Vegas and Anti-Vegas

When I met Dave Levin, the KIPP founder, in 2001, he said that a big inspiration for what he was going after in the KIPP schools was a trip to Vegas. He said that Vegas made everything impossible to miss, impossible to overlook, and that schools should be the same way. He pointed to the pink, laminated “Work Hard Be Nice” cards arranged in a repeating row around the classroom we were in as an example.

The thing is that KIPP schools- the three I’ve visited, which include the first New York school and the first elementary school- aren’t really all that much like Vegas. They’re pretty quiet, low-key places. Visiting journalists often make a big deal about the chants and math songs Levin and his co-founder Feinberg introduced in the original school, but the schools are mostly just quieter and more subdued than your average middle school. The hallways and classrooms and bulletin boards aren’t even more decorated or more exquisitely arranged than in your average public school.

KIPP’s success depends somewhat on addition- the kids are in school for a longer school day and longer school year. But I’d guess it depends much more on subtraction. Subtracting the most disruptive students, of course, who generally don’t end up in charter schools and don’t stick with the program (or can be “counseled out.”) Subtracting some degree of noise and disruption among the students who are there, by allowing for somewhat harsher and more consistent disciplinary methods than the average public school. And, perhaps most of all, subtracting out some of the blooming buzzing confusion of our media culture, since KIPP students just have less time to be submerged in it.  TV watching and media use don’t explain achievement gaps any more than parental involvement does (Black kids watch a lot more TV than white kids, Hispanic kids watch somewhat less than white kids, and Asian kids watch a lot less), but if you are trying to get kids to overachieve relative to their neighborhood or baseline expectations, turning off the TV or keeping them away from it is probably a good start.

As the old optical illusion reminds us, human perception is mostly a matter of contrast rather than absolutes; the same shade of gray appears lighter or darker depending on what surrounds it:

Vegas can make do by adding stimulus on top of stimulus, light and sound on top of light and sound, but as Hunter Thompson said of the place, “a little bit of this town goes a long way.”


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