Debate Magazine

The Hard Lessons Learned by KIPP, and What We Can Do Next

By Stevemiranda

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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