What Can Be Learned From the KIPP School Model?

Michael Cordell talks about preschool, parenting, and what works at KIPP DC’s elementary schools.

Michael Cordell, Chief Academic Officer, KIPP DC
National Journal
Janell Ross Ronald Brownstein
May 8, 2014, 5 p.m.

Mi­chael Cor­dell serves as the chief aca­dem­ic of­ficer for KIPP DC’s ele­ment­ary schools. Across the coun­try, KIPP pub­lic charter schools serve so­cioeco­nom­ic­ally dis­ad­vant­aged stu­dents and have gen­er­ally pro­duced test scores on par with or bet­ter than in­sti­tu­tions at­ten­ded by more-af­flu­ent chil­dren. Cor­dell spoke re­cently at a Na­tion­al Journ­al LIVE event in down­town Wash­ing­ton about early-child­hood edu­ca­tion and the work of equip­ping kids in Amer­ica to per­form well in school. Ed­ited ex­cerpts from his on­stage in­ter­view with Ron­ald Brown­stein fol­low.

One of the big ques­tions about preschool is: Does it last? We’ve been ar­guing about this for dec­ades. What are the keys to main­tain­ing the ad­vant­ages that preschool can cre­ate?

I think one of the chal­lenges is, like any­thing, con­sist­ent qual­ity. If there is some level of con­sist­ency, you can see those early in­ter­ven­tions stick. But kids [some­times] go to a great early-child­hood pro­gram, then struggle with a second-grade teach­er, and for whatever reas­on, that in­ter­ven­tion could change. It wears off in any data you are go­ing to look at. So it’s con­sist­ency over time.

What is it about early-child­hood in­ter­ven­tions that cre­ate im­proved per­form­ance over time?

You walk in­to so many KIPP classrooms, and it’s pretty amaz­ing. You see the kids there work­ing and happy. They have been taught to work hard, and they have been taught to value their opin­ion and their story. So a lot of it is love of learn­ing. A lot of it is so­cial­iz­a­tion, how to have self-con­trol. One of the big things we are do­ing now is look­ing at how we teach kids how to plan their play, to really un­der­stand how to set goals and plan, even start­ing with kids at 3 or 4.

I think a lot of people in the audi­ence were kind of think­ing, “Huh?” when, dur­ing your present­a­tion, you re­com­men­ded eight- to nine-hour school days for 3- and 4-year-olds.

There are naps in there. The key to the longer day is not sit­ting. Our kids are build­ing. Our kids are play­ing. Our kids are ex­plor­ing. And, again, when you talk to early-child­hood lead­ers, they really talk about get­ting P.E., and get­ting art or mu­sic every day. That gets cut in these short­er pro­grams, be­cause every­body wants to spend so much time now with read­ing, writ­ing, and math.

Do you wish you had the abil­ity to reach kids even earli­er?

Yes. A lot of people I work with won’t agree with me. They are not ready to do that. But you see kids go­ing to tu­tors in kinder­garten in the sub­urbs and wealth­i­er com­munit­ies. So would it help? Yes. But, at 3 years old, we are still ready to close the gap. We have data. It’s still not too late.

That’s re­as­sur­ing. But, ser­i­ously, are there aca­dem­ic gaps at age 3? Do you see big dif­fer­ences?

It’s hard to tease out at 3, but you will see kids who are more ex­posed, who are more verbal, even at 3.

What do you en­cour­age par­ents to do to re­in­force what hap­pens at school?

We are still try­ing to im­prove how to help par­ents who have kids who are strug­gling in how to in­ter­vene early. But we really build a healthy re­la­tion­ship and talk about what they are do­ing in the classroom, and tell par­ents they should be ask­ing kids a couple of ques­tions. It’s not a lot. All you have to do is: “How did you do? What did you do today? What did you learn?” It’s just little in­ter­ac­tions. But also mod­el­ing ques­tion­ing. That’s something else. We really want our kids to have an in­quis­it­ive nature.

What do you mean?

A lot of par­ents don’t talk to their kids and ask them ques­tions and mod­el a way to have dis­course.

What are the most im­port­ant things to ac­com­plish in those two years be­fore kinder­garten?

Aca­dem­ics is one of the keys. It’s not the key. It’s really get­ting kids to love learn­ing, to know the rules of school, to be ready for school, to al­low their teach­ers to go on and not be dis­rupt­ive.

When I star­ted, I think five, six years ago, with a classroom in South­east [D.C.], there was a kid who came in kinder­garten who didn’t know their ABC song. And teach­ers were like, that’s a big deal. We’ve in­ter­ac­ted with a lot of kids like that. So it’s giv­ing them ex­pos­ure, giv­ing them op­por­tun­it­ies they may not oth­er­wise have had.

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