By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; B01
Middle school students in the Knowledge Is Power Program, a charter school network with a major footprint in the District and other cities, significantly outperform their public school peers on reading and math tests, according to a new study.
But the report, from Mathematica Policy Research, to be made public Tuesday, is unlikely to resolve debate over what is behind the network's success. Skeptics say that the program benefits from highly motivated parents seeking alternatives to ineffective public schools and that KIPP often winnows out students who don't fit its program.
The study, which KIPP commissioned, comes as the Obama administration is promoting the spread of strong charter schools as a strategy to improve urban education.
Founded in Houston in 1994 by two young alumni of Teach for America, KIPP has grown into a national network of 82 schools -- including seven in the District -- that serve children from low-income backgrounds. KIPP students put in a longer day than most of their public school counterparts, attending class from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. on weekdays. Many are also in class every other Saturday and for three weeks over the summer. A rigorous incentive system penalizes students for poor behavior and missed assignments. "Work hard, be nice" is the credo.
KIPP schools routinely outscore many that serve middle-class students. Its three middle schools in the District -- KEY, WILL and AIM academies, with a combined enrollment of 960 -- are among the city's highest-performing on the DC-CAS standardized tests.
Mathematica studied 22 KIPP middle schools, including AIM and KEY, comparing test scores of charter students to scores of selected students in regular public schools who matched their academic and demographic backgrounds. Researchers examined test data starting in third grade. KIPP middle schools begin in fifth.
By seventh grade, half of the KIPP schools studied showed growth in math scores equal to an additional 1.2 years of school. Reading gains for KIPP were not as dramatic but still significant, the researchers reported, reflecting an additional three-quarters of a year of growth.
Mathematica said it found no evidence that KIPP schools were systematically drawing students with more economic advantages from surrounding school systems. But attrition rates at the KIPP schools, measuring the portion of students who failed to complete four years at the schools, varied widely. In a third of the schools studied, attrition was significantly higher than in other local public schools. In another third of the KIPP schools, the rate was lower. Skeptics say that students who can't function in the rigorous school culture are often pushed out -- a claim that KIPP rejects.
Richard Barth, chief executive of the KIPP Foundation, called the study "powerful affirmation" of the program's approach.
"It is really reassuring to us and our parents and teachers that the hard work pays off," said Susan Schaeffler, executive director of KIPP schools in the District. "But there's nothing in here that would surprise my teachers. They are on the front lines doing the hard work every day."
In subsequent studies, researchers plan to examine 50 KIPP schools and drill further into the question of parental influence on achievement. Future studies also will compare students who won KIPP admission by random lottery with those who sought admission but did not win.
In addition, Mathematica is completing a study for the U.S. Education Department of 40 charter schools in 16 states that use lotteries to determine admission. Results are expected this summer.