KIPP CEO addresses impact of discipline policies

ByKatie Ash

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The Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, is a nationwide charter school network whose “no excuses” model and high academic performance have brought it widespread praise. Critics, however, have questioned whether KIPP schools’ academic showing is partly attributable to attrition of low-performing students whose seats often end up going unfilled.

The network consists of 31 separate charter-management organizations, each of which sets its own disciplinary policies. Overall, there are 125 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Founded in 1994, KIPP now enrolls more than 41,000 students, of whom 59 percent are African-American, 36 percent are Hispanic, and 87 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to the San Francisco-based national organization. In addition, 14 percent of its students are designated English-language learners, and 9 percent receive special education services.

KIPP’s chief executive officer, Richard Barth, answered a series of questions by email from Education Week‘s Jackie Zubrzycki about the charter organization’s discipline policies. Questions and answers were edited for space and clarity.

This interview is part of a collection of stories and data published this morning on charter schools and discipline.

Zubrzycki’s questions appear in bold, while Barth’s answers follow.

How are KIPP’s disciplinary policies related to its mission?

KIPP emphasizes high expectations for both students and the adults who support them. We structure our schools around a three-way partnership between students, parents, and teachers. School culture is so vitally important, and we strive to create an atmosphere where everyone is inspired to do their very best. What we’ve found is that the schools are most successful at creating this culture when they have a standard of behavior that’s cohesive and clear.

Some school systems have made efforts recently to standardize expulsion/discipline policies across traditional and charter schools. Do you think bringing more uniformity to these policies makes sense, or not?

Historically, educators have looked through a “district vs. charter” lens. But in communities across the country, we’re seeing a move to a “one city” or “one community” model. Discipline policies are a part of that, but there’s so much more: Districts and charters are sharing facilities, professional-development approaches, sports teams, enrollment strategies, and a whole host of other best practices and resources. … The shift to this new collaborative way of thinking won’t happen overnight. But I’m optimistic, and I think that sharing and standardizing these practices—including discipline—is absolutely a good thing.

Some critics say that tough disciplinary policies mean that your schools aren’t educating more-challenging students and that their academic performance shouldn’t be compared with that of regular public schools. What’s your response to that allegation? Should KIPP schools be serving the “same” students as other public schools? Are they?

Right now, we have independent researchers seeking to address those very issues. Mathematica is conducting a multiyear study of KIPP middle schools, to better understand our demographics and achievement. So far, Mathematica has found that, on average, students who come to KIPP in 5th grade are more likely to be from low-income and minority backgrounds, but less likely to be designated ELL or special education, than at neighboring district schools.

Mathematica concluded that entering test scores of KIPP students are comparable with those at neighboring district schools. Mathematica also found that KIPP’s middle school attrition is not systematically different from that of neighboring school districts, and that we backfill—that is, enroll new students in 6th through 8th grades—at similar rates to district schools.

KIPP has provided attrition data for various schools to its entire network for the last several years. What was the purpose of including that information, and what have the data shown?

A KIPP school with high attrition is not a healthy KIPP school, regardless of other positive indicators. What you measure matters, and publishing our student-retention data in the annual KIPP Report Card is a way to encourage all of us at KIPP to find ways to improve. Since we started looking at student mobility this way, our attrition has declined from 16 percent in 2007 to 11 percent in 2011.

Gary Miron of Western Michigan University conducted a study that found that while KIPP’s attrition rates were comparable to traditional public schools, it was not replacing students who left and tended to be low-performing, and that this helps KIPP’s academic performance. What is KIPP’s response to those critics who say not replacing the low-performers who leave the system boosts the charter network’s overall performance?

That’s a very important question. Thanks to Mathematica’s research, we know that students’ movement in and out of KIPP schools doesn’t affect overall achievement. Most importantly, Mathematica found that most KIPP middle schools produce significant learning gains, even accounting for students who leave early. Mathematica also found that KIPP backfills, or enrolls new students to fill empty slots, at about the same average rate in 6th to 8th grades as neighboring districts. While late-arriving KIPP students tend to have higher baseline test scores than entering 5th graders, Mathematica found that KIPP middle schools’ largest impacts happen in the 5th grade year, before backfill becomes an issue. Mathematica looked at whether an individual student’s achievement might be influenced by their peers, and found that this “peer effect” is modest to minimal—it may explain as little as zero, and no more than a quarter, of KIPP middle schools’ achievement impacts.

Some school districts, like the District of Columbia’s, have released data to the public on discipline incidents, including expulsion and suspension information at KIPP and other charters. How do KIPP leaders use those numbers?

We place a huge value on transparency at KIPP, since it prompts us to improve and innovate. For example, a high school in one of our KIPP regions recently saw its suspension and expulsion numbers increase from the previous school year. KIPP’s local leadership … made changes in their approach, such as increasing one-on-one meetings between students and their teachers and establishing weekly all-school meetings for students. As a result, both expulsions and suspensions at the school are down significantly this school year.