristics are enough. It is ridiculous to opine that any virtue not mentioned in a list is thereby excluded. Public schools must be careful when approaching moral instruction, given the determination to combat any sign of religion in the schools. Given KIPP’s mission, I applaud their courage in encouraging their students to aim for success.

    KIPP did not start character education. I wonder if people pay attention to it because KIPP schools are successful?

  2. Ruth Joy says:

    Aristotle dealt with some of this in his Nicomachean Ethics. And I think Aquinas said something about while virtue (not quite the same as character, admittedly) could not be taught like the rules of geometry, it could be learned.

  3. Jim Horn says:

    I wish I could be as sanguine as Joanne about the behavioral brutality inside the KIPPs and the segregated knock-offs they have spawned, but having spent time listening to those who have experienced the KIPP crucible firsthand, it is clear that for all the KIPP’s success in grinding out higher test scores for the half of their students who survive the no excuses gauntlet, there is a price to pay for those who are taught to label themselves as failures for not working hard enough or being nice enough to survive KIPP’s cultural sterilization intervention. But the losers in this case may, in fact, be the fortunate ones.

    For having dismissed poverty or any other “excuse” as being irrelevant to academic success, the relentless KIPP maw gobbles up and stamps out both students and teachers without the vulgar ethical compunctions that some still embrace as central to the educational enterprise: honesty, empathy, integrity, compassion.

    As long as KIPP’s corporate machine is afforded tax money to promote the values that are consistent with an economic system that shuns any moral stance that could limit capital accumulation, we are sure to see an intensification of efforts to alter the neurological pathways of children to make their “character” tough enough to ignore entirely the conditions of their captivity.

  4. Unfortunately, the best way to teach morality is also the hardest, which is to lead by example.

  5. james horn says:


    First, the numbers of parents waiting to get into KIPPs is likely to be less than KIPP, Inc. advertises. This policy paper was released last week with this assessment of the charter “wait-list” exaggeration:
    “The NAPCS estimates are apparently based on a survey of charter schools, but the estimates are offered on a ‘trust us’ basis. To the best of our knowledge the organization simply announces their interpretations of the results, never providing any of the key information needed to verify or understand their bottom line number.” (

    Where there are parents waiting to get into KIPP, there are a number of factors to be considered:

    1) parents in urban areas are desperate to improve the malignantly neglected educational opportunities of their children, whose underfunded public schools have been further demolished by a decade and half of test and punish strategies that have improved nothing, except for the number of chain gang corporate charters that are supposed to provide a choice to what remains of the public system.

    2) poor parents are no less susceptible to multi-million dollar crock-umentaries like Waiting for Superman and The Lottery than the general public, and many still mistakenly view the WfS as a legitimate portrayal of urban education.

    3) Poor parents who are desperate for a way out of poverty for their children have no clue how KIPP and the KIPP knock-offs produce the high test scores for the half of the students who survive the total compliance testing camps. Like most parents, they trust the school to do what is in the best interest of children, rather than what is in the best interest of KIPP, Inc.–which is a business model, rather than an education model. Parents don’t know about the isolation, ignoring special needs, the screaming at children, enforced silence, humiliation, and the revolving door of teachers who suffer nervous breakdowns or fall prey to other ailments as a result of working in pressure cookers where being good is never good enough–whether you are a teacher or child.

    4) Some of these poor parents who work two dead end jobs where they are treated like slaves, too, come to expect that their children should learn bare-knuckled discipline at an early age in order to prepare them for what is to come.

    If most parents had the whole picture, these KIPPs and KIPP wannabes would not have waiting lists. And if policy makers had the whole picture, they would not be sending public dollars to support the cultural sterilization of urban children in corporate testing camps. I hope that they, and you Allen, will read my book when it comes out later this year.

  6. Perhaps he was using the imperial “we”.

  7. Ruth Joy says:

    Just off the top of my head, I think Star Wars and Firefly and Quantum Leap–though not books– can teach a lot about character. Heinlein`s books too.