Michael Paul Goldenberg explains why progressives are suspicious of KIPP and TFA:
There are a couple of key issues that seem to arise (or sit just below the surface) in nearly every conversation about educational policy these days. No one who is critical of the school deform movement (in which I squarely place KIPP and TFA) thinks that because poverty is such a devastating factor that no one should try to create better schools with great teachers, and in other ways to improve education for the nearly 25% of American children living below the poverty line. It’s grossly unfair to suggest that in criticizing deformers, their motives, and their policies, Diane Ravitch and many others are saying, “Until poverty is addressed, do nothing about education.”
KIPP, TFA, and other programs may well have started out as well-intentioned attempts to make things better for underserved students, schools, and neighborhoods despite poverty. But they have morphed over time into fiscal and social conservative models for how to create miracles without needing to address critical social and economic issues. Whether that transformation reflects the political views of those running these programs or simply represents mission slip combined with the influx of capital from those who saw an opportunity to promote panaceas meant to convince politicians and the general public that obviously most public schools were horrible (and please note, this analysis slyly shifts tactics by starting with the neediest, most disadvantaged schools and communities but then creating policies like NCLB that are guaranteed to make the vast majority of public schools appear to be “failing” because of doubtful criteria and truly crazy mathematics). Once the notion that “US public schools are failing” becomes accepted common wisdom, the financial vultures move in with a host of projects that are almost entirely about making a profit from a crisis. This is the way disaster capitalism operates.
So maybe KIPP, TFA, and other magic bullets are “pure of heart,” but looking at them over time, it appears reasonable to start picking at all the ways in which they have become cult-like, absurdly self-promoting, creating and/or believing all the hype that arises about them, and desperately denying any and all criticism raised about what they’re actually doing. And so we hear some people suggesting that these are examples of people really doing something good, really making a difference, and being unfairly bashed by mean-spirited critics like Diane Ravitch.
Two points I have to try to make here. First, KIPP et al., will look either like pawns or frauds as long as they are so unwilling to recognize their role in a national crisis that goes far beyond schools, one that is fundamentally about the concentration of unprecedented wealth and power in the hands of the few coupled with unprecedented levels of poverty and need among a scandalously high percentage of the nation. They fight so hard to stave off reasonable questions and criticism that I can’t see how Schorr expects people not to continue to get a clearer picture of what’s behind the hype.
But perhaps at least as important is the TYPE of education KIPP provides, the kind of teaching TFA promotes, and what that means for students. On my view, KIPP is a very regressive philosophy. It’s “work hard, be nice” mantra sounds wonderful to many people, but to me, given that KIPP is working mostly with poor students of color, it sounds very much like “get back in your place. Don’t complain. Do what you’re told.” And given that there is so much emphasis on chanting, rote, and in general the sort of bunch o’ facts education that none of its wealthy backers and cheerleaders would EVER accept for themselves or their children, it feels racist, classist, and reactionary: designed to ensure that inner-city students of color and poverty are pacified with marginal and minimal skills that will not lead them to satisfying, challenging lives with competitive salaries. Frankly, I would scream if my son were in a KIPP-style school, and so would most educated parents.
I can’t possibly develop this argument completely here, but I hope I’ve raised a couple of key points that will get some folks who don’t understand why there is a great deal of animus towards KIPP, TFA, and other projects coming from progressives. We want a better analysis of the social/economic justice issues to inform the debate. And we want a better kind of education for all students, not just those whose parents can afford Sidwell-Friends and the like. The day President Obama puts his daughters in a KIPP school or one staffed with TFA novices is the day I’ll start considering that he really believes those are fine approaches to education.