Responding to Diane Ravitch on KIPP

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.

48 comments

  1. jenn dewhirst · · Reply

    Thank you for responding in a much more mature and professional manner than I wanted to – as a long-time (12 years!) KIPP employee, I truly appreciate how well you countered so many of the false accusations that Ms. Ravitch continues to spread.

  2. Amanda Prothero · · Reply

    Great response. I have multiple perspectives. As a KIPP employee of four years I have never been anything but impressed with how KIPP addresses the systemic issue of the academic achievement gap. At the school where I work, we have a much higher than average special education population who have been sorely underserved in their academic career (pre KIPP). One of those students is my son. I am also a KIPP parent. My son entered the lottery in 2009 and became a fifth grade KIPPster who had previously been labelled as a failing student with ADHD (by teachers not a medical doctor). I am a parent who chooses not to medicate. Within two weeks, my son was a totally different student. Ultimately scoring in the 99th percentile on his fifth grade science end of grade test and being labelled POST HIGH SCHOOL in science on the Stanford 10. In his first year he grew so much that he has been nothing but an honor roll student from then on. Remember, my son was FAILING. He was consistently told that he was not capable and that he was too fidgety and too this and too that…

    KIPP has truly changed the trajectory of my son’s life. Granted, this is one student. However, I see this type of story everyday at KIPP, regardless of how people perceive parent involvement. The topic of parental involvement is very subjective and filled with judgment.

    I am bothered by the fact that Ravitch is so flippant in her comments and does not recognize everything KIPP has clearly achieved. We do whatever it takes to educate a KIPPster, regardless of their individual circumstances. As an educated woman, Ravitch looks nothing short of ridiculous in her comments and “challenges.”

  3. Thank you for your poignant response to Ms. Ravitch’s misguided and misleading post. I work at a KIPP school, and believe that I could not find a better place to devote my life (because, yes, working at KIPP requires passion, dedication, and a great deal of time). My colleagues and I will not rest until all students – KIPPsters or otherwise – are able to get a fantastic education. We will continue to build a better tomorrow, no matter what gossip the naysayers are spreading.

  4. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the privatization of public education through charter schools, and I quoted Diane Ravitch a lot.

    And then I became a teacher.

    And that’s when I realized that if I really wanted to truly make an impact on public education, I’d better stop talking and start doing. It’s pretty easy to talk politics and theories from the top. I came to work for KIPP because I felt like they were really DOING. The politics and theories are interesting, and I could talk about them all day. But I won’t do it at the expense of another generation.

    Let’s fix the system?
    Yes, let’s.
    In the meantime, who is going to teach these kids who are getting a terrible education?

    We won’t get kids out of poverty and into college through legislation or rants. We’ll get kids out of poverty and into college by teaching them the best way we know how, one child at a time.
    And that’s really hard work.

    But we have teachers in this country who want to do that work. We have parents in this country who want better school choices for their kids. And we have children living in poverty (and with all the circumstances of poverty) who have big dreams.

    I’m proud to work for an organization that delivers on big promises in the most challenging neighborhoods in America, one child at a time.

  5. Very well-written, Jonathan. Thanks for your thoughtful response here. I think you correctly identified that it’s not about trying to “prove” anything.

  6. Caroline · · Reply

    What point is Ravitch really trying to make? Does she want the world to believe that poverty, homelessness, disabilities, extreme family circumstances, squalid living conditions represent insurmountable inputs to a child’s educational career, and ultimately, their lives?

    It doesn’t sound like she’s challenging KIPP to change their mission. It sounds like she’s wondering why KIPP bothers at all.

  7. When I wake up at 4:30 each day to go to my job at a KIPP school, I don’t do it to prove anything. I do it to improve our students’ options for their future.

    My role is an operational one for our school. Being quite familiar with our admissions processes, I can attest that we are an open enrollment school, with our seats filled by a publicaly held lottery when there are more applicants than space available. I was point of contact during the Mathematica study. Not only were their questions probing, but they also sent an observer to our lottery for the 2011-12 school year. They statistically followed our attrition and the progress of our 5th and 6th grade students when parental consent was given.

    Each year, we at KIPP advance academic achievement and life skills hour-by-hour, day-by-day, student-by-student. Yes, it’s hard work. It’s work that that is generously rewarded every time you see the spark of discovery in a child’s eyes or a smile of accomplishment when a student sees improved test results. And, this work is how your change the future of education.

  8. Jonathan, thank you for your reasoned and well-written response to Dr. Ravitch’s challenge. I am so sick and tired of people attacking organizations that are saying “we will do whatever it takes to ensure that low-income kids succeed.” Yes, poverty exists; homelessness, children with disabilities, extreme family conditions, violence, and any other social ill you want to point out. However, as long as we have a system of compulsory education in this country, our schools are and should be responsible for ensuring that our kids succeed. All kids. No matter the family circumstance. No matter the zip code. Period. The only thing I get from Ravitch these days is that we can’t overcome these social ills so why bother educating poor kids. What’s Ravitch’s solution? We shut KIPP down? We force Teach for America out of business? Then what?

    As a former student who grew up in a low-income neighborhood, I have my own challenge for Dr. Ravitch: Instead of preaching from the pulpit, get down and dirty. Work as a teacher at a KIPP school. Speak to a KIPP student. Visit a KIPP parent. Advise a KIPP college student. Volunteer as a KIPP board member. DO SOMETHING!

    Until then, please stop speaking on behalf of poor kids because you don’t represent us. You are not acting in the best interest of the millions of students who are currently being failed by our education system. If you were, you would applaud the successes that organizations like KIPP are having, modest tough they may be in your eyes, rather than criticize them. You would fight to ensure that even more kids had access to the philosophy and tools that have made KIPP so successful. That’s what I do because the kids on whose behalf I am working are not just pawns in a political education reform game. They are real people whose lives I desperately want to change. They are my sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends. They are me.

    Full disclosure: I have never worked for KIPP.

  9. About three years ago, I’m not sure so perhaps it was four, my colleague Bob Probst and I were asked to present at the annual KIPP summer conference. We happily accepted in large part because we had read a lot about KIPP schools — some by proponents and some by those who stand against any charter school — and we wanted to talk with KIPP teachers first hand.

    So we said yes and then headed off to the conference. We probably speak to about 8,000 teachers across the US annually. I’d have to say that the KIPP teachers who came to our afternoon workshop and then stayed for several hours after the workshop to keep on working represented some of the most dedicated teachers we’ve seen. Did they see problems with KIPP? Certainly. Do Bob and I see problems to be addressed in any school system, public, private, or charter? You bet. But were these teachers among some of the most concerned, dedicated, and wanting-to-learn folks we’ve seen? You bet.

    And I think that’s important because at the end of the day, whether a kid is in the most expensive, exclusive private school or the neighborhood public school around the corner or the charter school that has just been chartered, the difference isn’t the building or the texts or the number of computers in the classroom. What makes a critical difference is the teacher. Dedicated, smart, hungry-to-know-more teachers are critically important and we saw hundreds of those teachers at the conference we attended.

  10. Very well said Jonathan. Challenges occur in childrens live but they should not predict their future. There must be hope, opportunity and action for change, not just words, theories and negativity.

  11. i went to kipp for 4 years from the day it was first built in Charlotte and i stuck with my promises to be a great student til the end, and like me so did about 80-85 other student in my founding class. even in the classes to come there are high expectations and high standards that most public school don’t even attempt to reach so for her to try and put kipp down is not right. i am a proud representative of the pride of 2015 kipp Charlotte and i will never regret attending kipp because of all the core values and responsibility i have learned to intake from my time being there it is a life long lesson the strategies and skills hat we get from kipp and even though its a middle school i talk to adults everyday about normal things and they might say “oh, never thought of it that way.” so its not just a learning opportunity for us as kids its one for the adults as well.
    has she seen every last thing kipp has to offer i know that in=m not speaking for just kipp Charlotte when i say we strive for 100% and we practice and practice until we get as close as can one day really soon kipp will have 100% and shes just motivation to get there her and the rest of the people who doubt us.

  12. Carol burris · · Reply

    I think that what Diane Ravitch asks is more than reasonable. If KIPPs philosophy, pedagogy, leadership, teacher training and discipline practices are what makes KIPP great, then turnaround a failing school. I am sincere. Perhaps we public school folk will learn. Perhaps our state governments will change laws so that we can implement your discipline practices at KIPP and not get called on the carpet for high suspension rates. I do not think you cherry pick students, but the students who choose to go are different in motivation and peer effects do come in to play. The comments above were helpful in revealing the KIPP mindset. I do hope that KIPP will take the challenge and turnaround a school and it’s teachers with their training. Kids might benefit and the world would have an open window into KIPP practices.

  13. Carol,
    I really appreciate this comment. It’s too frequent that we engage with those who already agree with us, and too rare that we engage thoughtfully across our disagreements. I do see this “challenge” differently, as I think KIPP has gotten good at one thing that’s very hard (starting an excellent new school), and that turnaround of a persistently low-performing school is a vital but different challenge that requires a distinct set of skills and practices. But I appreciate your openness and honesty and aim to reciprocate it. I’m glad your voice is being heard here and I hope it will be again.

    1. Carol burris · · Reply

      Jonathan,
      I think the tension comes from we in public schools being compared to charters with the implication being that if we only worked harder or cared more we too could…..
      Unless KIPP is willing to come in and walk a mile in our shoes, they should be standing up and making it clear that they are neither rivals nor playing on the same field so to speak. I have a wonderful school with teachers who give their all. We frankly are tired of being battered. Certainly I do not believe that poverty is the determining factor–what we do at SSHS is level the playing field for poor kids. That takes a lot but we do it We can do that because they are 16% of all students … About 170 kids..probably not different from the size of a charter. On any given day, I can have a20 year old, who speaks no English and has no HS credits enter. This happens once or twice a year. Or a student who was long term suspended for violence in another district enter and I must enroll him. That does not happen at KIPP. And my colleagues in the city face that ten fold. Charters, for the most part, are tournament models…you can drop out, but not drop into the cohort.
      I know that you disagree, but taking over a failing district would earn the respect of critics. If KIPP is not up to that, they should support and acknowledge the struggle that public schools face.

      I know you disagree, but taking over a failing school or district would go a

      1. I appreciate your points here, and agree that some of the competitive language has been counterproductive. Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

      2. Carol burris · ·

        Because your post does not allow me to respond to it, I will respond above it. You have answered the question. KIPP is more interested in expanding and clearly understands the favorable conditions it needs. That is far more important than turning around a school, facing what we in public schools face every day. What will you do when the economy improves and you cannot burn through young idealistic (and jobless) teachers.

  14. Ken Mortland · · Reply

    To begin with, Mr. Schorr, you misrepresent what Ravitch and others are saying. Poverty does, indeed, but the problem Ravitch and others are trying to point out is the difficulty in scaling up what individual programs are doing.

    That concern could be best addressed by having KIPP take on an entire school district and all its students. Should the world what you can do. Unless, of course there’s something about what KIPP does that wouldn’t work on a whole district. Here’s your chance. Refuse to take it and you leave us no choice but to infer that you are afraid. So, what’s it going to be?

    1. Ken,
      I respectfully disagree. KIPP has 125 schools, which is larger than all but a couple of dozen districts nationally, so I don’t think the issue at hand is replication.

      1. Ken Mortland · ·

        Your comment misrepresents the issue and, for someone who claims to have your credentials, I can’t see how that would be accidental. KIPP’s 125 schools are, by and large, isolated institutions serving only a small portion of the local school population. Taking over a complete school district would require KIPP to provide services for every student living within the jurisdiction of that district. And that appears to be the test you are seeking to avoid.

        So, we’re back to the initial challenge. Refuse to take up this challenge and you leave us no choice but to infer that you are afraid. So, what’s it going to be?

  15. carolinesf · · Reply

    I did the first known research on KIPP attrition in 2007 as an unpaid amateur blogger. I looked at attrition in all the then-nine California KIPP schools based on California Department of Education data. KIPP’s Oakland school had even more astronomical attrition than the other KIPP schools, and when broken down by demographics, the Oakland attrition was even more startling. By the beginning of 8th grade (which was the publicly available figure), almost every African-American boy who has been there in grades 5 or 6 had left the school.

    The Oakland Tribune should have been doing this research, but hmm … its education reporter left to take a job with KIPP. Funny how that happens.

    KIPP’s usual response to the attrition issue is that comparable public schools have comparable attrition. But that’s a lie. I checked a number of comparable Oakland middle schools, and they have no pattern of attrition at all. They have turnover, as low-income families tend to have unstable housing and move a lot, but students cycle in to replace those who cycle out. KIPP, on the other hand, doesn’t replace the students who leave. A study by SRI International that was released the following year (coincidentally) confirmed my findings, showing that the Bay Area KIPP schools “lost” 60% of their students and didn’t replace them. The SRI study added the information that the students who leave are consistently the less successful ones.

    After a happy KIPP parent posted on our local San Francisco Schools listserve that his daughter had “tested into” KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy, I also started the application process at that school for my then-7th-grader, to confirm whether it required a test, which it did.

    KIPP says the test is used to determine the applicant’s academic grade level, not to determine who gets in. But even if that’s true, the test requirement clearly selects for students who are compliant enough to sit for a test (at grades 5 and up, kids are quite capable of refusing); for families and students who aren’t traumatized by tests and feel capable enough to take one; and for families who are motivated enough to go through that multi-step application process. And, of course, the happy KIPP parent clearly felt that his child was admitted based on her test results.

    By the way, when an organization pays a research firm to study it, there is a negotiation process regarding how the results will be reported. (When RAND did a much-ballyhooed study of Edison Schools in the early 2000s, the results were released more than two years behind schedule for that reason.) The client has a fair amount of leverage as the research firm struggles to maintain its integrity. We have no way of knowing what those negotiations between KIPP and Mathematica looked like, but I would bet they got interesting.

    1. Caroline,

      As much as I often disagree with what you write, accuracy and careful research have been a hallmark of your work. That’s why I’m surprised by some of what you write here, particularly as it obliquely pertains to me. As far as I know, the only Oakland Tribune reporter who ever went to work for KIPP was me, so I’ll assume that’s whom you’re referring to. I left the Tribune in 1999 to write a book, and joined KIPP in 2002, around the time that the school you’re referring to opened. So presumably, the Tribune’s coverage couldn’t have been biased by the failure of a reporter to write critically about a school that didn’t exist, as part of a national replication that hadn’t started yet. Both I, and I suspect the Tribune as well, would be grateful if you’d return to the caution with the facts that is your norm.

      1. carolinesf · ·

        Yes, I read your book, which was very interesting — sort of walking a line between candidly describing two new charter schools that were ****ed up in every possible way yet making them sound promising and viable. (I believe both the schools have FINALLY closed down, years later. The charter sector has so aggressively fought back over the years against efforts to close even disastrous charters that it’s been nearly impossible for districts to hold them accountable.) … The timing exonerates you from failing to look at the obvious story about KIPP Bridge, so I retract accusing you directly. There’s a big picture here — much of the press has given the charter/reform sector fawning or at least kind and gentle coverage, even as education reporters are moving from the collapsing news business into jobs in the charter sector. It taints the whole field; it’s very hard for the public to learn the truth. If that’s not the case, then why was I (an unpaid amateur blogger) the one to research those KIPP attrition figures, even as KIPP was getting vast amounts of friendly and unquestioning press coverage?

    2. I should have added: KIPP publicly reports its attrition data by school, which can be found here: http://kipp.org/reportcard. I’d encourage anyone reading this to look through current rates and come to their own conclusions.

      1. carolinesf · ·

        I wouldn’t believe anything KIPP posts, period. The operation has a history of nonstop lies. I used California Department of Education data, which was more than borne out by SRI International — with access to more detailed data than I had access to, SRI showed higher attrition.

      2. carolinesf · ·

        Below are figures on attrition from the existing San Francisco KIPP middle schools. The number indicates students who left and were not replaced. The previously mentioned 2008 study of the (then-existing) Bay Area KIPP schools by SRI International showed a 60% attrition rate (students who left and were not replaced), and added the information that the students who left were overwhelmingly the lower achievers.

        I’m also including figures from two randomly chosen SFUSD middle schools for comparison KIPP’s dishonest defense is that the same attrition occurs at comparable non-charter middle schools, which is does not. (Again, I’m doing this research as a volunteer blogger, while the education press takes KIPP’s claims on faith.)

        These figures, from the California Department of Education website, are from the 10-day count (10 days into the school year), so they show how many students remained in the BEGINNING of 8th grade, not how many completed 8th grade. The SRI study mentioned above used information on how many students competed 8th grade, which is not publicly available.

        KIPP Bayview:

        8th grade, 2011-12 school year:
        The cohort dropped from 86 6th-graders in 2009-10 to 58 8th-graders in 2011-12, a loss of 32.56% of the students.

        8th grade, 2010-11 school year:
        The cohort dropped from 84 6th-graders in 2008-09 to 46 8th-graders in 2010-11, a loss of 45.24% of the students.

        KIPP San Francisco Bay:

        8th grade, 2011-12 school year:
        The cohort dropped from 94 6th-graders in 2009-10 to 74 8th-graders in 2011-12, a loss of 21.28% of the students.

        8th grade, 2010-11 school year:
        The cohort dropped from 87 6th-graders in 2008-09 to 61 8th-graders in 2010-11, a loss of 29.89% of the students.

        Comparisons:

        James Denman Middle School:

        8th grade, 2011-12 school year:
        The cohort increased from 175 6th-graders in 2009-10 to 197 8th-graders in 2011-12.

        8th grade, 2010-11 school year:
        The cohort increased from 176 6th-graders in 2008-09 to 197 8th-graders in 2010-11.

        Martin Luther King Middle School:

        8th grade, 2011-12 school year:
        The cohort dropped from 188 6th-graders in 2009-10 to 174 8th-graders in 2011-12, a loss of 7.45% of the students.

        8th grade, 2010-11 school year:
        The cohort increased from 156 6th-graders in 2008-09 to 173 8th-graders in 2010-11.

        The KIPP schools are grades 5-8, but the 6th grades experience an
        enrollment surge because the feeder schools are K-5, so I used grade 6 as the
        base.

        Also, here’s a link leading to the SRI study, and the language from page ix of the study regarding attrition:

        http://www.sri.com/news/releases/091608.html

        The rest of the language below, to the end of the post, except for a parenthetical comment from me, is quoted directly from the SRI study.

        Student attrition rates are high, and those who leave Bay Area KIPP schools
        start out lower performing and benefit less from their time at the schools than
        those who stay.

        Student enrollment in the Bay Area KIPP schools declines after the sixth grade;
        of the students who entered fifth grade at the four Bay Area KIPP schools
        operating in 2003-04, 60 percent left before the end
        of eighth grade. At least two of KIPP’s host districts also experienced
        substantial student attrition over the same period — “22 percent and 50 percent,
        respectively. [Note from Caroline: However, this doesn’t apply to SFUSD or Oakland schools
        from grades 6-8, and did not apply in the years covered by the SRI study.] On
        average, those who leave KIPP before completing eighth grade have lower test
        scores on entering KIPP and demonstrate smaller fifth-grade effects than those
        who stay.

        We could not estimate longitudinal impacts because of student attrition and
        in-grade retention. Because of both the number of students who left and the fact
        that those who left are systematically different from those who stayed,
        longitudinal comparisons would be biased.

      3. Do you have data regarding the actual numbers in the cohorts from year to year (not just current year)? The research you cite only shows yearly attrition percentages, do you have information on whether those kids get replaced? Also, are there data on whether the students who leave are generally high-scoring/low-scoring? Are there percentages for how many students who enter the first year in a school also graduate that same school? For example, for the students who enter a KIPP middle school in the 5th grade what percentage of those kids graduate 8th grade? Also, why are there such wide fluctuations between KIPP schools in terms of annual attrition rates–some schools had up to 40% attrition rates, some had 3%. Aren’t all the schools run in a similar manner? Also, I didn’t see any data about how many self-contained special education classrooms the schools had, would it be possible to get those figures? Lastly, the teacher attrition rates seemed to be around 75% and as low as 42% in some schools. Are there data about the experience level of the teachers and certification status?

      4. carolinesf · ·

        The KIPP report card attrition data tells us nothing. We can’t just multiply the annual attrition. We need the information in the way I provided it for KIPP Bayview and KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy — how many were in the cohort at its highest point; how many were in the cohort at the highest grade the school offers.

        I’m rephrasing again. It’s not that this data is false; it’s that it’s presented in a slippery, incomplete fashion that doesn’t provide the information it purports to provide.

      5. Carolinesf, I agree, which is what frustrates me so much about all these “debates”. There is no room for conversation when people are purposefully spinning data. The sad thing is that for the vast majority of people outside education who do not know to ask the relevant questions, this type of propaganda is very appealing. But for me, a person who works directly with schools of all types-charters, neighborhood, magnets, private, suburban, alternative-I see in very real, human reality the disparities between the schools. Charters make things worse for the system as a whole, diverting much-needed funding away from the neediest kids. And I will keep calling out KIPP and all the corporate education reformers who misrepresent and twist data to support their agenda. My motives may not be completely selfless, but when I comment or speak or protest…I see real, actual children with names and stories whom I fight for. I will keep fighting for my kids being left behind.

      6. carolinesf · ·

        I don’t see how there could be self-interest in your motives, @KatieO. Any of us critics could reap financial rewards by switching to the so-called “reform” side.

  16. I am sick of hearing the same old KIPP talking points. The issue about KIPP, as well as other “no excuses” charter schools, is that regardless of incoming scores, the kids with the toughest behaviors and often lowest scores are getting pushed out. And peer effects matter. As the “tough kids”, even a handful of them, are pushed out through inappropriate expectations and ridiculous zero tolerance codes of conduct, the class culture changes as the higher-performing students are left behind. And as for attrition rates, it matters whether or not or with whom the outgoing students are replaced. (And please don’t get me started on those disgusting “zero tolerance” policies. I do not understand how it is OK for any school to treat children like inmates in prison. I can’t even imagine the KIPP behavior system being implemented in an affluent school for the children of the elite. I do not understand how it is acceptable for low-income children of color. But that’s another long conversation.)

    I work as a teacher at a psychiatric hospital in Chicago and before that I worked in a Chicago Public School. KIPP hides behind statistics about the kids which do not describe the realities of the school. For example, it is disingenuous to simply quote percentage numbers of students with special needs but rather you need to acknowledge the types of disabilities. My experience with students from the charters (I’ve worked with many) is that in the two years I’ve taught at the hospital, not one-NOT ONE-of the current charter school students had a disruptive behavior problem or a serious cognitive disability. The charter kids were the ones with mild learning difficulties or suffered from inward-focused anxiety or depression. They were the kids who needed just a little push to improve academically. On the other hand, I met plenty of kids with behavioral disabilities who were kicked out of the charters. And the toughest kids of all—such as the kids in foster care with truly debilitating disabilities and trauma—they were always at the neighborhood school. Only a small number made it to the limited spaces at the therapeutic day schools. Too many neighborhood schools are overwhelmed with the toughest kids with insufficient resources to help them.

    The schools which do take in the toughest kids, those who suffer from the worst effects of poverty, are concentrated in the schools with the least resources. I worked in one of those schools and the lack of staff, supplies, access to books or even a library was criminal. And we had really tough kids thrown into classes of 32-37 kids with no books, science labs, and only enough money for one aide for the entire K-8 school. The neighborhood high schools in Chicago have only one counselor for up to 1,200 children. There are a total of 200 social workers for the entire 400,000 Chicago public school students (see more statistics here: http://www.ctunet.com/blog/text/SCSD_Report-02-16-2012-1.pdf) Meanwhile, in the last budget, neighborhood school budgets were cut even further while charters all received more funding than ever before. Compared to neighborhood schools, KIPP schools have so much more money available especially if you include real estate deals, tax exemptions, philanthropic giving, the Gates Compact, plus whatever else you raise. (See more here: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/no-excuses-really-another-look-at-our-nepc-charter-spending-figures/ ) And still you take fewer of the toughest kids. Stop lying about having more funding, just be up front and honest. Why is that so hard??

    KIPP schools further the very un-American idea that only the deserving should get quality education. The answer cannot be to just give better-funded schools to the kids who “want to learn” because all kids want to learn. But too many of our children living in poverty are suffering from major mental health and subsequent learning and behavioral difficulties as a result of the conditions into which they were born. This is what we mean when we say poverty matters. (See Anthony Cody’s excellent overview: http://www.impatientoptimists.org/Posts/2012/08/Can-Schools-Defeat-Poverty-by-Ignoring-It ) And then, to add insult to injury, kids are being punished for having the mental health issues that come from growing up in unabated poverty (what we now call the school-to-prison-pipeline). KIPP and other “no excuses” charters place the full burden of not living up to the codes of conduct on the child and the family. KIPP is not the answer. It is part of the problem. It diverts money away from REAL equitable solutions we should be investing in. We need inclusive integrated fully-funded schools where every child is welcome while simultaneously seriously combating poverty to prevent the mental health and health conditions holding too many kids back.

    The call from Diane Ravitch to take over a district or even one struggling school is to call KIPP on its bluff. KIPP is not impressive. And there is nothing miraculous about teaching an easier group of kids. Nothing. And the real damage of KIPP is that policy makers listen to your miracle rhetoric and then punish the struggling, underfunded, over-burdened neighborhood schools. Stop it. Your schools, and the charter movement as a whole, are seriously hurting my students with significant behavioral and mental health needs. Tell the truth about the kids you work with and then let’s have a real conversation minus your marketing talking points.

    1. Liz Wisniewski · · Reply

      Thank you KatieO!

  17. Ben Speicher · · Reply

    Awesome post Jonathon. I actually wrote a piece earlier this week wrestling with some of these same anti-charter attacks and how they play out in my school and the larger Philadelphia education community. http://buildingagreatschool.blogspot.com/2012/08/a-few-sometimes-true-arguments-and-some.html

  18. How did KIPP do with Cole Middle School in Colorado?

  19. The Ravitch challenge is fair and your response to it is a cop-out. Until KIPP educates all comers — no lotteries and no boot-outs — they will continue to help create our new system of separate-but-equal schools.

  20. Linda Johnson · · Reply

    Jonathan Schorr, you have proven Prof. Ravitch right by evading her point of view. She never said that schools can’t help poor kids learn (!!!!!), nor did she say that KIPP schools are not doing a good job. As I understand it, she is saying that KIPP, like many private, parochial magnet and charter schools, are successful because they have found a way to admit and/or retain a select student population. There is nothing inherently bad about this, but most schools in this category do not lie about it. They don’t imply “We get better results than the local traditional school because we have better methods and teachers.”

    If you truly believe that you ARE doing something than the traditional school, please take up the challenge and take over an entire “failing” school or district. Bring in your own teachers and your own methods and show the rest of us how it’s done.

    What is your mission? Is it to bring a high quality education to the children of impoverished parents who are desperate for something better? If so, say so. But please be honest enough to admit that children who have parents who care that much about their education are NOT among the most disadvantaged. In fact, many would say those children are fortunate.

  21. Linda Johnson · · Reply

    Correction: If you truly believe that you are doing something BETTER than the traditional school….

  22. John Sullivan · · Reply

    KIPP is certainly free to dodge Ravitch’s challenge under the rubric that “Her challenge is not what we do. It’s not our mission.” In taking this position, however, KIPP acknowledges the fact that it is not in the business of public education. Rather, it’s an organization that takes public tax dollars from public schools in order to run a private business.

    Now whether or not we should engage in such an enterprise is a matter for public policy debate, but such debate should exist within the framework of a properly informed citizenry. Folks like Schorr should be the FIRST to stand up and dispute data comparisons between charter schools and their public counterparts. They should point out the very real and quite obvious errors with such comparisons.

    Sadly, KIPP – among others – has done the reverse (in a cynical but highly profitable way). Sadly, KIPP – among others – perpetually seeks to demonstrate the excellence of their program by contrasting their results with those of public schools. They do so while glossing over the differences that make such comparisons empty. This is why Schorr does not contest Carolinef’s attrition data from the California DOE and SRI International, two agencies that have no reason to “cook” data either for or against KIPP. Rather, he attempts to steer the conversation to his employment record, then offers one sentence saying “Here is what WE claim our attrition numbers are.” (It goes without mentioning that KIPP has great incentive to present data in a way that’s favorable to its business.)

    The attempt to misinform is also why Schorr links to a purported “fair accounting” of the differences between public and charter per pupil expenditures in which there is no actual “accounting” at all. Instead we are given, by KIPP’s Director of Communications, a laundry list of “inaccuracies and inconsistencies” which should lead us to the conclusion that “the spending gap between KIPP and New York City Schools is virtually eliminated.” Notable by its absence in this “debunking” is an actual data accounting of KIPP’s expenditures. Just as notable in this conclusion is that KIPP tacitly acknowledges its higher per pupil costs, but KIPP will not tell us what it’s own data reveal on the differences in expenditures. We are simply told any differences are “virtually eliminated.”
    This is, of course, the difference between a statistical by NECP and mere press release by KIPP, but it highlights precisely the disingenuous nature of the claims of many reformers. (It’s rather like being sure to point out that KIPP is “non-profit” in one’s penultimate paragraph, but not publishing the fact that the CEO of this “non-profit” earns in excess of $300,000 in yearly compensation. Clearly Richard Barth profits quite nicely from this “non-profit.”)

    The irony in all this is that Steve Mancini (KIPP’s Director of Communications) complains in the above “fair accounting” that comparisons between public and KIPP expenditures aren’t “apples to apples,” yet that kind of comparison is precisely what most reformers refuse to engage in when the subject is academic performance.

    1. carolinesf · · Reply

      @John Sullivan, I have one small correction to your insightful comment.

      “… Schorr does not contest Carolinef’s attrition data from the California DOE and SRI International, two agencies that have no reason to “cook” data either for or against KIPP.” In reality, SRI International DID have incentive to “cook” data IN KIPP’S FAVOR, because KIPP paid for the research. Research organizations like SRI International must be under incredible pressure in cases like this, and I know from researchers who work in such organizations that there’s a negotiation process regarding how to present the findings. The results were visible in the case of the SRI report, because the report, the summary and the press outreach all led with the finding that the KIPP schools studied have high test scores (which is evident to the naked eye and not new news), and buried the finding about the attrition way, way down in the report. In the long run, that eye-popping information is what’s remembered about the report.

      @John Sullivan says: “Rather, [Schorr] attempts to steer the conversation to his employment record, then offers one sentence saying “Here is what WE claim our attrition numbers are.” (It goes without mentioning that KIPP has great incentive to present data in a way that’s favorable to its business.)]” In Schorr’s defense, I did give misinformation about his employment record, and I retract that specific misinformation and apologize for it. However, the fact that he then steered us to data presented in a way that is deliberately intended to mislead confirms my greater point about journalists who make a career move from trying to inform the public to deliberately intending to MISinform the public. That makes my head hurt.

      To be clear in case anyone isn’t following this: The schoolwide one-year attrition number given in the KIPP “report card” tells us nothing, while being presented in a way intended to mislead us into believing otherwise. The way to determine the KIPP attrition is the way I did it, which requires researching several years of enrollment broken down by grade. That way you track the cohort that was in grade 6 in 2010, grade 7 in 2011 and grade 8 in 2012 to see how the total number in that grade cohort changed. The way KIPP presents it is deliberate intent to misinform.

      1. Ken Mortland · ·

        Back in the days of the Sandia Laboratory’s research on education for the Elder Bush’s administration, when the initial draft of the Sandia Report contradicted the Bush administration’s agenda, it was sent back to be moderated or “refereed”. When it became clear that the data could not be sufficiently massaged to satisfy the administration, the report was buried. But not before it was published in an education journal.

        It seems that wasn’t an isolated case. When research contradicts the agenda of those who paid for the research, simply rewrite the focus of the report to support the agenda and bury the offending data in the back pages. Law firms do this, regarding discovery, by burying the offensive information under piles of “disclosures”. Advertisers do this by proclaiming the positive aspects of a product, while carefully ignoring the negative aspects.

        Such self serving ethics is unhealthy for any institution or society that lets it dominate policy making & research reporting, just as effectively as the blatant lying in reporting research that tobacco is safe, when the research is funded by the “Tobacco Institute” through surrogates.

        Ken Mortland Retired Teacher

        Sent from my iPad

      2. John Sullivan · ·

        @caroline —- Thanks for clarifying that SRI had every reason to skew data reportage in KIPP’s favor. I imagine that makes its findings even more squirm-worthy to KIPP, and it certainly clarifies Mr. Schorr’s desire to move the conversation from KIPP to his employment record.

  23. Gerald Coles · · Reply

    Jonathan Schorr objects to the suggestion that research on KIPP that is funded by the same corporations that help fund KIPP might be as biased as other corporation-funded research, such as by tobacco, drug, coal and companies, on the value and safety of the very products these corporations produced.

    Consider these statements:
    “KIPP is a *bold effort* [my emphasis] to “transform and improve the educational opportunities available to low-income families.”

    “KIPP’S ‘Five Pillars’ *distinguish its approach* [my emphasis]: high expectations for all students to reach high academic achievement, regardless of students’ backgrounds.”

    “The promise seen in KIPP schools and other charter networks that use similar approaches is a prominent reason that the Obama administration is making the *expansion of high-quality charter schools a central component of its nationwide educational improvement agenda.* [my emphasis].”

    No one would be surprised to read these cheerleading statements on the KIPP website. Who would expect KIPP to do anything less than rah, rah, sis-boom-ba on its behalf? But these quotes are not from the KIPP website, rather, they come from the introduction of the very report of the “independent” research that supposedly, like all sound scientific investigations, is a disinterested, neutral investigation.

    Do cheerleading statements like these raise any skepticism for Mr. Schorr? Given what Mr. Schorr surely must know about the history of industry-funded research, as well as about truly independent research at odds with results of the Mathematica study, how can he insist that any suggestion of “bias is both odd and easily disproven”?

    Had Mr. Schorr been an adult in the 1950s, would he have thought wholly credible the tobacco companies’ creation of the Tobacco Industry Research Council, staffed with credentialed researchers? (After all, these companies were merely desirous of studying the outcomes of their products?) Would he, in the 1960s, have thought credible this letter to an elementary school teacher from RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company assuring the teacher that: “medical science [funded by the tobacco industries] has been unable to establish that smoking has a direct causal link with any human disease”?

    Mr. Schorr issues “disclaimers,” noting that he “worked at KIPP for several years” and now works at a Fund that has supported KIPP schools. What do such disclaimers mean? Certainly they don’t necessarily mean independent thinking. Yes, there’s no reason to question that the ideas he expresses on his blog are his own, as he says, but that’s not the same as saying that there’s any light between his ideas and those of his past and present employers.

    With respect to the “accusation that KIPP’s performance is driven by selectivity in admissions,” far from what Mr. Schorr claims, it certainly does have a “place in responsible discussion.” While it is true that KIPP does not “select” its students, it’s clear that KIPP’s “open enrollment” policy does not produce an equal playing field with the public schools: KIPP schools do have a “lower concentration of special education and limited English proficiency students than the public schools from which they draw.” How did that happen? Surely Mr. Schorr must know of this imbalance and he must also recognize that KIPP’s enrollment process is itself fostering a selective admission process, i.e., a self-selection (inherent cherry-picking self-selection) that tilts away from students with the most educational challenges . As such, why would a discussion of this process be “irresponsible” and why is KIPP itself not critical of its “open enrollment” process?

    Regarding the issue of KIPP’s greater per-pupil spending, this finding has been duplicated, including in a recent independent study of KIPP in Texas, conducted by Julian Heilig. That study found per student spending for KIPP Austin to be $17,286 vs. $10,667 for the Austin public schools; and $13,488 for KIPP Houston vs $10,127 for the Houston pubic schools. (Heiig notes that the financial data are readily available online each year from the State of Texas.)

    As for KIPP’s dropout rate for African-American students, the Heilig study concludes: “despite the claims that 88-90% of the children attending KIPP charters go on to college, their attrition rate for Black secondary students surpasses that of their peer urban districts.” Why does Mr. Schorr seem not to pay attention to findings like these?

    Mr. Schorr accused Diane Ravitch of positing a “silly” question” when she asks (actually she asks three questions):
    “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?”

    Mr. Schorr describes these queries as “silly” because, he says, “Nobody at KIPP – indeed, nobody I know at all – believes poverty doesn’t matter.” However, looking closely at his response explaining how “poverty” does “matter,” we see that in fact, in his mind poverty does not matter, not in the way Ravitch means it (the obvious way, to anyone who gives her comments a fair reading!). For Schorr (and, presumably, KIPP management), poverty matters because it creates the challenging personal qualities in KIPP students. The students are hungry, traumatized, etc., all of which combine to make up “the realities of [poor] kids’ lives” that KIPP tries to address in a variety of instructional and ancillary service ways. Give KIPP credit, Schorr urges, for responding in its “forthright and humble” ways to the “the difficulty of the challenge” of the personal qualities of poor children.

    Let’s give Schorr credit for having a good heart, that is, I assume (& I’m saying this without cynicism) that he is genuinely concerned about the education and futures of poor kids. However, in his concern, he echoes the “no excuses” mantra, that is, the insistence that poverty is no excuse for poor students’ educational failure. Poor students can go to school with the challenging personal qualities poverty creates, but in the right schools – “no excuses” schools — they will succeed. Poverty can exist and continue to exist because “no excuses” schools like KIPP address and enable students to overcome poverty’s effects. KIPP requires no national economic and social changes, no redistribution of wealth, etc.

    Ravitch’s point, which was obvious in the commentary to which Schorr replied, is that it is poverty itself that national policy must address directly. When Ravitch asks, “What is KIPP trying to prove?,” she is asking, is KIPP trying to prove that in responding to the consequences of poverty there is not the foremost educational need to pursue the elimination (or at least a dramatic reduction) of the conditions of poverty? Why does Mr. Schorr wholly contort and dismiss Ravitch’s point?

    Schorr is perplexed by Ravitch’s obdurate criticism of KIPP and appeals to her, explaining that KIPP is just “trying to build superb schools that give the kids who attend them terrific choices in life.” Why Schorr wonders aloud, does “Dr. Ravitch finds that so disturbing?” I wonder why is Mr. Schorr not paying more attention to the independent research on KIPP and other charters, and why did he completely misinterpret Ravitch’s very critical points about poverty?

  24. educator · · Reply

    What does KIPP do when a student swears at a teacher? What does KIPP do when a student threatens to hit, kick, or kill a teacher? Is the threatened teacher reprimanded or is the student reprimanded? Seriously, if a teacher is teaching his or her class, and a student starts personally attacking that teacher calling the teacher all sorts of names, does the administration come to help the teacher when called? If the administration doesn’t show up and the student then physically threatens the teacher and they still don’t show up, what happens when they arrive after the 3rd phone call? Is the teacher reprimanded in front of the class and the threatening student?
    What are KIPP’s rules for this type of behavior?

    I’m very curious how this is handled because I know KIPP has great achievements.

  25. Karl Wheatley · · Reply

    I think people coming from the corporate world into education simply don’t understand the task of educating the masses. In business, if you open a restaurant that people like and if you make a profit, you’re a success–even if you succeeded in part by luring away a great chef from another restaurant, and that loss made that other restaurant get worse. In public education, the challenge is finding policies and practices that help all boats rise. Robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn’t cut it as a solution when the goal is to educate the masses well.

    KIPP teachers may very well do some very good things with the students KIPP chooses to serve. However, opening one well-received restaurant isn’t the same as making all restaurants better, and opening schools that succeed in large part by skimming and spending more per pupil makes this an unscalable policy approach. Meanwhile, skimming the more able and motivated from the sending districts may directly make education in those districts worse.

    I haven’t seen any evidence yet that KIPP offers systemic and scalable solutions. We’ve been able to create successful boutique schools forever–long before KIPP came along.

    1. carolinesf · · Reply

      Great comments — @Karl Wheatley, your succinct summary is brilliant.

  26. Matt Di Carlo · · Reply

    Jonathan,

    I agree that any argument relying on the affiliation or funding of those making is unfair and counterproductive.

    As for the spending issue, you’re of course entitled to your opinion, and I’m not going to get into (painfully boring) specifics of finance comparisons. But I would point out that the original NEPC analysis that you mention was not actually about KIPP per se, but rather major CMOs in three states (full disclosure – my organization was involved in the report). And it found that spending among these CMOs varies widely vis-à-vis comparable regular public schools – sometimes higher, sometimes lower, sometimes similar. The KIPP results were among the only consistent findings of the paper.

    Your summary of the situation – that KIPP’s “fair accounting” simply “debunks” the caveat-laden, thoroughly-documented NEPC analysis – strikes me as a bit dismissive, especially when contrasted with your usual approach to empirical questions. I would encourage your readers to weigh its substance against the points made in KIPP’s press release, and to also check out Bruce Baker\’s response to KIPP\’s response:

    Original report: http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/spending-major-charter

    Baker response: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/no-excuses-really-another-look-at-our-nepc-charter-spending-figures/

    (Side note: In the very first sentence of KIPP’s response, there is a less-than-subtle attempt to cast doubt on the NEPC report by appealing to its funding sources.)

    Finally, some thoughts about KIPP and attrition here: http://shankerblog.org/?p=6602

    Thanks,
    Matt Di Carlo

  27. Professor James Horn takes this Schorr piece apart with aplomb ease:

    http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2012/08/defending-indefensible-kipp.html

    I don’t know what’s worse. Schorr defending the racist, classist KIPP, or his vicious attacks on Professor Ravitch. Either way, he once more proves himself a shill for power and privilege.

    1. My error, it was Prof. Thomas, not Prof. Horn, that wrote the excellent Schools Matter rebuttal to Schorr.

  28. For a look at the difference in student characteristics of students entering KIPP, see my blog at: http://fullerlook.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/tx_ms_charter_study/ Clearly, students entering KIPP are different than students from comparison schools not entering KIPP. What was most striking was the greater than .25 standard deviation difference in math and .22 s.d. in reading between poor kids entering KIPP and poor kids from comparison schools not entering KIPP. Thus, KIPP kids start out way ahead.Of course, KIPP enrolls fewer special needs and ELL kids. I found little difference i attrition, but initial analyses indicate that students entering after the initial grade level in KIPP are even higher performing than the high-performing ones initially entering KIPP. Let’s just admit that KIPP does very well serving poor kids that are relatively advantaged and motivated. Unfortunately, that is not scalable nor a cure for urban education.

    KIPP reports to the state that some schools serve grades 6 thru 8, but a few KIPP insiders state this is incorrect. But I wnet with state data on the incoming 6th graders. Regardless,

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