Why Does KIPP Work?

This morning I was given a tour of the East Nashville KIPP Academy Middle School. KIPP stands for “knowledge is power program” and is one of the most successful charter school franchises in the country. KIPP schools can be found in almost every low-income area of every major city in the US and they usually have a very high success rate raising student test scores.

My impressions:

1. Charter school critics often accuse schools like KIPP of skimming the best students off the top of failing neighboring schools, thereby inflating their results. However, one of the things KIPP brags about most is their ability to poach the very best young teachers (despite the NCLB evaluation conundrum, KIPP is remarkably confident in its ability to tell good teachers from bad before many of them have been in a classroom). They seemed confident in their ability to identify and recruit the best teachers from around the country (even going so far as to fly recruits out to KIPP schools). This should be at least as worrisome to public school supporters/charter school critics as the siphoning of students.

2. I was curious to discover the mechanism by which KIPP achieves its results (though charter schools generally don’t produce higher test scores, KIPP schools, in particular, do). I was struck by the amount of what educators call “structure” and what a parent might call hand-holding. KIPP believes fundamentally that its students must have as much attention and engagement as possible at all times. One teacher could be seen waiting outside the boys bathroom door, apparently unable to trust the student to simply walk to the bathroom and return himself. KIPPsters have a longer school year, beginning  in July, and longer days, 10 hours, than most public schools.

KIPP has effectively done what public school advocates have recommended for years: smaller classes, more individual attention, and more time with teachers. Unlike at public schools, at KIPP these excesses go straight to the children, with little wasted. KIPP is obsessed with being an efficient learning (and socializing) machine (there are only 2 minutes between classes and the teachers walk them there). KIPP abandons what does not increase test scores and multiplies what works, and I do mean multiply. KIPP isn’t interested in too much variety. They have a handful of tricks that they know work well, like repetition and a set of classroom norms and behaviors to encourage engagement, and they wear them out. This is not to say that KIPP teachers don’t have freedom to experiment, because apparently they do, but in order to receive funding they need test results to continue to climb.

Philosophically, however, this highly structured engagement approach shouldn’t give educators much confidence in the power of education to change kids’ lives, at least not long-term. As has been noted by Prof. Caplan, getting marginal students to learn in the short-term is difficult and labor intensive, but even the best teachers can’t stem the inevitable long-term fade-out of knowledge. Education policy makers openly admit and lobby for year-round schools but fail to recognize the implications of fighting summer learning loss the way KIPP does.

Caplan:

Unless a high school diploma magically locks in knowledge, anyone who believes in severe summer learning loss should also expect kids in year-round or Saturday school to quickly lose their extra knowledge after graduation.  Strange as it may seem, then, summer learning loss is an argument for less education.  Why make the poor kids suffer if they won’t retain what they learn anyway?

As Caplan makes clear, children are less like clay that can be permanently molded into a new shape and more like plastic that responds to applied pressure but eventually snaps back into place when the pressure is removed.

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