Charter school has “substantial impact,” but the debate goes on

A study out today finds that the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), one of the most well-known charter school operators in the country, “substantially” impacts student test scores in reading and math. Half of the KIPP schools in the study are on their way to cutting the black-white achievement gap in half in three years, according to the researchers at Mathematica Policy Research, a New Jersey-based group.

The study, which was commissioned by KIPP and non-experimental in design, compared the “achievement trajectories” of students before and after entering a KIPP school. Experimental studies are considered the “gold standard” in research, and Mathematica has promised that future studies on KIPP will be experimental rather than non-experimental.

Beyond the test scores, there are some other interesting take-aways.

A couple of findings aren’t terribly surprising for those who follow the ins and outs of the debate over charter schools: KIPP students are poorer and more likely to be minority than their counterparts in other schools, but they are less likely to struggle with English or need special-education services.

Charter school students meet President Obama, a charter school fan (courtesy of Pete Souza)

Other findings shed more light on some emerging questions: attrition rates aren’t higher at KIPP schools, meaning students don’t appear to be leaving KIPP more often, or, as some critics have suggested of charters in general, don’t appear to be pushed out if they aren’t successful. At the same time, KIPP students tend to be held back to repeat a grade more often than students at regular schools, an issue I blogged about last week.

The study may boost KIPP’s  reputation, but it’s unlikely to end the heated debate over whether charters perform better or worse than regular schools, or just about the same.


Some of the coverage of the KIPP report:
The Washington Post says the report “is unlikely to resolve debate over what is behind the network’s success.”
Also for the Washington Post, Jay Mathews writes on his blog that “the preliminary report contradicts a notion often spread by KIPP critics on the Internet that KIPP schools have higher attrition rates than regular public schools in their areas because they are kicking out troublesome kids.”
In Houston, where KIPP is a major presence, the Houston Chronicle writes that the report shows the charter school network doesn’t appear to be skimming the best students, as charter school critics often charge.

Mother Jones says this appears to be a success story that is particularly exciting because of KIPP’s results in middle school, where academic achievement tends to dip. But the success is “limited,” and “probably always will be.”

And finally, a sharp critique of the study from the Education and Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado argues that the Mathematica study gets it wrong on attrition – the number of students who leave a school. “They never considered the receiving or intake rate. Even though the researchers agree that the students who are mobile are lower performing, they do not take into account the reality that KIPP schools do not generally receive these students.”

Sarah Garland

POSTED BY ON June 22, 2010