Friday, June 18th

The “free schools” policy discussed on the radio this morning, and being launched in detail today by Michael Gove, is very interesting.

It does pose legitimate questions about the influence of the state over what goes on in classrooms, and about the balance between national and local government power over what goes on in schools, professional freedom over decision-making, and parental decision-making. The most immediate questions centre on how the schools will be funded.

I want to blog more on this subject in the coming weeks.

However, I thought now I would just post on one particular aspect of the free schools policy which Mr Gove alluded to again on the Today programme this morning: its inspiration, at least in part, from the American charter schools policy, and particularly one set of charter schools, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), set up by two teachers.

KIPP schools are seen as among the most successful charter schools in the US, and have been referred to enthusiastically by Mr Gove. He may be right; they certainly have a good record. But there are other debates around these schools. Having read Diane Ravitch’s fascinating book on the US education system (see my last blog), I thought I would simply quote at length her section on KIPP schools. I have not checked her facts myself; but it is another perspective that is worthy of consideration, I think, in this debate. Ravitch is a former assistant secretary of state for education  in the US, and now a research professor of education at New York University and a columnist for Education Week newspaper.

Ravitch writes (page 135): “The charter schools with the most impressive record of success are the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, which have been called culture-changing schools, because they aim to teach students not just academics but also self-discipline and good behavior. KIPP was launched in 1994 by two teachers, David Levin and Michael Feinberg, after they completed their two-year assignment in the Teach for America program in Houston. Feinberg opened a KIPP school in Houston, and Levin opened one in the South Bronx in New York City. Both schools achieved exceptional results. Generously funded by foundations, Levin and Feinberg opened dozens more KIPP schools across the nation, specifically to prepare poor minority students for college. Fifteen years after the organization was founded, there were eighty-two KIPP schools with approximately 20,000 students.

Almost every KIPP school is a charter school, and most are middle schools (grades five through eight). In contrast to regular public schools, KIPP schools have longer days (nine and a half hours), some Saturday classes, and three weeks of summer school; typically, a KIPP school provides 60 percent more time in school than a regular public school. Students, parents, and teachers sign a contract agreeing to fulfill specific responsibilities. The central organization does not define KIPP’s pedagogy and curriculum; it leaves these decisions to individual school leaders.

In the demands they make on students, teachers, and parents, the KIPP schools are reminiscent of the American public schools of the 1940s, or even the 1920s, before the onset of class-action lawsuits and union contracts. In those days, it was not unusual to encounter schools with strict disciplinary codes and long working hours (though not nine-and-a-half-hour days).

Despite its successes, KIPP has its detractors. Critics question the applicability of the KIPP model to public education in general. One persistent question is whether KIPP enrolls all kinds of students, as regular public schools must. 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 neighborhood worse off because they have lost some of their top-performing students. They also tend to enrol fewer of the students with high needs—English-language learners and those needing special education.

 The students who remain in KIPP schools for four or more years tend to achieve large test score gains. Most KIPP schools consistently outperform traditional public schools in the same neighborhood. But 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 eighth grade. The students who quit tended to be lower-performing students. The exit of such a large proportion of low-performing students—for whatever reasons—makes it difficult to analyze 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.

KIPP has demonstrated that youngsters from some of the toughest neighborhoods in the nation can succeed in a safe and structured environment, if they have supportive parents and are willing to work hard, spend long days in school, and comply with the school’s expectations. Thus far, public schools have not copied their methods. 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.

The theory of the charter movement is that competition with the regular public schools will lead to improvements in both sectors, and that choice is a rising tide that lifts all boats. But in reality, the regular public schools are at a huge disadvantage in competition with charter schools. It is not only because charter schools may attract the most motivated students, may discharge laggards, and may enforce a tough disciplinary code, but also because the charters often get additional financial resources from their corporate sponsors, enabling them to offer smaller classes, after-school and enrichment activities, and laptop computers for every student. Many charter schools enforce discipline codes that would likely be challenged in court if they were adopted in regular public schools; and because charter schools are schools of choice, they find it easier to avoid, eliminate, or counsel out low-performing and disruptive students.

Yet, even with their advantages, charter schools—like all new schools—face daunting challenges. Reformers declare their intention to open new schools as though this would solve the problems of low performing schools. But new schools cannot be mass-produced or turned out with a cookie-cutter design. Opening a new school is difficult. It involves starting with or recruiting a strong leader and a capable faculty, obtaining facilities, developing a program, assembling a student body, creating an effective administrative structure, and building a culture. Getting a new school up and running may take as many as five years. Some will succeed, some will be no different from the schools they replaced, and others will fail.”

Ravitch was initially an enthusiast for a concept of charter schools which saw them as giving teachers the chance to take more professional control over what happened in the classroom. However, she now also has reservations about how this has turned out in practice in the American context. This is another aspect of the coalition’s free schools policy which was heavily discussed this morning, which I want to write about in the coming days.

1 Comment

  1. It seems that KIPP schools may be a decent idea in theory. However, if success is dependent on dedictaed parental support, then surely the most vulnerable children (those from homes where there is violence, addictions etc) are being excluded even further thus deepening social problems in the area. Also, KIPP schools will cream off the top students from deprived areas which means the existing public schools will see a dip in results. Establishments and ideas such as these ought to be inclusive and the children who do not have 100% backing from ambitious parents are the ones who, yet again, will suffer.

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