A Commitment to Excellence

The Right Stuff

This coming May, a very special group of seventh-graders from Texas will be visiting Harvard. Conventional wisdom has deemed that students like them—underprivileged African-American and Hispanic children from the inner city—cannot succeed in public schools. Forgive them if they find such generalizations to be offensive and wholly untrue. Indeed, our educational establishment would do well to note the accomplishments of schools such as their academy in Houston, a founding member of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP).

As Winthrop Professor of History Stephan Thernstrom and his wife, Abigail, detail in their new book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, KIPP schools are among the few bright spots in urban public education today. Roughly 80 percent of them are charter schools, while the rest are very similar “contract” schools.

KIPP was born in 1994, the brainchild of “Teach for America” alumni Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. It started as a program for fifth-graders at Houston’s Garcia Elementary School. In 1995, the first KIPP-only schools opened in Houston and the South Bronx.

These trailblazers eventually grew to include students in grades 5-8. Their triumphs have been incredible. Since its launch, KIPP Academy Houston has been dubbed an “Exemplary School” by the Texas Education Agency every single year. Its students invariably score well above the national average on standardized tests. Youngsters at KIPP Academy New York have likewise consistently outperformed—by a wide margin—the other pupils in their district and city on statewide exams.

The KIPP formula is very basic: its schools thrive on a culture of hard work, discipline, accountability and incentives. Students, parents and teachers are all required to sign a “Commitment to Excellence” form, in which they promise to fulfill their respective obligations. The school day is long, beginning at 7:25 a.m. and lasting until 5:00 p.m. “KIPPsters” (as they’re known) also typically put in four hours on Saturdays. This may sound excessively rigorous, but every director or teacher I spoke with emphasized how enthusiastically the students respond. “The best compliment we’ve received in recent years,” KIPP-Houston school leader Elliott Witney tells me, “was when someone said we reminded them of a small college.” Witney’s students are the ones who will be visiting Cambridge this spring—as a reward for their dedication.


Today there are over 30 KIPP schools, several of which opened this past August. Not all are located in cities; some have been founded in impoverished rural areas. They generally start with a fifth-grade class and then add the next one annually until they have grades 5-8 filled. Most schools are totally independent of the districts in which they reside, and are thus freed from onerous administrative constraints.

Voucher systems are often disparaged, justly or unjustly, for selecting only the most talented children: for “creaming” the crop of students in the public schools. But KIPP schools are immune to this criticism: They are all open enrollment, and admit applicants (whom they recruit) through a merit-blind lottery system. As Witney points out, “We’ve got kids coming into fifth-grade who are still learning to read.”

Like other KIPP principals, Ryan Hill of TEAM Academy in Newark, N.J., seeks a student body that is demographically representative of the local community. “We recruit in the projects near our school,” he tells me. Some 97 percent of the pupils at TEAM Academy are African-American; the rest are Latino. Indeed, the beneficiaries of KIPP schools nationwide are primarily lower-income non-Asian minorities.

Not surprisingly, the program is hugely popular in the underachieiving districts it serves. “We have a waiting list of over 100,” Hill says, “and that’s with minimal recruiting.” Witney estimates that his waiting list had “about 300 kids last year.”

Some might ask: Is all this success simply the result of extra resources? The answer: almost certainly not. For one thing, charter schools are allocated less money than other public schools. And despite receiving private donations, Witney explains, his school still spends “under the state average” per pupil.

A crucial difference with KIPP is the direct leverage that principals have over their budgets. As the Thernstroms write, “Even with private contributions, KIPP-Bronx is still short-changed by regular New York Public Schools standards.” But its leaders are empowered to spend their allotted money as they see fit, which allows KIPP-Bronx to pay its teachers more and avoid the bureaucratic waste that plagues so many urban schools. All the KIPP representatives I contacted stressed the vital importance of such fiscal, and personnel, control.

KIPP has shown that it is possible for public education to flourish—even in areas riddled with drugs and violence. Alumni have gone on to attend many illustrious secondary schools, including Deerfield, Hotchkiss and Choate. One graduate of KIPP-Houston is now studying at Stanford.

According to Witney, there has been talk of adding 10 new KIPP schools per year. Expecting the program to usher in a revolution in our public schools may be overly optimistic. But at the very least, it is, as Newsweek magazine has put it, “a national model for more widespread reform of charter-school programs.” Despite their flaws, charter schools have proven to be the last best hope for inner-city education.

And who knows? KIPP may eventually affect a real transformation in the public education of disadvantaged students. Of course, the only way to find out is to restructure existing charter programs along the lines of KIPP’s success and support nascent KIPP initiatives where they sprout up. Meanwhile, we should take modest steps toward imbuing KIPP-level standards in the traditional public schools. As Hill tells me, “I know it can be done. We’re doing it right now.”

Duncan M. Currie ’04 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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