Too Good, Too True: KIPP's Continuing Success

“If something looks too good to be true, it probably is.” You’ve heard that one, right? Of course you have. It’s a pretty good aphorism, and one that I’ve already heard no fewer than 2,000 times in my five years of life. Somewhat ironically, this universal statement holds true in many cases, but falls short in others. As I’ve discussed before, KIPP charter schools appear to be one of the exceptions. Now even more research has bolstered that claim.

KIPP stands for the Knowledge is Power Program. The organization currently operates 162 charter schools around the country, and many of these schools are producing some legitimately astounding results for minority and underprivileged kids. Here in Denver, KIPP operates three public charter schools that are producing similarly impressive results.

Perhaps not surprisingly, KIPP’s results have raised some eyebrows. They have also generated some skepticism. A recent study on KIPP middles schools in Education Next summarizes this skepticism with a quotation:

“Commentator Richard Kahlenberg has argued that ‘the big difference between KIPP and regular public schools…is that whereas struggling students come and go at regular schools, at KIPP, students leave but very few new students enter. Having few new entering students is an enormous advantage not only because low-scoring transfer students are kept out but also because in later grades, KIPP students are surrounded only by successful peers….’”

To test this claim, the study examines 19 of KIPP’s 80 middle schools. It’s a pretty in-depth study that uses scary grown-up words like “standard deviation,” which those of you channeling your inner wonk will likely enjoy. I encourage you to read the full study if you are interested.

For my purposes, it suffices to provide a quick summary of the study’s main findings. KIPP students who leave the program’s schools are similar to those who leave district schools, but students entering KIPP schools late do tend to be higher achieving. However, KIPP schools produce their largest impacts in a student’s first year (well before shifting peer environments could appreciably affect academic outcomes). Moreover, even the largest (and most unlikely) existing estimates of peer effects could account for only a fraction of KIPP’s overall impact.

Put in five-year-old terms, KIPP is obviously doing something right. There are, of course, nuances and variations, but it certainly appears that KIPP schools are providing somewhat miraculous results many students who desperately need them.

There’s nothing wrong with asking questions. In fact, we have an obligation to explore what works and what doesn’t for what reasons. But when something is shown time and again to be effective, we should be talking about how to put it to work for more students, not hamstringing ourselves with endless skepticism.