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Learning at its Best

The hard lessons learned by KIPP, and what we can do next

The New York Times ran a great piece about a week ago called, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”

One section of the story talks about KIPP school founder Dave Levin’s revelation that, despite the school’s high achievement scores, the students were not having the long-term success that he’d hoped for.

Here’s an excerpt:

But as Levin told me when we spoke last fall, for many students in that first cohort, things didn’t go as planned. “We thought, O.K., our first class was the fifth-highest-performing class in all of New York City,” Levin said. “We got 90 percent into private and parochial schools. It’s all going to be solved. But it wasn’t.” Almost every member of the cohort did make it through high school, and more than 80 percent of them enrolled in college. But then the mountain grew steeper, and every few weeks, it seemed, Levin got word of another student who decided to drop out. According to a report that KIPP issued last spring, only 33 percent of students who graduated from a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college. That rate is considerably better than the 8 percent of children from low-income families who currently complete college nationwide, and it even beats the average national rate of college completion for all income groups, which is 31 percent. But it still falls well short of KIPP’s stated goal: that 75 percent of KIPP alumni will graduate from a four-year college, and 100 percent will be prepared for a stable career.

The revelation came, in part, from a meeting he had with Martin Seligman, one of the leaders of the Positive Psychology movement. This meeting helped crystallize something that Levin, apparently, has observed himself.

The New York Times story continues,

As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence.

* * *

This can’t be stated frequently or emphatically enough: the most important focus of school should be not delivering a specific academic program, but instead it should be helping students develop character traits that will help them grow into successful adults.

At PSCS, we call that “Practice Integrity. Engage the Community. Act with Courage.”

At KIPP schools in New York City, teachers talk to students about not only their GPA, but also their CPA: character point average.

(Regrettably, teachers give students a numerical value for their character, even pushing the numbers out two decimal places. This kind of external assessment—rather than engaging students in a process of self-reflection—seems antithetical to the notion of becoming a strong, independent person on a path to adulthood. But still, there’s a lot to like here.)

Daniel Pink, the bestselling author of Drive and A Whole New Mind, refers to the importance of passion and persistence over mere talent.

This is the lesson that PSCS founder Andy Smallman taught me: if you focus on helping kids develop strong character, and nurture their natural, intrinsic motivation to learn, students are not only more likely to develop the personality traits needed to be successful, but they’ll also gain a great deal of academic learning as a by-product.

Academic learning as a by-product of school.

Earlier this week, I wrote this: “The data on our current model of education is in, and it’s terrible. . . . The first step in changing the system is to stop doing things that we know in advance will fail.”

Well, the data on a new way of thinking about school—about the importance of exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence—is also in. And it’s the game-changer in transforming education.

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4 thoughts on “The hard lessons learned by KIPP, and what we can do next

  1. Great Steve and this puts some of my favorite discourses and thinkings together (research on resilience, positivity, the way we regard failure, the new knowings of the national reform movements). Thank you for your perceptive culling and mixing.

    What would a national system of education that emphasized character strengths like optimism, persistence and social intelligence look like? How would this system address the needs of our nation, currently struggling with immense social and economic inequality, lack of productivity and confidence, and distrust and hostility of government? You are in a good position to speculate about this, in my view, because we are at the moment in an historic sea change in terms of what the future of transformation of the sector. NCLB has, as of last Friday, lost its teeth and moral credibility. Sketch the future, from your point of view…


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 27, 2011, 8:22 am
    • “What would a national system of education that emphasized character strengths like optimism, persistence and social intelligence look like?”

      This is a great question, Kirsten. I don’t think anyone knows. My sense is the best way to find out would be to identify schools or districts that seem to be doing this well, and try to replicate what they’re doing in that particular area of the country. I don’t see transformation happening through the federal government. The best the feds can do is facilitate the transformation by getting out of the way and connecting people of like minds who are achieving desirable outcomes.

      But there is still so much work to be done in terms of understanding what the desired outcomes should be.


      Posted by stevemiranda | September 28, 2011, 11:32 am
      • I think it would be too uncomfortable. Too many power structures would want the status quo (think corporatization of education) and it wouldn’t be measurable.

        Posted by John T. Spencer | February 7, 2012, 11:02 pm
  2. Steve, surely KIPP isn’t the first to learn the lesson of what happens to people separated from authority upon which they depend for a variety of needs. Don’t give them too much credit 😉

    Otherwise, I am right there with you and Kirsten. Our division is very concerned with performance assessment and life long learner standards right now, both of which I think are great to explore in traditional public schools, but I try to warn us off writing assessments for life-long learning, healthy habits of mind, and character traits that our students will hopefully embrace and embody in happy, civic lives. I mean, at the end of the day, if these things count only on assessments, then we are sunk, or else the new world order will have to be lead by a principal, replace money with letter grades, and rename jail as in-school suspension. It has never been our intent to cultivate character just for assessments, but we know – and may have been – the students who can pass the test without feeling its content.

    I will work on my sketch. We want to think education reform is like a local popular election, but really, it’s the electoral college all over again. Time to pull our weight in confronting the system.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 27, 2011, 8:31 pm

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