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Assessing the KIPP Schools -- a New Perspective

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 29, 2005; 11:11 AM

Richard Rothstein, one of the nation's most interesting and energetic scholars on education, has just published with three co-authors a short piece on the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), the nation's most interesting and most successful response so far to the problem of low achievement in inner city and rural public schools.

The combination of great researcher and great program is too much for me to resist, even though Rothstein and the KIPP people have very different views of the accuracy and meaning of what he has produced in a chapter of a new book, "The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement," which he co-authored with Martin Carnoy, Rebecca Jacobsen and Lawrence Mishel.

_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at mathewsj@washpost.com.
_____Also in Class Struggle_____
Why Don't We Fix Our Textbooks? (washingtonpost.com, Mar 22, 2005)
A Feverish Reaction to Teenage Drinking (washingtonpost.com, Mar 15, 2005)
'You Can't Make Me Earn the Diploma' (washingtonpost.com, Mar 8, 2005)

Their dispute is over how representative KIPP students are of children in low-income neighborhoods. KIPP schools usually go from fifth to eighth grade, usually with a total of about 300 students. School days are nine-hours long, summer school is required, homework is a must, hard work brings special rewards like trips, and principals have the power to hire and fire teachers.

Almost all KIPP students are from black or Hispanic families under the poverty line. But Rothstein, looking at four of the 38 KIPP schools, concludes that the KIPP kids starting the program in fifth grade have more motivated parents and better test scores than their community averages. KIPP officials say their data show no significant difference in academic skills between their kids and local kids who do not enroll in KIPP.

What is most important about Rothstein's article is that it leaves intact, and I think in some ways strengthens, KIPP's reputation for significantly raising the reading and math abilities of low-income children. It also makes a good case -- without actually trying to do so -- for introducing into all low-performing schools KIPP's longer school days and year, stronger motivational techniques and better principal and teacher recruitment methods.

And it demonstrates once again Rothstein's fairness and balance in dealing with controversial topics, even though he is clearly irked by pundits who give KIPP's success as a reason for not devoting massive government resources to providing better jobs and better lives for Americans living in poor neighborhoods. He has been arguing for years that without such a social and economic revival, schools by themselves will be unable to rescue those children from poverty.

Yet he is too careful a scholar (bias alert: Rothstein favorably reviewed one of my books) to use the data he has gathered to trash KIPP. "This discussion is not meant as a criticism of KIPP Schools," he and his research assistant Rebecca Jacobsen say toward the end of the 15-page KIPP section of the 186-page book. "We do not suggest that its apparent effectiveness is solely attributable to its more favorable parental involvement, prior student achievement, or gender imbalance. KIPP supporters claim, and we have no evidence that disputes this, that KIPP provides children with the motivation and opportunity to excel that they might not have in their regular public schools. Our evidence is also not inconsistent with the notion that regular public schools might have a great deal to learn from KIPP's philosophy and strategy."

Rothstein's focus on the characteristics of incoming KIPP students stems from the thrust of "The Charter School Dust-Up," published by the Economic Policy Institute and Teachers College Press and available at www.epinet.org. The authors are part of a raging debate not about KIPP, but about charter schools in general. Charter schools are public schools that run independently of school district bureaucracies. In return for being allowed to discuss the book's KIPP section in advance of its publication date later this week, I promised to leave the rest of the chapters for another day.

The relative characteristics of charter school and regular school students are important to this debate because analysis of federal data released last year indicated that charter schools on average did not have higher achievement than regular schools, and in some cases had achievement that was lower. One of the arguments charter-schools advocates used to counter this analysis was the possibility that charter schools were dealing with students whose problems were more serious than students in regular schools, and thus could not be expected to do as well.

In KIPP's case, this seems to me beside the point. Whatever the academic or family characteristics of incoming KIPP students, they are clearly disadvantaged -- 82 percent of all KIPP students qualify for federal lunch subsidies -- and at KIPP have achieved gains in reading and mathematics far above those of other programs trying to help such children. Whatever their starting point, they have gone much further on the road to academic proficiency than even children in communities where family incomes and parent motivation are higher.

But in the national charter school debate, KIPP's starting point has relevance, and Rothstein and Jacobsen make some interesting points. Most KIPP schools are fifth through eighth grade middle schools. The fifth graders, all of them black, entering the KIPP school in Baltimore in 2002 ranked on average in the 42nd percentile in reading and the 48th in math nationally, compared to graduating black fourth graders for all of Baltimore who ranked 36th in reading and 34th in math. Of the students entering the KIPP school in the Bronx in 2002, 42 percent had passed New York state's fourth-grade reading test, compared to only 28 percent of the fourth-graders in the 31 regular public schools in that area.

Jacobsen, a former public school teacher in Harlem, interviewed 12 teachers who had worked in regular schools near KIPP schools. Many of those teachers said they encouraged their best students to transfer to KIPP, a further sign that among those disadvantaged children, the ones going to KIPP were ahead of the game. The interviews with the teachers indicated that they were particularly interested in seeing students with strong parental support going to KIPP, since they had heard that that was important to the KIPP success.

KIPP officials at their headquarters in San Francisco have released their own statistics indicating their students do not start fifth grade with an advantage. They looked at the KIPP school in Washington, D.C., the KIPP school in rural Gaston, N.C., and the second KIPP school in Houston. These three schools, all in their fourth year of operation, were the first established after the original KIPP schools in Houston and the Bronx. The KIPP statisticians compared those three schools to regular public schools in their neighborhoods and found that the KIPP students were somewhat less economically disadvantaged, being 80 percent low-income versus 89 percent for the local schools, and somewhat more likely to be black or Hispanic, 98 percent at KIPP compared to 86 percent in the regular schools. Nationally about 53 percent of KIPP students are girls, somewhat more than the regular schools.

The test scores of incoming KIPP fifth graders in 2004 were in some cases below those of regular school students, they said. The new students at the KIPP school in Washington had a normal curve equivalent (a 99-point scale similar to percentile rankings) of 34.1 in reading, compared to 46.2 for graduating fourth graders in neighboring schools. At Gaston, 80.9 percent of the new students were at or above grade level in reading, compared to 74.6 percent of graduating fourth graders in neighboring schools. At the second KIPP school in Houston, 80.5 percent of incoming fifth graders had passed the state reading test, compared to 79.4 percent of the students in neighboring schools. (It is hard to be certain about the D.C. school comparisons because the KIPP students' fourth grade files from the D.C. school system were incomplete, and their scores were from tests given at the beginning of fifth grade.)

To me, what the KIPP students have achieved since they started the program is the most intriguing part of the story. The KIPP DC:KEY Academy has the highest math scores in Washington, and its reading scores are bested only by two middle-class schools in an affluent part of town. Sixth graders at the KIPP 3D Academy in Houston have gone from the 34th to the 43rd percentile in reading and from the 41st to the 61st percentile in math. The current eighth graders at the KIPP Gaston College Preparatory School ranked third in the state in their end-of-seventh-grade writing test.

There will be more research on KIPP and on charter schools, which will hopefully shed more light on what is going on. But one Jacobsen interview revealed something about parents and KIPP that I thought was particularly instructive.

Some critics (although not Rothstein) have suggested that KIPP's scores have increased so much because they recruit students with the most motivated parents. This seems wrong to me. Those students had those same great parents when they were getting much lower scores back at their regular schools. Their progress would almost certainly deteriorate if all the KIPP schools closed tomorrow and they had to return to low standards and disorganized teaching at their neighborhood schools, no matter how conscientious their parents were.

KIPP, I think, makes parents better by giving them something to do, and yet does not put so heavy a burden on them that they might collapse under the strain. In the KIPP system, students who do not complete their homework in time for class the next day are in as big trouble as I would be if I did not send my stories to my editors before The Post was distributed the next morning. The parents don't have to correct or explain the homework. If students have questions, they are told to call their teachers, whose cell phone numbers they have. All the parents have to do is make sure their child had completed the homework, and sign the paper to demonstrate that they have looked at it. If they don't do that, their child is disciplined -- usually made to sit in a corner of the classroom -- and the parents are asked to come to school to discuss it. Their only other important duty is to get their child to school each day, which in most big cities can be done by making sure they catch the right bus.

But Jacobsen's interview with one Houston teacher suggested that even this is too much for some parents. The teacher encouraged families to enroll at KIPP but said "when I talked to parents, the kids I thought most needed it, parents said stuff like 'sounds too serious and he needs another year to grow up.' Another student I had who we signed up, then at the last minute, the parent said it was too hard to get her to the bus stop to get her to the school. This was ridiculous, though, because the bus stops at [the regular public school where I taught] so it isn't hard to get her there. Those were two of the lowest-ability kids and they both signed up but then decided not to go. A lot of the kids who aren't doing so well, the parents didn't want to sign them up and send them."

I am not surprised that Rothstein and Jacobsen found that where KIPP developed a track record, the more ambitious parents started knocking at its door. I remember how the KIPP school in Washington, D.C., began, with principal Susan Schaeffler standing in front of local stores and asking loudly if anyone wanted to try a new middle school that would keep their kids from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. It seemed to me that appeal would be most attractive to lazy parents like me, happy to have someone take my kids off of my hands for so long, but once the educational benefits of the program were apparent, the parents who cared most about achievement started grabbing KIPP applications.

The point is, if we can't get the less motivated parents to come to KIPP, isn't it time to consider bringing KIPP, or programs like KIPP, to them? If their neighborhood school challenges their children in the same way, and requires all parents at least sign the homework, they are going to have much more difficulty keeping their kids from getting the good education they deserve.

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive


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