No need to hope
For a good-paying job
Without first-grade skills
You’ll do nothing but rob
You got to read, baby, read!
You got to read, baby read!
KIPP classroom chant
The children are strangely quiet in the corridors of KIPP schools wear ‘motivational’ signs read “Excuses are for losers!” and “There are no shortcuts!”. The children wear bright yellow shirts emblazoned with similar motivational messages such as “Knowledge is Power”, the slogan of KIPP – which stands for Knowledge is Power Program. There is no exuberant shouting, and no sign of the baseball caps, baggy pants, makeup, jewellery or cell phones that might be found in other publicly-funded schools. “Between classes, the students are required to stand in neat rows, backs ramrod straight and mouths closed, and march along the black lines that bisect the corridors.”
In class they sit unnaturally straight and their eyes follow the teacher’s every move. When a pair of eyes wander the teacher stops the lesson until they again focus on the teacher. In the front of the class a student sits on a low bench, ostracised and shamed in front of her classmates because she forgot to get her mother to sign her homework. This is the ‘porch’, “a symbolic jail where they are required to wear their shirts inside-out and forbidden from talking to classmates”. Not only does she suffer this indignity but she also has to “write letters of apology to her ‘teammates’ (what the students call each other) for behaving irresponsibly.
Discipline in KIPP schools is based on traditional punishments – detention, suspension and expulsion – and shaming punishments – such as having to wear t-shirts inside out and not being allowed to speak to other students – as well as peer pressure: “When one student misbehaves in class, all the students must stand, leave the room, and reenter in silence. If one student talks on the stairwell, the whole class has to walk back down the four flights and up again.”
Brian Lack refers to the "militaristic discipline" in KIPP schools and describes how students are lined up "like soldiers while being lambasted by an angry teacher".
Remnant childhood exuberance is channelled into the disciplined chants that are used to drill knowledge into the students and motivate them, in much the way a cheerleaders motivate a football team.
‘Ten, ten, ten, ten, ten, ten, tenths, then hundredths, thousandths,” the students sing, to the tune of War’s ‘Low Rider’ song.
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.’
What is rewarded in schools such as KIPP is not initiative, creativity or emotionally oriented behaviour but hard work, “docility, passivity and obedience” and those attributes most valued in future workers.
When learning is converted into work, then a system of rewards and punishments is necessary to replicate the incentives that are available in the workplace to ensure work is done. In KIPP schools there are even financial rewards for hard work and good behaviour, which are registered on mock weekly pay cheques which can earn t-shirts, books, and most sought after of all, attendance at the end of year field trip to places like Disney World. The message for children is that if they work hard they will be able to get the consumer goods that make up the good life.
The combination of discipline, scripted lessons, constant testing, and highly structured activities show that the goal is social control and docility and that the students are being prepared for subordinate jobs. And the fact that KIPP school students are mainly poor blacks and Latinos suggests an element of racism and classism in these schools. The 'militaristic' discipline, long hours and chanting are unlikely to be tolerated in middle-class white schools. Nor is it conducive to the sort of learning that leads to managerial qualities.
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