New report from KIPP’s leading academic critic

I was out of town, and busy with the breaking news on test erasures in the District, when a new report on the KIPP schools — “What Makes KIPP Work? A Study of Student Characteristics, Attrition, and School Finance” — was released by Western Michigan University two weeks ago. I apologize for the delay in getting the relevant materials on the blog so we can talk about them. WMU education professor Gary Miron has become, by my estimation, the leading academic critic of KIPP, and deserves close attention.

I obviously have a view about KIPP, a positive one. I wrote the only mainstream book so far about KIPP and its origins, “Work Hard. Be Nice.” I have made KIPP (once an acronym for Knowledge Is Power Program but now, officially, just plain KIPP) a focus of this blog. I love discussing the issue with readers. Many of them are eager to set me straight on what they see as my distorted view of what I consider the most successful charter school network in the country, with 99 schools in 20 states and the District.

Here is the Miron report, co-written by Jessica L. Urschel and Nicholas Saxton. Here is the response to the report from KIPP. Here is the article about the report by my colleague Nick Anderson, published in The Post.

This will not be the last academic report on KIPP, you can be sure. One indicator of its status as the best-known and most successful of charter school networks is the fact that it is the most studied charter school organization by far. There have been about a dozen long papers, with more in the pipeline, particularly a project by Mathematica Policy Research which will be the largest and deepest study of a charter school network ever done.

Miron and his team raise good questions about KIPP. They come up with some interesting answers that both support and criticize the KIPP model, although their conclusions lean toward the negative and they make some mistakes. In one section they say KIPP is losing 40 percent of black males, but better data from Mathematica show the loss is considerably less than that, and below the average attrition of black males in neighboring regular public schools. The Miron report then contradicts its own point by saying that the attrition rate for low-income students at KIPP schools (about 85 percent of their total student bodies) is the same as that for low-income kids at regular schools in the districts in which they are located.

The Miron report focuses on the extra private and federal funds KIPP raises to support its schools but acknowledges only briefly that KIPP needs to spend more because it gives students 60 percent more instructional time than regular schools do. That extra time is key to the achievement gains KIPP has recorded and should get more attention than this report gives it.

I have a problem with the attitude behind the report. It is not the fault of Miron or his team, who follow standard academic research methods. They make errors, but in the full light of day, with their sources identified so we can have an intelligent discussion about them. This is a welcome change from much online chatter about KIPP. My complaint is about the way academics in general think about how and why they are studying organizations that show positive results in educating children.

The Miron report leaves the impression that the researchers are not here to help raise student achievement, but to act like racetrack monitors and make sure every competing model is obeying rules designed to make sure nobody gets an unfair advantage. They are not looking for ways to help horses run faster and more safely. Instead, they want to make sure everyone has the proper weights and other equalizers to make it a fair race, when the idea should be not to decide who gets the blue ribbon, but how to improve all schools.

The report says that KIPP is spending more money per pupil than regular schools. although it exaggerates the gap by adding KIPP funds for new buildings, an expense regular schools don’t include in their per-pupil reports. Wouldn’t it be more useful to see what KIPP is doing with the money that leads to higher achievement and how regular schools could acquire extra funds to get the same benefits? For many decades, beginning long before KIPP existed, local, state and federal governments have been spending more money on schools than ever before but not seeing similarly large gains in achievement. Looking at the best uses of more money makes sense to me, but we don’t see much about that here.

The report also focuses on what it seems to consider the unfair advantage KIPP has in starting its schools from scratch, rather than taking over existing schools and improving them and their students as they stand with their numerous imperfections. The authors seem to be saying: Until you have a method that turns around existing schools, you don’t have something we can use.

This ignores the growing school of thought that trying to fix existing schools with big problems is a losing strategy. Why not try to remake failing schools by starting new ones in the same buildings? It worked for schools like the Bedford Academy in Brooklyn. It is being tried at Locke High School in Los Angeles, as Alexander Russo’s new book (which I will review Friday) shows. You create new schools within schools by growing a grade at a time, as KIPP does. That gives teachers a chance to establish a new culture that supports learning.

The Miron report decries the fact that KIPP does not admit students in the middle of the year. KIPP does not usually do that because it would disrupt that steady development of new habits. Admitting students at midyear in urban neighborhoods also holds back classes in regular schools, the report notes. If that is the case, then why do it in that unpromising way? Why not have special classes for students who arrive at midyear that focus on their special problems and ready them for a fresh start in the new school year?

I wish the Miron report would more directly confront the fact that some of the recommendations it makes for KIPP, particularly its call to recruit more disabled and English-language-deficient students, violate charter school laws. KIPP cannot promise that students it recruits will be admitted if there are more applications than there are places at the school. In such circumstances, selection has to be by random lottery.

I winced whenever the report referred to “KIPP’s practices that result in selective entry and exit” from its schools. This leaves the impression that KIPP decides which students are enrolled and which drop out. That is false. I have visited about half of the KIPP schools. The laws do not allow them to select who is enrolled. They must take anyone who signs up, or if there is a surplus, whoever wins the lottery. Only a tiny portion of KIPP students — 1 percent in the KIPP schools of D.C. — are asked to leave, and almost always because they have endangered other students by bringing drugs or weapons on campus.

The vast majority of those who leave do so because their families choose to put their children somewhere else. They may decide that the KIPP academic demands are too much for their child. (In the cases I have studied, they leave in spite of pleas to stay from KIPP teachers and administrators.) They may move, as urban parents often do. That is selective exit to be sure, but it is the parents, not KIPP, who make the selection.

Miron is a smart and aggressive researcher who has to focus on one issue at a time. I hope he keeps looking at KIPP and sheds light on other issues that interest those of us who have been following these schools. He was honest enough to admit to me that he has not yet set foot in a KIPP school.

I hope he will do so soon. That is where I have learned the most important things I know about KIPP, particularly why those schools are so attractive to many inner-city parents and smart and energetic teachers. I am interested to see what Miron concludes after he looks at what people are doing in those schools, and not just the enrollment and expenditure figures they generate.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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