The Sinister Assumption Fueling KIPP Skeptics?

Stuart Buck on KIPP critics:

It’s unwitting, to be sure; most of the critics haven’t thought through the logical implications of what they’re saying, and they would sincerely deny being racist in their thoughts or intentions. But even granting their personal good will, what they are saying is full of racially problematic implications. These KIPP critics are effectively saying that poor minority children are incapable of genuinely learning anything more than they already do. If poor minority children seem to be learning more, it can’t really be true; there must be some more sinister explanation for what’s going on.
Now here’s the key point: If selection and attrition is what explains KIPP’s good results, then that logically means that several hundred extra hours a year being instructed in reading, math, music, art, etc. do NOT explain KIPP’s good results. But wait a minute: what does that really mean?
Nothing less than this: several hundred hours a years instructing kids doesn’t actually make much difference. Recall that KIPP’s critics say that if KIPP’s students seem to be learning more, it must be an artifact of how KIPP selects kids and then pushes out the low-performers. In saying that, KIPP’s critics are implying, however unwittingly, that no amount of effort or study could possibly get poor urban minorities to learn anything more.

Okay, let me be clear that I am not speaking for any other KIPP critic. While I don’t talk much about KIPP, I am certainly one who thinks their results are due to attrition, creaming, and the benefits that accrue from a homogenous and motivated population.

But yeah. In a nutshell, I’m saying this:

IF you take low ability kids (of any race or income) and IF you select for motivation in the parents, at least, and IF you remove the misbehaving or otherwise highly dysfunctional kids who don’t share their parents’ motivation, and IF you enforce strict behavioral indoctrination in middle class mores and IF you give them hundreds of hours more education a year and IF they are in middle school and IF they are simply being asked to catch up with the material that middle to high ability kids learned fairly effortlessly—that is, elementary reading and math skills…..

…then they will have a slightly better test scores than similarly motivated low ability kids stuck in classes with the misbehavers and highly dysfunctional kids and fewer hours of seat time and less behavioral indoctrination into middle class mores, but their underlying abilities will still be weak and just as far behind their higher ability peers as they were before KIPP.

I’ve written before, improving elementary school or middle school scores is a false god when it comes to improving actual high school outcomes. Children who need tons of hours to get up to grade level fundamentally differ from those reading at or above grade level from kindergarten on, and this difference matters increasingly as school gets harder. High school isn’t the linear steps through increased difficulty that occurs in grades K-8, but a much different and far more difficult animal, now that we make everyone take college prep classes. There’s no evidence that KIPP students are learning more or closing the gap in high school, and call me cynical but I’m really, really sure we’d be hearing about it if they were. KIPP is not transforming low ability kids into high ability kids, or even mid-level ability kids.

I am comfortable asserting that hours and hours of additional education time does nothing to change underlying ability. I’m not a racist, nor am I a nihilist who believes outcomes are set from birth. I do, however, hold the view that academic outcomes are determined in large part by cognitive ability. The reason scores are low in high poverty, high minority schools is primarily due to the fact that the students’ abilities are low to begin with, not because they enter school with a fixable deficit that just needs time to fill, and not because they fall behind thanks to poor teachers or misbehaving peers.

That doesn’t mean we can’t improve outcomes, particularly in high school, when we do a great deal of harm by trying to teach kids what they can’t learn and refusing to teach them what they can learn. And it doesn’t mean we couldn’t tremendously improve elementary school outcomes in numbers, if not individual demonstrated ability, by allowing public schools to do what KIPP does—namely, limit classes to motivated kids of similar ability.

Paul Bruno, another KIPP skeptic (whose views in no way should be confused with mine), thinks it’s wrong to dismiss KIPP achievements, because they show that public schools for low income kids simply need much more money. I disagree. What KIPP “success” shows is the importance of well-behaved, homogeneous classes.

So here’s my preferred takeaway from KIPP and other successful charter schools:

Since it’s evident that much of these schools’ success stories come from their ability to control and limit the population, why are we still hamstringing public schools? Here’s a thought: how about KIPP schools take those really, really tough kids and only those kids? Misbehave too often in public schools and off you go to a KIPP bootcamp, where they will drill you with slogans and do their best to indoctrinate you into middle class behavior and after a while you’ll behave because please, god, anything to get back to the nicer public schools! You could also create KIPP schools for special ed kids–put the special ed kids with cognitive issues and learning disabilities in their own, smaller schools. Meanwhile, public schools could extend the school day a bit, help the kids catch up as much as possible while still making school fun. While the average test score might not improve much, this approach would keep a lot of kids engaged in school through elementary school instead of lost, bored, or acting out in chaotic classes disrupted by a few unmanageable or extremely low ability kids.

See, that would scale a lot better. Instead, we set up small schools for what is actually the majority of all low income students—reasonably well-behaved, of low to middle ability and, with no one around to lead them astray, willing to give school a shot. Only a few kids get into these schools, while the rest of them are stuck in schools where just a few misbehavers make class impossible and really low ability kids take up a lot of addtional teacher time. Crazy, that’s what it is. But what I just laid out is completely unworkable from an ideological standpoint, and as I just explained in an earlier post, school policy is set by ideology and politics, not educational validity. To say nothing of the fact that KIPP doesn’t want to teach “those” kids.

Anyway. The reality is that yes, a low ability kid, regardless of income or race, will not, on average, become a high or mid ability kid simply because he spends a lot of seat time working his butt off in a KIPP school. Sorry Stuart.

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14 responses to “The Sinister Assumption Fueling KIPP Skeptics?

  • Paul Bruno (@MrPABruno)

    For the record, I do not think that KIPP shows that district schools “simply” need more money. (I’m not even sure what that claim would mean.) But I also don’t think think there’s much evidence to indicate that 100% of KIPP’s results can be chalked up to some combination of student selection and innate student ability. I think a pretty plausible interpretation of the evidence is that a significant – even if less-than-majority – factor is that quality and quantity of instruction and instructional support *also* matter, and that those things may cost more money.

    More generally, any claim that “100% of KIPP’s success is attributable to X” is extraordinary and would require extraordinary evidence. I’ve never seen any evidence that even comes close to supporting such a claim. That’s the point I’d liked to have seen emphasized in Buck’s post.

    • educationrealist

      I’m sorry if I mischaracterized your position; I was referring to this: “I’ve often wondered why KIPP’s critics often try to explain away their results rather than pointing to them as evidence that what lots of district schools need are large injections of additional resources.”

      As to the rest of your comment, would you agree that the following scenario is possible?

      Student A and Student B are both sixth graders reading at a third grade level with similar motivation and willingness. Student A continues to attend a high poverty school; Student B wins a seat at KIPP. After two years, Student A is reading at sixth grade level, while Student B is reading at grade level—that is, he’s caught up. Three years later, both students, now juniors and attending a mixed-income local high school, are testing at Below Basic on the NAEP, although Student B’s scores are slightly higher than Student A’s.

      If you do, then we can agree that KIPP is raising test scores, raising the performance of the Student Bs to “catch up”, but ultimately, in high school, neither student is capable of performing at ability. If you don’t think the scenario is possible, then I assume your position is that KIPP’s success means that kids are permanently “caught up”, and right now, no research supports this.

      That’s what I mean, rather than “100% of KIPP’s success is attributable to environment”. I think environment is important, and keeping kids of any ability engaged in school is essential.

      • Paul Bruno (@MrPABruno)

        My point about “large injections” was supposed to be, in the context of the post, that because (as Buck pointed out) it’s very plausible that *all of KIPP’s extra instruction* is probably good for kids, then it’d probably be good for district schools to provide the same and *that* would cost money. Obviously money per se isn’t going to make any difference.

        I think your scenario is entirely possible, but I’m not sure how well it describes what’s actually going on, nor am I sure what the practical implications are for the point Buck (and I) was making (which is that the quantity and quality of instruction at KIPP is probably good for kids).

        If you think KIPP benefits from selection *and* is providing more and better instruction than most district schools, then I think the actual amount of disagreement between you and me (or you and Buck, for that matter) is actually fairly modest.

      • educationrealist

        I don’t think KIPP is providing better instruction by virtue of its curriculum or teachers. I think it is able to provide better instruction because it can kick out or weed out the distractors. I think it would be more scalable to allow public schools to kick out the distractors to a small school like KIPP–one school for disruptive kids, one school for special eds.

  • Florida resident

    In 2006 Derbyshire wrote about KIPP (and lots of other stuff) with extreme clarity in his post ” The Dream Palace of Education Theorists”:

    John Galsworthy, ‘Swan Song’:
    “A platitude has to be stated with force and clarity”.

    With respectful greetings to EducationRealist,
    your F.r.

  • KLO

    An under-appreciated aspect of KIPP’s “success” is that it only permits students to enroll once as a single cohort. Any student who leaves for any reason is not replaced by another student. In the urban school districts KIPP targets, “student mobility” (I would say “churn”) is a huge problem. Depending on the district, about 1 in 4 students will change schools during the year. Nationwide, 1 in 6 students attends at least three different schools by the time they finish third grade. It also happens that the students with the highest churn rate are the worst performing students academically. Any KIPP school that accepts one of these high-churn rate students will see that student leave and not be replaced by another student, ever. Even if KIPP students were otherwise identical at the beginning of the cohort enrollment period, two years later when that cohort graduates, the bottom quarter or third of the students that started will be gone. That KIPP does not see this attrition in most schools itself demonstrates that KIPP does not get ordinary students. But, even if it did, KIPP’s would be attributable to the elimination of the bottom ranks of its student body.

    The cohort enrollment limitation magnifies the effect of attrition. In year one, 75% of the bottom quarter of students can likely be eliminated through normal attrition. Heck, you might not even need to kick students out. They will leave on their own, with no prodding needed. These students are never replaced. In year two, the remaining 25% of the bottom quarter can be eliminated and will not be replaced. Test scores improve the first and second years largely due to who remains.

    The long and the short of KIPP is this: enrollment practices determine outcomes.

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  • surfer

    Dude: It seems like a lot of what you don’t like about KIPP is that they get to kick out troublemakers and you don’t. But don’t you see that is all the MORE reason to have more charter schools. It serves as a living example of the benefits of firmer discipline. Don’t cut the (slightly) taller poppies down. Let the, grow and grow and shame the remaining ones.

    You will get faster to what you want with this more indirect approach. No one is going to wave a wand and reverse all the softie BS liberal crap that is screwing up public schools. Especially when it is crystal clear that means throwing misbehaving black students out. You won’t win with frontal assault. You need to use the indirect approach.

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