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June 03, 2011

Low-Income Students and KIPP Charter Schools: A Reply to Matthew Yglesias

Richard Kahlenberg

Over at Think Progress, Matthew Yglesias raises an interesting issue about charter school skeptics. On the one hand, he says, successful charter schools, such as those that are part of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), are accused of skimming the most motivated students. On the other hand, KIPP is also accused of segregating students by race and class with an authoritarian No Excuses approach that is unappealing to most middle-class families.  KIPP is damned if it does take more advantaged students and damned if it doesn’t, Yglesias says.  He writes: “if KIPP’s not condemned for skimming the easiest cases, it’s condemned for promoting segregation by declining to make itself appealing to the easiest cases.”

But for me, the problem with KIPP is precisely that it does both simultaneously – skims motivated students and yet is pointed to as a segregation success story.  Some observers see high rates of achievement in KIPP schools, which are overwhelmingly poor, and conclude that poverty and economic segregation don’t matter that much after all.  At their most hyperbolic, charter enthusiasts like Davis Guggenheim, director of “Waiting for Superman,” point to KIPP and conclude “we’ve cracked the code” in educating low-income students.  Yglesias is only somewhat more measured when he writes that the success of charter networks like KIPP “demonstrates that it’s possible to overcome challenging demographics.”

But KIPP schools in no way demonstrate that the devastating effects of poverty and segregation have been “overcome.”  KIPP’s predominantly low-income students do very well compared with other low-income students, which is a wonderful thing, but the effects of poverty remain, as two-thirds of the KIPP students who graduated eighth grade 10 or more years ago haven’t earned a bachelor’s degree.  That’s not what happens to more affluent students.

And KIPP hardly demonstrates that with the right teaching approach, economic segregation matters little in public education, because, just below the surface, KIPP schools are demographically nothing like regular high poverty public schools.  By definition, KIPP students are from self-selected families who chose to enter a lottery; and KIPP has very high attrition rates.  Yglesias points out that some research finds that KIPP lottery losers also are highly mobile, which is true, but the difference is that unlike a regular public school, KIPP takes in very few new students in the 7th and 8th grades of middle school.  Think about the difference in the KIPP environment compared with a typical high poverty school.  In KIPP, students are surrounded by other self-selected students, and, over time, enjoy a cohort including only those peers who have survived what all acknowledge to be a very rigorous and demanding program.  In terms of peer values and norms, KIPP schools more closely resemble economically mixed schools than traditional high poverty schools. 

It remains telling that on the one occasion when KIPP took over a regular high poverty public school – without a self-selected student population and with new students entering the classroom when they moved into the area – KIPP failed and got out of the business of running regular neighborhood public schools.  The lesson that many draw from KIPP – that a No Excuses approach can work in regular high poverty public schools – is completely unsupported. 

Moreover, KIPP demonstrably fails the American “common school” test of providing an economically and racially diverse environment, which is important for reasons having nothing to do with test scores.  Most American public schools fail this test too, of course, but it’s important to note some schools, including some charter schools, pass it.

Rather than holding KIPP’s segregated high poverty environment out as the ideal, why aren’t more people talking about socioeconomically and racially integrated charter schools – like the Denver School of Science and Technology and the High Tech High schools in San Diego – as exemplars?  These schools produce positive results for low-income students and also fulfill the common school ideal.  And, unlike KIPP, they don’t lead people to draw false and profoundly conservative conclusions that poverty and segregation don’t need to be addressed.  Charter schools that provide teacher voice – as originally envisioned by American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker – would also help satisfy charter school critics.  At least this one.


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Bruce William Smith

This is a highly astute commentary. My trustees and I have been planning a school very similar to the one Mr. Kahlenberg calls for in this entry. I came to the conclusion, after having closely watched Green Dot Public Schools take over Locke High School, where I had previously worked, and score a mixture of successes and failures in the process (recounted in Alexander Russo's "Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors", recently released), that superior ghetto schools won't solve America's problems, and certainly not our need to develop competitive secondary schools like those I saw when I was living in South Korea. Instead, I have been converted to the magnet school model of addressing socioeconomic disparities in educational opportunity, and we have developed a charter calling for a magnet school embedded inside a comprehensive free school.

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