America's Best Schools?

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 17, 2006; 6:00 PM

The Knowledge Is Power Program, called KIPP (rhymes with hip), appears to be the most interesting and successful attempt so far to raise the achievement of low-income, minority children. Since finding ways to help poor students learn has been the central theme of my reporting for the past two decades, I have been giving KIPP a great deal of attention.

I could, of course, be wrong about KIPP. I have been disappointed by other programs that at first looked good. I have gotten a contract to write a book about KIPP so that I can spend as much time and use as many words as I think I need to find out if it is as effective as it seems to be, and tell its story in full.

It is very difficult to focus that intently on a small educational program like KIPP in a big newspaper such as The Washington Post. Size does matter to us, and KIPP only has 47 schools nationally and three in the Washington area. But in an online column like this, I have the freedom to explore more thoroughly small but promising corners of the education world. That is what I have been doing with KIPP the past four years, and now I have an advance copy of a report that provides the most detail yet about what KIPP has been up to.

Before I get to the details, I want to encourage anyone who knows anything interesting about KIPP to contact me. My e-mail address is There is no hurry. I will be collecting information for the book for the next two years, and longer than that for my personal edification. Whatever you know, good or bad, I would like to hear from you.

KIPP, a way of teaching low-income middle-school children, grades 5 through 8, was invented in 1994 by two Houston elementary school teachers in their twenties who were, they freely admit, making it up as they went along. The KIPP founders, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, had at the time no foundation support, no well-known advisers, only two years teaching experience each and almost no support from the various principals and school district officials they had to deal with.

Their only assets were the capacity for hard work and little sleep that God bestows on people that age, and a stubborn desire to find which teaching methods actually worked with disadvantaged children, and use them no matter how odd they looked. They had a mentor, Harriett Ball, a teacher who had grown up in the racially segregated neighborhoods of Houston and whose classes were high-achieving and very well behaved. From that example and their own first few classroom successes, they fashioned a system of 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. school days, mandatory summer school, calls to teachers at home with homework questions, visits to student homes, emphasis on character and behavior, principal power to hire and fire teachers, teacher cooperation and training and an elaborate system of student sanctions and rewards that produced in their first two schools in Houston and the South Bronx the highest test scores in their areas.

One of the Five Pillars they conceived as the heart of their system was focusing on results. They have been publishing annual report cards on their schools since KIPP began to expand in 2001 with the financial backing of Gap stores founders Doris and Don Fisher.

The San Francisco-based KIPP Foundation has a new chief executive, former Edison Schools executive Richard Barth, who is married to Wendy Kopp, the founder of the Teach For America program that first lured Levin, Feinberg and several other KIPP educators into teaching. Barth replaces Scott Hamilton, who originally told the Fishers that KIPP was the most promising program, but has been sidelined by a serious motorcycle accident.

The 2005 KIPP Report Card can be ordered for free from Wednesday. KIPP senior analyst Carrie Gloudemans compiled the data. It is worth examining in some detail, and it makes clear why I am so intrigued with this group of schools. KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini, a sports fan and an avid citizen of Red Sox Nation, refers to the universe of schools he represents as KIPP Nation, and at least in summary it seems to be leading the league.

The 2005 report looks at the 35 middle schools, plus one high school and one elementary school, that were operating in the 2004 to 2005 school year. Seven more middle schools, one high school and two combination KIPP and regular schools called transformation schools opened last summer, and six middle schools and a pre-school are scheduled to open this summer. All KIPP schools are public schools using tax dollars and open to all students, but are run under charter or contract rules that free them from the usual school district supervision.

The report says in 2004-2005 more than 80 percent of the KIPP students were eligible for the federal free or reduced-price meal program -- the usual criteria for designating which students are low-income -- and more than 95 percent were African American or Hispanic.

The achievement figures for American students who fit that profile nationally are, on average, abysmal. The achievement figures for American students who fit that profile but have been in KIPP are, again on average, quite the opposite.

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