KIPP: Positive Education in Action

KIPP positive education

Founded in 1994 by Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) is a network of 183 public charter schools.

Based across the United States, KIPP aims to help “students from educationally underserved communities develop the knowledge, skills, character, and habits needed to succeed in college and the competitive world beyond” (KIPP, 2016).


The Five Pillars

The founders established five pillars that define their school system and set them apart from other public schools. These include:

  • High Expectations – a culture of support and rewards for academic performance and behavior
  • Choice and Commitment – students who join the school must commit to putting in the time and effort required to achieve success
  • More Time – more time in the classroom to prepare students for competitive high schools and colleges, and access to diverse extracurricular experiences
  • Power to Lead – strong leadership heading the school
  • Focus on Results – academic performance that enables students to succeed at the best high schools and colleges.


 KIPP and The VIA Character Strengths

Through the lens of Positive Psychology, it is interesting to see how the founders of the KIPP schools integrated VIA character strengths into the schools’ program to help students achieve their potential.

Working with Dr. Chris Peterson (who along with Dr. Seligman developed the VIA Character Strengths Classification 24 character strengths) and Dr. Angela Duckworth (who coined the expression “grit”), the founders of KIPP selected 7 character strengths that are highly predictive of success in life.

These seven character strengths are zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. 

Children are urged to develop these character strengths as much as they are encouraged to pursue academic success. Teachers employ a variety of methods to develop character in the classroom, such as discussing the application of strengths and integrating activities relating to strengths with topics covered in class, from history to sporting activities.

A good example of this is the KIPP website which describes how teachers might express themselves when speaking about a science project:

“today we’re going to learn about the scientific method. Scientists are fueled by curiosity. They design experiments in order to explore new things and investigate questions about the way the world works. Today, your curiosity will be key to designing a successful experiment” (KIPP, 2016).

This way of presenting science as a modern topic needing their strength of curiosity builds a learning culture in the classroom of self-propelled inquiry. The character-strength of curiosity combines with a hands-on science lesson, thus making for a rich lesson. 

Progress is tracked using the Character Growth Card that forms the basis for discussions with students and parents around progress in character development.

Does KIPP Work?

Various reviewers have criticized certain aspects of the application of KIPP, while still praising its apparent overall success.

The following points help us understand exactly how KIPP works, and where it can improve. 

  • The data shows that KIPP students are more successful in terms of academic achievement in comparison to local public schools. However, this data has been questioned. For example, it may be that those applying for KIPP already have a higher motivation level than those who don’t apply, contributing to their later success and skewing the comparative results (Nichols-Barrer, et al., 2014).
  • It is not clear if KIPP practices can be transferred to public schools, or how much of its success is due to the development of character strengths versus the application of the five pillars. Further research needs to be undertaken to clarify these and other assumptions.
  • Jeffrey Snyder offers a serious critique of the method asking whether there is enough scientific insight proving how to effectively teach character strengths in a classroom setting.  
  • Some might wonder whether the focus on just seven strengths is too selective. Each individual has their own unique combination of the 24 VIA strengths that give meaning and purpose in life. A focus on academic strengths may contribute to a loss in individual strengths. 

Keeping in mind this research on positive education, it is the intention of KIPP to help children from educationally disadvantaged areas to excel and succeed—a commendable goal. Focusing on the positives and providing a demanding but safe environment to learn is surely a step in the right direction. 

Interested in finding out more about teaching character strengths?

Sign up for Coursera’s MOOC “Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms“-enrollment begins at various points throughout the year.

What are your thoughts or experiences with the KIPP approach to school systems? Please leave us your comments below. 

KIPP Public Charter Schools (2016). Retrieved 11/03/2016 from:

Nichols-Barrer, I., Gill B. P., Gleason, P., Clark Tuttle C. (2014). Does Student Attrition Explain KIPP’s Success?Education Next . vol 14(4). Retrieved from

Jeffrey Aaron Snyder (May, 2014). Teaching Kids ‘Grit’ is All the Rage. Here’s What’s Wrong With It. Retrieved from 

About the Author

Sarah Battey works as an independent coach, trainer and consultant at She discovered her passion for Positive Psychology and is thrilled to be able to integrate tools & knowledge from PP research into her everyday work.

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