Why Do White Reformers Keep Making This Obvious Mistake?

It seems like it should be obvious. Yet news from KIPP—the nation’s largest non-profit charter-school network—shows that this simple idea is still very difficult for well-meaning school reformers to understand. Why has it taken decades for today’s “visionaries” to learn this centuries-old lesson?

Here’s the latest: According to Chalkbeat, the KIPP network shared some powerful mea culpas at its recent 25-year anniversary meeting. Historically, the schools have tended to attract middle-class white teachers to work with lower-income non-white students. And the KIPP tradition included a “no-excuses” type of classroom management. Students—at times—were required to maintain a rigid silence, marching single-file through hallways, enduring silent lunches, and generally submitting to a harsh-seeming disciplinary scheme.

In many cases, KIPP discipline insisted that non-conforming students be publicly humiliated. After twenty-five years, some of KIPP’s leaders are admitting that such systems don’t work. As Chalkbeat explained,

KIPP was among several charter networks to pioneer a “no excuses” approach to student discipline. That philosophy emphasizes classroom order and obedience in a bid to minimize distraction and raise students’ academic achievement — and has been heavily criticized for largely being meted out to students of color by white educators. Over the last decade, KIPP has walked back some of its earlier practices, notably a punishment known as “the bench,” where students were made to sit apart from their peers, sometimes wear a different colored T-shirt, and remain silent outside official class time.

Turns out, such practices can be effective in the short term. But they build up hostility and anger. They turn school into yet another place for low-income kids to resent and resist. And KIPP is hoping to end its use of public humiliation as a standard practice. As KIPP CEO Richard Barth told Chalkbeat,

“There are practices that we did in the beginning that we out-and-out abhor.” . . . “There were mistakes.” The charter network is still focused on providing “safe and structured environments,” he added, but “that’s very different than processes that shame kids.”

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, I’m currently up to my eyeballs in research about America’s first broad attempt at urban school reform. Two hundred years ago, well-meaning white “visionaries” pioneered KIPP’s journey away from humiliation-as-a-tool.

In the early 1800s, London reformer Joseph Lancaster promised he had figured out a way to solve the problems of poverty. By reforming urban schools, he promised he could educate the hordes of children who thronged the streets of London. Instead of beating students into submission, Lancaster enthused, middle-class white teachers could simply humiliate them. Lancaster’s favorite tool was the “birdcage,” “cradle,” or “basket.”

1810 punishment the basketIn the 1810 edition of his school-reform manual, Lancaster described this technique:

Occasionally boys are put in a sack, or in a basket, suspended to the roof of the school, in sight of all the pupils, who frequently smile at the birds in the cage. This punishment is one of the most terrible that can be inflicted on boys of sense and abilities.

Even Lancaster acknowledged that this extreme form of public humiliation was “terrible,” but it worked. As one enthusiastic teacher wrote to Lancaster in 1812, suspending kids from the ceiling could work wonders with classroom management. As this teacher put it,

When they first came, they were like so many wild donkeys of the Common, for they did not care for any thing; I threatened them with the cradle, but that, did no good. So I got the Head of them, put him in, and gave him a bit of a rocking: well! He begged and prayed for me to take him out, and he would not swear nor talk again, upon that condition I let him out & he has kept his word ever since; it took such an effect on all the Boys, that I have never had to punish one since: so, out of a set of wild donkeys, they are made a set of good behaved orderly children.

Just like KIPP’s leaders, however, Lancaster’s followers found out that public humiliation was not a good long-term strategy. By 1817, manuals of the Lancasterian system no longer advocated “the basket” or other tools of public humiliation. Instead, they moved to a simpler system of merits and demerits.

Why? Because when Lancasterian schools resorted to public humiliation, students stopped coming. Turns out people don’t like being publicly humiliated. Back in the early 1800s, especially, African-American students and families refused to have their children subjected to the same sorts of punishments that slave-owners had used on southern plantations.

It doesn’t seem like it should be a difficult notion to grasp, yet for two hundred years school leaders have had to “discover” this truth anew. Which leads us to our question for today: Why is it so difficult for reformers to understand that public humiliation is not a good strategy?

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The Tortuous Triumph of Progressive Education

It’s hard to know whether to cheer or cry. For people like me who want progressive schools and progressive politics, it hurts to see progressive classrooms converted into tools of the rich. But see it we do: More evidence today from Wichita that progressive education has triumphed over its conservative bête noirs, only to be turned into a tool of traditionalism.

wichita wonder koch school

The progressive vision for Wichita. Rich people only, please.

Here’s what we know: The conservative bajillionaire Koch brothers have long been interested in educational issues. Now they have funded a fancy-pants progressive school in Wichita. Second-generation Chase and Annie Koch are opening the Wonder school in Wichita. Their plans could have come straight out of a 1930s progressive-ed playbook.

Their vision? No age-graded classrooms, no report cards, no judgment. Focus on student-directed activity, guided by adult “coaches,” not teachers. As one planner put it,

We think that children are not challenged to the fullest extent that they could be right now. . . . We want to challenge them to take on new tasks and greater ownership over what they’re doing.

So far, so good. Such dreams have been around for a century now, pushed by progressive-ed leaders such as George Counts, William Heard Kilpatrick, and of course, John Dewey.

In the middle of the twentieth century, as I recount in my book about educational conservatism, traditionalists pushed back hard against such notions. These days, at least in Kansas, some of the hardest-core educational conservatives have embraced the obvious superiority of progressive classroom methods.

So we should celebrate, right? Not so fast. Those same progressive-ed-loving conservatives tend to take a very different approach when it comes to schools for the rest of us.

Yes, the Koch’s own kids get to go to schools with fabulously progressive pedagogy. But Koch money pushes a very different sort of classroom elsewhere. In Tennessee, for example, Koch funding promoted charter schools for low-income families. At some of those schools, most famously the KIPP network, students are rigidly controlled. KIPP’s “no excuses” model and “SLANT” rules (Sit up, Listen, Ask and Answer questions, Nod and Track the teacher) can feel oppressive.

At some charter schools—especially urban schools with high proportions of low-income non-white students—students are compelled to sit silently at lunch, march silently and exactly through hallways, respond rapidly and exactly to teacher prompts, and hold their heads rigidly at all times.

What a contrast to the free-wheeling, mind-expanding Koch-funded school soon to be offered to affluent kids in Wichita. Of course, for only $10,000 per year, anyone is welcome at the Wichita Wonder school. Unless, of course, a student has any sort of disability.

What are we supposed to think? I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it’s hard not to see the obvious: Some conservatives have recognized the huge benefits of progressive classroom practices, but they only want them for their own children. Or, to be more charitable, conservatives are only willing to foot the bill for progressive classrooms for their own kids.