As charter schools enter their third decade, the advocates who created them still wonder whether they're living up to their promise. A study released on Wednesday suggests some may be on the right track.
The study, conducted by independent research firm Mathematica, is the most rigorous research showing that the Knowledge Is Power Program, an acclaimed national chain of charter schools, provides a significant learning boost to middle school students in multiple subjects. It also found that while KIPP serves more low-income students than public school peers, it serves fewer special education students and English language learners.
Three years after students enroll in KIPP schools, they had 11 more months of math knowledge than their peers, according to the study. The research showed KIPP students had eight more months of reading knowledge, 14 more months of science knowledge, and 11 more months of social studies knowledge.
Even those who have watched the growth of charters with a wary eye said they are impressed. "At this point, it’s simply not supportable to try and explain away the fact that KIPP schools -– at least KIPP middle schools –- increase testing outcomes more quickly than comparable district schools," said Matthew Di Carlo, senior fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute, the think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers union. "Their high-cost, high-intensity approach won’t work for all students, but those for whom it works really do show meaningfully positive results. We should give KIPP credit for that."
Charter schools are publicly funded, but can be privately run. Since KIPP's founding by Teach for America alumni in Houston in 1994, it has since grown into a network of 125 schools in 20 states. The schools often feature a longer school day, carefully selected teachers, a strict discipline code, parental contract, and staffers available to parents after school hours. KIPP has also been a favorite of President Barack Obama's administration, receiving millions in grant dollars from the U.S. Education Department.
The Mathematica study accounted for the common critique that KIPP's results are skewed because the school attracts the kids of highly-motivated parents, said Philip Gleason, who directed the research. In 13 of the 43 schools Mathematica investigated, the firm compared KIPP students with children who entered the KIPP lottery, but did not receive slots in KIPP schools. The researchers said the positive results held steady for the KIPP students.
"I've always wondered. Those great results that they're getting -- are those real effects?" asked Mathematica's Brian Gill.
But the study likely won't entirely settle questions over whether the schools wind up with students who are easier to teach, said Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor who has been hired by states to evaluate charter schools. "They're concluding that the students that persist in KIPP do better than comparison students," Miron said. "That makes logical sense." Miron said a more useful study would address whether KIPP can be a solution for helping all students in underperforming schools.
The study notes that KIPP middle schools "are consistently more likely" to have students repeat grades. Many kids who are asked to repeat grades then drop out, Miron said, often winding up back in traditional public schools -- despite sincere efforts to keep them around.
The study's findings were less glowing about KIPP's behavioral tactics, which include positive reinforcement and, in some schools, behavioral report cards. Despite KIPP's focus on praising positive outcomes, students did not report an increase in "attitudes associated with success," such as persistence and self-control, and "had an increased incidence of self-reported undesirable behaviors," such as tantrums or conflicts with teachers and parents. "It's possible kids' standards can change -- so we only know that according to their own reports they've run into more conflicts," Gill said.
The study did find that KIPP's behavioral modifications contributed to academic performance. KIPP schools that reported a "comprehensive" approach toward behavior saw greater positive effects than schools that did not. KIPP schools that had a longer than average school day had smaller positive effects on student performance. The report says this might be because the KIPP schools with longer days than others often focused their extended hours on non-academic areas.
KIPP students do from 35 minutes to 53 minutes more nightly homework than their peers, yet reported they were more satisfied with school than peers. according to the study.