- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A rigorous study of a national charter school system has found that most of its low-income students achieve “overwhelmingly positive” academic improvements in a few years.

These outcomes are expected to boost confidence in Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) specifically and charter schools in general, said a charter school advocate.

The study compared KIPP students in 22 middle schools with similar students in the same school districts, said Christina Clark Tuttle, a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research Inc., a Princeton, N.J.-based research group. Some 1,660 students were tracked.

KIPP students typically started at KIPP with below-average test scores. However, after three years in the charter school, they were reading and doing math at such high levels it was as if they had had an extra year of instruction, said Brian Gill, senior social scientist at Mathematica. These are “overwhelmingly positive” outcomes, he added.

Moreover, the KIPP students’ improvements were “frequently large enough to substantially reduce race- and income-based achievement gaps,” the study said. “This is a really humbling day for us,” said Richard Barth, president and chief executive of the KIPP Foundation, which commissioned the Mathematica study.

The program has “phenomenal teachers” and hard-working students, parents and families, he said.

Critics of KIPP — and other publicly funded but independently run charter schools — say KIPP attracts students who naturally excel or who have dedicated parents, and these elements explain KIPP’s good outcomes.

The Mathematica study was designed to examine those issues, said Mr. Barth. People may assume that KIPP students are advantaged, “but that’s just not the case,” he said.

“We found no evidence that KIPP middle schools are systematically enrolling more advantaged students from their districts,” the Mathematica study said. It also noted that KIPP attrition rates were similar, overall, to other schools, and KIPP students were “counted” even if they didn’t stay in KIPP more than a year. Three of the 22 KIPP schools had no positive outcomes; two of those schools closed.

The study should “clear away” arguments about KIPP, as it shows that they’re just doing “a terrific job of educating kids, not that they have any special advantages,” said Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

It should also assist the charter school movement, he said. “I don’t think that [KIPP] could have established the network and level of quality they’ve achieved without having the charters,” because it gave them freedom to innovate, create a staff and bend rules around school hours, said Mr. Smith. “Traditional school systems have talked about doing many of these things for decades, but with the charter, you can actually get them done.”

KIPP, founded in 1994 by Teach for America alumni Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, is known for its “high expectations” for all KIPP students to prepare for college. It is built around a nine-hour school day, constant homework, and mastery of material before a child can advance to the next grade. KIPP principals have the authority to manage their school’s budget and staff, including hiring and firing of teachers.

KIPP has grown to a network of 82 schools, including elementary and high schools, in 19 states. In the District of Columbia, two KIPP schools — KEY Academy and AIM Academy — were included in the study.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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