Charter schools by design enjoy more freedom to experiment than their public school counterparts, which makes them ideal laboratories for incubating new approaches to education reform, where there is no one-size-fits-all formula. The very diversity of charter schools is one of their greatest strengths. That's why a recent report suggesting that Baltimore's KIPP Ujima Village Academy charter school isn't a sustainable model for school reform elsewhere seems to miss the point.
Test scores at Baltimore's KIPP school, which opened a decade ago and recently reached a deal with the teachers union to remain in the city another 10 years, consistently rank among the highest in the state, and 85 percent of the kids eventually go on to college. In terms of growth in student achievement, its record rivals those of top-performing suburban schools, even though 80 percent of KIPP students come from families whose incomes qualify them for free or reduced-price school meals. The school is about as close to an undeniable success story as we're likely to get in a big-city school system.
Yet the study last month by researchers at Western Michigan University questioned what it called an unusually high attrition rate at the Baltimore KIPP school, reporting that between 2006 and 2009, 42 percent of the students who started in the sixth grade failed to complete eighth grade. It also noted that KIPP schools appeared to receive more public and private funding per pupil than most public and charter schools. For such reasons, it said, other school districts across the county were unlikely to be able to replicate KIPP's results.
KIPP officials dispute the Michigan study findings, which they say are based on inaccurate or misleading data. But they are obviously also eager to dispel the notion — implicit in the study's charge that many students drop out of KIPP — that the program has succeeded only because it skims the cream of the crop and discards the rest. KIPP administrators insist the school is committed to the success of every child and that most of those who leave do so of their own accord. (KIPP also claims that the percentage of students leaving its schools is no higher than school district averages.)
It stands to reason that KIPP's longer school day and year — students are in class 91/2 hours rather than the usual seven hours, plus attend weekend and summer sessions — would push per-pupil expenditures higher than those of their public school counterparts. But other studies suggest that the difference is not nearly as great as the Michigan study claims; in any case, the cost is far below that of most private schools.
The more important question is whether the KIPP model works because it only enrolls students who are likely to succeed anyway, a luxury its public school counterparts don't enjoy. That question is even more pertinent in the wake of reports that KIPP Ujima had been administering a placement exam for new students. It played no role in admissions but determined whether incoming students could advance to the sixth grade or would have to repeat the fifth. Critics questioned whether that requirement was scaring away some potential applicants and, again, resulting in a weeding out of less-motivated students.
That seems unlikely, however. Because KIPP schools have a limited number of slots, all students are selected by lottery from the same applicant pool. Even granting that those who go to the trouble to apply may be more highly motivated than average — after all, they are signing up for a school that bills itself as more challenging — there's no reason to believe those who aren't accepted are any less capable than those who are, or that anyone who was seriously interested in the KIPP model would be dissuaded by a placement test.
The more reasonable explanation for why some students leave is that the school's high standards and rigorous work ethic turn out to be more than they bargained for. Extra-long days and Saturday and summer school are not for everyone. Teachers and administrators take a no-excuses attitude that insists students constantly improve their performance and take responsibility for their behavior. Parents must pledge to check their children's homework regularly and make sure they get to school on time. The insistence on excellence is what drives the school's stellar results. It's a tough regime, but it's worked for thousands of students — not only in Baltimore but across the country.
That doesn't mean it will be the right answer for every student or that we should transform every public school in the country into a KIPP clone. Part of the point of the charter school movement is to create a variety of models of education to help children get a good education, and KIPP most certainly does that. It doesn't have to be all things to all people for us to call it a success.