The Most Promising Schools in America

By Jay Mathews
Friday, November 7, 2008 6:13 AM

My publisher and I had a fight over the subtitle of my upcoming book, "Work Hard. Be Nice," about the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). Okay, it wasn't a fight exactly. My editor at Algonquin Books, Amy Gash, is too polite and professional for that. It was a spirited discussion. Gash said the Algonquin view was that my subtitle, "How Two Inspired Teachers Created America's Best Schools" was off-putting and hyperbolic. Who was I to say what was best and what wasn't?

I defended the loaded adjective because I thought it was accurate and would inspire useful arguments about how to make schools better. Nonetheless, Algonquin seemed more interested in selling books than encouraging my pugnacious tendencies, and I saw their point. We considered more than 100 alternatives before settling on "How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America." That seems like a trivial change, but it's not. A new research assessment by Columbia University scholar Jeffrey R. Henig suggests it is the right way to think about these intriguing but still developing schools, and about other new approaches to schooling that may bloom in the future.

The 66 KIPP schools in 19 states and the District feed off the work of KIPP co-founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, who started teaching impoverished children in Houston when they were just out of college in 1992. The first KIPP class began in 1994. It had a longer school day, required summer school, required homework, frequent contact with parents, consistent methods of discipline, imaginative and energetic teaching and lots of singing and fun. It has become the best known and most researched network of independent public charter schools in the country.

A sample of about 1,000 students who completed all four years of KIPP fifth-through-eighth grade middle schools improved on average from the 32nd to the 60th percentile in reading and from the 40th to the 82nd percentile in math. Such results for that many low-income minority children in the same program have never occurred before.

Henig's 25-page paper "What Do We Know About the Outcomes of KIPP Schools?" can be found Monday morning in the online journal published by Arizona State University's Education Policy Research Unit and the University of Colorado at Boulder's Education and the Public Interest Center. Here's the Web address:

Henig analyzes seven studies of KIPP schools. He concludes that "the weight of the evidence suggests that students who enter and stay in KIPP schools tend to perform better than similar students in more traditional public schools" and "this does not appear to be attributable to a selective admissions process." But he also notes that "where it has been monitored, student attrition is high and seemingly selective" and "would reduce the size of gains in reports that simply compare KIPP eighth graders with those in their host districts."

He says that "policymakers at all levels of government should pay attention to KIPP and consider it a possible source of information and guidance for their decisions" but "should temper their interest in the operation with wariness and realistic expectations." He says policymakers "should treat KIPP schools as potential tools that may contribute to -- but not substitute for -- systemic improvement."

That makes sense to me and the KIPP officials I have been interviewing the past seven years. Feinberg and Levin's goal from the beginning was to help their students learn enough to qualify for magnet or private middle schools and high schools and improve their chances of going to college. When in 2000 they accepted $15 million from GAP clothing store founders Doris and Don Fisher to train leaders for dozens more KIPP schools, the idea was to see if their methods would work on a larger scale and reach more kids. Changing the course of public education was not on their to-do list.

Of course excitable journalists like me, without realizing we were doing so, left the impression that KIPP was going to save the world. Henig quotes the headline on a column I did about KIPP in 2006: "Miracle in the Making?" I did not write the headline and would have asked that it be changed if I had seen it before publication. I loathe education miracle stories. They are almost always overdone. But I have continued to write frequently about why I think the KIPP schools have done the best so far in raising the achievement of impoverished children. That can lead to inflated assumptions even if I am saying only that the KIPP schools -- and a few other schools like them -- have risen above a sadly low standard in their neighborhoods.

Thank goodness then for the cautious, balanced analysis provided by Henig, an expert on urban education reform and charter schools at Columbia's Teachers College. He agrees with KIPP officials that they have not been selecting just an upper crust of higher-scoring and better motivated kids for their schools, despite suggestions to the contrary. But he also points to a possible flaw that leads some students to return to their regular public schools before completing the KIPP middle school program, perhaps because they find the work too hard and the days too long. Their departure may distort reports of KIPP gains. Turnover of KIPP teachers, he says, is also high and creates doubt about whether gains can be sustained.

What should we do with this analysis, and future research on KIPP, including a $4 million randomized study by Mathematica Policy Research due in five years? I like Henig's suggestion that we keep an eye on KIPP, which now includes elementary and high schools, and use what we learn as an important source of information -- but not the source. That is what one does with any promising development. Given the size of KIPP schools' achievements and the interest they have generated, they have to be considered the most promising schools we have, but it is also true they have not yet fulfilled that promise. KIPP's ultimate goal is to put children on a path to college success. Only a few hundred KIPP alums have even reached college age so far.

To the KIPP people I know, particularly the mostly under-40 school leaders and teachers, my noodling with my subtitle and the discussions among scholars like Henig are irrelevant chatter. They are interested in the data on students leaving KIPP before eighth grade only because they want to find ways to reduce those numbers, and convince more children they can handle such challenging courses as algebra. They think education reform is not the work of policymakers and pundits but of educators like themselves, and they have to do it one kid at a time.

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