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More Evidence There is No Silver Bullet

obriena's picture

An article from November 6’s Indianapolis Business Journal recently caught my eye: It may be do or die for Indianapolis charter school. Bold title, but what shocked me was the second line, which began, “Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) College Preparatory School.”

This article was about a KIPP charter school that may not be reauthorized? But KIPP is the darling child of the education “reform” community, with a model that includes extended day and year coupled with extremely high expectations for students and staff. The Secretary of Education sings their praises, and they recently won an i3 grant from the Department of Education. What is going on here?

According to the article, this Indianapolis KIPP school has struggled. Now in its seventh year, the school is on its fifth leader. It has had considerable staff turnover (last year, 55%). It has had questionable financials, in one instance returning more than $8,000 in Title I funding that had been used improperly. There were at one point concerns about how the school upheld its special education files. And the school’s test scores reflect it all. The school is not performing well.

But there is hope, including recent improvements in test scores. Yet the question remains: is it enough to get the school reauthorized? I don't have the answer. It depends on a number of things, including the ultimate purpose of charter schools (there is an interesting debate on that in Rhode Island right now, by the way).

So why write about this? To call out a struggling school, embarrassing those who work hard at it every day? Absolutely not. To criticize KIPP in general? No way. The vast majority of their schools do not have these issues.

The point is to remind us, yet again, that there is no silver bullet. Branding a school as KIPP doesn’t mean it will perform well, just as lengthening the school day or year, dividing a large comprehensive high school into small schools or putting a school staff into professional learning communities doesn't mean a school will perform well. The structure of a school doesn't dictate its performance. The actions of those in and around the building, combined with a strong academic program and a supportive environment, do. And those are the things we should focus on in our efforts to improve our nation's struggling schools.

Here in California, I

Here in California, I researched the attrition of all the KIPP schools in our state, and discovered that most of them have eye-popping attrition. I did this as a volunteer blogger, but shortly thereafter, a study was released by the organization SRI International confirming my findings. (To be precise, I researched all of the state KIPP schools -- 9 at the time -- while SRI researched the 5 in the San Francisco Bay Area. I used publicly available data and SRI used more complete data provided by KIPP.)

SRI's findings: the Bay Area KIPP schools lose (by whatever means -- jumped, pushed, whichever) 60% of their students; those students are consistently the lower-performing students; and unlike public schools, they do not replace the students who leave.

What that means is that KIPP retains only the higher-performing, higher-functioning 40% of its students, dumping the less-successful majority back into the public schools. Again, KIPP does not replace those students who leave (or are pushed out), while when public schools lose high-mobility students, those students are replaced with similar high-mobility students -- including those who left or were pushed out of the KIPP schools, of course. (Low-income students, who tend to have the lowest academic achievement, also tend to move around much more than their more privileged peers -- poverty correlates with unstable living circumstances.)

We (the public, those of us who follow education issues) don't have enough information to know if the occasional KIPP school that is academically unsuccessful is also the KIPP school that is not losing/pushing out its lower-performing students. But that question should be asked.

CarolineSF - That is an

CarolineSF - That is an EXCELLENT point. I saw that study too, and I think the attrition rate really calls into question their claims about achievement. And you are right - we the public don't have the data to know whether this particular KIPP school has low attrition and low achievement, or high attrition and low achievement, or what.

In discussions of charter school accountability, I am not sure why the general policy of posting attrition rates on their school report cards isn't more widespread (and I am not opposed to that on traditional public school report cards either). I personally think it would really add value to the debate over chartering.

Caroline, I believe you.


I believe you. This fact undercuts the main premise of the whole Guggenheim/Gates reform push --we DON'T have a solution for the lowest-performing students, despite what Waiting for Superman claims. NO ONE has found a formula for lifting up the truly dysfunctional poor. Ergo, demolishing teacher unions and dismantling inner-city schools won't make a difference.

My goodness, is there anyone

My goodness, is there anyone who can convince CarolineSF to stop spamming every thread on the Internet with her self-congratulatory (and long outdated) story about finding attrition at a few California KIPP schools? Anyone who follows education blogs or education journalism has seen CarolineSF tell this story 100 times. Enough already. We get the point. (And she's not even telling the truth with this: "KIPP does not replace those students who leave (or are pushed out)").