National News, April 20, 2008

New Report From KIPP Charters


Educators argue often whether their work should be judged by test scores. There are thoughtful people on both sides of the debate. We journalists tend to focus on exam results because so many of our readers say that is what they want, and such information is relatively easy to get from regular public schools.

Private schools, unfortunately, rarely provide such information, and data from public charter schools have also been difficult to obtain. Charters are public schools; their students, unlike private school students, take the same state tests regular public school students do. But they are not part of the public school systems that have staffs assigned to gather and release test score results, so their data sometimes emerge in a haphazard way, or not at all.

Thank goodness, then, for those few charter school groups that focus intently on test data and make that data readily available to the public. Those school networks include Achievement First, Aspire, Green Dot, Edison, IDEA, Noble Street, Uncommon Schools, YES and a few others designed to give children from low-income families the extra time, encouragement and great teaching they need.

The most advanced of this bunch, in both information dissemination and achievement gains, is the Knowledge Is Power Program -- KIPP -- a 14-year-old network that this summer expects to have 66 schools in 19 states and the District. I am obsessed with identifying and examining the most successful efforts to reverse our long national neglect of school children from poor families, so I have made KIPP a special project. My book about the organization's surprising beginnings will be published in January. I have started work on a second book about KIPP's national growth, and I have tried to make this column the best source of news on KIPP educators and students.

Today, KIPP releases its new annual Report Card, available for the first time on its Web site, Its test score results continue to be impressive. No other program has shown gains as great for as many poor children as KIPP has done. But what caught my eye were two new developments. First, KIPP's focus on building fifth- through eighth-grade middle schools seems to be shifting toward an emphasis on starting elementary schools, as its first efforts in that direction bear fruit. Second, even in one of its strongest cities, Houston, the birthplace of KIPP, the new report reveals that bad first-year results for new KIPP middle schools are still possible, and the organization, as its leaders often admit, still has much to learn.

The report reveals the growing influence of Richard Barth, 41, a former Edison executive who was named chief executive of the KIPP Foundation in December 2005. The foundation does not run the schools. Each principal makes the decisions for his or her school, with input from the director of the cluster of KIPP schools in that area. For instance, the two young teachers who founded KIPP in 1994, Dave Levin, now 38, and Mike Feinberg, 39, direct the KIPP school clusters in New York City and Houston, respectively. The foundation, begun by Gap clothing stores founders Doris and Don Fisher, selects and trains the KIPP school principals, key to the program's success, and supports them with research and analysis.

Barth, like many KIPP leaders and teachers, came out of the Teach for America program, which places high-achieving recent college graduates in disadvantaged schools. He was among the first staff members of that rapidly growing organization and is married to its founder, Wendy Kopp. He has overseen the expansion of the KIPP leadership training program, arranged a five-year randomized study of KIPP results and conceived a dual purpose for his organization. KIPP helps its communities, the report says, "by transforming the lives of the kids we serve in our current network of schools; and [b]y inspiring others -- as we continue to reach more students in more communities--to reconsider what is possible in public education."

The report reveals that Barth has set a goal of expanding KIPP's network to 100 schools serving 24,000 students by the year 2011, slightly ahead of the KIPP average of nine new schools a year since it began to expand in 2001 from Feinberg's and Levin's first two schools. In an interview, Barth said much of this growth will still be middle schools, which make up more than 80 percent of the KIPP total, but a shift is under way toward more elementary and high schools.

The need for high schools has been obvious for some time. The two original KIPP schools in Houston and New York placed their graduating eighth-graders in private schools--including some famous ones like St.Mark's--and public magnet schools that could be counted on to demand the same high standards. But since 2005, many more KIPP eighth-graders produced by the Fisher-financed expansion have been seeking high-school placements, and there is not enough room in good high schools to serve them all. Jim O'Connor, principal of the KIPP Ascend middle school in Chicago, told me this month that five students from his last year's eighth grade who are in regular public high schools are having the most difficult time, because their schools lack the focus on strong academic results they found at KIPP.

There are five KIPP high schools now, two more expected to open this summer and at least three more planned by 2010. Yet that growth is not as impressive as the rise of KIPP elementary schools. By this summer, there will be eight of them, a number that Barth said could easily double by 2010. Barth told me that the elementary school leaders are finding that KIPP's focus on imaginative and demanding teaching and longer school days is raising disadvantaged pre-kindergartners and kindergartners to normal suburban achievement levels very quickly. Given that success, he said, it makes no sense to limit his organization to opening middle schools that have to struggle to rescue fifth-graders who start two or three years below grade level. It will take several years, but KIPP leaders envision a day when most KIPP students will start at age 4 or 5 (depending on when state funds for charter schools kick in). By high school, those leaders assert, their students will be learning at a level just as sophisticated as the children of affluent American families who attend schools like St. Mark's.

This summer, KIPP will have about 16,000 students, about 60 percent African American and 35 percent Hispanic. About 81 percent will be from families poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies.

Many education experts wonder if KIPP will be able to find enough principals and teachers with the energy and dedication to work 9 1/2 -hour school days, plus every other Saturday and three-week summer sessions. The frequently asked questions page of the KIPP Web site says schools are developing ways to prevent teacher burnout. Among KIPP teachers, it says, there are "young parents who leave at 5 p.m. to pick up their children from daycare, part-time teachers who job share, and teachers who continue to work past 5 p.m." It says 53 percent of KIPP teachers are white and 47 percent are African American, Hispanic or Asian American.

Per-pupil funding for KIPP schools, the new report says, varies widely, "from a low of less than $5,000 per student at a school in the Midwest, to a high of approximately $13,000 per student at some of our schools on the East Coast." Schools raise extra funds through government grants and community donations, which allows them to spend on average an additional $1,100 to $1,500 per pupil above and beyond usual school costs for longer school days, weeks and years and for annual field trips and costly facilities.

Nonetheless, the Web site says, KIPP schools spend the same or less per student than most urban districts, even when counting the extra KIPP fundraising. "One of the ways that KIPP schools do this is by being relatively lean on administrative costs," the Web site says.

The new report details the achievement records of the 49 KIPP schools that have significant test results. Almost all show the strong gains that have made KIPP so popular with parents. But fifth-graders at the Liberation College Preparatory School and Spirit College Prep, new schools in Houston, declined in both reading and math achievement in their first year, based on standardized tests administered by KIPP to keep track of each school's and each child's progress.

Feinberg said his Houston staffers are somewhat puzzled by the results, because the same students did better on the Texas state tests. He has concluded that "we, the adults, failed to set the kids up for success on that particular test," the Stanford 10 Achievement Test. "At KIPP Spirit, the school leader stepped down for health reasons near the beginning of this year, as the pace was too much for her," Feinberg said. "The new school leader is ready to run this marathon. In both Liberation and Spirit, the school leaders and teachers have reviewed the results of both TAKS [the state test] and Stanford, and like all good teachers do, they are re-teaching, making adjustments, uncovering the holes, and simply put, teaching more and teaching better."

For the first time, the report summarizes the results for the 1,000 students who have completed all four years at 25 KIPP middle schools. On average, they jumped from the 40th to the 82nd percentile in math and from the 32nd to the 60th percentile in reading, unprecedented results for that many poor children. Many KIPP students move out of their neighborhoods, or decide they do not want to work that hard, and do not complete the four years, but KIPP leaders say they are working on retaining more students and are showing some progress.

KIPP has also just released, after requests from me and San Francisco blogger/journalist Caroline Grannan, a detailed account of how many KIPP middle-school graduates have gone on to college, the primary goal of KIPP instruction. KIPP spokesperson Debbie Fine said staffers at the two original schools, and at the KIPP to College program, have been keeping track of all 546 students who have completed eighth grade since the two schools began in 1995. (The first year of KIPP, 1994-95, was an experimental program inside one Houston elementary school, most of whose students did not continue in the program.) Of those students, 447 have matriculated to college, for an average college matriculation rate over five years of roughly 82 percent.

That is more than four times the average matriculation rate for black and Hispanic students from low-income families, but KIPP's ability to maintain that progress will be tested in the next few years. Next year, the first students from the major KIPP expansion that began in 2001 will be ready for college. KIPP is also collecting data on obstacles its graduates encounter in college, and how many of them earn degrees.

Those numbers are more difficult to acquire than fifth-grade test scores, but they are also more important. I hope the other school networks trying to give our poorest children the educations they deserve will also be keeping track of their graduates, and sharing what they learn with the rest of us.

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