When it comes to KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Program), what’s not to like? Dedicated teachers start their days early and work late. There are Saturday classes much of the time, as well as summer school for middle school students. All this professional drive and extra class time exemplified by the winning motto, “Work hard. Be nice” — have helped explain KIPP’s extraordinary success with low-income students.
The problem isn’t holding KIPP up as an example. It should be applauded, and schools should explore many of the policies and practices that have made it a winner. But when KIPP is used to denigrate regular public schools and minimize the challenges they face in educating disadvantaged students — in a kind “They did it; why can’t you?” way — the discussion becomes hopelessly distorted and politicized.
The main criticism of this comparison is that it underestimates the degree to which KIPP draws the more motivated students and teachers into its competitive programs. Is it really accurate to equate the challenges facing KIPP’s 82 charter schools with those facing the vast majority of regular public schools serving disadvantaged students? In books like The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement, Richard Rothstein and other policy experts argue that it is not.
Now comes a report, commissioned by KIPP and authored by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. that attempts to address some of these concerns. Comparing 22 KIPP middle schools with a similar sample of regular public schools, Mathematica found that after three years in KIPP, many students gain approximately one additional year of instruction, “enough to substantially reduce race- and income-based achievement gaps.”
And this extraordinary finding is true despite the fact that, on entering the program, KIPP students typically had lower achievement levels than average for their districts.
Impressive. And yet, I’m still skeptical. Consider, for example, this observation from Mathematica: “Compared to the public schools from which they draw students, KIPP middle schools have student bodies characterized by higher concentrations of poverty and racial minorities, but lower concentrations of special education and limited English proficiency students.”
Is it better, for educational purposes, to be poorer than other students but have no disabilities and speak good English? Or is it better to be slightly better off but have limited English skills and a learning disability? If these questions sound slightly ridiculous, that’s because they are — you can’t answer them in the abstract.
While KIPPS gains are indeed impressive, there are two big problems with over-generalizing from them: 1) It provides great fodder for public school bashers, and 2) in an era of growing economic disparity between rich and poor, it releases society from the responsibility to address other social needs that have a big impact on educational achievement, needs like affordable housing, good medical care, quality day care, and a living wage. (For more on this subject, see Rothstein’s 2004 book, Class and Schools.)
Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor