KIPPsters vs. Hipsters: Why so little choice in Downtown schools?

By C.W. Cannon, The Lens contributing opinion writer|

The post-Katrina era in New Orleans has been marked by an oddly familiar mix of promise and disappointment, of rising above historic obstacles and of continuing an almost masochistic submission to them. The terms of the dialectic are continuity and change, and its fabric is skin color. Reconstruction and the post-Civil Rights Movement era are the two historic parallels.

In the two earlier moments, New Orleans came remarkably close to transcending a troubled history of racial oppression by giving integrated public schools a chance. In both instances, however, the achievement proved to be short-lived. Reconstruction was crushed legislatively (with help from night riders and lynch mobs), while the brief integration of the 1970s had the air sucked out of it by wholesale white flight and the suburbanization of the black middle class, an historic shift enabled by highway construction, cheap gas, and drained swampland.

In his 1911 classic of Afro-Creole history, Nos hommes et notre histoire, Rodolphe Desdunes captured a bitter irony. The blueprint for a newly segregated school system, promulgated at the constitutional convention of 1879, was seconded and welcomed by a bloc of black delegates. That these “American” blacks, as Desdunes characterized them, were manipulated by the convention’s white majority is worth bearing in mind, not just to underscore the brutality and chicanery of the white elite at the dawn of the Jim Crow era, but to accurately depict New Orleans’ intricate racial and ethnic fault lines; to this day, the black/white dichotomy so often superimposed on our racial politics falls well short of useful.

I can speak more personally of New Orleans’ second chance at equitable public education because I was on hand for it. Uptown, Downtown, Mid-City, Gentilly, New Orleans East, and the Westbank all boasted public schools that were integrated fairly evenly. I was blessed to attend an extraordinary oasis in the history of American public education: McDonogh 15. Located in the French Quarter (when that district still reflected its historic residential mix of black, white, Afro-Creole, immigrant, and bohemian), the school was a rainbow of New Orleans races, ethnicities and classes. The children of the Afro-Creole political elite shared classrooms with poor kids from the Iberville project, yats and  bohemians then re-discovering the old Creole neighborhoods on both sides of the Rampart/St. Claude corridor.  Some of this diversity was the reflection of a neighborhood fabric which has become, however ironically, less racially diverse in the years since the Civil Rights movement. But another factor was McDonogh 15’s “open school” pedagogical approach, a less rigid, more child-centered, more diverse curriculum than was on offer at other public schools of the time. There were a great many “misfit” kids at 15, of various hues and social backgrounds, who might have been diagnosed these days with an attention deficit disorder (ADD) or Asperger’s Syndrome. Diverse learning styles, in addition to diverse cultural backgrounds, found a home at the idyllic red schoolhouse on the corner of St. Philip and Royal.

In the fall of 2006 I attended a bittersweet alumni reunion on the school grounds. I read a memoir about our legendary band director, Walter Payton. Davis Rogan, Benjy Jaffe, and Andy Ambrose played tunes by Miriam Anak, who had been the school’s resident songwriter back in the day. State Sen. J.P Morrell, the son of Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who for many years was 15’s principal, divided his time between catching up with old teachers and friends and keeping tabs—by Blackberry—on his first big election campaign (he won). The reunion was bittersweet because the school was being handed over to a major national charter organization, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), and, from what many of us had heard, KIPP’s more regimented approach was worlds apart from the McDonogh 15 we had known and loved.

The KIPP approach is based on repetition, uniformity, discipline, and long hours of rote learning. Extended school hours, including every other Saturday morning, seek to make up for what are perceived as knowledge deficits in the target population. The weird kids who had thrived at 15 in my day (including me) would have lashed out or quietly suffocated under such a regimen. I took a moment and spoke with the incoming director, Gary Robichaux (who later joined Paul Vallas’ team as the Recovery School District’s director of elementary education and today is executive director of a charter management organization called ReNEW). I wanted him to remember that a racially, socially, and culturally diverse group of children found an island of creativity and tolerance under the open, flexible, imaginative umbrella of our old McDonogh 15. His answer was that “times had changed” and that kids today needed something different.

I’ve often wondered what he meant by that. Did he mean there was no chance that white parents would ever let their kids attend a school that also served poor black kids? Or did he mean that poor black kids are in need of a radically different educational approach than what kids of other backgrounds are offered? KIPP today is rapidly becoming the de facto downtown school system, the  subcontractor of choice to which the RSD turns rather than testing other models.

As New Orleanians argue over this development, some of the same old racially tinged rhetoric has come back to haunt us. People on different sides of the debate resort to racial coding to bolster their arguments. In public postings, some of those opposed to KIPP have insisted on a “charter school” as an alternative, apparently not realizing that KIPP is a charter school. For many New Orleanians (and recent transplants less familiar with New Orleans schools), “charter” has become a code word for “middle-class,” which in turn is viewed as code by many (however falsely in New Orleans) as “white.” This is probably because of the way magnets like Lusher and Ben Franklin secured charter status after the storm in order to open quickly and cut ties with the then demonstrably dysfunctional Orleans Parish School Board. The selective admissions requirements of these schools are perceived by some black New Orleanians (and, apparently, some white ones, too) as de facto segregation, though in fact both schools are among the most racially mixed in the city.

KIPP supporters also speak in racial code, as when they disingenuously invite “middle class” families to enroll at their schools. This is a rhetorical feint, designed to suggest that the problem for families who don’t want KIPP lies in their aversion to the demographics of the student body—which can be altered by new enrollments. Making demographics the fulcrum of change diverts attention from pedagogy and curriculum, which need not (and do not) change when students from different backgrounds arrive.

The most truly racial assumption in the whole KIPP debate is that poor children (which in downtown New Orleans mostly means black children) need rote learning, discipline, and maximum time away from their families and communities, as if these forces were detriments rather than sources of strength. Families who want more time with their children, to pass on what they view as a valuable cultural inheritance, are then charged with elitism. Thus families of all backgrounds are insulted, and the seeds of a sour distrust are sown once again. That the people toying with this rhetorical fire are often not native-born New Orleanians is proof of either cynicism or naiveté.

Rhetoric aside, there is no doubt that the location of school choices in the new New Orleans educational landscape foments cultural, if not racial segregation. A variety of public school choices can be found on the upriver side of Canal Street, including Montessori, language immersion, elite academic and, yes, KIPP. Downtown, however, is KIPP territory—including the French Quarter, which is far from an “underserved” neighborhood. This has the effect of concentrating families of diverse backgrounds Uptown; Downtown, despite its rich history of family life, is thus encouraged to become the province of childless party people, along with a vestigial smattering of low-income parents, who would move to a more supportive setting if only they could afford it.

The McDonogh 15 of my day is gone, as is perhaps its moment of “Rainbow Kids” idealism. There are, however, many integrated public schools in New Orleans today. None of them follows the rigid KIPP pedagogy. And none is in the Creole neighborhoods, where men like Rodolphe Desdunes envisioned schools as integrated as the neighborhoods where they stood.

C.W.Cannon is the 2010-2011 Fulbright Professor of American Civilization at Université Cheik Anta Diop, Dakar, Sénégal.

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
  • Mr. Cannon’s piece is one of the most intellectually and rhetorically dishonest pieces of uniformed nonsense that I have ever had the displeasure of reading. It reinforces the soft bigotry of low expectations and curls back on itself in an Ouroboros of hypocrisy and willful ignorance.

    At no point does Mr. Cannon bother to acknowledge that KIPP schools are among the best preforming schools in the city. Not does he acknowledge the devastated condition of the NOLA public school system prior to Katrina; researchers Carl L. Bankston and Stephen J. Caldas, in their book, “A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana”, note that only 12 of the 103 NOLA public schools open before Katrina showed adequate performance. The New Orleans school system was a disgrace, the lowest performing district in the state, riddled with corruption and parental apathy.

    The Recovery School District, tasked with educating the most difficult to reach children in the city, had the largest improvement in school scores statewide in 2010, and the top scoring school were all KIPP.

    Mr. Cannon will tell you none of that, as it doesn’t fit his agenda. His nostalgic reminiscence about his “idyllic” days in the old NOLA public schools is irrelevant: times do, in fact, change, and the continued decline of the public schools was dealt a final blow by Katrina. The city’s population dropped by half and the Orleans Parish School Board claimed that the schools would remain closed indefinitely. Again, Cannon makes no mention of the fact that the controlling body of Public schools in the city gave up and abdicated all authority. There was no choice but for the state of Louisiana to take over failing schools. Power is now divested from the incompetent centralized school board and transferred to charter school boards, and parents do in fact have their choice of school in which to enroll their children, more choice than in any other school district in the state. Cannon laments that the RSD seems to have granted KIPP “de facto downtown school system” status, rather than “testing other models.” Which might be a valid criticism if, in fact, the KIPP schools were not the highest performing schools in the district.

    The “controversy” over the Colton school (which Cannon neglects to name) most certainly has a basis in racism, as he does note. Those voices calling for a “choice” (when numerous choices already exist, including starting their own school) without any kind of consensus on what alternative they would like to see, coupled with the thinly-veiled complaints about “underserved” and “lower-income” students, are easy to read through: The blacks have their schools. We want our own. “We’re artists,” one parent states on another site. “We want an art school.” So start one. The white (“middle class”) Colton complainers want their choice, but they want it served up, cooked to order, so that the burden of their “choice” to send their kids somewhere other than the Negro School is less burdensome, more … rational.

    Cannon’s facts are at best incomplete and at worst dishonest. Poorly performing schools were being transferred to the RSD, which was created in 2003, long before Katrina. Lusher school has been in operation since 1917, had applied for charter status before Hurricane Katrina, and was granted that status after the state had taken over the school system: there was no “rush” to gain charter status. There was no working public school system, and no other option. Ben Franklin, open since 1957, was a similar case: in order to reopen, in the absence of a working school system, charter status was a logical choice. Both Lusher and Ben Franklin were selective admission schools long before they became charters. KIPP schools, in another conveniently omitted fact, are open admission

    The single most offensive portion of Cannon’s piece is when he makes the astounding claim that KIPP schools, as a whole, are using racially charged terms to encourage the enrollment of white students in order to change the racial makeup of the schools and subvert African-American family values and culture, and that the KIPP program of “rote learning and discipline” — which is such an outrageous display of ignorance about the nature of KIPP schools that it qualifies as an urban legend — is meant as an institutional insult to the abilities and needs of black and/or poor children.

    Cannon is trading in the same racist code that he calls out in his preceding paragraphs, pulling from the air a conspiracy theory based on his own patronizing and racist assumptions about the needs of African-American children and families (Cannon, by the way, is white, as am I). The idea that hard work and a longer school day (not just a KIPP platform, but an idea that is in wide approval nationwide) is somehow inappropriate for black children points to a diminished expectation for their performance. Mustn’t expect more from kids who are … well, you know.

    The “sour distrust” that Cannon purports to decry is in full view here: a fear and distrust of Someone Doing It Better Than You. The distrust is an old one, based in centuries of Louisiana’s position as the court jester of America. Louisiana has long had an overwhelming resentment of outsiders telling it what to do, regardless of the value of the outside guidance. That the KIPP schools have been overwhelmingly successful is less important than their outsider status, and we don’t do what America tells us. We vote for crooks and clowns, refuse to fund school millages, mandate fantasy as part of our science curriculum, shoot our noses off at every turn, and why? Fuck you, that’s why. Success? Progress? Not on your terms.

    Cannon’s piece is perfectly Louisianian: smug in its ignorance and bigotry, immature and resentful, and happy to rationalize an adherence to static failure through conspiracy, untruths, and purposeful ignorance. I expect to find this kind of polemic stuck under my windshield wiper, not published in The Lens.

  • Like many defenders of the culturally-extinguishing corporate schools that KIPP represents with its total compliance behavioral lockdown and segregated conditions in overcrowded classroooms, Greg Peters speaks with more emotion than fact.

    I am in the middle of a research piece on KIPP New Orleans, and Mr. Peters and other ambassadors for KIPP’s brand of psychological and cultural sterilization will likely be surprised at some of the findings, if they can overcome their deep skepticism.

    One quick fact to neutralize the myth by Greg Peters that KIPP in New Orleans (or anywhere else) is racially diverse. We know that charters in general have segregative effects even in urban areas, and KIPPs are intensely segregated, with large numbers of white female missionary types from Teach for America as teachers (quite a grand experiment in cultural eugenics).

    As of 2009 KIPP New Orleans:
    KIPP Central City–100% African American
    KIPP Believe–100% African American
    KIPP McDonogh–98%+ African American

    In terms of the high performance reputation of KIPP, there are extenuating circumstances, you might say:
    –self-selection bias
    –high attrition by low performers
    –dwindling student populations, leaving higher performing survivors
    –fixation on test prep only
    –60-70% more time spent in school
    –10 hour school days and 2-3 hours of homework
    –penal pedagogy model

    If you want to read something about KIPP’s methods and outcomes, start here and work backwards using the links:
    “Learning About KIPP: Lesson 3, Social Justice in Blackface”

  • Karran Harper Royal

    Thank you Mr. Cannon for one of the best articles I’ve read on this issue. I am a former Mc Donogh #15 parent and not only was the old Mc Donogh # 15 a magical place for my son, it was for me. I transformed by being in a place that was so child centered and respected all kinds of people. While I am sure KIPP does well as what it does, it can NEVER be the real Mc Donogh #15. I support the parents who are fighting for a different CHOICE. Those at KIPP refuse to accept that they are not what every parent wants to choose and the parents who want something different are within their rights to fight for something different. Why doesn’t KIPP just claim a school in New Orleans East or in Algiers. There aren’t any KIPP schools in those areas. Let these people have real choice, don’t force another KIPP down their throats. Again, thank you for this article.

  • Right, Greg Peters has it wrong, because the evil KIPP schools came into New Orleans out of nowhere and just took over a vibrant, well established, accredited school that was a utopia of diversity and acheivement inside a system that served New Orleans well.

    What other varieties of snake oil or historical revisionism are you selling?

    There are valid and credible critiques that can be made about the charter schools in New Orleans and around the nation, KIPP schools included. I’m no fan of charters, especially as they are being applied to New Orleans. They can be just as poorly run as the schools they are designed to replace.

    However, no credible critiques can emerge from a fundamental misunderstanding (or intentional misrepresentation) of the abhorrent conditions that existed before in New Orleans public schools – and indeed public schools all over the South.

    For example, Cannon claims that “The KIPP approach is based on repetition, uniformity, discipline, and long hours of rote learning.” I assume he means that as a critique.

    That sounds like just about every non-Montessori elementary school, public and private, I’ve ever visited or heard of, ever. What schools can effectively operate without repetition, discipline and long hours of rote learning? And need I mention that the vast majority of schools in New Orleans – public and private – have uniform policies.

    This is a hit piece, pure and simple. If y’all have something substantive to add to the educational debate, by all means, bring it. We’ve got dozens of other non-accredited, failing schools – public and charter – that need some sort of system that works.

    Until then, let’s keep the oversimplified “whaaah-charter-schools-bad” whining to a minimum. I know it may be catharsis for some of you, but it ain’t helping. Thanks.

  • Mr. Horn may wish to reread my comment, as I nowhere claim that KIPP school in New Orleans (or anywhere else) are racially diverse. In NOLA, anyway, they do serve a primarily African-American population.

    I’d be interested to hear how his dwindling student population theory meshes with the NOLA reality of an expanding student population, as more families return and new arrivals enroll children (see http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2011/01/1000_more_students_per_year_to.html). He obviously doesn’t understand what “self-selection bias” is, as NOLA KIPP schools are open enrollment. His appalled exhibit of more time spent in school as some kind of underhanded way of improving performance gets a big shrug from me: more time equals better results? Great.

    The article he links to, his own anti-KIPP polemic, includes five-year-old examples (egregious ones, if true) from a single KIPP school in San Francisco which do not by any stretch match what goes on in NOLA KIPP schools. Mr. Horn would do well to try some original research and visit the schools he so despises,rather than relying on third-hand anecdotes. KIPP schools do adapt to the communities in which they operate; although there certainly is a philosophy and a curriculum to be followed, labeling children as “miscreants” and “paychecks” are not part of the local program, and I highly doubt they are mandated in any part of the program. And if Mr. Horn would like to see fixation on test prep, he’s welcome to visit any Louisiana public school preparing for LEAP tests — it’s the ubiquity and weight of the ridiculous standardized testing program that drives that behavior. Talk to the state if you don’t like it (I don’t). And a quick glance around Horn’s website reveals his rabid anti-KIPP stance, which goes so far as to include racist ad-hominem attacks, such as this: http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2011/02/why-laura-m-claverie-do-tell-us-about.html

    And unbiased parties might wish to pay attention to Mr. Horn’s uncoded language — “white, female missionary types”, “cultural eugenics”, “intensely segregated”, “cultural sterilization”, “penal pedagogy” — I’d suggest that it’s Horn who indulges in emotional arguments and cultural bias. His loaded words serve to bolster the convenient myth that KIPP is a racist plot designed to destroy black culture through … I don’t know, high expectations? A longer school day? Mr. Horn, like Mr. Cannon, reveals his own bigotry by assuming that a demanding program is unsuited for African-American children. I suspect Mr. Horn’s “research” will be a little less than objective.

    As Cousin Pat notes, there are valid arguments to be made against the charter school craze, and against the KIPP techniques, but there are none on display here. My purpose is not to defend the whole of either charters or KIPP, but to push back against the biased, irrational and uninformed hatred of a program that has proven to be effective *in New Orleans*, a special case that had NO functioning public school system as of November 2005. KIPP/Charters are not meant to be, nor do I consider them to be, an answer to “fixing” the wretched Orleans Parish School system — their purpose is to educate children, and it appears that they do that well.

    It’s ever more clear to me that those who call most loudly for “choice”, specifically in the matter of the Colton campus, have no other agenda than a rejection of of what they perceive to be a “Black” school while offering no convincing alternative — and since the facts don’t back them up, they’ll resort to conspiracy theories and loaded language to create a culture of fear.

    Two notes: If Mr. Cannon longs for the days of “rainbow kids”, why does he view KIPP’s encouragement of white (“middle class”) students as something sinister? Doesn’t that further his nostalgic dream?

    And second, unless I am mistaken, there is no Saturday school at NOLA KIPPs, as a rule. There was in the beginning, on a limited basis, every other week, and never for primary students, but that is no longer the case. Yet another fact-ish misstatement.

  • Greg Peters

    Read http://www.myneworleans.com/New-Orleans-Magazine/January-2011/An-Educational-Camelot/ for another, more positive view of NOLA’s KIPP schools.

  • In Mr. Peters’s harrumphing to my criticisms of the KIPP apartheid chain gangs that are offered up as the only choice for NOLA parents whose public schools were swept away by decades of malignant neglect and poverty prior to final razing by the disaster capitalist rats who swam in following Katrina, Peters uses the old Bush argument that anyone who doesn’t agree with the zero tolerance choke hold of the KIPP system is exercising the bigotry of low expectations.

    Because one does not bow the corporate reform school model for the poor does not mean that we do not cherish challenging and supportive schools for all children, just like the ones in the middle class neighborhoods of New Orleans, where parents would never allow the kind of behavioral lockdown that is represented by the compliance model of KIPP and the KIPP pretenders.

    You don’t find KIPPs in the leafy suburbs because parents have real choices–good public schools with rich curricula, certified and nurturing teachers, libraries, sports teams, art. You know, Mr. Peters, all those niceties that accrue to those who can afford to say no to the penal pedagogy model represented by KIPP.

    For the rest of the children of parents in New Orleans who can’t afford to say no, it looks like segregated containmnent, psychological treatments approved by Dr. Seligman (as reported in the NYTimes), and a kind of No Excuses cultural neutering that has the support of the oligarchs who are paying Paul Vallas to run the show in NOLA.

    It is disaster capitalism at it most virulent, and entirely reminiscent of the eugenics movement from a hundred years ago. Instead of the elimination of defective germ plasm, however, which led to mandatory sterilization laws on over thirty states in the 1920s, today the task is the elimination of defective cultures–and thus the KIPP anti-cultural containment camps that provide the approved treatment for urban America. Work hard, be nice.

    History has something to teach us if we are willing to listen, but I’m not sure Mr. Peters and the folks he represents are ready for those lessons. I hope they are.

  • I think I’ll take leave of Mr. Horn now, as he compares elementary school classrooms to apartheid chain gangs and forced sterilization. A truly incoherent rant worthy of Glenn Beck at his foamiest.

    I think Mr. Horn’s knowledge of Louisiana schools can be best summed up by this quote: “You don’t find KIPPs in the leafy suburbs because parents have real choices–good public schools with rich curricula, certified and nurturing teachers, libraries, sports teams, art. You know, Mr. Peters, all those niceties that accrue to those who can afford to say no to the penal pedagogy model represented by KIPP.”

    Ah, yes. All those good schools, with the green leafy trees and the sports teams, a rich banquet of choice for parents. Lots of those in Louisiana. We’re lousy with opportunity down here.

  • It is hard to tell if Mr. Peters knows as little about his state as he pretends. In case he is not just pretending to be ignorant of the vast gulf between rich and poor, I would recommend going up north to Shreveport, for instance, where you can get a real taste for the different educational lives of the haves and the never-have-hads.

    I did a study there that can be downloaded–and read:

    Some excellent 3-Star and 4-Star schools there, like A. C. Steere and Blanchard. Compare those test scores of middle class children to those children of the working poor at Lakeshore and Central, for example, both struggling to keep their 1-Star designations and not become chain gang charter targets.

    These distinctions can be found all over Louisiana in every parish. But that, of course, assumes that one is looking.

  • Mark Dubbs

    Jim Horn, check your facts bro. KIPP Believe is NOT 100% African-American. While it may be 97% or 98% African-American, I suspicious of your overall fact checking skills. In fact, I am 100% certain of that.

  • Thank you, Mark Dubbs, for that update. My numbers came from the State of Louisiana Department of Education, 2009 Principal Report Card (2010 Report is not yet ready):


    I am glad to see that you are covering the story, especially this statistically insignificant development. Keep working it.

  • Apartheid chain gangs? Eugenics?

    Godwin’s Law approaches!

  • So, I went to check on schools in Shreveport, Louisiana. I found 11 SACS accredited public high schools. Every school Mr. Horn describes are not on that list. Apparently, Shreveport makes no effort to accredit their elementary and middle schools.

    Shreveport has a 2006 estimated population of just over 200K residents.

    On the other hand, New Orleans has an estimated population close to 350K, and only has 8 accredited public schools on the elementary, middle and high school level. (Compared to 27 accredited schools managed by the Archdiocese at all levels.)

    Residents of New Orleans have quite a good grasp on the difference between the haves and the have-nots as it relates to education, thank you very much. But there is an immediacy problem (if you have school aged children) and the political problem (it takes a great deal of work to change local political culture to prioritize education). Without a very helpful public school system, many parents in this town are forced to get the best education for their children possible, within their means.

    The public system has been so broken for so long, however, that the majority of middle class residents send their children to private school if they cannot get them into Lusher or Ben Franklin (that’s why businesses don’t like to relocate here).

    Those who are denied access to the working public schools are left with a decision to send their children to charters or non-charter schools. For the most part, the parents do everything they can to get their children into the best charter available, and in New Orleans those schools tend to be either Science & Math or KIPP.

    Do I have criticisms of KIPP? Absolutely. But my concerns FOCUS on THE SYSTEM, not KIPP. KIPP is one possible solution to the conditions on the ground. It may not be the best solution (IMHO), but it is A solution, considering the hand of cards being dealt to parents in this city at the current time.

  • Your comments, Cousin Pat, remind me of something Diane Ravitch said near the beginning of her new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System . . .,” as she is explaining how she came from being a leading education reform advocate for the corporate agenda to an outspoken critic of the “test and punish” agenda offered by the “Billionaire Boys Club,” as she calls the handful of oligarchs who are running your charter system in NOLA and elsewhere.

    What Ravitch says that reminds me of what you are saying, Cousin Pat, is that she, too, had been focused on the “system,” that is, the view from 20,000 feet, as she says. What she could not see from up there (where she had a great view of the big system) were the details on the ground, the blown up schools and the suffering children and the demoralized teachers and principals, and the scared and desperate parents.

    Unfortunately, KIPP does not offer to fix any of this damage from the NCLB roadside explosive device, for the demoralized teachers have been replaced largely by two year temps from Teach for America, and parents and children either keep their suffering to themselves, or are reminded of the contracts they have signed before they are dumped back into the RSD schools that remain the schools of last resort for those who can’t cut it at KIPP.

    KIPP has a brand to protect, and it cannot be sullied or threatened by problems of poverty, hunger, broken families, no health care, no opportunity, or unsafe neighborhoods. That’s what No Excuses means, and it becomes the ultimate excuse for continuing to ignore the poverty that continues to devour the soul of New Orleans, or Los Angeles, or Newark, or any other urban center of America where half of black children live in poverty.

    And yet there are ways to think about the “system” from a systemic view. Rather than pretending that schools can fix all the problems that arise as a result of poverty, a systems approach would approach educational reform in inseparable from health reform, jobs reform, transportation reform, housing reform. Instead, the Billionaire Boys Club has declared a crisis in schools only and now offer the corporate penal model of KIPP, Inc. as a replacement for public schools that at least were accountable to the public at some level.

    What you are living is what Naomi Klein terms “disaster capitalism,” and it does not serve the needs of the neediest or the needy of New Orleans. It does, however, put schools in the hands of CEOs and corporate foundations, who get fat from public education dollars.

    When you say that KIPP is A solution, I would suggest that it is THE final solution for the contained, segregated, and abused children of New Orleans, at least until the parents wake up and demand humane, challenging, and caring learning environments that are common among white folks of New Orleans. It is clear that Mr. Cannon is already onto this fact. Or do we have to pretend that only black children deserve the penal pedagogy model? The zero tolerance atmosphere that prepares children for adult prison. This system run by the oligarchs and their local toadies has been made during the last five years–it won’t take that long to unmake it if the parents demand it.

    Finally, I will save you from having to click out to read my conclusion to the KIPP chapter that I linked earlier. I hope you take a few minutes to read it. I wish you the best.


    The three weeks that KIPP students spend in summer school is devoted to an intensive socialization and enculturation process for new students soon to begin fifth grade, and for other students who are learning the compliance demands of the next grade level. New students must learn the SLANT rules, which means to “sit up straight, look and listen, ask and answer questions, nod to show understanding, [and] track the speaker” (Browne 2008, 58). They must learn that any rule infraction will bring an instant corrective response, and they must learn that the smallest misdeed will be no more tolerated than the most egregious offense.

    New recruits practice walking, getting off the bus, sitting in the cafeteria, and going to the bathroom the KIPP way. Students must learn that KIPP rules apply inside and outside of school. “Miscreants” must learn, for instance, that isolation and ostracism from the KIPP family is total as long as the punishment lasts, and children who talk to “miscreants” at or away from school risk the same punishment if apprehended. In fact, it becomes the duty of other students to report offenders who are associating in any way with “miscreants.” If they do not, they, too, risk the same punishment. New recruits, then, learn compliance through the exercise of coercive power and constant surveillance.

    New students must also learn by the remunerative power of the “paycheck,” and at KIPP, the “paycheck” accompanies student at all times, thus offering any teacher a handy way to keep track of student academic and behavioral performance in other classes, which may cause dollars to be added to or subtracted from a student’s paycheck (Jones 2004, 38-39). At the end of each week, students may use accumulated KIPP dollars to buy KIPP gear or candy in the school store, or they may apply earnings toward future “field lesson”[i] participation. At the completion of the three weeks of intense KIPP-notizing, students are properly tuned for the culminating normative power exercise embodied in the ritual to grant the KIPP uniform shirt (Browne 2008, 58). This symbolic reward and acknowledgement of new students becoming part of the KIPP team or KIPP family marks the conclusion of the initial indoctrination into a new school life that will be characterized by “choosing” total compliance or, else, an abbreviated enrollment. Some uniform shirts will carry the message, “Work Hard, Be Nice;” other will read, “No Shortcuts, No Excuses.”

    As reported in the New York Times Magazine, Dr. Martin Seligman’s influence has been and continues to be central in shaping the “non-cognitive” behaviors described by the KIPP compliance model as self-control, adaptability, and patience (Tough 2006):
    “Toll and Levin are influenced by the writings of a psychology professor from the University of Pennsylvania named Martin Seligman, the author of a series of books about positive psychology. Seligman, one of the first modern psychologists to study happiness, promotes a technique he calls learned optimism, and Toll and Levin consider it an essential part of the attitude they are trying to instill in their students. Last year, a graduate student of Seligman’s named Angela Duckworth published with Seligman a research paper that demonstrated a guiding principle of these charter schools: in many situations, attitude is just as important as ability.”

    Not mentioned in Tough’s laudatory piece on KIPP and the bold reformers who back KIPP are the historic experiments conducted by Dr. Martin Seligman in the 1960s and 1970s that demonstrated “animals receiving electric shocks, which they had no ability to prevent or avoid, were unable to act in subsequent situations where avoidance or escape was possible” (Gale Research 1998). Dr. Seligman’s unexpected finding brought behavioral assumptions in psychology face to face with a phenomenon that behaviorism could not explain, a phenomenon Seligman termed “learned helplessness.” Dr. Seligman’s role in developing the KIPP instructional model surely deserves further investigation, and central to that research should be this question: how does one tell the difference between a manifestation of learned helplessness and a display of self-control, or self-regulation, particularly when the depressive effects of learned helplessness could be masked by continual ministrations of its antidote, “learned optimism,” through the happiness training (Hedges 2009) of positive psychology?

    And so it is, then, that KIPP children are initiated into a state that may be easily mistaken for learned helplessness if it were not for the KIPP promotional literature (Tough, 2006) that labels it “self-control.” However we choose to characterize the resulting submissive detachment that these KIPP children exhibit, it is achieved by unrelenting and constant surveillance, harsh and sure verbal castigation, public humiliation and labeling, manipulative reinforcement, and ostracizing isolation. From this depressive state of total dependency, KIPP then applies ample and on-going doses of Dr. Seligman’s (Seligman 2007) “learned optimism” techniques that aim to instill resilience and to temper reactions to the unalterable compliance mechanisms by encouraging the illusion of individual choice. By doing so, any anger or resentment among students arising out of punishments becomes internalized and accepted as the resulting consequences of improper individual choices and actions, rather than being directed outward toward questioning the organizational structure of total control and constant surveillance.

    Students are converted, then, from potentially bad actors to good audiences, from recalcitrant resistors to eager, hard workers, from a former state of victimization to a kind of delusional empowerment masking the full embrace of total submission to KIPP compliance demands. And if things don’t work out for these children in terms of not working hard enough or being nice enough to survive in KIPP, as is the case for over half the children in the Bay Area KIPP schools, then perhaps they will at least have learned along the way that they can blame no one but themselves for their own shortcomings and failure. No excuses. No shortcuts. Work hard, be nice. Hedges (2009) sums it up this way for those whose efforts fail to attract the best things in life, which is the promise that positive psychology makes to those who try hard enough or wish hard enough to earn that attraction: “for those who run into the hard walls of reality, the ideology has the pernicious effect of forcing the victim to blame him or herself for his or her pain or suffering” (119).

    As long as the focus remains on fixing the insides of children’s heads while ignoring the conditions that these kids must return to after their 10 hour days of working hard and being nice in their apartheid schools, all manner of indoctrination and extraordinary educational renditions may be deemed necessary and appropriate to achieve KIPP goals. At its unacknowledged core, KIPP remains an intervention aimed at cognitive and behavioral control that occurs when we use the happy talk manipulations of corporate psychology as a means to turn poor minority children into the white Ivy League teachers’ version of middle class children. In the meantime, poor children are taught to turn away from their communities, rather than learning to change them by challenging the system of privilege that now proclaims their liberation while embracing a renewed form of segregated confinement. The KIPP charter phenomenon and its imitators represent the corporate colonization[ii] of urban America, with all the zeal that we might expect from missionaries looking to save souls by shaping their converts to openly accept the omnipotent forces emanating from the Market’s invisible hand.

    Even though our history should save us from shock, it remains, nonetheless, a breathtaking expression of blind hubris and Orwellian irony that the wealthiest in our society should come to embrace KIPP’s self-serving educational shortcut as the preferred way to pay down our vast educational debt to those oppressed by poverty and discrimination for the past 400 years. The longer KIPP’s abusive and extreme measures are allowed to function as a palliative, or excuse, for our society’ refusal to act against urban poverty, apartheid schools, and racism, the closer that this dominant culture comes to the forced moral bankruptcy that awaits those societies that proclaim equality while practicing torturous interventions against the children of its least equal citizens as an inexpensive shortcut to preserving the façade of equal opportunity.

    For white philanthro-capitalists, the KIPP charter schools offer an urban reform solution based on non-stop behavioral control, cultural sterilization, and psychological character interventions aimed at producing compliant, delusional, and hard-working children who will offer “proof” that the effects of poverty can be overcome by interventions less expensive[iii] and easier to control than the public schools. KIPP, then, remains the billionaire philanthropist version of social and education reform on the cheap, where a dubious economy of scale is more important than the children who are sacrificed through the unethical and experimental excesses that are imposed under the shredded banner of equal access to quality education. There are humane ways to run schools and increase academic achievement at the same time. KIPP is not one of them. In fact, KIPP and its imitators represent the antithesis to education reform based on caring and fairness, quality and equality. As such, KIPP offers us a policy version of social justice in blackface, an institutionalized caricature whose legacy and ultimate cost we cannot yet begin to fathom.

    [i] KIPP prefers “field lesson” (Mathews 2009) to field trip,” as “field lesson” conveys to students the fact that the larger world is an extension of the KIPP classroom, thus reinforcing the bubble effect that helps to sustain the total control that the KIPP organization demands of its charges.
    [ii] Where KIPP and most of its “no excuses” knockoffs limit their direct indoctrination to character building and psychological control, The American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland openly disparages multiculturalism and openly advances the philosophy of Milton Friedman. Consider this teacher recruitment ad from the AIPCS website that became part of a story (Landsberg 2009) in the Los Angeles Times: “We are looking for hard working people who believe in free market capitalism. . . . Multicultural specialists, ultra liberal zealots and college-tainted oppression liberators need not apply.” And this ad is not intended as a self-parody.

    [iii] An AFT report (2008) found that charter schools in the forty states that have charter laws pay teachers, on average, 20 percent less public schools. This is a rarely acknowledged reason that politicians of both parties find charters so attractive, especially for the urban poor.

  • M Styborski

    Yeah. No Child Left Behind was so much better! Why educate the kids when it’s easier and more profitable to hide the failures and collect the bonuses…


  • Your chapters provide me with exactly zero information that I haven’t already heard a thousand times. I’m not exactly sure how any educational system looks from “20,000 feet.” But I do know what they look like from the potholes on Mithra Street.

    One thing that is difficult to see is that these parents and students aren’t choosing between KIPP and “some normal school with arts & stuff.” They’re choosing between schools like KIPP, where they at least have some chance to learn, and many schools where they have exactly zero chance to learn anything.

    Those are the choices the system has presented to them. Many people are working on fixing this situation, but there’s an awful lot of heavy lifting yet to be done. It is difficult to get a system that wasn’t serious about educating African-American youth before to become serious about it when their new mission is to write contracts to establish charter schools.

    The reality on the ground remains the same – and parents with school aged children have to take the situation as it stands: you try to get your kids into one of the 8 public accredited schools in Orleans Parish. If you can’t do that, you send them to private school if you have money or take your chances with the RSD if you don’t. If you’re in the latter category, you try to get your kids in the best option available. Is it any wonder so many people live outside New Orleans? That’s a crappy set of choices.

    From what I’ve been told, these conditions existed before the storm or the flood. KIPP is a reaction to these limited options. You can call it “disaster capitalism” all you want, just be sure you identify the correct disaster.

    As for your KIPP-centric focus, if you have some information that KIPP intentionally destroyed some functioning, accredited Orleans Parish School System just so they could create the conditions required for them to open schools here, THAT would be a story. Until then, you’re only repeating the same complaints and hyperbolic rhetoric that we’ve all heard before.

  • Angelique Lapeyre Vialou

    I refuse to follow the back and forth between Mr. Horn and others because I find his vehemently anti-KIPP stance unhelpful to our perspective.

    I, for one, have never been anti-KIPP. Nor have I ever been anti-charter, which describes Dianne Ravitch’s current stance.

    I am supportive of stronger educational options downtown. A KIPP monopoly does not provide us with school choice. Equity and accessibility to excellent public education options is what I stand for.

    Finally, I reject that our choice is between KIPP and something far worse. As engaged parents, we will strive to see only a superior elementary school inhabit Colton. This side of town has long been underserved by truly great educational options and we seek to correct that.

  • nola mommy

    Where to begin?

    1. My children attended Mac 15 for 04-05 because of its reputation described by Mr.Cannon, however, I am sad to report that the school was then just a sad shadow of its former self. It was completely and utterly broken. When I heard it would become a KIPP school, I did not even consider sending my 2 gifted, creative sons there for one minute. Fortunately I had made arrangements elsewhere (Uptown).

    2. How did KIPP get Mac 15 immediately after the storm with no vote or community meetings or anything? The MOST PRIME real estate/school campus in the entire city. How was this conversation kept out of all of those planning processes?

    This is connected to the Riverfront thing and the theft of Frederick Douglass High School.

    3. Who is Jodi Jacobs Aamodt, and who is on the board of KIPP? How did they come to control so many schools in black and downtown neighborhoods?

  • bats left, teaches right

    …thanks to Greg peters and others for defending the KIPPS schools. I could riff all day on this “corporate KIPP bad/ rainbow schools good” canard, but I’ll keep it simple. I taught in NOLA Public Schools pre -storm. They didn’t work; not just because of the outrageous corruption, misapropriation of funds and uncredentialed teachers. The students literally do not know how to behave. The strength of KIPPS is that they start by instructing students on how to thrive in a classroom (SLANT). And do your research. It’s not just that test scores have improved. KIPPS puts disadvantaged students into universities. Plain and simple, they have been responsible for more upward mobility than all of the “child centered” rainbow coalition hokum combined. If your aim is the traditional liberal goal of greater social justice and opportunity through education, then send your kids to a KIPPS school. I now teach overseas, but if I return home to NOLA (and who doesn’t, eventually) I’ll gladly teach at a KIPPS school.

  • Frank

    Mr. Cannon writes of a time that fascinates me greatly: the short-lived fully-integrated NOPS system (dead by the early 80s). However, that it died is surely one of its greater indictments. And Mr. Cannon seems alarmingly wooly-headed when he notes that “the most truly racial assumption in the whole KIPP debate is that poor children need rote learning, discipline, and maximum time away from their families and communities, as if these forces were detriments rather than sources of strength.” Ummm…they are detrimental; yes, those children typically need rescuing from their families and communities, places where teeny vocabularies, vicious, violent parenting, casual and pervasive substance abuse, TV addictions and general bad attitudes predominate!