There was a pretty strong reaction, by some, to a comment I made in my last post about my visit to a KIPP high school. In general, the post was called by a lot of people on Twitter ‘balanced’ and even GothamSchools summarized it (in a way I thought was a bit of a stretch) ‘TFA Critic Visits KIPP and is pleasantly surprised.’
But the comment I made that got a lot of people virtually yelling at me was what I said about how I was able to verify first hand that KIPP has the ‘easier’ kids to teach since there was a scarcity of ‘thugs’ at the school. Based on the comments I got on the blog and also through Twitter, apparently ‘thugs’ is racially charged. I didn’t even know that. I used that word since I thought it had a campy 1950’s feel to it like ‘hooligans’ or ‘ruffians.’ When I think of the word ‘thugs,’ I picture Nelson, Jimbo, Kearney, and Dolph from The Simpsons.
I can see why people got upset by this comment. I think it implies that I might think that everyone who looks like a ‘thug’ is, in fact, a ‘thug’ which, of course is not true. So when I say there were not ‘thugs’ there because I didn’t see any, there’s the subtext that had I seen a kid who looked like what I’d imagine a ‘thug’ to look like, I’d make the conclusion that he was one, which would be unfair to that kid to make such a judgement just based on his appearance. I can see that.
No, I don’t think that everyone who looks like a ‘thug’ is one. And I also don’t think that everyone who does not look like one is not one.
To give some context, I’ve been studying attrition rates at KIPP since I started becoming active in the ed reform debate about a year and a half ago. I know, for instance, that many KIPP middle schools lose over 40% of their students between 5th and 8th grade. In Washington D.C. a school called KIPP College Prep expelled 17 students, which represented 5% (one out of 20!) of the school. When asked why, they said
“We hate to lose any student ever — we don’t open up schools to kick kids out,” said Susan Schaeffler, executive director of KIPP DC. “But it’s absolutely essential that our parents feel safe sending their kids to school.”
So though they did not call the kids they expelled ‘thugs,’ they implied that those 17 kids were something worse: violent beyond rehabilitation.
I admit I went into this KIPP with a lot of preconceived notions about what I would see there. I was surprised that I was wrong about a few things, particularly my belief that the kids were going to be scared to make a sound for fear of the strict KIPP discipline. I was pleased that this wasn’t happening at this school. But since I already know that a huge number of kids who started the feeder KIPP middle schools as 5th graders had not made it to 9th grade in KIPP for one reason or another, it was going to take a lot to convince me that what I knew from research was wrong. Honestly I think a kid would have had to stab a teacher in the middle of a lesson for me to leave that school not thinking “I was right!”
As I responded to one of the commenters, I didn’t get the sense that the staff at the school was skilled enough to have rehabilitated the real difficult kids. It seems more likely that the kids simply weren’t in the school. Maybe I was too eager to have used my experience as further ‘proof’ of what I have already suspected. But just because I committed a language foul, does not mean that the case against charters for not serving the most needy kids is suddenly thrown out of court. It is still a very open question, and one that is extremely important.
I do know, from first hand experience, a girl who was booted from KIPP for being a discipline problem. I taught her one summer at the public school that she got sent to when I was teaching summer school there. This girl was very bright, but also very defiant. I’ve read other accounts of public school principals who get ‘charter rejects’ and struggle since they have the unequal burden that should be shared by charters too.
One last point about ‘thugs.’ When I taught in Houston, some of my favorite students were ones that I considered, at least by my more innocent definition, ‘thugs.’ One guy was a known gang member who, rumor had it, was ‘packing heat.’ I don’t think he graduated, but I saved one of his assignments for all these years.
Here was my handout (click on the image to enlarge):
And here is his paper (Definitely click on the image so you can zoom in on it and read):
Re-reading this brilliant paper from 18 years ago makes me feel a little bad that I trivialized the complexity of troubled kids with a word like ‘thugs.’ I wish I had instead written ‘pains in the asses.’