The most compelling argument for charter schools is that they serve as places where educational innovations can be tested. After a small charter school, or even a charter network, proves that it is able to be successful on a small scale, they could share what they’ve learned with the regular public schools so everyone can benefit from their research.
The KIPP schools are examples of charter schools that have demonstrated success in getting standardized test results and also in getting students into college. Politicians love KIPP. In one presidential debate, I think between Gore and Bush, each of them talked about KIPP in response to a question about education.
So the promise of charters is that they will reveal their inner workings so that regular public schools can benefit from the successful research the charters have conducted on their own students.
Since they do a lot of unique things at KIPP, it’s not easy to isolate which thing had the most impact on student achievement. Here are some things that we know they do:
1) Longer school days.
2) Longer school year.
3) School on Saturday.
4) Selective enrollment though a lottery.
KIPP critics point to number 4 while KIPP defenders reference research reports that say that the students who enter the lottery but do not get into KIPP have less success than the students who enter the lottery and do get in. KIPP critics point to other research that refutes it. KIPP defenders point to the first three things as more important in getting the success they do.
But there is a fifth thing they do differently. I’ve reported on this before, and a report gets published here and there about it. It’s the issue of attrition. In my post ‘KIPPs atrocious attrition,‘ I’ve already written extensively about this and about the implications of it. We know that many kids who enter KIPP do not make it though to the end. What we don’t have a good sense of is how this attrition occurs. Do kids opt out because the work is too demanding? Does KIPP somehow counsel students out?
I recently read a report from a program called Research On Reforms, which investigated several charter schools in New Orleans, including KIPP Central City Primary, which serves children in kindergarten through 2nd grade. The report shows that charter schools have a disciplinary consequence that is not available to regular public schools — easy expulsion. It seems that they can just write their ‘zero tolerance’ rules right into their charter. Regular public schools are handcuffed by things like the law, which makes it extremely difficult to expel a student. This report has obtained copies of the handbooks to reveal how the schools treat expulsions. Here’s a paragraph from the KIPP primary school handbook.
So, as you can see, they say that three suspensions results in an expulsion. This is pretty harsh. These are just 5, 6, and 7 year old kids. Now I don’t have their expulsion statistics. Perhaps this is just a bluff or something that deters misbehavior so well that they never have to resort to expelling anyone.
But it brings up the issue of ‘tough love’ which is a big component of all the KIPP schools. Perhaps this is the secret ingredient of KIPP — tough love bordering on corporeal punishment. I’ve heard stories of kids being sent to ‘the doghouse’ (isolated from the rest of their classmates, including at lunch) for weeks at a time. I also read about having kids who misbehave wearing signs that say ‘miscreant’ on them. Though these are extreme, maybe this significantly contributes to their success.
I’ve always thought that teachers and schools are often too limited in what sorts of punishments they can give. It seems odd to not be able to stop a kid from throwing away his own education, yet a lot of school districts don’t even have real suspensions anymore — in New York City, they are nearly always given the type of suspension where they have to temporarily attend a different school. If tough love is the secret, then they should come out with it and maybe that could influence education policy. Right now the implications that it is just the hardworking teachers that make the difference is causing other schools to get shut down for not being able to match KIPP’s success.
I’ve known the two founders of KIPP, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin for nearly 20 years (I was Houston ’91 and they were both Houston ’92). I like them both. About 10 years ago, I almost worked for them as a Chess teacher. Even more recently, I had emailed Dave Levin since my wife, who is a social worker, was looking for school social work jobs and he got back to me about 3 minutes, which I really appreciated. If either of them should see this post, I hope they understand that my critique of KIPP does not mean that I don’t like them personally. They are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. When they were teachers, they were great teachers. And for the kids that make it through their schools, they do come out with a greater chance of having a successful future. These are things to be proud of.
I just don’t like what KIPP has come to represent in the current destructive education reform movement. I feel like Mike and Dave are victims of their own success. First they needed to highlight their successes and they developed good PR. Then they were on Oprah and met Presidents and have become celebrities. They also have a lot of funders so they have to keep highlighting the successes they have. Certainly it is not their job to point out their own weaknesses — like their attrition. But what I wish Mike and Dave would realize is that they have the power now to really influence politicians and lobbyists like Michelle Rhee. If Mike and Dave were to issue a statement saying that they fully agree with Diane Ravitch’s recent Op-Ed in The New York Times — that even they have not found a way to overcome poverty without doing things that regular public schools are not permitted to, it would completely deflate the likes of Rhee. They could also stop claiming that it is just their hard working teachers since this fuels the current teacher witch hunt. I’m sure that they do a lot with all their private funding to help with some of the effects of poverty — tell everyone about that so we can stop putting all the blame on teachers. It would take a lot of guts to do that, but it’s not impossible since these are two very gutsy guys.
Here is a link to an article from The Washington Post with similar themes. Read the comments too.