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John Thompson

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KIPP and Its Critics Are Both Right

Posted: 04/17/11 09:18 AM ET

I was a social scientist before I became a teacher so I was excited to read that Mathematica had analyzed "late arrivals" who attended KIPP. That seemed to be an inspired methodology for determining whether KIPP "creams" by excluding the most difficult-to-educate kids. I thought that KIPP did not admit students after the year began, but if they had a big enough sample to compare the characteristics of KIPP students who arrive in October, for instance, with students who first enter neighboring schools at that time, we would have real evidence!

Reading the study and its definitions, I learned that Mathematica attempted no such thing. Sure enough, KIPP does not admit students in the middle of the year.

As with their previous research, Mathematica was impeccable in fulfilling the purpose of their study. Their methodology showed that 22 KIPP schools have demonstrated remarkable fidelity in implementing their model, while reducing "creaming" as much as is possible for a system where poor families must apply, and volunteer to meet much higher standards. The highly-respected Princeton think tank showed that the numbers of KIPP's new students entering at the beginning of their sixth through eighth grade years, as well as the numbers leaving before graduating from middle school, are comparable to schools that are located near their sample of KIPP schools.

Mathematica showed that KIPP has great success with improving the performance of children who are just as poor, and who have not experienced greater academic success, than students in neighboring schools. But we must remember that the type of middle schools in neighborhoods served by KIPP are among the most dysfunctional institutions in America. Saying that KIPP's attrition rate is a little better than some of the nation's worst middle schools' rate is not a ringing proclamation of success.

Mathematica simply confirms that KIPP succeeds greatly with the kids where it succeeds, while indicating that its failure rate with their more difficult-to-educate students seems comparable to the failure rate of the toughest neighborhood schools. Its research tells us nothing about whether the KIPP system of 99 schools could be scaled up.

To do that, we need studies that act like "race track monitors" to make sure that no interest groups get "an unfair advantage" in promoting their preferred agendas. One such study, by Gary Miron of Western Michigan, found a 40 percent attrition rate for black males in his larger sample of KIPP schools. And to my knowledge, it has never been claimed that KIPP has been more successful with IEP students diagnosed with conduct disorders or serious emotional disturbances.

It is hard to see how any quantitative study could assess the issue of KIPP's attrition rate. Economics and race, as I would hope any educator would understand, are not the key factors for educational success, and elementary test scores might not mean much more as children enter their tumultuous teenage years. Even some of my gangbangers in the lowest-performing school in the state still read at college levels, even though their circumstances, and behavior, had changed dramatically since entering middle school. I suspect that a qualitative study would confirm Jay Mathews' observation that many KIPP students leave for less challenging schools "in spite of pleas to stay from KIPP teachers." I suspect that KIPP teachers issue their pleas with the same sincerity that we in neighborhood schools do, as we try to save our kids from the streets.

I notice that Oklahoma City's KIPP was one of the 22 schools studied, but its attrition data was excluded due to the way the numbers were kept. Our KIPP does a great job, but you simply can not compare a charter which had a decade to build up to serving 285 students, with 8.5 percent being on special education IEPs, with its neighboring school. KIPP replaced Moon Middle School which had served 792 students, with 26 percent on IEPs. Last year, KIPP recommended 21 percent of students for retention, while the old Moon had recommended 3 precent of students for retention. The old Moon was cited in Harpers Index for a lunch room riot. KIPP's neighboring school had a one year middle school dropout rate of 11.5 percent. At Moon, latecomers sometimes arrived in a deputy's car, in handcuffs, as they reentered a school with no transition services. One of their forms of attrition was 30 expulsions; the old school had 808 total suspensions.

As I have explained, Arne Duncan came to Oklahoma City and gave our KIPP the praise it deserved, but he was factually incorrect in claiming that the charter served the "same kids in the same building." Ironically, I had been bloodied that day breaking up a vicious assault which badly injured a student. The assailant had previously sent a teacher to the hospital. I had former KIPP students in my honors class, and they said that KIPP would never have tolerated the routine physical assaults that our neighborhood school allowed to be committed on students and teachers.

I have never doubted the abilities of kids at Moon or KIPP to succeed in a system that celebrated their full humanity. Many students who attended the old Moon used to ride on my back as I swam the width of the pool until I was too exhausted to climb out of the water without a ladder. When I visited the crack houses where some lived, I negotiated with their guard dogs. Several students visited my house, crying, after witnessing a murder. I learned about the demons that haunted their toughest gang-banger when I held him all night as he endured a migraine headache. He repaid me a decade later, intervening as I confronted his homeboys, presumably armed, as carloads of gang-bangers descended on our school's parking lot.

I will never begrudge KIPP the praise that it deserves for the good it does for some students. Neither do I begrudge the extra resources that KIPP gets from private donors.

The problem is the claim that neighborhood schools could replicate those successes if we had higher expectations. Every day in my last two years in the classroom, I had a student transfer in or transfer out. I doubt anyone would claim that families chose my school in order to improve their life's prospects. If a student transferred to my school, obviously, it was because his or her family was not able to take advantage of the wide array of educational choices in our metropolitan area. At best, their only transition services were a handshake while being greeted or being told "good bye." Too many times, teachers were too overwhelmed to even offer those basic courtesies.

By pretending that KIPP serves our most vulnerable students, society is given an excuse for starving alternative services for our most traumatized kids. For the life of me, I can not understand why people of good will can not agree on the obvious. KIPP is the answer for some students. But our toughest secondary schools need far more investments for our most damaged children if we hope to provide educational futures for them and their classmates. Why not give our neighborhood schools the same chances to help poor kids that we give to KIPP?

 

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