National News, September 18, 2008

Students at KIPP perform better, study finds

Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer

Since their founding in 1994, KIPP public charter schools have won high praise from educators and politicians - some say bordering on worship - for their apparent success in helping poor children of color excel in school.

Philanthropists have bet millions of dollars on the growing national network of 66 schools, headquartered in San Francisco. The chorus of enthusiasts can be heard from the White House to corporate boardrooms and family kitchens.

But beneath it all lie some nagging questions: Is the success real? And if so, could non-KIPP schools mimic that success?

Now, an independent study of the Bay Area's five middle schools operated by KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program) concludes that its intense focus on the academic and social success of each individual child does have measurable benefits beyond what traditional schools have achieved - usually.

"Four out of five KIPP schools outperform their host district," says the report by researchers at SRI International of Menlo Park, which studied the two KIPPs in San Francisco, the two in San Jose, and the one in Oakland.

Students in most grades also made above-average progress compared with the national average, the researchers found. The five schools were not identified by name under an agreement with the school districts.

But all were middle schools, as most KIPP schools are across the country. Two KIPP high schools recently opened in San Jose and San Lorenzo, but were not included in the study. Nationwide enrollment is about 16,000.

KIPP students attend school for nine hours a day, compared with the typical seven. Each is expected to think about college. Saturday school and summer school are mandatory. Intense attention is paid to each student's skill level, and those scoring below grade level are tutored each day in a school culture where high achievement is admired, not scoffed at.

Students with questions are also expected to call their teachers' cell phone until 8 p.m.

At one of the schools studied, San Francisco's KIPP Bay Academy, a visitor recently asked eighth-grader Jessica Hart why the corridors were so quiet though students were changing classrooms. It was 4 p.m.

"Because there's students in class learning, and it's respectful," the 13-year-old replied.

Jessica's English scores were in the 16th percentile when she arrived as a fifth-grader - meaning that 84 percent of the nation's fifth-graders did better in English that she did. "At the end of the year, I was in the 75th percentile," she said.

How did that happen?

"Because I'm smart," Jessica said.

Discipline matters

Discipline is also taken seriously. Students typically have to write letters of apology for even minor infractions - being late, say, or forgetting to wear the complete uniform. At some schools, miscreants have to sit on a bench wearing a sign that says "Bench."

Principals and teachers undergo training in KIPP's operating procedures, although actual instructional methods are left up to them. Principals control hiring and budgets. And teachers receive 15 to 20 percent higher pay for working the additional hours.

The SRI study offers few specifics about individual schools as part of an agreement with the districts. And the researchers were able to compare only three of the five schools against non-KIPP schools.

But at those three, they found that KIPP's fifth-graders scored significantly higher on California Standards Tests than non-KIPP fifth-graders, with the difference ranging from 6 to 33 percentage points.

The researchers were also asked by their sponsor, the Hewlett Foundation, to check out recurring questions: Are the kids at KIPP truly from low-income families? Do they really have low scores when they enroll in KIPP, or are they ringers?

"Bay Area KIPP schools do not appear to attract higher-scoring students," the report found. Fifth-graders entering the five schools scored worse than 40 to 91 percent of fifth-graders nationwide.

Student attrition high

Poverty rates ranged from 63 to 81 percent, and the five schools' student enrollment were overwhelmingly black and Latino.

Troubling, however, is that students leave KIPP schools in droves - 60 percent of fifth-graders left four of the schools 2004, before finishing eighth grade. In fact, the high attrition rate made it impossible for the researchers to study achievement in upper grades, the study said.

Yet researchers found a test-score benefit even in students who left early, said Katrina Woodworth, the lead researcher.

Asked why so many students were leaving, Woodworth said, "We heard from the schools that there are people who got more than they bargained for" in the lengthy school days. "If this many people are leaving KIPP, we'd love to know more about why."

High teacher turnover

Nor do teachers last long, quitting at a rate of 18 to 49 percent per year. Roughly 1 in 3 leave the classroom to become administrators.

Mike Rettberg, a third-year teacher at KIPP Bay Academy, smiled with pride Tuesday as he showed off a sign announcing that his class had the highest science scores of the city's middle schools.

"I get twice as much time to teach science" as teachers in traditional schools, said Rettberg, who arrives before 7 a.m. and works a 12-hour day.

"I would describe this as a burnout job," said Rettberg, who earns $60,000. "It's not coincidental that none of the teachers have kids."

But these kinds of results - deemed real by the new study - are what California educators have been looking for in their quest to close the state's substantial achievement gap.

So, are KIPP-like schools the answer?

"It really is exciting," state Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Rick Miller said of the new report. "These are important findings, showing that KIPP doesn't select the best and the brightest."

Funding and issue

But, he said, money stands in the way.

The report confirms that KIPP's approach costs more than the state pays them, which is less than $6,000 per pupil. Therefore, KIPP schools must raise between $400,000 to $700,000 per year to cover costs. Major donors are Gap-founder Don Fisher ($55 million) and the Gates Foundation ($18 million).

"You cannot run a KIPP program with the current per pupil funding the state of California provides," Miller said. "If people want these results, we all have to be willing to make the investment to get them."

E-mail Nanette Asimov at

This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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