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KIPP Charter Schools Close Achievement Gaps

July 1, 2010
By By Joy Pavelski

A study of 22 Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools nationwide finds race- and income-based academic achievement gaps narrowed significantly at the schools over the past four years.The study by Princeton-based Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

A study of 22 Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools nationwide finds race- and income-based academic achievement gaps narrowed significantly at the schools over the past four years.

The study by Princeton-based Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. compared the results of state achievement tests from approximately 11,000 KIPP middle-school students with those of students from nearby traditional public schools. Students in at least half the KIPP schools Mathematica studied gained the equivalent of 1.2 years in mathematics and 0.9 years in reading three years after enrolling. The results effectively cut the racial achievement gap in half.

According to the study: “Within two years after entry, students are experiencing statistically significant, positive impacts in 18 of 22 KIPP schools in math and 15 of 22 KIPP schools in reading. Meanwhile, only two KIPP schools register a significant negative impact in reading in any year of treatment.”

“In a dozen years of doing this kind of work, I’ve never worked on a study that showed positive effects that were this consistently large,” study co-author Brian Gill said in an interview.

No Evidence of Discrimination

Despite persistent claims from critics accusing KIPP of excluding students with economic disadvantages, Mathematica’s team found no evidence KIPP middle schools enrolled more-advantaged students from their districts. At most KIPP schools, 90 percent of students on average are from racial or ethnic minority groups, and 70 percent come from low-income families.

Mathematica’s research found KIPP schools tend to enroll students with test scores lower than their district’s average. The study also calls into question earlier research suggesting KIPP schools have high rates of student attrition.

Mathematica did find fewer KIPP students have limited English skills or required special education classes than in surrounding district schools. But KIPP students were also more likely to be held back in the 5th or 6th grade. “KIPP’s philosophy [says] students should be promoted to the next grade level only after they have demonstrated mastery of their current grade’s material,” the study’s authors write.

Study ‘Shows What’s Possible’

KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini says the Mathematica report is “bigger than just disproving common misconceptions [about charter schools] that have been bandied about for a long time. It shows to the general public what’s possible in public education.”

KIPP began with two schools in 1995 founded by two Teach for America alumni. It now has a network of 82 mostly middle schools (grades 5 to 8) in 19 states and Washington, DC, with plans to expand to 99 schools and another state next year. Mathematica researchers selected KIPP schools in operation for at least four years.

Growing Body of Research

The Mathematica report adds rigorous new data to a growing body of research on charter schools showing their advantages over conventional public schools, said Nelson Smith, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“Very few studies of charter school performance have the level of rigor in this study,” Smith said. “Simple snapshot comparisons create perceptions of charter schools that need to be examined in the light of much more rigorous research. While some critics are clearly biased against charter schools, even those that want to call on strong research don’t have enough of it at hand.”

KIPP’s Mancini notes KIPP schools have a long school day—usually 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.—include mandatory summer sessions and Saturday school days; demand teachers be available and on call after hours; and require high performance from students. Principals train for a year before starting a KIPP school, and teachers and administrators regularly attend training and conferences designed to reinforce the KIPP philosophy and develop their skills. Teachers also collaborate with ideas and lesson plans across classrooms and listservs.

KIPP also recruits and devotes a good deal of private money to development and expansion, Smith said, though the schools’ cost per student comes close to district averages.

Further Studies Planned

The Mathematica study was released June 22 and is the first of a series focusing on KIPP planned through 2014. The KIPP Foundation commissioned the five-year study, which is being funded through private foundation grants and a competitive research application process.

The study followed students through four years, the typical length of a KIPP program, and included in the sample students who left KIPP after a year or more.

“KIPP seems to be getting very strong results right in the first year of students participating, which runs counter to the common belief and trend that it takes students some time to get acclimated from the transfer,” Smith said.

Future studies will involve randomized trials based on KIPP’s admissions lotteries and will likely include more KIPP middle school students, the Mathematica researchers say. There are also plans to apply more rigorous testing rather than relying on different tests from each state. Another study will focus on determining which teaching and administration methods at KIPP work best.

Hoping for Shakeup

Once future reports are released, Smith said, other schools will have a wealth of information about KIPP practices proven to yield student progress.

“There are too many school districts providing a lot of jobs for adults where the outcomes for kids are pitiful,” Smith said. “The notion is that ‘we’ve always done it this way as long as we can remember,’ but for great numbers of kids it hasn’t worked as long as we can remember. Maybe it takes an example like this to shake that up.”

Joy Pavelski (joy.pavelski@gmail.com) writes from Washington, DC.

Internet Info:
“Student Characteristics and Achievement in 22 KIPP Middle Schools,” June 2010, Mathematica Policy Research: http://www.heartland.org/schoolreform-news.org/Article/27941/Student_Characteristics_and_Achievement_in_22_KIPP_Middle_Schools_.html

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