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Does denying dreams help kids learn?

A key lesson in the No Excuses variety of public schools, which use firm measures to raise achievement for impoverished students, is that behavior has consequences. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a No Excuses-style charter network, does that by denying some students the traditional year-end trip to Orlando or Utah or New York or Washington or other places they desperately want to go.

Does it work? Here comes an unusually qualified expert. Kyrien Curtis arrives in Washington Monday night as a volunteer chaperone for 60 fifth graders from the KIPP STRIVE Academy in Atlanta. He is a short, lean freshman at Morehouse College. He grew up in Houston and attended the KIPP Academy Middle School there all four years, from fifth through eighth grade. Because of foul moods and other distractions, he missed the trip every time, so this will be his first.

Denying children cherished prizes is a controversial part of the No Excuses model. The idea is to build self-restraint. It has had an impact. Former KIPP students, now adults, tell me that losing a year-end trip was the most dramatic moment of their middle school years. They are still trying to measure its influence a decade later.

Squashing a student’s dream is something that most schools, public and private, rarely do. Some educators think it is cruel and destructive of a learning environment. But KIPP achievement gains are large. The co-founders of KIPP, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, were appalled at the lack of meaningful consequences for students who misbehaved when they were novice teachers in the Houston public schools. When they started KIPP in 1994 they devised a system of KIPP dollars for good behavior, and a loss of privileges (like being prohibited from talking to your friends) for bad behavior. Getting a good education and going to college, they said, was the consequence of good decisions. Bad decisions set you back. Some students did not believe that until they lost a trip.

In middle school Curtis spent much time on the Porch, a KIPP word for the isolation imposed on students who miss homework, interrupt class, insult other students or talk back to teachers. “I never lied, cheated or stole,” he said, “but I also was not always nice.” A teacher would urge his class to have a clean week---no demerits. But by Thursday he would succumb to a destructive mood, miss an assignment and be back on the Porch. He had to sit separately from other students in class and at lunch, and speak only to teachers, not his friends. Good behavior freed him from the Porch, but that often took awhile.

Curtis credits KIPP’s nine-hour school days and heavy homework for teaching him how to manage his time. He does not think he would have a 3.2 grade point at Morehouse without that. But as he moved on to the KIPP Houston High School, becoming active in student government and eventually student body president, the lost trips stayed on his mind. He was struck by a high school teacher’s observation that so many of the middle school students who landed on the porch were African-American males raised by single parents, just like him.

Curtis talks like a business leader remembering rowdy days as a prep school student. He learned about rules, but had to break some. Each KIPP school has a different system. At STRIVE each student has a chance to get off its version of the Porch in two days and are only isolated at lunch.

But 25 STRIVE students will still miss this trip. Curtis is a computer science major, interested in robots. But he said he might also become a teacher and help kids like him who get left behind.

Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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By Jay Mathews  | May 16, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Denying dreams to help kids learn, KIPP schools, Kyrien Curtis, No Excuses schools, behavior has consequences, consequence of bad decision, not all KIPP students go on the year-end trip  
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Comments

As a student in an average public high school I have to say that the KIPP program is obscene. Although the long school hours and overload of homework will undoubtedly help a student achieve in his or her life (assuming they don't shatter under all of the unnecessary pressure). And they will probably be accepted into their top choice college or get a job at Goldman Sachs, eventually they will realize that they wasted away their entire childhood doing unreasonable amounts homework, and no amount of money or power can recover these lost years. In the eyes of time success isn't everything...

Additionally, their theory that isolation forces students to obey is completely ridiculous to me. Although this method may be successful in making students obey, through this they are just encouraging insecurities within the students. Although "The Porch" (which to me just sounds like a flamboyant name for a time-out) is in my opinion a perfectly legitimate punishment, categorizing students into "those attending the trip" and "those not attending the trip" is quite the opposite. When confronted with being put up in front of the class as one who is too bad to attend the trip, students become insecure and over-cautious in their actions. It's as though you have a teacher who embarrasses you in front of the class if you answer a question incorrectly. Eventually you will learn not to answer questions because you are too afraid to be embarrassed by your teacher and thus your "learning experience" is hindered. Although obviously some punishment needs to be in place for students who misbehave, it should not be through through manipulating embarrassment and isolation. Loosen up a bit, remember they are just kids.

Posted by: chrisroman | May 16, 2010 11:37 PM | Report abuse

@chrisroman I can definitely see your point, and when I was their age, I certainly did not work half as hard as KIPP kids do. However, I think a lot of the point of KIPP is to get disadvantaged kids caught up.

What do you do for someone who enters middle school unable to read? You play catch-up. That means putting more time in.

What do you do for someone who enters middle school with a severe attitude problem because nobody disciplined this kid as a small child? You play catch-up. That means more regimented discipline.

These kids are called "disadvantaged" for a reason: they lost the parental lottery, big time. My kids got discipline starting at age 2. They were reading at age 4. They're not successful because of genetics or because of superior schools. They are successful because my wife and I went to great lengths to make them that way.

Some kid of an uneducated, single mom working 3 jobs just isn't going to get that kind of preparation. How do you propose to help a kid like that? Just doom him or her to continue the cycle of poverty?

I don't have an answer to that question, but KIPP seems to get good results. That's good enough for me, although I have to admit, it will be a cold day in hell before I'd subject one of my kids to such an environment.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | May 17, 2010 12:20 AM | Report abuse

Seems to me that the question is not IF it helps kids learn, because they learn something from every experience they have 24/7/365. The proper question is whether or not what they learn from that particular manipulation of their experience is worthwhile.

But in order to answer the question you have to know a lot more about the context in which that reward was offered. The situation has so many various possible permutations, depending on how the consequence of inadequate academic performance is dealt with that having the reward denied could be seen as a just result or a horrid abuse. It all depends on the quality of relationships between the students, the teacher, and the rest of the school.

The better question would be whether or not KIPP is able to consistently create across their whole system of schools the conditions in which all students can learn something positive and useful by being denied a trip.

--
Enjoy,

Don Berg

Site: http://www.teach-kids-attitude-1st.com
Free E-book: The Attitude Problem in Education

Posted by: attitutor | May 17, 2010 12:33 AM | Report abuse

Field trips are not dreams. They are fun social events. Of course withholding a social event for poor behavior is appropriate. I think it would help if more students learned to distinguish between dreams (graduating from college, finding a great career) and fun events.
I'm not that impressed by the 3.2 at Morehouse. I teach at a college - with the current rampant grade inflation, all you have to do is show up and turn most of your work in to get a B average. I am sure KIPP does a good job at training students to get their work in, but does it train them to do great work - to get the A's rather than the B's?

Posted by: bkmny | May 17, 2010 6:14 AM | Report abuse

What is the main objective of the class trip? Is it to be an educational experience, visiting important sites? Is it just to see another part of the country? Or is it purely a fun reward? If the objective is educational, then I don't think that kids should lose that. Yes, they should lose other privileges when they misbehave, but this trip is probably that child's one chance to visit that particular city and learn about its importance in history and culture. If the trip has to be used, then use it as a reward. Have the kids earn the ability to go through good behaviors. Reinforcement is better than punishment to encourage long-term behavioral change. Once the child has lost the trip (punishment), what incentive does he/she have to behave through the rest of the year?

Posted by: drl97 | May 17, 2010 8:12 AM | Report abuse

All good points. However, let me add some perspective. My chidlren's mixed-economic and racially diverse middle school also sponsors a field trip to Washington, DC. Believe me, for the students it is much more a fun trip than a learning experience. Some kids are excluded because the adults involved are charged with a difficult task in terms of keeping the group safe, arriving at multiple destinations on time, and the rest of the kids having a more-or-less good time. In other words, withholding the trip from students with self-contol issues is more about achieving an acceptable level of safety and orderliness than anything else. And the kids know that. In KIPP schools there's clearly the additional spin of rewarding students for good behavior/discouraging immature behavior. As a parent and former teacher, I'd like to offer the opinion that IF you offer a field trip experience to middle school students (or any age students), there will be some students you can't accomodate because of their prior behavior. This will be true whether you do or don't admit to it as a big part of your public face. There are some schools that never attempt to have field trips to distant locations because the adults involved have not figured out a way to exclude those with troublesome behavior. So let's cut KIPP a little slack here.

Posted by: jane100000 | May 17, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

I think taking away trips is very important. When I have to give student a failing grade I actually feel as if I may have saved their life. When they never get the bad consequence of their actions, they believe they can speed on the back roads without seatbelts and nothing bad will happen. No matter how many funerals they go to in high school, until they feel the sting of failure, they don't believe it will happen to them. Same for getting pregnant.

Posted by: pittypatt | May 17, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

I would like to echo bkmny: a field trip is a fun social event versus a long-held dream.

Missing out on a popular,fun,social event is a huge deal - but think that if students cannot be trusted to behave safely
or appropriately, then it's appropriate to deny them that trip. Here's the caveat: I don't know about other avenues that KIPP takes for students with severe behavior problems, but I would hope that among the school's interventions are some professional counselors working with the students to come to terms with their self-destructive behaviors.

On the subject of taking away dreams: One of the most horrible examples I have read is that on the story of Hitler as a young man. (Think it was about 15 years ago in a WAPO Parade issue) Apparently he desperately wanted to study art - ART! As the story goes, Hitler was denied entrance to art school 3 times.
I've often wondered how different the course of history might have been in the 20th century if Hitler had been able to follow the dream of art instead of war.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | May 17, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Hopefully, these schools do have counselors for kids with major problems, and art and music, drama and P.E. classes so everyone has a chance to express themselves.

I can't help thinking that this would be a "fun social event" to a kid who had a regular upbringing and to this kid it was a "long-held dream" because he never got to go anywhere with his friends. He seems to be saying that he appreciated the hard school work that paid off for him later, but that the punishments were too severe and left him feeling their was some unfairness.

I sounds like the KIPP school use the rewards/punishments method of motivation. This guy is saying that the punishments were too much. Maybe that school's style works well for kids who like everything to be clear. Other kids are more creative and analytical and they see injustice in the punishments system. Maybe KIPP does well with a lot of kids because it provides the clear cut structure they want. But it didn't work so well emotionally for this kid. He thought it was unusually repressive.

Most schools have some kind of rewards/punishment thing going and most schools don't allow "current troublemakers" on field trips. Middle schoolers are sensitive and are finding out how to deal with emotions, so they take things very personally. It could be that this student would have resented whatever middle school he would have been in, simply because of his age and circumstances at the time, although if he felt someone cared about him, he might have good memories of his school.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 17, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

@celestun100 - good points, especially regarding the particularly sensitive issues for middle school students - it is such a difficult transition time for these students, let alone those with tough backgrounds.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | May 17, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Great comments. The blend of fun and learning is important, as many posters have pointed out. It is wrong to generalize about KIPP, since every school is different in some way, but I have visited half of the 82 schools and have found this consistent pattern, which follows the emphases first used by Feinberg and Levin when they had the first KIPP trip in 1995. KIPP uses the year-end trip to sell the program to fourth graders. The original Feinberg/Levin pitch was, we are going to make you come to school 9 hours a day, and some Saturdays, and required summer school, but we have also this trip at the end of the school year. Where would you like to go? They discovered this produced enormous excitement in this age group, who in these communities have likely never been anywhere, and often never been on an airplane.
Once they sold it, however, they have prided themselves on making it almost all educational, with fun mixed in. They call it a "field lesson," not a field trip. They use the Rafe Esquith method of spending weeks teaching what is going to be seen on the trip--the history and art of the rooms of the White House, the history of the Capitol, the Holocaust and the museum they will visit about it. But despite the school part of the exercise, middle schoolers still look at this as a great personal adventure, and are usually disappointed when they don't get it, and vow to do better next year.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 17, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Do they have counseling to help kids through rough times?

Posted by: celestun100 | May 17, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Now that I know more about it, KIPP sounds like a much more legitimate program, especially considering it's targeted at disadvantaged children. Just out of curiosity though... At the end of this post you say that "25 STRIVE kids will still miss this trip" is this a set number or just the number for that year? In other words do they designate 25 kids to miss the trip yearly or does it vary by year?

Posted by: chrisroman | May 17, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

The rules for charter and public schools are so vastly different that making comparisons is difficult. However, look at one of the first lines of the article:

"Squashing a student’s dream is something that most schools, public and private, rarely do."

If either system fails to provide a quality education, in which students cognitively engage, [with the ultimate challenge being with the teacher to create this environment] then we, indeed, have squashed the student's most important dream: an education that can be used to further his/her life. When viewed in this context, the methods, such as denial of a trip, begin to pale in comparison. For WAY too many students, both systems squash a student's dream. Unfortunately, most students don't even understand that this is their dream and a trip, a video game or some other material object becomes their dream.

Posted by: Justlistening | May 17, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Balance is important. It's not good for anyone to always hold up the child with "fake" praise when not really deserved. Kids need to know when they haven't done something well, but punishment is usually not necessary. I reserve that for situations where behavior that can and should be controlled is not. Call it the porch or whatever you want, public schools have long forgotten what the term "consequence" means.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | May 17, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

As long as they understand fully that their behavior has this consequence, then I think it is great. So many of these kids don't have any sence that there are consequences to behavior, either good or bad. I would rather see them learn that now then wait until the real world where the consequnces may be much more severe.

Posted by: bestyf | May 17, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

Chris- It varies. A student has to have a certain paycheck average. We take all the students that meet this bar. Plus, we allow students to "petition" for a spot on the trip. This is for kids who get off to a rough start, or go through a rough patch, but make huge strides throughout the year.

Posted by: HappyTeacher | May 17, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse

HappyTeacher- Thank you. That definitely is more logical than it's counterpart. It now appears to me that it is used more as an incentive rather than a reprimand, which I think (especially as a high school student) is a better way to promote good behavior and learning.

Posted by: chrisroman | May 17, 2010 7:46 PM | Report abuse

"He does not think he would have a 3.2 grade point at Morehouse without that. "

Out of curiousity, what percentage of his classes are remedial? And what was his SAT score?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | May 17, 2010 11:19 PM | Report abuse

OK - I've taught at a predominantly underadvantaged middle school with a mostly African-American population and staff, and there were consequences and discipline galore but not enough incentives. How bad was it? Lowest performing quartile in the state - a school where kids would only come to school for the free breakfast and stay until they got the free lunch - where the staff would pick the spent bullet casings off the playground every morning. If you haven't been there you shouldn't postulate about it.

KIPP has exactly the right idea - carrot on a stick, but immediate and real consequences for acting out. There are few figures in their lives who regularly say "no" so school must supply the structure. Believe me, their dreams have been squashed BEFORE they ever got to school and it had nothing to do with a field trip.

Today I teach at a much different type of high school, where the consequences are only for the few, and the praise is too much for doing too little, thus exacerbating the underlying problems these kids bring to school.

But layoff the kid with the 3.2 average. Who cares what the SAT score was? He will be a college graduate, and I would bet first one in his family. Congratulations to him!

Posted by: hotrod3 | May 17, 2010 11:46 PM | Report abuse

OK - I've taught at a predominantly underadvantaged middle school with a mostly African-American population and staff, and there were consequences and discipline galore but not enough incentives. How bad was it? Lowest performing quartile in the state - a school where kids would only come to school for the free breakfast and stay until they got the free lunch - where the staff would pick the spent bullet casings off the playground every morning. If you haven't been there you shouldn't postulate about it.

KIPP has exactly the right idea - carrot on a stick, but immediate and real consequences for acting out. There are few figures in their lives who regularly say "no" so school must supply the structure. Believe me, their dreams have been squashed BEFORE they ever got to school and it had nothing to do with a field trip.

Today I teach at a much different type of high school, where the consequences are only for the few, and the praise is too much for doing too little, thus exacerbating the underlying problems these kids bring to school.

But layoff the kid with the 3.2 average. Who cares what the SAT score was? He will be a college graduate, and I would bet first one in his family. Congratulations to him!

Posted by: hotrod3 | May 17, 2010 11:46 PM | Report abuse

"He will be a college graduate, and I would bet first one in his family. "

He won't be a college graduate if he never gets out of remediation. Which is why I asked.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | May 18, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Matthews, since you have visited half of the 82 KIPP schools, it would be great if you could address the attrition rate in many of these schools, especially since our tax dollars help pay for them. How many of the incoming fourth graders actually graduate from 8th grade; are new students taken in the upper grades, and if so, how many and up until which grade? Then, it would be good to explore why the attrition rate is so high, as is the case in SF and NYC, for instance. Is the program too grueling? Are kids struggling with reading and not getting the appropriate interventions?

As to the article itself, now that David Levin has a child of his own, one hopes he will soon learn first-hand how unproductive endless cause/effect punishments are. If kids are acting out repeatedly, there are reasons for it -- ranging from maybe they're hungry or need exercise, to maybe the KIPP schoolday and workload are too much, as other posters have noted. Also, kids want to be respected and affirmed as much as adults do, so it is far more productive to try to get at the reason for the "bad" behavior, than to just mete out punishments. The KIPP founders and teachers should read Alfie Kohn's "Punished By Rewards," and check in with Bank Street College to see what is recommended there for errant behavior among middle-schoolers. After all, Bank Street's underlying principle is "respect for the child," and they run a K-8 school themselves.

Posted by: NYCMom | May 18, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse


For NYCMom---your view of what Levin is doing in his schools does not match reality. Since you are in NYC, you should visit sometime and see for yourself. They have an open door. Various studies of attrition rates at KIPP show them to be about the same, or in many cases lower, than regular schools with similar kids in their neighborhoods, although the data are hard to collect and may not be the final word. The KIPP data show that attrition rates decline once a KIPP middle school reaches full size. The high rates reported in Bay Area schools seem to have been an anomaly.

For Cal-- he said he got about 1500 on the three part SAT.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 21, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

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