In her 2010 polemic, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch has praise and criticism for KIPP charter schools. On the one hand, she recognizes the organization improves scores for students. On the other hand, she credits this success, in part, on the schools ability to kick out hard to educate students:

…KIPP schools often have a high attrition rate. Apparently many students and their parents are unable or unwilling to comply with KIPP’s stringent demands. A 2008 study of KIPP schools in San Francisco’s Bay Area found that 60 percent of the students who started in fifth grade were gone by the end of eigth grade. The students who quit tended to be lower-performing students. The exit of such a large propotion of low-performing students –for whatever reason- makes it difficult to analys the performance of KIPP students in higher grades. In addition, teacher turnover is high at KIPP schools as well as other charter schools, no doubt because of the unusually long hours.  Thus, while the KIPP schools obtain impressive results for the students who remain enrolled for four years, the high levels of student attrition and teacher turnover raise questions about the applicability of the KIPP model to the regular public schools.

Note that teacher turnover in-and-of-itself is considered a problem. I find it baffling to consider success alongside high turnover as evidence of a limitation of the sucees rather than as evidence that turnover is not necessarily a problem.

The italicized portion of her quote is of particular interest, since it is directly contradicted by a study from Mathematica Policy Institute that showed that KIPP improves test scores for students that ever attend KIPP, including those that leave early. This is a direct contradiction of her claim.

As she does throughout the book, Ravitch drives the point home with a rhetorical flourish befitting of a speech at an NEA pep rally, lamenting the unfair advantages that charter schools have, and how easy that makes it for them compared to the underdog public schools:

Regular public schools must accept everyone who applies, including the students who leave KIPP schools.   They can’t throw out the kids who do not work hard or the kids who have many absences or the kids who are disrespectful or the kids whose parents are absent or inattentive. They have to find ways to educate even those students who don’t want to be there. That’s the dilemma of public education.

Ravitch creates the image of KIPP schools taking better students from public schools, and simply kicking out bad students, sending them back into the public school system. This negative model of charter success is an important theme in the book. However, another recent study by Mathematica Policy Institute shows that her claims here are also false. They found that students leave KIPP schools at the same rate as they do for nearby public schools. In fact, for black and hispanic students, the attrition rates for KIPP were lower.

Ravitch also credit’s the lottery admissions for KIPP’s success. Her argument is that

“Like other successful charter schools, KIPP admits students by lottery; by definition, only the most motivated families apply for a slot. Charters with lotteries tend to attract the best students in poor neighborhoods, leaving the public schools in the same neighborhoods worse off because they have lost some of their top-performing students. They also tend to enroll fewer of the students with high needs – English-language learners and those needing special educaiton.”

This complaint puzzles me. Ravitch once was a supporter of charter schools. But if lotteries are “by definition” going to cream skim and advantage charter schools, how did she ever support them? Her argument here is definitional, and not a matter of data. When criticized for changing positions on education reform Ravitch likes to quote Keynes who, perhaps apocryphally, said “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”, but have the definitions changed as well?

Furthermore, the Mathematica study found that KIPP did not admit the “best students”. On average, KIPP entrants were “not more advantaged than other students in their communities, as  measured by poverty and prior achievement levels”. For instance, 84% of students who attended the sample of KIPP schools qualified for a free lunch program, compared to 64% in KIPP host districts, and 72% in the elementary schools that send any children to KIPP. They enroll more minorities, and they enroll students with lower test scores than the district average and the same as the average for the public schools that KIPP students came from.

They do find that KIPP tends to enroll less ESL students and students with disabilities, but this is not the same as admitting the “best students”. Ravitch clearly agrees with this, as you can see in the quote above she includes the complaint that KIPP doesn’t admit enough ESL and disabled students as distinct from and in addition to the complaint about only letting in “the best students”.

These results are important because if Ravitch claims that KIPP cream skimming higher acheiving students makes public schools worse off, then the fact that they take lower performing students must make public schools worse off. This doesn’t just remove a complaint about charters then, it actually represents a benefit to the public school system. This positive impact of more charters and choice on public schools is reinforced by studies that have shown public schools improve in response to more competition, an entire vein of literature ignored in Ravitch’s book.

These are clear examples of the facts disproving Ravitch’s claims. Will future editions of her book correct this? Will she call attention to this fact and publicly reverse her opinion of KIPP?

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