On KIPP, a charter school system

by Caleb S. Rossiter

(Originally published on January 9, 2014 -- updated on November 2018 to correct a calculation on the analagous SAT improvment under the KIPP effect.)

KIPP very bravely allowed Jay Mathews, the Washington Post’s education columnist, to dig deep into its history and operations in his laudatory 2009 Book: Work Hard, Be Nice.  Jay suggested I read it after he wrote an article about my resignation from DC’s high-poverty Friendship Tech Prep charter school, where I had been ordered to raise failing grades.

After reading his well-written tale, while I wouldn’t send my children into the control-oriented, almost belligerent atmosphere Jay describes I would say, as the only liberal on the school board in Ithaca, NY, who voted to establish a conservative-style public school way back in 1976, that if that’s what some parents want, give it to them!

I also read Jay’s articles on Jaime Escalante, the famed calculus teacher in East Los Angeles in the 1980’s, who has always been a hero of mine not only for his promotion of ganas (desire), but for standing up to his early principals and eventually finding one who would allow him to exclude students who would not do homework. I tried to implement Escalante’s system of “homework for entry” at a DC high-poverty public high school, HD Woodson, but didn’t have the strength of character he showed to make it stick with my principal. 

To be fair to the principal, that would have excluded more than 75 percent of many classes, and at least 50 percent of all of them, and forced DCPS to reconsider its college prep choice for their curriculum.  The kids learn early that there are no consequences for not doing homework or even class work in the DC high-poverty schools, since they are eventually passed without doing any.  I couldn’t even make a “pencil and notebook for entry” policy stick.  This is actually a huge problem: at HD Woodson about a third and at Tech Prep about a fifth of the kids come to class regularly without these tools of the trade, and so really aren’t there as students, but as socializers.

Congratulations to Jay for cracking the mystery of the AP cheating incident that makes the AP people look like such unreconstructed racists and classists in the film about Escalante, Stand and Deliver.  Jay’s research reminds me of one of my favorite lessons when I teach college statistics (which I am doing again at America U. this spring): we watch parts of the film Erin Brockovitch, but then review the studies of the health effects of Chromium VI in water – which turn out to be nil.  The students actually say, with seriousness, “but in the movie it says it causes cancer!”

Jay’s book, and its reported gains in achievement of roughly 1.1 standard deviations for math and .8 SDs for reading on national tests, as presented in the KIPP 2007 Report Card for students staying in the school (as opposed to the 37% of high-poverty kids that Mathematica found leave both KIPP and public schools during the four years of middle school), led to me analyze the latest KIPP study, Mathematica 2013.  To understand the significant size of the gains Jay cited, that would be like scoring 600, or the 84th percentile, on the college-entry SAT math test instead of 500, the 50th percentile.

(By the way, I recently received some data from the DC KIPP college prep high school, and it too showed that 40 percent dropped out of KIPP from 9th grade enrollment to graduation.  Sounds like a regular DCPS school – except I hope they graduated I they returned to their neighborhood school.)

The new study tries to correct for the obvious bias in the earlier study, which measured only those students who remain in the school.  By including the exiters and matching the KIPP sample with a similarly-achieving and similarly-poor baseline sample in the public schools, it finds far smaller gains (.36 SDs for math, .21 SDs for reading), about one-third and one-quarter the size of those of the 2007 claim – and this on “jurisdiction” tests in high-poverty cities, whose population will tend to be weaker than that for national tests.  To use the analogy of the SAT again, this would be like scoring 528, the 61st percentile, instead of 500, the 50th. While statistically significant, this modest difference implies that the educational significance of the rapid KIPP expansion is still very much in doubt.  And of course, there are no high school data, which would be of the most interest to me. 

Ironically, the new study still fails to address what it says is its biggest fear: not accounting for the higher motivation, family discipline, and other achievement-increasing factors in the students it recruits versus those who do not sign up.  (As Mathematica notes, it tried also to do a kids who won and lost the admission lottery to KIPP, but the sample was too small and too scattered to be of much use.  Hilariously, Mathematica follows up this explicit warning by going ahead and using the lottery results all over the place anyway!).  As a statistician, I can tell that this is not a purposeful failing: it is simply very hard to identify those motivating characteristics and to study highly-mobile poor kids over time: too much “imputing” scores from previous years as they disappear from the jurisdiction, repeat grades at different rates, are incarcerated, have children, etc. 

There is lots of news about charters lately, like NY Mayor De Blasio’s argument with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor about them paying for their space.  I remain hopeful for them, mostly since the “education reforms” in high-poverty public schools have left them such a mess that I support any reasonable effort to reach kids and families. 

Until my shocking experience at Friendship I had no exposure to a system of charter schools.  The only ones I knew were specialty schools that had no ambitions to become a system: Washington Latin and Thurgood Marshall.  My son went to Washington Latin, which has and continues to have its growing pains amidst the challenges of integrating upper class white and middle class black cultures, but has successfully graduated a number of classes that not only can go to college but have the skills needed to succeed there. 

I also had spent a wonderful day at Marshall, the high-poverty school set up by DC lawyers many years ago that is very explicit about washing out kids who can’t handle college prep, either academically or behaviorally.   Marshall has support services throughout college, because although its kids tend to be ready for college (unlike at the DCPS high-poverty neighborhood high schools, whose kids need a remedial year and often drop out, even at low-demand HBCUs), they encounter the sort of overwhelming logistical and social problems you see in Cedric Jennings’s experience at Brown in “Hope in the Unseen,” but don’t have the sort of sugar daddy who kept funding Cedric.

Ironically, it was the fact that my teaching trial at Tech Prep last June resembled what I had seen at Marshall (attentive, well-prepared, hard-working students, in what I only learned later was an elite honors class) that led me to take the job there (where I was given three very un-honors-like classes!).

In addition, my daughter graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in DC in ‘89, which was in content if not name a charter school before there were any such things – selective admission and almost immediate removal of kids who couldn’t handle the intense demands.  Today Ellington and the college prep Benjamin Banneker are high-poverty schools that seem to function the same way: high expectations and demands, lots of kids on the waiting list who would be happy to take your place if you won’t try to do the work, and a solid record of college admission and retention. 

So Jay’s book was a revelation for me – but clearly not as positive a one as for him.  There are some important structural issues in “school reform” that KIPP raises, although in fairness they are bigger than KIPP.  For example, the mania for misusing standardized tests as the primary way of assessing students, teachers, and schools, which I have been fighting since it first raised its obdurate head when I was on the school board in Ithaca, is certainly not unique to KIPP – but KIPP has promoted it.  Everywhere it seems to lead to the “gaming of the system,” as my old friend George Miller of the House Education Committee told me, when I went to see him about the lack of effort and achievement at DC’s public high-poverty high schools after my experiences at HD Woodson. 

The cheating scandal in Atlanta, the Houston non-miracle perpetrated by Rod Paige, the erasure scandal that Jay himself has been instrumental in keeping in view in DCPS – these to me are not the real scandal: the acceptance of standardized tests as the metric for teacher and school effectiveness is.

KIPP is part of the national turning away from vocational high schools and a boosting of watered-down college prep for students who lack the interest or skills to be successful.  From presidents down to principals there is a silly insistence that college is the holy grail in a country with probably a 75 percent true high school graduation rate, 50 percent drop-out rates in poor areas, and most poor students so far behind by 9th grade that success in college is extremely unlikely until later in their lives.  Many kids would benefit from having a real choice for a high school education, like the one we provide in upstate New York through the BOCES vocational half-day schools, that graduated them to be successful electricians, plumbers, cosmetologists, computer technicians, nurse’s aides, and carpenters.       

KIPP also is part of the bleeding of the public schools of money and talent by charters, which Diane Ravitch points out, en bloc, at the macro level of system change, have no better record than public schools when properly compared on the education of the same families and kids.  But I know that charters, good and bad, fraudulent and purposeful, are here to stay, and more are coming all the time. 

Reading Jay’s book right after Diane’s new book on the Privatization movement was unsettling.  She focuses on showing how income and education levels of parents are still the primary drivers of outcomes in schools -- and for me, she still misses the special challenges of Post-traumatic Slave Syndrome and Currently-traumatized Segregation Syndrome that are peculiar to the progeny of the peculiar institution.  Jay focuses on how better achievement can be coaxed out of the situation.  I’d like to see the two of them get together to make some joint proposals!

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