Are military academies the answer?

Youth Challenge cadets at the Grizzly Academy in San Luis Obispo, California

Military training can turn Strugglers Into Strivers, writes Hugh Price, the former Urban League chief turned Brookings’ fellow, in a new book. In a speech at Fordham’s Education for Upward Mobility conference in D.C., Price talked about the benefits of JROTC, public military academies and the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe corps, a residential program for dropouts that’s improved the success of participants.

 (Common elements) include an emphasis on belonging, a strong focus on motivation and self-discipline, emphasis on academic preparation, close mentoring and monitoring of how youngsters are doing, accountability and consequences, demanding schedules, teamwork, valuing and believing in the young people, believing that they can succeed, structure and routine, frequent rewards and recognition, and of course, an emphasis on safe and secure environments.

Some urban districts, such as Chicago and Philadelphia, offer military academies. Others are charter schools, such as the New Orleans Military & Maritime Academy and Bataan Military Academy in Albuquerque.

Here’s a 2005 New York Times story on public military schools across the country.

MATCH Education’s Michael Goldstein sees the potential in Price’s approach, but says the zeitgeist is moving the wrong way. Charters are under fire for being too tough on students, he writes.

The darlings of the charter movement, schools like KIPP and so forth, are being (unfairly) attacked for having discipline policies deemed too strict.  Any quasi-military school would probably look at KIPP as hopelessly lax, but compared to many high-poverty schools where “anything goes,” it’s certainly true that KIPP is stricter.

. . . some top charters are reallocating spending to satisfy these critics.  They taking $ from extra-curriculars, school trips, books, advanced classes, art, sports, and just about any sort of item that could be perceived as discretionary — and reallocating for more full-time staff to work with a small group of kids who struggle to adhere to the rules.  The same thing is happening with limited teacher time — reallocation towards time-consuming discipline procedures and therefore away from other core topics like lesson prep, helping strugglers after school, showing up for the basketball game to cheer, and so forth.

I think it’s all about choice. Some students — or their parents — will choose structure, discipline and, perhaps, military cachet. It’s not for everyone.

KIPP boosts academics, but not character

KIPP schools do a great job of teaching academics, but the stress on character education isn’t producing students with more “grit,” persistence, self-control or other character strengths,  writes Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor.

KIPP charters — primarily middle schools — recruit low-income, minority students. In addition to “factors proven to bolster academic success (high expectations, parental involvement, time spent on instruction),” KIPP schools try to develop “seven character strengths — zest, grit, self-control, optimism, curiosity, gratitude, and social intelligence,” writes Steinberg.

Mathematica study compared students whose families had applied to a KIPP middle school but lost out in the lottery to students who’d won the KIPP lottery. If KIPP kids have more motivated parents, so do the children in the control group.

 . . . KIPP students outperformed the comparison children on numerous measures of achievement, across a range of subject areas. KIPP students also spent more time on homework. . . .

However . . . the KIPP children showed no advantage on any of the measures of character strengths. They weren’t more effortful or persistent. They didn’t have more favorable academic self-conceptions or stronger school engagement. They didn’t score higher than the comparison group in self-control. In fact, they were more likely to engage in “undesirable behavior,” including losing their temper, lying to and arguing with their parents, and giving teachers a hard time. They were more likely to get into trouble at school. Despite the program’s emphasis on character development, the KIPP students were no less likely to smoke, drink, get high, or break the law. Nor were their hopes for their educational futures any higher or their plans any more ambitious.

While nearly 90 percent of former KIPP students enroll in college, only a third earn a degree. That’s triple the graduation rate of students from comparable disadvantaged backgrounds, but far below KIPP’s expectations.

Ryane Burke, assistant principal at KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Academy, leads sessions in mindful movement to help students stay focused and energized.  - See more at:

Ryane Burke, assistant principal at KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Academy, leads sessions in mindful movement to help students stay focused and energized.

Steinberg believes character education is not the best way to develop students’ self-regulation. Other approaches include: meditation, yoga, aerobic exercise and “cognitive behavioral programs, such as those used to help children learn impulse control.”

Some KIPP schools do use these techniques.

Attrition doesn’t explain KIPP’s success

KIPP students gain an additional eight to 11 months of learning in reading and math over three years, compared to students in nearby middle schools,say Mathematica researchersStudent attrition doesn’t explain KIPP’s success, they write in Education Next.

KIPP middle schools and the district-run schools nearby have similar attrition patterns: Lower achievers are more likely at both kinds of schools.

What’s different is that KIPP schools admit fewer transfers in seventh and eighth grade and late entrants tend to be higher achieving than those who started in fifth grade.

However, most KIPP gains occur in the first year, before anyone’s left or transferred,  say the Mathematica analysts.


Compared to feeder elementary schools, KIPP students are more likely to be black or Latino and low-income. They are slightly less likely to be English Learners or in special education. Prior achievement is the same.

However, it’s hard to measure “parent characteristics, prior motivation, or student behavior,” the researchers write. “For example, KIPP students might benefit from attending school with peers who are especially motivated to accept KIPP’s academic and behavioral demands.”

Cities collaborate with charters

More than 20 school districts, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, are collaborating with charter schools on teacher training, ways to measure student progress and other issues, writes Richard Whitmire in Education Next.

Districts have signed “compacts” with charters — with funding from the Gates Foundation.

In Denver and in Aldine and Spring Branch, Texas, superintendents have invited high-performing charters to share space in schools. Charter and district principals and teachers interact with each other. Students take some classes together.

District superintendents want to import some of the charter classroom culture they see. At Northbrook Middle School in Spring Branch, students have adopted a new attitude about academic success. Now, “it’s cool to know the answers.”

Charter school leaders need building space, and access to students. Districts have helped charters coordinate services for special education students and by setting common performance metrics for low-performing charters.

Don Shalvey, who’s leading the compact initiative for Gates, is a former school superintendent and founder of the Aspire charter network.

In Denver, teachers from the charter school Highline Academy and the district school Cole Academy of Arts and Science collaborate on curriculum plans and interim assessments. Photo courtesy Denver Public Schools

In Denver, teachers from the charter school Highline Academy and the district school Cole Academy of Arts and Science collaborate on curriculum plans and interim assessments.
Photo courtesy Denver Public Schools

Spring Branch adopted SLANT (sit up, listen, ask and answer questions, nod for understanding and track the speaker) from its charter partner. Now they’re thinking of adopting YES Prep’s math curriculum.

Texas provides no facilities funding for charters, so YES Prep saves millions by co-locating. The district gets to report the charter’s higher test scores as its own.

Aldine plans to adopt YES Prep’s college-prep curriculum, writes Whitmire. Again, the charter gets shared space it would struggle to afford without the partnership.

In San Jose, Franklin-McKinley Superintendent John Porter invited Rocketship and KIPP to open schools in the low-income, heavily immigrant district. To compete for students, a district elementary school developed a science theme in partnership with the city’s Tech Museum.

Boston: No excuses, high performance

Boston has the highest-performing charter schools in the country, writes MATCH founder Michael Goldstein on Flypaper. Why? Boston has lots of elite colleges, talented people — and the highest proportion of “authentic” adherents to the “No Excuses” model.

CREDO studies have identified top charter cities, measured in “days of learning.”

Two-thirds of Boston charters are “No Excuses” schools, writes Goldstein. Sharing a common philosophy, the schools share ideas and talent.

The Charles Sposato Graduate School of Education (SGSE), embedded at Match Charter Schools, provides teachers to all the No Excuses charters in Boston. SGSE is able to train rookie teachers whose students go on to get unusually high value-added numbers. . . . The message: “Here is what will be expected of you in a No Excuses school. That job is not right for everyone, but if it’s the one you want, we’ll help you practice, practice, practice to become good in that context.”

. . . Will Austin from Uncommon teaches a rookie teacher about effective math instruction; that teacher, in turn, takes a job at KIPP; now Uncommon’s ideas have moved to KIPP; and so forth. When Kimberly Steadman of Brooke teaches literacy to a rookie teacher, even fellow instructors (from other charter schools) perk up and jot down notes.

New York City, New Orleans, D.C., and Los Angeles charter students show large gains on CREDO studies because of No Excuses charters, writes Goldstein. “Boston outperforms these cities is because it has even more.”

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.

‘If I need geometry, I’ll learn it then’

Scott Hamilton is the Forrest Gump of education reform, although with a lot more IQ points and fewer chocolates, I write in an Education Next profile.

He worked for Bill Bennett in the U.S. Department of Education and for Benno Schmidt at the Edison Project. He authorized charter schools in Massachusetts, co-founded the KIPP network, quadrupled the size of Teach For America (TFA), and introduced blended learning at urban Catholic schools. He’s been around.

Now 47, he’s started a new initiative called Circumventure, based in San Francisco. Through surveys, focus groups, field tests, and interviews, Circumventure is asking fundamental questions: Do people want what schools are offering? If not, what do they want? Can technology make it happen?

Being a “good learner” is valued by the students and parents he’s interviewed. Being “well educated” is not. “Young Millennials and their Generation Z siblings” believe they don’t need school to learn new things. They’ll do it all themselves—if and when they feel like it. “Teens think, ‘I’ll never use geometry. If I need it, I’ll learn it then’.”

The softer side of KIPP

KIPP schools aren’t militaristic or joyless — much less “concentration camps — write Alexandra M. Boyd, Robert Maranto and Caleb Rose in Education Next.

We found that schools that begin by establishing a culture of strict discipline, in neighborhoods where violence and disorder are widespread, ease off once a safe, tolerant learning environment is secured.

KIPPsters live up to the “work hard, be nice” slogan, but they “also play hard when the work is done,” they write after visiting 12 schools in five states. Despite the strong academic focus, the schools “make time for band, basketball, chess, prom, and any number of clubs.”

At KIPP McDonogh 15, a combined elementary and middle-school building in New Orleans’s French Quarter, the middle-school principal played music, and students and staff danced down the hallways as they moved from one class session to another. In the elementary school a floor below, some teachers took this concept a step further, using a lively musical transition from one lesson to another.

On most Friday afternoons, the New Orleans school schedules “celebration.” Students with no behavior demerits compete in a lottery for the chance to hit any teacher or administrator with a cream pie. A few days after researchers saw a popular third-grade teacher “pied,” a professor at the American Educational Research Association’s conference — a mile away — denounced KIPP as a “concentration camp.”

KIPP Blytheville College Preparatory School (BCPS) in Arkansas celebrated Geek Week in March culminating with Pi Day, on March 14 (3.14). A 6th-grade girl won the Pi Challenge by reciting 158 digits of pi. Then three teachers and three students smashed pie plates of whipped cream into each other’s faces.

It’s a concentration camp with music, dancing, pi and pie.

When Dunbar was ‘First Class’

Alison Stewart’s First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School is ” uplifting and maddening,” writes Michael McShane in Education Next.

From its opening in 1870 to the 1960s, the all-black Dunbar High produced “doctors, lawyers, Ivy League professors, generals, and titans of business,” writes McShane. Yet, “Dunbar saw a precipitous decline” just as opportunities were opening up for African-Americans.

Equity trumped excellence, he writes.” Rather than educate the best and brightest for placement into top universities and success in work and public service, Dunbar became a standard comprehensive high school that educated everyone residentially zoned to attend it.”

Stewart looks at Dunbar in 1920. Students who passed the admissions test had to meet  “astronomically” high academic standards.  Students were tracked into different levels. Those who couldn’t do the work were sent to Cardozo High, which was vocationally oriented.

The school demanded good behavior.

The student handbook covered topics ranging from grooming requirements (daily baths and thrice daily tooth brushing) to recommending types of friends that students should have. (“Girls and boys who fail in lessons, who are unsatisfactory in deportments or careless in their habits, should not be chosen as companions.”) The handbook told students how to walk down the street and reviewed proper dancing protocols (“Boys, after dancing thank your partner and escort her back to her seat”) and how to sit, walk, and function within the school.

Nowadays, KIPP leaders have been accused of  “cultural eugenics” for mandating student behavior, writes McShane.

Policies and programs should create opportunities for strivers to excel, writes Mike Petrilli.  “We should bring an ethos of meritocracy back to our anti-poverty efforts—the same ethos that still works relatively well at the top of our social structures and could work equally well at the bottom.”

Two of his suggestions draw from the Dunbar High experience:

Schools must be orderly, safe, high-expectations havens. There’s a movement today to make it harder to suspend or expel disruptive children or to chide charter schools that enforce strict norms of behavior. That’s a big mistake. To be sure, we should use discipline programs that are effective, and sky-high expulsion rates are often the sign of a poorly run school. But we should be at least as concerned—if not more concerned—about the students who are trying to learn and follow the rules as we are about their disruptive peers. If suspending (or relocating) one student means giving 25 others a better chance to learn, let’s do it.High achievers must be challenged and rewarded. As Tom Loveless has shown, the anti-tracking craze that swept through our schools in the 80s and 90s left many suburban schools untouched but wreaked havoc in our poorest urban communities. . . .  high-achieving poor kids forfeited the opportunity to be in “gifted-and-talented” classes, honors tracks, or fast-moving Advanced Placement courses.

In addition, strivers deserve a fair share of resources, Petrilli argues. For example, Pell Grants could be increased if they were reserved for college-ready students.

Different goals for different folks

Achievement should be defined broadly, argues Ted Kolderie, who works on redesign of K-12 education, with the Center for Policy Studies, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Bob Wedl, formerly Minnesota commissioner of education, asks: “If proficiency meant being able to speak two languages, which students in Minnesota would be ‘high-achieving’?”?

He asks, too: Why don’t we define the “gap” as being below-proficient and close that gap first?

And: Do all students need to be equally good in all subjects? Standards for aircraft differ based on what a plane is going to do. Why not for students? Proficiency might be enough in math for a student heading into the arts. It would surely be too low for one aspiring to an engineering career.

Education reformers — “middle-class folks with advanced degrees and aptitudes that are verbal, conceptual and abstract” — have decided that achievement is “doing well what they do well,” Kolderie writes.  Instead of pushing everyone to do well in school and go to college, we should “recognize that all young people can learn better and need to learn better, but that different students will do well at different things.”

Defining achievement down may sound reasonable, but it’s not, responds RiShawn Biddle. To start with, academic achievement is connected to success in non-academic endeavors.

. . . it is hard to engage in critical thinking without having a strong knowledge base that only comes from being literate, numerate, fluent in science, and knowledgeable about history and philosophy. This is especially important because critical thinking involves dealing with abstractions, the ideas at the very heart of civilization and society; even seemingly basic concepts such as the Golden Rule, as well as discourses mundane and critical, are formed from the complex interplay between ideas, facts, and morals. A child with a working understanding of, say, algebra, will also be able to understand why the Laffer Curve matters in discussions about tax cuts.

Low-income, minority parents have “learned the hard way about the consequences of not having the high-level reading and math skills needed for the high-paying blue- and white-collar jobs,” he writes. They know their children won’t have a future in the job market if they’re not “literate, numerate, and knowledgeable about the world around them.”

High-quality schools serving disadvantaged students, such as KIPP charters, have shown that “poor and minority children can succeed if they are provided comprehensive college-preparatory curricula, high-quality instruction, help in the form of intensive reading and math remediation, and the nurturing cultures of genius in which they are more than just future athletes and musicians,” Biddle concludes.

Remember “natural rhythm?”