Does KIPP Have a Brand Positioning Problem?

Last week’s viewpoint/fundraising pitch by Barry Berlin, “Help KIPP serve more students in Atlanta,” hit a nerve.   It hit a nerve because the author’s endorsement of KIPP as a best-in-class charter school was diluted, in this author’s opinion, by the request for financial support of their $10 million capital campaign.   It’s commendable for board members (for former board members) to be continuously fundraising and promoting their cause.  However, I didn’t feel that the “Viewpoint” section of a prestigious Atlanta business newspaper was the right forum for such an obvious fundraising pitch.  That being said, it was a perfect opportunity for me to take a look at KIPP and how its brand is perceived in the public domain.

KIPP was heavily promoted in last year’s education documentary, Waiting for Superman.   KIPP believes in “ends justify the means” education.   What do I mean by this?  Its philosophy is based on the premise that low-achieving students can only be saved by a highly intensive education which includes a 9 ½ hour school day, plus alternating Saturdays and three additional weeks in the summer.   This is supplemented by a very large amount of regular homework coming home with the student.   So while the longer school day may allow them to include enrichment activities (e.g., arts, music),  students will likely be up very late each night completing their homework, without ample time to “decompress” or socialize with their friends without the pressures of school in the background.  In addition, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at Western Michigan University, KIPP spends up to $6,500 more per pupil than regular schools, thus raising into question their ability scale sufficiently in the current fiscal climate.

It is true that there is a national debate about extending the school day.  To be fair, this is not a concept unique to KIPP.   For example, new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel endorses an extended school day, as does President Obama.  Numerous policy-makers believe that the only way for our nation to maintain its economic competitiveness against the developing countries is to extend the school day. Their rationale is that our international brethren school their children for longer periods each day and are performing better on standardized texts.   So I ask the rhetorical question:  are students learning by “teaching to the test?”  Or should we be teaching them how think critically and problem solve?

From KIPP’s website, it is clear that they believe that “teaching to the test” and getting good test scores is the only way to measure student achievement.   KIPP may say they offer and encourage enrichment beyond core subjects; however, if you scanned the KIPP Metro Atlanta site, as an example, you may have a hard time finding any pictures of students engaging in such activities, or even whether the school offers such activities (I know they do because you can find it on various KIPP websites, including the national site).  I would like to highlight KIPP’s “Five Pillars” below:

  1. High Expectations.  KIPP schools have clearly defined and measurable high expectations for academic achievement and conduct that make no excuses based on the students’ backgrounds. Students, parents, teachers, and staff create and reinforce a culture of achievement and support through a range of formal and informal rewards and consequences for academic performance and behavior.
  2. Choice & Commitment. Students, their parents, and the faculty of each KIPP school choose to participate in the program. No one is assigned or forced to attend a KIPP school. Everyone must make and uphold a commitment to the school and to each other to put in the time and effort required to achieve success.
  3. More Time. KIPP schools know that there are no shortcuts when it comes to success in academics and life. With an extended school day, week, and year, students have more time in the classroom to acquire the academic knowledge and skills that will prepare them for competitive high schools and colleges, as well as more opportunities to engage in diverse extracurricular experiences.
  4. Power to Lead. The principals of KIPP schools are effective academic and organizational leaders who understand that great schools require great school leaders. They have control over their school budget and personnel. They are free to swiftly move dollars or make staffing changes, allowing them maximum effectiveness in helping students learn.
  5. Focus on Results. KIPP schools relentlessly focus on high student performance on standardized tests and other objective measures. Just as there are no shortcuts, there are no excuses. Students are expected to achieve a level of academic performance that will enable them to succeed at the nation’s best high schools and colleges.

Does KIPP really need a longer school day?  Why does KIPP feel it must invest in all of the extracurricular activities?  Perhaps it should partner with other service providers and allow students to leave the KIPP environment for some “de-compression” time?

KIPP talks about their use of extracurricular activities (arts, music, etc.).  Some respected colleagues of mine familiar with KIPP Metro Atlanta talk glowingly about their incredible arts, athletics and music activities.  I’m sure they’re fantastic.    However, KIPP’s website does NOT highlight these attributes so they do not allow parents to deduce that they are teaching to the “whole child.” Providing these essential enrichment programs provide the foundation of social and emotional learning that leads to academic learning.   Instead, KIPP has allowed parents, educators, reformers and policy makers to believe that KIPP is all about “ends justifies the means,” and it’s “all about test scores.”  This is not the way to develop our children, regardless of socioeconomic background.  This author would NOT have gotten into an ivy league school if test scores were the ONLY variable that mattered.

Now contrast KIPP’s values to the mission statement to one potential alternative:  a “blended learning” school design called Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School (“CDCHS”) in Arizona (taken directly from their website):

  • Tuition-free, public school in Arizona
  • 61% on free/reduced lunch programs  (Source:  Innosight Institute)
  • ~45% African American or Latino (Source:  Innosight Institute)
  • Their motto states that they offer, “The Power to Choose – Your Place (Online) or Our Place (On Campus).”
  • A combination online/on campus school that practices an innovative “anytime, anyplace” learning approach, integrating teacher-proven instructional strategies with the latest technology to equip our students with the skills they will need in the global marketplace.
  • Carpe Diem schools offer flexible, individualized education plans and competency-based learning that encourages subject mastery, not just course completion.
  • Self-paced instruction is supported with offerings such as year-round start dates, early graduation options and online teacher support as needed. Students take charge of the pace of their work and progress is tracked and rewarded online.
  • A secure online portal provides parents with real time student data, including attendance, grades and academic progress.
  • Teachers work with students one-on-one and strive to build and maintain a learning community that maximizes beneficial student, teacher and parent relationships. Our teachers, like our students, work online and in person.

Sounds too good to be true, right?   In 2010, CDCHS ranked first in its county in student performance in math and reading and ranked among the top 10 percent of Arizona charter schools. A similar tale played out in 2009 when, based on its scores on the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) test, CDCHS ranked first in the county in student performance for almost all grade levels and subjects. In almost all instances, at least 90 percent of the students at CDCHS passed the test in all grade levels and subjects tested. In many instances, 100 percent of the students passed.

“Blended learning” is an innovative school design that may hold the key to reinventing public education in America, and, to everyone’s surprise, can provide higher quality learning at a fraction of the current costs to educate students today.    Its principles are deeply rooted in the research of Michael Horn, Executive Director of the Innosight Institute and Co-Author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.  It is also the cornerstone of Digital Learning Now, a national campaign to integrate blended learning strategies into public schools and led by former governors Bob Wise and Jeb Bush.  At the end of the day, it’s the quality of learning that matters, not the quantity.  I encourage everyone to review the extensive work of the Innosight Institute on blending learning programs around the United States.

Let me be clear.  I did not pen this viewpoint to be a basher of KIPP.  I did it because it is important for those reading this article to clearly understand the wide spectrum of school design options available, and it is important for KIPP to take a close look at their marketing strategy and whether they are representing themselves consistent with their education philosophy.  Maybe they are.  In fact, I have heard some good things about a new KIPP school in South Los Angeles:  KIPP Empower Academy, which is experimenting with blended learning strategies.

Over the past year, we have seen another education documentary raise eyebrows.   Titled Race to Nowhere, the film is an emotionally charged call, based on the lives of real students as young as 7 to high school age,  to mobilize families, educators, and policy makers to challenge current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens. The film’s website goes further:  “featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.

At the end of the day, KIPP is certainly doing some great things, and for that, they should be commended.  KIPP does not pretend to have the “perfect solution” and are continuously exploring and experimenting with new ideas.   This author recommends that KIPP overhaul their marketing campaign and brand positioning so that parents don’t misconstrue that KIPP is about “achievement at all costs.”

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