Skip to main content

Gary Rubinstein's Blog: Two KIPPs on the Block

The first KIPP school opened about 25 years ago and since then the network has grown to about 250 schools throughout the country. KIPP charter schools are known as the ‘gold standard’ of charters. Anytime a politician talks about opening more charter schools, they talk about expanding ‘high quality’ charters like KIPP.

KIPP was one of the featured schools in the 2010 movie ‘Waiting For Superman,’ a movie that was very influential in spreading the narrative that the success of charter schools like KIPP prove that the problem in American schools is that the teachers’ union is protecting bad teachers who put their own interest ahead of the interests of kids. If it really were true that charter schools were outperforming public schools, it would be a very compelling argument.

Of those 250 KIPP schools, some are going to be better than the average KIPP and some are going to be worse. If KIPP really does know a lot about educating low income students, the difference between the ‘good’ KIPPs and the ‘bad’ KIPPs wouldn’t be all that different. Just like the difference between the best McDonalds and the worst McDonalds isn’t so vast.

One thing I’ve noticed about KIPP is that they generally don’t open up too many schools in one city. Houston, where it began, has about 20 KIPPs and then other cities have fewer. New York City has around six.

In the cities of Memphis and Nashville, TN there are a lot of charter schools fueled, in part, by the Race To The Top money they received while Teach For America alumni were in leadership positions at the Tennessee Education Department. By 2019, they had grown to seven KIPP schools in Tennessee. In 2020 the network announced that they were shutting down two of those seven schools. The headline from the Chalkbeat, TN article contains the quote from the network ‘‘We’ve been unable to fulfill our academic promise’. So as of 2020 they were down to five schools in Tennessee.

According to a new article in Chalkbeat, TN, This coming Tuesday, January 25th, the Shelby County school system will vote on whether or not to shut down two of the remaining KIPPs: KIPP Memphis Academy Middle School and KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary.

Reading through this article and doing some more in depth research, there are several things I find noteworthy.

The most blatant reaction is that whether or not they vote to shut these schools, the fact that the schools are even at risk of getting shut down for poor performance definitely should convince anyone that the ‘Waiting For Superman’ narrative that if you give charters flexibility in exchange for accountability, they will outperform the ‘failing’ public schools. But there might be some people who say “There’s bound to be a few bad apples in any bunch so maybe these are just some outliers and the ‘average’ KIPP is still very good.’

To see if that was true in Tennessee I went to the state web portal and looked up the test scores and the growth scores for all five of the remaining KIPP schools there. What I found was that not only did those schools have very low test scores, but all of them had the lowest possible ‘growth’ score (a 1 out of 5). Now I know that sometimes this ‘growth’ score is not the most accurate calculation but if reformers are going to use them to label some public schools as failing, then they would have to label all the KIPPs in Tennessee as failing too.

The next thing that strikes me about this story in Chalkbeat, TN, at least, is the way that the news is delivered in a very sympathetic and often inaccurate way. From the beginning, the headline is ‘Parents plea to save two KIPP Memphis schools from closure.’ The words ‘plea’ and ‘save’ are telling. This is not presented as the scandal that it is. Tennessee has paid hundreds of millions of dollars over the past 10 years in implementing a plan based on the lie that charter schools in general, and especially the gold star standard like KIPP, were going to raise achievement in Tennessee. A more accurate headline would be ‘Two of remaining five KIPPs may get shut down for low performance.’

Of course under the headline is a picture of a KIPP student dancing, showing us how awful it will be if these schools get closed down.

The first sentence of the article has a misleading inaccuracy. “Impassioned community members pleaded with the Shelby County school board Tuesday night to keep two KIPP charter schools operating, despite low test scores.” It is misleading because it is not the ‘low test scores’ that is the problem as much as the low ‘growth’ growth scores. This type of growth calculation was invented in Tennessee and they have invested a lot of money into it and have made a lot of decisions based on it. So to only mention ‘low test scores’ and not ‘growth’ distorts the picture.

The second paragraph says “Shelby County Schools administrators have recommended revoking charters of KIPP Memphis Academy Middle School and KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary based on low test scores at both schools.” again not mentioning the low growth scores.

And in the third paragraph they say “Since coming to Memphis nearly two decades ago with the opening of one school, the regional network has grown to five schools” not mentioning that it has not actually ‘grown’ to five schools but ‘shrunk’ to five since there were seven schools just a year ago.

The response from KIPP comes from the CEO of KIPP Memphis schools, Antonio Burt. According to the article “Antonio Burt, CEO of KIPP Memphis Schools, said he’s not satisfied with the two schools’ academic performance, but said many KIPP students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and often face greater learning challenges.” This is striking to me. The whole narrative of charter schools was that unionized teachers believe ‘poverty is destiny’ and use the economic status of students as an ‘excuse’ for low expectations and for low performance but that charters are ‘no excuses’ and will certainly not say that the students underperformed because of these ‘greater learning challenges.’ But Antonio Burt is saying what he can since he has to give the school board some reason to vote to not close these two schools.

Another bizarre part of this article is the inclusion of numbers from a ‘School Closing Impact Report’ produced by the Office Of Charter Schools in Tennessee. The report looks at where the students from the shuttered KIPPs are likely to go if their schools get closed down. What they found was that about half of the students would attend a school with a lower rating than the current KIPP schools and half of them would attend a school with a higher rating. Seems like a wash to me. It certainly isn’t a reason to keep the schools open. Isn’t the idea of the ‘portfolio’ model that anytime a low performing school, even an ‘average’ low performing school like the KIPPs may be, it encourages the other schools to step up their game. To fire more teachers, bring in more TFA teachers, increase their test prep, whatever they have to do. So I don’t think the thought that half of the students at the KIPPs will go to a school with lower scores is that compelling of a thing to include in the article, but Antonio Burt will surely use this report as a reason for them to vote to keep the schools open. (My guess is that they will vote to give the schools another chance because of this argument, but we will see in a few days.)

The article mentions that “Other board members expressed their support for KIPP and their belief that Burt is qualified to lead a turnaround within the charter network. Burt, who most recently served as SCS chief of schools, received national acclaim for his work turning two low-performing Memphis schools into models of student achievement.” and this caught my attention. So Antonio Burt is some kind of Turnaround specialist? I had to do some fact checking.

Antonio Burt was named CEO of KIPP Memphis schools just two months ago. I traced through his career over the past ten years to see what his track record was in turning around schools that got him ‘national acclaim.’ As you won’t be surprised to learn, Burt did not ‘turn around’ any of the ten schools that he tried to.

The first school he supposedly ‘turned around’ was the Lester School in Memphis where he was principal from 2010 to 2012. The Lester school supposedly increased their test scores in that two year period, but they became one of the original six Achievement School District schools (then they became Cornerstone Prep) and they languished there in the bottom 5% for nine years only to recently get above the bottom 5% and leave the priority list though according to the Tennessee State web portal, their test scores are still so low that they just call them ‘Below 5%’

Maybe their test scores improved from 2010 to 2012, but surely after Antonio Burt left there was a plan in place to maintain or build on his turnaround. A ‘turnaround’ that doesn’t last can’t really be considered one.

Antonio Burt left Lester school in 2012 to become principal of Ford Road elementary school from 2012 to 2015. While Ford Road did make progress by 2014, it remains, 8 years later as one of the lowest performing schools in Tennessee with a 10.3% ‘success rate.’

They also got the lowest possible growth overall and individually in ELA and Math.

It’s really a stretch to say that Antonio Burt ‘turned around’ these two schools.

In 2015, after 3 years at Ford Road, Burt resigned and worked for 5 months at The New Teacher Project. Then he was hired to help ‘turnaround’ eight schools in Tampa Bay in the ‘Transformation Zone’ of Pinellas school district. A year and a half into that job, he resigned, having not turned around any of those eight schools

He returned to Tennessee in 2017 to be the chief of the ‘iZone’ which is kind of like the Achievement School District, but has been more successful. He was there for four years and just recently became the CEO of KIPP Memphis. So I see Antonio Burt as someone who has spent 2 years at one school, 3 years at another, then a year and a half overseeing eight schools. He hasn’t turned around any of those schools in any kind of lasting way yet he is hailed as a turnaround guru who will likely use that inaccurate title as a way to save the two KIPP schools from being shut down because they now finally have an expert to improve them.

I will let you know what happens on Tuesday. Regardless of what happens, it is interesting to me to watch the way the charter schools and the media that covers them change their tunes when they are faced with closure.

This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.