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Posted at 4:30 PM ET, 01/10/2011

More questions for KIPP

By Valerie Strauss

Here's the next chapter in a debate about the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP charter schools. Last month I posted a discussion that I had with my great colleague Jay Mathews that involved KIPP and Teach for America. Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of "All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice," wrote a post that I published last week about KIPP attrition rates referred to in the Valerie-Jay debate. Then this morning I published a response to Kahlenberg from KIPP's Jonathan Cowan and Steve Mancini. Over again to Kahlenberg.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg
On Jan. 4, I outlined some concerns about attrition rates and intake at KIPP schools, and today, KIPP officials Jonathan Cowan and Steve Mancini responded. What follows is my response to their response.

KIPP schools are on the whole impressive, but they are often held up as proof that poverty and segregation are “excuses” for failure, rather than significant barriers to high student achievement. After all, most students in KIPP schools are poor and the schools are both economically and racially segregated. If KIPP can produce high levels of achievement, why can’t regular public schools – through hard work, extended learning time, and a non-unionized workforce – achieve the same results?

Elsewhere, I have raised objections to this line of thinking, noting that KIPP schools are different than regular public schools for a variety of reasons: they rely on self-selected student populations (rather than ones assigned to them); they get lots of private money; and they rely on a difficult-to-replicate workforce model – primarily young childless teachers who work extraordinary hours..

In the Jan. 4 blog post, I focused on another way in which KIPP schools differ from regular public schools: the attrition and intake rates.

According to a 2008 SRI International study of five San Francisco Bay-area KIPP schools, 60% of students dropped out between fifth and eighth grade. Moreover, unlike regular public schools, very few students entered into these KIPP schools in the seventh and eighth grades. As a result, the KIPP schools became demonstrably smaller over time, and a given KIPP student was surrounded by peers who have a strong commitment, on average, to the program – a huge advantage over regular public schools.

Cowan and Mancini don’t dispute the data, but say that KIPP has gotten better at reducing attrition since the 2008 study was published, and that “many KIPP middle schools, including those at KIPP DC, now regularly enroll new students at all grade levels.” This is a very welcome development but could use some elaboration.

Cowan and Mancini say that KIPP is committed to transparency, and in that spirit, I’ll end with three questions:

1. How many students are now entering KIPP schools across the country during the seventh and eighth grades? Today, what is the aggregate difference between the size of the sixth grade KIPP classes two years ago and the eighth grade classes today? And how has the new influx of students in seventh and eighth grade affected KIPP test scores?

2. Which groups of students (by race, gender and income) are most likely to leave KIPP?

3. If KIPP wants to put the self-selection, attrition, and intake issues to rest, why doesn’t it simply start taking over regular public schools, educating the students who happen to live nearby, including those who move in during the course of middle school?


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 10, 2011; 4:30 PM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  century foundation, charter schools, charter schools and segregation, jay mathews, kipp, kipp charter schools, kipp schools, knowledge is power program  
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When I researched KIPP attrition (as an amateur volunteer blogger using publicly available statistics on the Calif. Dept. of Ed websites), I did break it down by demographics. My research showed significantly higher attrition by the demographic subgroup that was most likely (statistically speaking) to be academically challenged.

At Oakland's KIPP Bridge, for the class I researched, 77% of the African-American boys who enrolled had left the school by the BEGINNING of 8th grade -- the CDE statistics are from the 10-day count in September.

I should be more precise -- the number of African-American boys had dropped by 77%. It may be that more than that had left and others had arrived.

Also a note: When I did undercover research starting the enrollment process for my daughter at KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy, when she was starting 7th grade, the process included a test PRIOR to what they claimed was inclusion in the lottery -- which is fishy as there is no lottery, since the numbers show that there is plenty of room in that school's 7th grade. (No, we didn't go so far as to have her take the test.) I believe that KIPP claims that incoming 5th-graders don't have to take a test. I know that the test given to applicants at higher grades is intended to determine the applicant's academic grade level.

Some obvious points that cannot be repeated too often:

Even a moderately non-compliant kid is quite likely to refuse to take a gratuitous test, or to threaten to blow the test. Thus that part of the application process selects out non-compliant kids.

Many applicants and/or their parents/guardians are likely to believe that the test is one that must be passed to qualify for enrollment, and so applicants and/or their parents/guardians who are not confident about passing a test are likely to drop out of the process. This self-selects for students who are confident about doing well on a test.

Many applicants who do take the test are are likely to be told that even though they have completed sixth or seventh grade, their academic level is lower and thus they will have to repeat a grade if they enroll at the KIPP school. This is likely to result in many of those applicants choosing not to enroll in the KIPP school.

So you can see the selection process at work.

My own daughter, then 12, read the KIPP discipline policy and asked me to enroll her so she could lead an uprising of the oppressed masses, so I can't exactly characterize her as compliant. But I assume she would have been an outlier among KIPP enrollees.

Posted by: CarolineSF | January 10, 2011 6:10 PM | Report abuse

Richard, This is an outstanding response to the less than credible response to your original analysis. KIPP and other corporate charters and corporate interests are always going to be bogged down by ADVOCACY. Markets must advertise and sell. . .No room for balance or admissions of anything negative. . .As I have posted before, I genuinely do not care if any students have "good" test scores because I find the KIPP "no excuses" ideology classist. . .Your Q #3 must be addressed if the KIPPs are sincere. . .

Posted by: plthomas3 | January 10, 2011 6:34 PM | Report abuse

Quit bashing KIPP. There's nothing wrong with a 'no excuses' mantra. There's plenty wrong with using KIPP results to blame teachers. Quite honestly, even at-level schools could use some of KIPP's discipline/attitude. KIPP is just another choice for parents, which is what the system needs.

Posted by: peonteacher | January 10, 2011 6:47 PM | Report abuse

"My own daughter, then 12, read the KIPP discipline policy and asked me to enroll her so she could lead an uprising of the oppressed masses, so I can't exactly characterize her as compliant."

Caroline, would your daughter really appreciate you badmouthing her online? I mean, a lot of people who read your description will think of her as an obnoxious and spoiled white girl. You seem to hate KIPP so much that you're proud of anything your daughter might have said against KIPP, but surely you realize that not everyone in the world is going to be similarly impressed with your daughter's insolence?

Posted by: educationobserver | January 10, 2011 9:38 PM | Report abuse


It is not "bashing" to point out logical flaws in the argument that the charters teach and achieve with the exact same populations as regular public schools. That little piece of propaganda is simply false. They do not teach the same type of students because they lose students who cannot hang with their program and fail to enroll many children whose families do not want them repeating a grade. KIPP rarely enrolls children from the most difficult families, where transience is routine and the home support is non-existent. They never even come close to joining the lottery for seats.

To those who don't work in inner-city schools, this may seem a fair model for operating. I personally think KIPP has a lot to offer some children and their families and I'm happy to have them in Philadelphia. However, I know they operate very little like my own West Philly elementary. We get students, generally transient, who drift in throughout the year. These students often have behavior problems in addition to learning deficits. Some of the behaviors can be quite severe and disruptive. KIPP doesn't have to deal with that.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | January 11, 2011 5:33 AM | Report abuse

Nikki, I do work in an inner city school. And I have been the 'target' of a devout school reformer, and have suffered personally from said reformer. I understand KIPP doesn't have to deal with the problems that I have to deal with. And it burns me to no end to have 'experts' and the like stand up there and say it's my fault. But the fact remains, KIPP serves a segment of the student population well, and public education could learn something from them (obviously not everything KIPP does should be copied). It's not for everybody, but they aren't the ones using/creating the propaganda.

Posted by: peonteacher | January 11, 2011 9:14 AM | Report abuse

Educationobserver, my daughter doesn't consider my comment "badmouthing." It's a little over the top for you to characterize her as obnoxious and spoiled given that you don't know her.

My point was that the KIPP design is not well suited for free spirits, independent thinkers, creative rebels and the like; I was using her comment to illustrate that. And that's fine; docile and obedient individuals need a setting too.

Posted by: CarolineSF | January 11, 2011 10:08 AM | Report abuse

And Peonteacher, KIPP is very much creating and using the propaganda. It's their stock in trade. The propaganda is used to unjustifiably attack you, as you acknowledge.

Posted by: CarolineSF | January 11, 2011 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Kahlenberg asks very good questions. It would be nice to have access to robust KIPP data so that we could answer them.

Posted by: joshofstl1 | January 11, 2011 11:32 AM | Report abuse


Your daughter sounds like a gem (and just like my own 10-year-old, with a strong sense of justice, and empathy). Educationalobserver should try a little educational participation, then he/she would be able to appreciate you daughter's creativity and critical thinking skill. Although I'm sure she would not be appreciated in a KIPP school, I would sell my soul for a classroom full of students like her in any of my classes.

As far as KIPP, they are a profit-driven niche school, like a military school. Their experience cannot be replicated in a public school environment and does nothing to inform the discussion of how to improve public education in the inner cities. In fact, to the effect that KIPP (and TFA) glorify and embrace segregation, they do a disservice.

Posted by: mcstowy | January 11, 2011 1:14 PM | Report abuse

It's a little over the top for you to characterize her as obnoxious and spoiled given that you don't know her.

I don't characterize her that way; I thought you were the one who unwittingly did so.

Posted by: educationobserver | January 11, 2011 1:35 PM | Report abuse

How exactly is KIPP profit driven?

Posted by: HappyTeacher | January 11, 2011 3:48 PM | Report abuse

@CarolineSF - I agree totally with mcstowy. I also agree with your daughter's assessment. I would NEVER send my kids to a KIPP school - EVER. I mean, longer school day, Saturday school, longer school year, coupled with their dehumanizing/humiliating classroom management strategies go completely against what I would want my kids' classroom experience to be like. Additionally, from your writing, I really couldn't tell if your daughter was black, white or rainbow.

Posted by: traceydouglas | January 12, 2011 10:12 PM | Report abuse

The sad/humorous part about these comments and a lot of the time the articles themselves is that the majority of you (if not all) have never set foot in a KIPP school. I know someone will respond and say "yes I have..etc," but the majority of commenter’s on any website have very little personal experience with the issues they comment on. They may have a friend, who heard from a friend about their experience, but again, the majority of you have no experience outside of what you read about these subjects and the paper decides to edit and print. Sad.
I am living in Philly and have not only helped set up the new KIPP Elementary Charter School (twice!) that now resides in North Philly, but I have sat in on classes and seen what they do on a daily basis. The KIPP schools in Philly are run efficiently, do not hand pick their students, and I can personally attest to the fact that they keep problem children.
I have a good friend currently teaching at KIPP in Philly and I have never seen a group of teachers, in the newly chartered elementary school, that give their all to the kids. While we debate about the problems and why these schools are horrible, the teachers are teaching, turning in lesson plans for review by Thursday, resubmitting the lesson plans on Sunday by 5pm, and typically working more hours than most of us will ever work. One great example of retention and the refusal to let a child fail is present at the elementary school. There is a child who has special needs to the degree that a single teacher has to sit with him for the majority of the day. This occurred for several weeks until the child could conform to classroom behavior, at which point the child was allowed to “rejoin” the class. The child very easily could have been deemed a problem child and booted from the school, but they spent extra time, effort, and the child has shown vast improvement.
There is no perfect in life, but at the KIPP Elementary Academy in Philadelphia, I can personally attest to the level of dedication and skill the teachers possess. The majority of lead teachers have advanced teaching degrees and are under 35. The high turnover in teachers is similar to all professions that require grueling hours and an intense atmosphere (ie, lawyer, investment banking…) so that is not a very relevant stat when judging a school. Comments...

Posted by: Choice4all | January 14, 2011 3:11 PM | Report abuse

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