KIPP's Graduation Rate Stats Spark Charter School Debate
The debate over charter school effectiveness roars on thanks to new data from national charter network, KIPP. On Thursday they released a report showing that of the 209 students who attended the first two KIPP schools in New York and Houston 10 years ago, only 33 percent have gone on to earn a college degree. The results are way below KIPP's ambitious goal of 75 percent of students graduating from college, but the national college graduation average for students from predominantly low-income black and Latino student schools is a mere 8.3 percent. And, in the general population, only 30.6 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 to 29 have earned a college degree. By comparison, KIPP's first class has done great. But, does this mean that all charter schools—or all 99 KIPP schools nationwide—are high performing, and regular public schools should be converted to charters? Not exactly.
Every charter is different, but there are some commonalities. Many have cohesive school cultures around student achievement and work to invest and motivate the entire student body around academic goals. They also usually have much longer school days—KIPP students attend from 7:30 a.m to 5:00 p.m. and have mandatory Saturday classes. Charters often require that teachers be available to kids after hours. KIPP teachers are required to carry a cell phone, give the number to students, and be available till late in the evening for student and parent questions. And, most charter school teachers aren't unionized. Principals have the power to hire who they want instead of just being assigned a teacher by the school district, and they can fire a teacher immediately for any reason.
But, charters aren't perfect and they do have vocal critics. Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science in education at Teachers College, Columbia told Education Week that some of the achievement at charters like KIPP can be attributed to highly motivated parents. Because of their parent involvement requirements, charters usually have contracts that parents must sign, and if those contracts aren't upheld, students can be asked to leave the school. Charters often aren't accountable to the local community—there's sometimes no elected school board to monitor them. And, critics claim that charters like KIPP often have high student attrition, don't serve equal amounts of special needs students, and have more funds to work with, especially from private donors, than traditional public schools.
Despite these concerns, KIPP is doing a great job, and we should undoubtedly celebrate their student's achievement. But the problem with data from studies like this is the unnuanced way it's interpreted by politicians and reformers looking for a quick fix. There's a lot to learn from KIPP but a wholesale cut and paste of KIPP's—or any other charter school's—methods into every public school is not the answer. Regular public schools can't just kick kids out if they have disabilities, behavior problems, or inattentive parents. But politicians will surely use the data from this KIPP study to find ways to funnel money away from other public schools—which can't be exclusive and really need the funds—to push the reform solution du jour.
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