Banging on desks and stomping their feet, the students chant daily — not just multiplication tables and state capitals but big thoughts, too: "Knowledge is power, power is freedom, and I want it." Their teachers carry cell phones, on call for homework help at all hours. Parents sign contracts enumerating daunting demands — if they slip up, their children can be punished.
KIPP Academy, a pair of public middle schools in poor sections of Houston and the South Bronx, requires 70 percent more class time than its counterparts —including Saturday and summer sessions. Its black and Hispanic students consistently get top scores on standardized tests.
As the national political debate focuses on the agonizing question of how to raise achievement among poor and minority children, KIPP, founded five years ago by a pair of young Ivy Leaguers, has drawn keen attention from left and right, idealistic do-gooders and entrepreneurial free-marketeers. Honored last year by the liberal Children's Defense Fund, the school was highlighted last month at the Republican National Convention, where its star pupils were on stage, rapping, "Read, baby, read."
Now, in an unprecedented effort to turn a boutique beacon into a system of success, Donald G. Fisher and Doris Fisher, the owners of The Gap clothing chain — who know something about building a franchise — have given $15 million in seed money to create a network of hundreds of KIPP clones across the country.
"The actual demonstrates the possible," said Scott Hamilton, director of the new KIPP Foundation, which will train teachers to open charter schools in KIPP's image. "If you can replicate the success of KIPP at a bunch of places — and eventually on a scale that cannot be dismissed by lots of excuse-making — do you end up forcing change on the larger system? Our hope is the answer's yes."
The expansion of KIPP — which stands for Knowledge is Power Program — is the most ambitious and intriguing of a host of new replication projects spawned by the growing practice of holding schools accountable for student achievement. Fueled by the freedom offered by charter schools, which receive public funds but are run independently, this trend could change the educational landscape from one defined by districts and states to one divided more by curriculum and style.
But KIPP's ambitious project is unique for its focus on school leadership, a concept that has grown in importance as education has become infused with business principles.
"What's intriguing about it is that they are focusing on issues of culture, the values and norms and beliefs about children's capacities to learn and adults' capacities to teach," said Richard F. Elmore, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "That's where most of the so-called replication efforts fail; they go after instructional practice or they go after organization but they never go after culture."