Looking at KIPP, Coolly and Carefully

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 24, 2007; 1:22 PM

Some critics decry the way the Knowledge Is Power Program presents itself as the savior of inner city education. My answer: KIPP doesn't do that. We sloppy journalists do.

Let me present Exhibit A: The latest annual report card from the KIPP Foundation in San Francisco. It has 93 pages of remarkable data. (See, there I go again, making KIPP the miracle cure. Let me change that to "interesting" data.) The report card tells how well each of the KIPP schools is doing, but it does not claim to be saving our cities.

I understand why we education reporters try to make KIPP sound like more than it is. We are starved for good news about low-income schools. KIPP is an encouraging story, so we are tempted to gush rather than report. We don't ask all the questions we should. We don't quote critics as often as we ought to. We don't emphasize how new and incomplete the KIPP data is. But none of that is KIPP's fault. Data costs money, and KIPP tries to use most of its funds to educate kids.

One of the best things about KIPP, a network of 52 independent public schools in 16 states and the District, is that it tries very hard to make the statistics it has available to everyone. Focusing on results is one of the organization's basic principles. Anyone can order a free copy of the new report card by going to www.kipp.org. And on page 57 you will find numbers that help explain why KIPP is firing its middle school in Buffalo, N.Y., the sixth time a KIPP school has left the network.

The KIPP people put this more gently. In an April 20 letter to the New York Charter School Association, KIPP chief executive officer Richard Barth said the KIPP Foundation "will end its partnership" with the KIPP Sankofa Charter School in Buffalo "and remove 'KIPP' from the school's name." KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini wished the school well in its plans to continue without the KIPP label. "It is not meeting KIPP standards," he said, "but we think it is providing a viable option for that community."

What does that mean? Let's start with the KIPP standards, as described by KIPP, not awestruck reporters. Most KIPP schools are grade 5 to 8 middle schools, although a few elementary and high schools have opened. Here is KIPP's view of KIPP on page 1 of the report card:

"KIPP schools are free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools where under-served students develop the knowledge, skills, and character traits needed to succeed in top quality high schools, colleges, and the competitive world beyond. . . . Over 90 percent of KIPP students are African American or Hispanic/Latino, and more than 80 percent of KIPP students are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price meals program. KIPP students are in school learning for 60 percent more time than average public school students, typically from 7:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. on weekdays, every other Saturday, and for three weeks during the summer. Rigorous college-preparatory instruction is balanced with extracurricular activities, experiential field lessons, and character development. In spite of the long hours, average daily attendance at KIPP schools is 97 percent."

Impatient reporters tend to skip that part so we can get to the test scores, such as last year's jump in math for fifth graders at the KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy in San Diego, led by Kelly Wright, from the 29th to the 84th percentile, or the jump in reading scores at KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory, led by Omotayo Ola-Niyi, from the 20th to the 44th percentile. Almost all the schools in the book showed strong improvement in neighborhoods in which students usually have few gains on national percentile scales from year to year.

Then we get to page 57. It says last year's fifth-graders in Buffalo, led by Uchenna Cissoko, made small gains, but the sixth grade news was bad. Those students finished the year with math scores that were eight percentile points lower than those same students achieved when they arrived at Sankofa's fifth grade two years before. They also had a nine percentile point drop in language arts. The only good news in that cohort of sixth graders was a three percentile point increase in reading. Unlike most KIPP schools, Sankofa had not beaten the average proficiency rates for its school district on state tests.

Cissoko told me her results "had not been up to the KIPP standards," but she had not lost faith in KIPP and would continue to use KIPP methods even though she would no longer have the KIPP name. She said she had difficulty recruiting enough good teachers, in part because the Buffalo public schools do not have a Teach for America program. Teach for America, a non-profit organization, recruits top graduates of selective colleges for two-year stints in low-income schools. Many KIPP teachers are selected from among the most successful veterans of those two-year Teach for America enlistments. KIPP founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg began in Teach for America. Barth, the KIPP Foundation CEO, helped start Teach for America and is married to its founder, Wendy Kopp.

Cissoko said KIPP helped her advertise for Teach for America veterans to come to Buffalo, but she did not get enough. Cissoko, a math teacher, also said she wished she had gotten more help from KIPP in building her reading program. "It would be prudent for the foundation to keep close contact with the school educators and make sure that people who are working for the foundation are providing the support to the schools when they request that it be provided," she said. She said she hopes to improve the school with help from its new board chairman, Samuel Savarino, a construction company owner and award-winning community leader.

In his letter, Barth said KIPP decided to strip Sankofa of the name only after "nearly a year of intensive support by the KIPP Foundation, including: assistance with the re-design and implementation of a school-wide professional development plan for teachers; coordination of the development of a program to incorporate writing and literacy standards across school curricula; and providing (at the KIPP Foundation's expense) experienced KIPP principals to mentor the school's instructional leaders, including a four-month residency by a KIPP employee with 25 years of school leadership experience."

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