School Reform and the Status Quo

A Community Artist Looks Forward

Judith Tannenbaum

I began my work life over thirty years ago writing poems with children in my daughter’s kindergarten class. At that time, I didn’t think of myself as a community artist, the descriptor I’d come to use in a few years. I thought of myself as a mother, a volunteer, a lover of poems, and as someone who had fun sharing imagination with kids. Eventually, funding from a series of good programs—California Poets in the Schools, Arts in Corrections, the William James Association, the California Arts Council—allowed me to develop from an enthusiastic volunteer into a professional teaching artist working primarily in public schools and state prisons. For the past eleven years, I have served as training coordinator with WritersCorps, a program of the San Francisco Arts Commission. No longer the one on the front lines, I’m now able to share what I’ve learned with those coming into the field.

Because I have long worked with children in schools labeled “under-performing,” as well as with people in prison, these days I am particularly concerned about what some call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” This phrase has a different tone than does “no child left behind,” but both recognize that some of our children are being trained to assume power and others to wind up in prison. I don’t like this fact and wonder what can be different.

President Obama has told us that education will be one of the three top foci of his administration. Our new president has made clear that he supports rigorous educational approaches that will lead to college and then on to a good job. He has mentioned charter schools specifically.

The charter schools currently receiving the most notice are those of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program). KIPP has received lots of media attention, from articles in The New York Times, to features on Sixty Minutes, and Oprah. What has caught the nation’s attention is that KIPP students—almost exclusively poor black and brown children—have consistently and dramatically improved their scores on standardized tests and that a large number move on to college.

Reports also note, often with an amused tone, the somewhat militaristic aspects of the KIPP model. The school day typically runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and classes meet every other Saturday, as well as during three weeks each summer. Students do hours of homework each night, and teachers and principals are required to visit families and accept phone calls 24/7. Everyone—children, teachers, parents and principal—signs a contract agreeing to these terms.

KIPP was launched in 1994 by two young Teach for America alumni Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin who designed a “tough love” program they were confident would bring school success to children not used to such success. In 2000 Doris and Donald Fisher, the cofounders of GAP stores, came on board to work toward the goal of opening more KIPP schools nationwide.

Although much of what I read about KIPP schools made me nervous, I recognized that the model was as much based on concern for social justice as my own work has been. I wanted to see a KIPP school for myself.

The first thing I tend to notice when I walk into a school building is what’s on the walls. In some schools the hallways are bare; others feature schedules and rules; still others vibrate with student art, essays, and poems. The main hallway of the KIPP middle school I visited was empty except for one list of graduates moving on to good high schools, posted school rules, and the KIPP slogans that media loves to repeat: Team Always Beats Individual, Education Decides Everything, There Are No Shortcuts, and Work Hard. Be Nice.

In every class I walked into, the children’s eyes were focused—on the teacher, chalkboard, paper, or book. The rooms were quiet, with no side conversations. I couldn’t tell the content of any of the classes I visited; all the attention was on process, on making sure that students knew what was needed to do the task they’d been assigned. Although the KIPP teachers didn’t read from a script, as teachers are required to do at some schools these days, all used a shared system of nonverbal hand gestures that communicate a range of instructions, and there were acronyms on the chalkboard that reminded students of logistical details such as what material they need for a given project. I’ve heard the effect of the chants, gestures, and acronyms described as being “KIPPnotized.”

I talked with a few children and told them that when I was their age, I needed to stare into space. Actually, I said I still need to stare into space. I’m a poet. “You are?” one asked before shaking her head and letting me know, “You’d get in lots of trouble at this school.”

I saw no disciplining other than those quick nonverbal cues that quickly brought the whole class to attention. In the TV coverage of KIPP schools, though, there are scenes of children being reprimanded at the side of a classroom. From those clips, it seemed that shaming is intentional. The intervention was quick, not personal in any cruel way, and delivered with a “what you owe to others” team spirit. Still, I found disconcerting the image of a white man in his thirties (one of KIPP’s founders) telling black teens what they owe to their people.

So my poet, child-of-the-sixties, community-artist response to KIPP was slight shock tinged by fear. I moaned and groaned in a what’s-the-world-coming-to fashion to one of my former San Quentin students, still doing time, and now a good friend. He loves to mention the Birkenstocks I wore when I first came to the prison to teach, so he knew my biases, understood my feelings, and to some extent, shared them. But he’s told me over and over about the young black men coming to prison these days, and how their lack of education and ability to think make him worry that his people don’t have a future. He told me he’s willing to accept some loss of individuality and exuberance to prevent that bleak fate.

I listened and sighed, knowing that he was right: If I let myself stay stuck in the past I’d be unable to see the needs of the present. So I reconsidered.

Yes, KIPP’s chants and nonverbal gestures could read as some kind of 1984 Big Brother hypnosis. At the same time, I’ve visited dozens of schools and hundreds of classrooms over the years, and the long sighs and speeches most teachers—including me—give as we remind everyone to pay attention are certainly no more humanistic or soul-enriching than a quick nonverbal reminder that is consistent from classroom to classroom (and therefore easily understood) and that essentially conveys the same message in a fraction of the time.

I love walking into a class in which the teacher clearly loves her subject; I love watching passion motivate students. I missed that at KIPP. Still, I have to admit that not all teachers are passionate, and besides, passion doesn’t necessarily teach one how to get the job done during the stretches when even a loved project becomes mundane. So the emphasis KIPP teachers place on logistics, on being sure every child in the room knows exactly what a given task requires, has a lot to be said for it.

OK then, KIPP deserves the attention it’s getting. Still I wonder why—in the current debate between what some label “school reform” (charter schools, merit pay for good teachers, and tough accountability standards) and “the status quo” (smaller class size and more financial support for public schools)—certain assumptions seem not to be questioned. And I wonder how to inform this debate with the values and practice of my generation of community artists.

One unquestioned assumption regards the time demands on KIPP’s teachers. Imagine a job that requires a work day of nine and one-half hours on site, followed by a few hours at home doing prep and follow up, and availability by telephone even in the middle of the night. Such a job might be thrilling for a young adult filled with energy, commitment, and excitement—you feel you’re saving children’s lives, after all. But what happens when the young adult has a friend or a sick grandmother who needs help? What happens when she wants to learn something new that will take a great deal of study, or he’s is ready to start a family of his own?

The “school reform” advocates castigate the response to charter schools like KIPP made by “the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment” (as David Brooks described the “status quo” camp in The New York Times on December 5, 2008). But these same critics make no mention either of the need for human beings to have a life beyond the job, or of the consequences for children and school communities when teachers don’t stick around.

The KIPP principal I spoke with told me that the goal they’re working toward is for teachers to remain six years. So far, very few have. Most teachers at his school—primarily men and women in their late twenties or early thirties—stay two or three years. Energetic young teachers are great, but also needed are older folk who have a range of experience, acquired wisdom, and the ability to model how commitment to teaching and youth fit into a full life.

My generation of community artists also began in our passionate youth. Those of us who’ve stayed with the work are, of course, now older, slower, and grateful for a good night’s sleep. No longer can we easily summon the rock ‘n’ roll energy required to capture and hold the attention of a group of youth who don’t yet know us. Big energy serves when doing a performance in a classroom or organizing a poetry slam. But when a teaching artist wants to create a long-term, in-depth residency, other skills are required: a complex knowledge of one’s art form, organizational skills, the ability to let real trust build over time, awareness of when the moment is right to ask personal questions, experience recognizing when a young person is ready to be nudged and when to leave him alone, and so on. One has to stick around awhile to develop these gifts.

I think KIPP schools are losing a lot when they lose their teachers every couple of years. Actually, KIPP agrees. And as they develop “from start up to sustainability”—as Public Affairs Associate Debbie Fine, puts it—the program is exploring a variety of approaches, including job sharing, that encourage their teachers to stay put for a while.

Most reports about KIPP mention studies about the different child-rearing approaches of richer and poorer families. One set of studies (done by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley) looked at the number, and the emotional quality, of words spoken to babies and toddlers. 1 (Little ones in wealthier families hear both more words and more positive expressions).

Annette Lareau’s research 2 focused on the “concerted cultivation” style of the middle-class (in which parents create a full schedule of soccer games and dance classes for their children, and in which children are invited to question and negotiate with adults) and the “accomplishment of natural growth” approach of economically poorer families (where children play on their own and with each other, and are expected to treat adults with distance and respect). Lareau found poorer children were happier and more independent, but wealthier children enormously more likely to succeed in school and on the job.

Paul Tough, in “Still Left Behind: What It Will Really Take to Close the Education Gap” (The New York Times Magazine, November 26, 2006), describes another KIPP acronym, SLANT: Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod and Track the speaker with your eyes. Tough notes that these are skills middle-class children learn by osmosis, whereas KIPP students need to be taught the methods explicitly. He writes, “Middle-class Americans know intuitively that ‘good behavior’ is mostly a game with established rules; the KIPP students seemed to be experiencing the pleasure of being let in on a joke.”

I want poor kids let in on the joke, too. I want all kids to succeed.

And yet I do wonder why there’s so little questioning of what we mean by “successful.” As a parent whose daughter was born in 1970, and as an artist who has shared poetry with privileged as well as poor children, I’d like to ask a couple of questions. I mean, I get it: Confidence encourages solid test scores, and I myself love children’s questions and belief in the value of their own minds and imaginations. But has anyone writing articles about “success” been in a room of entitled first graders lately? Has no one been shocked when noting middle-class teen-agers who wait for rides from parents rather than getting around town on their own, or college students unable to make a single decision without parental input? One of my questions, then, is: Are we sure the qualities Lareau notes in the middle-class young people she studied are the ones we want to nourish in “successful” adults?

Another question: Are there really no ways for poor children to grow up assured of jobs and a decent life style other than by becoming robots or middle-class clones? For I do read research that is more in line with the experience of my generation of community artists. “Education Is All in Your Mind,” by Richard E. Nisbett (The New York Times, February 7, 2009):

“Daphna Oyserman, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan … asked inner-city junior-high children in Detroit what kind of future they would like to have, what difficulties they anticipated along the way, how they might deal with them and which of their friends would be most helpful in coping. After only a few such exercises in life planning, the children improved their performance on standardized academic tests, and the number who were required to repeat a grade dropped by more than half.”

Nisbett also mentions Geoffrey Cohen, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, who asked teachers at a suburban middle school to give their seventh graders a series of assignments to write about their most important values. “Afterward,” Nisbett reports, “the black students did well enough in all their courses to obliterate 30 percent of the difference that had existed between black and white students’ grades in previous years.”

Osyerman’s and Cohen’s research speaks to much that’s foundational in the work of my generation of community artists. If we had a bill of rights, or a ten-point plan, it would include the belief that our stories—the specific life we’ve each lived, our obstacles and blessings, the people and places we come from, our individual natures, what we see when we look at the world—are valid and worthy of being claimed and declaimed. We believe what Osyerman and Cohen have shown: asking children about their lives, dreams, and hopes builds connections between themselves and the school tasks necessary to get ahead.

Besides, making art encourages one to become familiar with perception, imagination, and memory, and to recognize the difference between these qualities of mind. We community artists believed that this ability to differentiate helps assess the truth of what we read, hear, see and are told, and therefore makes us less vulnerable to all sorts of Powers that Be, including peer pressure or political manipulation. In a recent group conversation with Lifers at California State Prison-Sacramento, one of the men said: “If anyone in school had ever asked me to put down what I felt in a painting or poem, who knows where I might be now?”

Tara Parker-Pope ("The 3 R’s? A Fourth Is Crucial, Too: Recess," The New York Times, February 23, 2009) discussed research reported in the journal Pediatrics, which suggested that “play and down time may be as important to a child’s academic experience as reading, science, and math, and that regular recess, fitness, or nature time can influence behavior, concentration and even grades.” This study found that walks outdoors appeared to improve scores on tests of attention and concentration, and speculated that “(t)he reason may be that the brain uses two forms of attention. ‘Directed’ attention allows us to concentrate on work, reading and tests, while ‘involuntary’ attention takes over when we’re distracted by things like running water, crying babies, a beautiful view or a pet that crawls onto our lap.”

I didn’t see any crying babies or crawling pets at the KIPP school I visited, though Debbie Fine, the KIPP spokesperson, told me that the schools do offer classes in visual art, fashion design, computers, and—on those bi-monthly Saturdays—chess and studying Shakespeare. I’m glad to hear it, although the approach of these classes still sounds pretty step-by-step and follow-the-rules. However KIPP folks are serious about their purpose, and they seem to pay attention to research, so perhaps their long school day will eventually include opportunities for “involuntary attention,”i.e., staring into space.

If we really care about social justice, inclusion, and the success of all children, we must learn and adapt to the needs of the time. KIPP may well be one model that leads the way. Still, I can’t imagine a future in which our children—whatever their economic backgrounds—will grow up healthy, happy and productive without developing long-term relationships with adults who themselves have complicated, rich lives, i.e., teachers who stick around for a while—and without opportunities for the unscheduled, indirect attention offered by fresh air and exercise, staring into space, and making art.

Judith Tannenbaum currently serves as training coordinator for San Francisco’s WritersCorps program. By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives, a two-person memoir written with Spoon Jackson, will be published by New Village Press in 2010.


  1. Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company (1995).
  2. Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, University of California Press (2003).