TFA exists for nothing if not for adjusting poor children to the regime otherwise known as the American meritocracy. Kopp’s model for how teachers should help poor students acclimate to the American meritocracy is the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a nationwide network of charter schools. Founded by TFA alums Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, and currently lead by CEO Richard Barth, a former TFA staff member who also happens to be Kopp’s husband, KIPP now runs over 100 schools, typically in cities that staff a multitude of TFA corps members, such as Houston, New Orleans, and New York City. Many KIPP teachers began their careers in education as TFA corps members, and an even higher percentage of KIPP administrators are TFA alums. KIPP schools are in such high demand that students must win lotteries for the opportunity to attend. The pièce de résistance of Waiting for Superman chronicles one such dramatic lottery drawing.
Slots in KIPP schools are in short supply because, unlike most charter schools, they have a track record of actually improving student performance and of helping poor children gain acceptance into college. Their methodology consists of nothing novel: teachers and students work very hard. But more than that, KIPP students and their families must sign contracts committing to a rigorous program of surveillance—the only way to ensure that underprivileged students overcome lives that otherwise drag them down. As one KIPP administrator described the philosophy: “At every moment, we asked ourselves, what about this moment of the day is or is not fostering college readiness in our students?” While visiting a KIPP school in New York City early one morning, where fifth graders were busy with drills at 7:00 a.m., Kopp quietly lamented, without a touch of irony, that her own child of the same age was still in bed. Thus, in the KIPP model, we are presented with the solution to the nation’s educational inequalities: for poor children to succeed, they must willingly submit to Taylorist institutionalization. This is made starkly evident in the concluding scene of Waiting for Superman, when young “Anthony,” one of the lucky few, arrives at his charter school with suitcase in hand, since his particular school boards its students. Anthony is rightly ambivalent about giving up his life with his grandparents and friends in order to attend a SEED Foundation school—the prototype in education reform—where 24-hour supervision is the only way to ensure that poor children have a chance at success.
In working to perfect their approach to education, TFA insurgents miss the forest for the trees. They fail to ask big-picture questions. Will their pedagogy of surveillance make for a more humane society? Having spent their formative years in a classroom learning test-taking skills, will their students become good people? Will they know more history? Will they be more empathetic? Will they be better citizens? Will they be more inclined to challenge the meritocracy? Or, as its newest converts, will they be its most fervent disciples? What does it mean that for children born in the Bronx to go to college they must give up their childhoods, however bleak?
What kind of psycho looks at test prep drilling kids at 7 AM and says "Gee, I wish my kid was doing this..."?