There’s not a whole lot that schools can do to improve the life trajectories of children growing up in poverty.
That seems to be the contention underlying much of the writing of education historian Diane Ravitch, who ranks among the most influential education pundits nationally. Indeed, she took to the pages of the New York Times last year to assure us that “[u]sually,” dramatic improvements in schools “are the result of statistical legerdemain.”
What muddies Ravitch’s argument, however, is a growing body of examples of schools that are demonstrably changing lives, preparing students for success in college in neighborhoods where college attendance and graduation are rare. While those examples are increasingly numerous, and stem from many different networks and types of schools, none has been more powerful than KIPP, whose 125 open-enrollment charter schools have become a national symbol of what’s possible in education in the nation’s toughest neighborhoods.
It’s significant, therefore, that Ravitch yesterday chose to place KIPP in the crosshairs of her blog. In a post titled “A Challenge to KIPP,” Ravitch argues that there is no basis for hope, and that any good news from KIPP is dubious. She’s wrong, and I’d like to walk through the reasons here. (She posits all this amid a “challenge” to KIPP to take over an entire school district, which we will also get to.)
(Disclaimers: I worked at KIPP for several years, and I now work at NewSchools Venture Fund, which has supported some of the KIPP schools and many other charter organizations. Views I express on my blog are my own.)
In her post, Ravitch makes the following claims: (I am pointedly not distinguishing here between claims she makes directly and claims she says she has heard, because there’s no real distinction between repeating an accusation and making one.)
- Positive research about KIPP should not be trusted because researchers are funded by the same funders who support KIPP, and therefore might be swayed in their independence
- “KIPP cherry picks its students and has high attrition.”
- KIPP schools spend substantially more than neighborhood schools do
On the researcher independence point, Ravitch quotes from a blog post by a researcher who cites “industry-supported research, such as that of tobacco, drug, auto, and coal companies” in asking whether education philanthropists bias the research they support. That’s tough stuff, and particularly surprising coming from Ravitch, whose own impartiality as a researcher and academic has been questioned. New York Times columnist David Brooks, in a piece on Ravitch, has written that she “picks and chooses what studies to cite, even beyond the normal standards of people who are trying to make a point.” More important, the claim of researcher bias is both odd and easily disproven. If philanthropies are barred from financing evaluation of their work, it’s hard to see how a serious examination of their impact will happen. And in this case, KIPP among others has been studied some of the most respected research houses in the country, including Mathematica Policy Research, which has hardly been shy about taking critical shots at the charters funded by the same philanthropies that support its work. (See here for the most recent example.) Indeed, theirs are precisely the studies that help to make Ravitch’s points about mixed performance in the wider charter world. To suggest that they’re tough on others but give KIPP a free ride is unfair on its face.
The second accusation, that KIPP’s performance is driven by selectivity in admissions, has been debunked enough times that it has no place in responsible discussion. In a 2010 report on KIPP middle schools, Mathematica found that entering KIPP fifth graders had test scores that were below the district average and comparable to neighboring district-run schools. Mathematica also found that vast majority of KIPP schools make significant academic gains in math and reading, and that these gains cannot be explained by student attrition. Moreover, Mathematica’s researchers concluded that KIPP’s attrition is not systematically different from that of neighboring school districts.
The final accusation, about funding differences, also has been rehearsed extensively. KIPP raises a lot of money, as Ravitch notes, but that doesn’t mean its schools spend substantially more per student than their neighborhood counterparts. Like most charter schools, KIPP starts from behind in most places, with substantially less funding than the district schools receive; a fair accounting debunks the notion that there are big differences.
But the core issue, as Ravitch accurately notes, is not these individual points, but where they lead us. Here’s the question Ravitch poses:
Behind the back and forth about the research is a larger question. What is KIPP really trying to prove? Do they want the world to believe that poverty, homelessness, disabilities, extreme family circumstances, squalid living conditions have no effect on children’s readiness to learn? Doesn’t KIPP imply that schools can achieve 100% proficiency if they act like KIPP?
If that is the lesson they want to teach, then I reiterate my challenge of two years ago: KIPP should find an impoverished district that is so desperate that it is willing to put all its students into KIPP’s care.
Fundamentally, it’s a silly question. Nobody at KIPP – indeed, nobody I know at all – believes poverty doesn’t matter. Whether a child comes to school hungry, traumatized, or with unmet health needs vastly alters the work schools and teachers must do. Great schools and excellent teachers can change life trajectories for the better, but no one pretends it’s easy, or that the realities of kids’ lives aren’t vitally important. (Indeed, all KIPP schools provide students with access to social workers and counseling services, and some make these services available to parents too.) KIPP is forthright and humble about the difficulty of the challenge; it made national news last year in announcing that the college completion rate for KIPP alumni was 33% – quadruple the average for low income neighborhoods, but far below KIPP’s aims.
And Ravitch knows – or should know – that KIPP has built excellence through new schools with strong culture, grade by grade. Turning around the existing schools of an entire district is a different challenge, which has little to do with the expertise that KIPP has developed over a decade and a half. The argument is a bit of a canard, and it’s puzzling that Ravitch would think it appropriate to challenge a nonprofit to change its mission, and then chastise it when it doesn’t.
Indeed, I’m not sure if KIPP is trying to “prove” something at all. I think KIPP is trying to build superb schools that give the kids who attend them terrific choices in life. KIPP is succeeding, in the vast majority of its schools, and a lot of people find that enormously inspiring. I’m not sure why Dr. Ravitch finds that so disturbing.
POSTSCRIPT: After some back and forth, a few final thoughts on this debate.