Research Disproves Another Charter School Myth

Research Disproves Another Charter School Myth
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A sign for the new KIPP Thrive Academy hangs outside what had been the closed Eighteenth Avenue School Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

RCEd Commentary

The rapid expansion of charter schools is fundamentally reforming urban education. Those who want to slow their growth often deflect by saying that the educational gains from attending an urban charter seen in the research are due to factors other than better quality schooling. Perhaps the most commonly cited boogeyman is that charter schools benefit from high attrition rates of the most difficult-to-educate students. New research is debunking that claim.

No charter school network is more synonymous with urban education reform than the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP.

KIPP has rapidly grown throughout the years and now serves about 70,000 students – the vast majority of whom are minority and come from low-income households – in 183 schools across 20 states and the District of Columbia. Their schools exemplify the “no-excuses” model that holds students accountable for meeting high standards, regardless of their backgrounds.

Recent research shows that students make substantial academic progress when they attend a KIPP school instead of the district school to which they would have otherwise been assigned. The results from KIPP and other charters provide strong evidence that disadvantaged students can indeed learn if they are provided with high quality schooling.

And yet, some question whether these gains made in KIPP schools are real and replicable. In particular, they argue that their test scores improvements are inflated by disproportionate attrition of low-performing students out of KIPP.

But new work from researchers at Mathematica Policy Research, published in the latest issue of the prestigious journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, shows that such concerns are at best exaggerated.

The authors compared the mobility of students attending KIPP middle schools to those of students in surrounding school districts. They found that overall attrition from KIPP is actually very similar to that of both the entire surrounding school district and a group of similar peer schools. Nor do KIPP schools seem to be systematically pushing their lowest-performers out the door --– the achievement levels of students who leave KIPP mirror those exiting similar district schools. 

These findings for KIPP are consistent with a growing body of research. My own research in Denver and New York City found that low-performing students are just as likely to leave charter schools as they are to exit district schools. A study by Vanderbilt’s Ron Zimmer and Indiana University’s Cassandra Guarino similarly found no difference in the exit patterns of low-performing students in charter and district schools within an anonymous school district in the Midwest. There simply is no empirical evidence to support the common claim that low-performing students are systematically pushed out of charter schools. 

Where the enrollment patterns for KIPP and district schools differ is with new entrants after the initial grade level to replace those students who exit. Those who exit KIPP schools are often either not replaced within the school in later grades, or they are replaced by students with higher baseline performance. That’s not true in district schools. 

These differences in entrance patterns tend to increase the average test scores in KIPP schools relative to district schools. But that fact is entirely accounted for in research finding that KIPP benefits student outcomes.

Nonetheless, we might be concerned that students attending KIPP schools benefit not just from better instruction but also from increases in the quality of their peers. That is, maybe KIPP schools don’t actually provide better instruction. Maybe they just provide students to access to higher quality classmates who help them learn. That would be fine for kids attending KIPP now. But it would suggest that expanding the KIPP model might prove ineffective.

We do not fully understand the magnitude of such so-called “peer effects,” but research suggests that they are real. Nonetheless, the Mathematica study shows that even the most generous “peer effect” estimates could explain, at best, only about a quarter of the measured impact of attending a KIPP school on student achievement. That is, with or without peer effects, it is clear that attending a KIPP school leads to much higher educational outcomes.

Over and over again, quality research is dismantling claims that the large gains seen in urban charter schools are simple a mirage. The educational improvements we see in KIPP schools and other schools like them are real, and are making a difference in students’ lives. Urban policymakers considering further expansion of charter schools should look at the evidence and ignore the unsubstantiated claims.

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