Is KIPP really scalable?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on

Yesterday on Slate, in her review of Jay Mathews’ new book on KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program, which now runs 66 schools in 19 states mostly geared to disadvantaged and minority students, Sara Mosle begins with an interesting remark:

Let me begin—before I’m denounced as a traitor to the cause of educational reform—by saying that I’m inclined to agree.

What she’s inclined to agree with is Mathews’ assessment of KIPP as the best program serving underprivileged students in America today. The reason for putting it so baldly out there at the top of her review is that Ms. Mosle goes on to question whether KIPP, despite her admiration of its success, is replicable to a scale sufficient to the challenges faced by large urban public school districts.

The review is definitely worth the read. And I sympathize with Ms. Mosle’s need to preemptively deflect any criticism that she is not sufficiently pure enough in the cause of education reform because she dares to explore difficult questions the answers to which more puritanical reformers might not entirely like. (I heard from a number of different sources who were not happy with a post I wrote back in December on another of education reform’s shibboleths – Teach for America.)

However, I have been chewing on what Ms. Mosle wrote for the last 24 hours and I think she is leaving something out of her analysis. One of the reasons she gives for questioning KIPP’s scalability is its high dropout rates. This is a criticism that one of Boston’s most highly successful charter schools, MATCH, has also received.

From the research I have seen, MATCH and KIPP do have higher dropout rates than district schools, but that is due in large part to the very high academic and behavioral standards the schools set for their students, unwavering standards significantly higher than sending districts.

And it needs to be pointed out that KIPP’s students and the students who attend MATCH don’t drop out of the system. Most of them just go back to their sending district. KIPP’s schools and MATCH have longer days, more stringent disciplinary codes and assign more homework. Other schools, particularly your average urban public school, are just easier.

So, to use an analogy, of course it’s more difficult to get kids to eat their vegetables when everyone around them is eating McDonald’s. But there in lies the rub as far as scalability is concerned. What if everyone around MATCH’s kids and the students who attend KIPP’s schools weren’t eating McDonald’s, but were instead eating their vegetables too?

As KIPP and other “no excuses” schools like MATCH scale up or proliferate, their high standards will more and more become the norm in urban public school districts rather than the exception and, as they do, I think it is just possible we will see dropout rates at these types of schools decrease as the number of corresponding easy school options in sending districts also declines.