Anyone who questions the slow–now rapid–advance of the charter school industry, anyone who wonders whether our nation is in process of developing (or re-creating) a dual school system, will sooner or later get the KIPP question: Doesn’t KIPP prove definitively that poverty doesn’t matter? Doesn’t KIPP prove that charter schools are superior to public schools? Doesn’t KIPP prove that any child, no matter what their circumstances, can excel?
I admit that I have not waded into this debate because I acknowledge that some charters get excellent results, some get abysmal results, but on average, charters do NOT get better results than public schools. (Results, in this case, meaning test scores, which seem to be the only thing that matters in these discussions.)
When I visited Houston in the fall of 2010 to lecture at Rice, KIPP and TFA were my hosts. Michael Feinberg gave me a tour of his leading school, which looked like any public school, and introduced me to his top staff at lunch. We had a down-home visit and I like Michael. When I gave my lecture, I chastised KIPP for encouraging the public perception that all charter schools are better than all public schools and for failing to denounce the growing numbers of incompetent, corrupt, and inept charter schools. I talked about the oft-heard complaint that KIPP cherry picks its students and has high attrition, which KIPP denies. I challenged KIPP to take over an entire inner city school district that was willing and show what it could do when no one was excluded.
Needless to say, KIPP has not taken my advice and continues to expand its brand from district to district, with only a few schools in each district.
A recent article by Gerald Coles reviews the research about KIPP and notes that KIPP has a rapid-response to any questioning of its accomplishments, which KIPP says are now well documented. Coles points out that the research KIPP relies on was funded by corporations and foundations that have previously given KIPP millions of dollars. He calls it the “KIPP-funders’ funded research.” And he asks this question:
Can there be any bias in research bankrolled by the corporate contributors of the very company whose product the researchers were expected to validate? We are all familiar with the long history of industry-supported research, such as that of tobacco, drug, auto, and coal companies, all conducted by credentialed researchers, all of whom invariably produced findings that supposedly confirmed the value and safety of the products they were paid to investigate. This research on KIPP schools can be described in various ways, but “independent” surely has to take at least second place to “KIPP-funders funded research.”
Coles’ review of the research–both that conducted by the funders’ funding and that of independent researchers–is worth reading.
Whenever anyone says that KIPP schools spend more than neighborhood public schools, KIPP adamantly denies it. Coles reasonably asks how the many tens of millions raised by KIPP were spent if not on its schools.
Behind the back and forth about the research is a larger question. What is KIPP really trying to prove? Do they want the world to believe that poverty, homelessness, disabilities, extreme family circumstances, squalid living conditions have no effect on children’s readiness to learn? Doesn’t KIPP imply that schools can achieve 100% proficiency if they act like KIPP?
If that is the lesson they want to teach, then I reiterate my challenge of two years ago: KIPP should find an impoverished district that is so desperate that it is willing to put all its students into KIPP’s care. Take them all: the children with disabilities, the children who don’t speak English, the children who are homeless, the children just released from the juvenile justice system, the children who are angry and apathetic, and everyone else. No dumping. No selection. No cherry picking.
Show us what you can do. Take them all.