A Charter School’s Performance Questioned in New Study

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March 31, 2011; Source: Education Week | The acronym KIPP stands for the “Knowledge is Power Program.” KIPP’s website slogan is a none too modest challenge to itself to “Prove What’s Possible in Education.” Unfortunately for this network of 99 charter schools – 24 elementary, 60 middle schools, and 15 high schools in 20 states plus D.C. – a new study from Western Michigan University raises important questions about the reasons for KIPP’s reputation of generally high performance.

One reason apparently is that 40 percent of black males enrolled in KIPP schools leave between the 6th and 8th grades. Gary Miron, the lead researcher on the study, called that figure “shocking.” The issue is not that so many black males leave. It is that the KIPP schools have annual attrition rates of 15 percent compared to roughly 3 percent in the comparable school districts.

The pupils who drop out tend to be the lower performing students who return to the public schools but are not replaced in the KIPP schools. The result is that attrition at KIPP removes the pupils who pull down academic performance scores, leaving typically the better performers and scorers (PDF).

The study finds KIPP typical of other charter schools, which tend not to educate as many disabled and English language-limited students compared to regular public schools that take responsibility for all comers.

Miron and his team examined the costs of KIPP and concluded that KIPP’s charter schools are much better funded than their traditional public school counterparts, to the tune of $6,500 per pupil in the same districts, $5,800 of which is from private donations and foundation grants. The Western Michigan University study immediately garnered critical responses from KIPP and others, suggesting that Miron was trying to “explain away” rather than “explain” the positive student outcomes typically reported by KIPP.

Researchers contrasted this study with results from a Mathematica review of KIPP. Mathematica is an educational research group that KIPP contracted to conduct the research. No one, including Miron or his team, is challenging KIPP outcomes. They are simply pointing out that KIPP is able to achieve these outcomes by having the traditional public schools available to accept without question any and all students that KIPP cannot or will not be able to serve, for whatever the reasons, and by having access to resources that the traditional public schools do not have.

In many states there have been big debates over school funding formulas. Liberals say that imbalances regarding funding for inner city and suburban kids must be evened out. Conservatives say that the funding imbalances do not explain good or bad individual pupil, school, or school district performance. Regardless of how much KIPP and its allies counter the Western Michigan study, the report points out how extra money per pupil combined with the ability to not serve, in some cases, more expensive-to-educate disabled and other students, leads to better school performance outcomes. Resources do count in education – public, private, or (public) charter.—Rick Cohen