Sunday, December 1, 2013

What are the lasting effects of the KIPP style charter movement on urban and low-performing students?

            There is currently a lot of focus on the New Orleans Charter schools as an example of the successful charter movement in this country. Along with the shift to Common Core Standards, there are a lot of changes in place in education that can and are having effects on the children that they were meant to help. In the Article, “The Great New Orleans Charter Tryout” ( ) , some of these effects have been noticed by those outside of the charter movement. Students who are trained to believe that they are “going to college” are showing a deep lack of success which is being attributed to the way the schools are run, teachers are told to teach, and students are made to feel.
            In the last three years I have seen some saddening effects of this movement. Having taught in kindergarten, sixth, seventh and ninth grade, I have had a perspective that many administrators, teachers and especially lawmakers have not. Children who entered kindergarten with no preschool learning had to be brought “up to speed” to try to close the achievement gap that would undoubtedly open in reading. However, by the end of the year, 2/3 of the students did not meet the end of the year goal. The achievement gap opened.
            During this year I was trained to use the Doug Lemov “Teach like a Champion” behavior management system. This system is chocked full of positive enforcement mantras, chorus style responses, non-verbal hand signals, visual behavior management systems, and chapters of recommended classroom procedures. Teachers were evaluated solely on their ability to follow this system. Yet, by the end of the year, children had not met kindergarten learning goals.
            Both that year and the following, teachers were told to use “small group instruction” to be able to take lower performing students and give them more individually directed learning and teaching time. The concept is designed to keep lower level students in their primary classes and to get them close to grade level or, in some cases, able to pass the LEAP/ iLEAP tests.
            While many may say that small group instruction is ideal, or a wonderful way for students to get the extra help that they need, doing so in the now kindergarten through eighth grade schools that pervade New Orleans leaves children unprepared for the high school stage of their education. A dependency on teacher assistance is leaving students unable to apply skills, new or previously learned, on their own.
            There are many charter high schools in New Orleans, however only a few of them continue the KIPP style of learning environment, and even then, as the article above mentions, the students are still not succeeding. The documentary “Rebirth: New Orleans”, takes note that many high schools students are having just as hard of a time despite the efforts of the charter movement.

            My current students, freshman estimated to graduate in 2017, are struggling to acclimate to the rigors of high school. The freshman aren’t the only ones; discussion across grade levels have revealed that many of the students struggle to read, write, comprehend and apply skills that they have learned and used year after year. Students complain that high school teachers “don’t teach” whenever they are expected to work independently. Many students are entering high school reading as low as a fourth grade level. Others are walking through the doors of high school with absolutely no self-discipline, little self-motivation, and very unrealistic goals for their futures.

My current school draws students from all over the city with varying academic grades. It has a long-standing reputation of success and is one of few well-rounded high schools in New Orleans (complete with a state champion football team, state champion band, cheerleaders, dance teams and countless extracurricular clubs). Many students come from schools who are failing (but whose grades may have improved based upon the change in grading scales. Information about how this change has affected the lowest and highest performing schools can be found here: ) despite their high reputations. Many others come from top performing public and private schools.   This varied academic background and mix of reputable school names leaves the ninth grade students with wildly variant knowledge and behavior expectations. Those who have come from private and KIPP style charters have the hardest time adjusting. Most of the charter school students feel abandoned, that their teachers don’t care about them, and that they can’t succeed because their teachers are setting them up for failure by not telling them what is the right answer or checking their work for correctness before it is turned in. These are the same students who often boldly proclaim that they are going to prestigious colleges like Yale, yet turn in as little as 50% of their work.
This encourages me to wonder if these schools are actually serving their students. The children are told that they are going to college (at many schools, this is a mantra that is repeated daily, even teaching kindergarteners what year they will graduate) yet the academic practices are leaving the children with almost no critical thinking skills, little ability to problem solve, and so little self confidence that they cannot trust their own thoughts as correct.
The transition to Common Core Curriculum is also garnering attention around the country (see  and ). Parents, students and educators are questioning the validity of the standards. Many have acknowledge that the standards have basically come out of thin air, have not been tested, and require teachers to change HOW they teach in order to try to get students to think more critically. The language is complex and vague all at the same time. The speaking and listening standard for kindergarten is “Confirm understanding of a text read aloud or information presented orally or through other media by asking and answering questions about key details and requesting clarification if something is not understood.”  Many believe that these standards and the language within them is more of a means to get the next generation to be capable of little more than holding menial jobs. While I do not agree that this is the case, I do agree that this supposed transition to critical thinking is made up; students will not transition to thinking more critically or creatively because the standards do not specifically identify a way to teach children to think.  Instead, the charter schools, coupled with a half-witted set of curriculum, are leaving students less able to think and problem solve.

The students themselves comment on their feelings during their transition into high school. Doug Lemov and similar types of management systems focus upon positive reinforcement for students. On its own, it is good to positively support correct work and hard work but, coupled with an environment where teachers are asked to coddle students who are not succeeding, avoid addressing students who struggle, and tell all students that they are going to college (despite the student’s individual aspiration), students feel like they cannot be successful anymore and that high school is too hard. Many others feel that high school is supposed to be the time that they stop having to work so hard, or are free from the rigid expectations of their K-8 schools.  This response to burnout coupled with below-level reading and math abilities is getting students off the path to success.
Despite all of this positive attention, the students of the New Orleans charter system are crying out for a better and more long lasting fix. Biased documentaries and TV shows are not actually preparing our urban students for the challenges they are soon to face. These students deserve more than bright-eyed, optimistically inexperienced teachers (which many of the older students do not trust nor are motivated by), excessively test-prep centered curriculum and deeply biased media attention. It is about time that we figure out what will make these students successful in their lives long after they’ve taken their last standardized test.            


  1. True and some Charters are governed by non-educationist who have no clue what is best for our children. I was told by my Board Chair to stop teaching the whole child and teach to the test. As founder and principal of the school, this had a big impact on my decision to resign, I owe those I teach and lead much more then teaching them to choose between A,B,C or D. Our kids need an eclectic education that prepares them for real life ....

  2. It feels like educators are drowning and are just desperately treading water, barely staying afloat. Stray but a little from the test-taking culture and this is the result? I am sorry that you tried to do what was right for kids and had to remove yourself from this system. I want for more people to get involved in taking the power from all of those who care nothing for the kids.