Existing research offers positive but mixed picture
TEMPE, Ariz and BOULDER, Colo. (November 10, 2008) -- With its reputation for high standards, highly committed teachers and longer school days, the non-profit charter school provider KIPP has been widely hailed as a model for urban education. A new policy brief concludes that available evidence indicates that KIPP is indeed providing good opportunities for its students, but it also warns that some claims are exaggerated, the current evidence incomplete, and policymakers should proceed with cautious optimism.
The policy brief What Do We Know About the Outcomes of KIPP Schools? is written by Professor Jeffrey R. Henig, an expert on urban education reform and charter schools at Teachers College, Columbia University.
KIPP, short for Knowledge Is Power Program, operates nearly 50 charter schools in the U.S., including ones in Washington, D.C., Houston, and New York City. KIPP schools have drawn praise for their work with urban, poor and minority students. A large-scale study of KIPP using a randomized design is underway, but it is not expected to be completed for five years. Because policymakers and others are already looking to the KIPP model for guidance, Henig's brief takes a close look at the seven strongest existing studies, which together offer several important insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the model.
Henig's brief presents several positive findings:
• Students who enter and stay in KIPP schools do tend to perform better than comparable students in more traditional public schools.
• The better performance does not appear to be attributable to selective admissions.
• KIPP students tend to be minorities, and many have performed poorly in previous schools.
But the brief also raises at least two serious questions:
• KIPP student turnover appears to be high and "selective." Those who leave tend to be lower-performing students to begin with and to have performed less well while at KIPP. "Such attrition, if it were taken into consideration, would reduce the size of gains in reports that simply compare KIPP eight graders with those in their host districts," Henig writes. But the evidence, he adds, is not enough to suggest that attrition alone accounts for the academic advantages that KIPP students appear to enjoy.
• While the enthusiasm of KIPP teachers is high, heavy demands on them and on KIPP leaders tend to promote high teacher turnover "and an unrelieved pressure to find and train new people," Henig writes.
Henig notes that the extended-day policy at KIPP schools -- 9.5 hours per day, plus summer and Saturday classes -- has attracted a great deal of attention. But hard evidence does not yet link KIPP's longer school day to the program's success. Moreover, attempts to transport this part of the model to other schools may be met with objections from many parents and taxpayers.
Henig recommends that KIPP be treated as a model worth studying. However, at this point he does not recommend treating it as a prototype or a substitute for broader, systemic school reforms. It offers "a possible source of information and guidance" to education policy questions. But, he concludes, "policymakers and others should have realistic expectations. There are significant unanswered questions about how expansion might affect outcomes, especially in relation to the difficulty of sustaining any gains attributable to KIPP's heavy demands on teachers and school leaders."
Jeffrey Henig, Professor
Teachers College, Columbia University
Kevin Welner, Professor and Director
Education and the Public Interest Center
University of Colorado at Boulder
The Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU) at Arizona State University collaborate to produce policy briefs and think tank reviews. Our goal is to promote well-informed democratic deliberation about education policy by providing academic as well as non-academic audiences with useful information and high quality analyses.
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