If the founders of KIPP, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg — two guys I once considered pretty good acquaintances — were to make an appearance at a TFA institute, nowadays, surrounded by a group of actual KIPP students (known as KIPPsters), the place would go wild. KIPP, Levin, and Feinberg, are heroes in the TFA folklore by now. But it wasn’t always that way.
Back in 1996, the corps members were not so different from corps members today. They were bright and wanted to do good for society. The difference is that they weren’t indoctrinated by the current ‘no excuses’ solution to education. I worked as a trainer that year (and Michelle Rhee, though a bit younger than me, was my supervisor’s supervisor) at the only institute at that time, in Houston at the U of H campus. One of the evenings, the entire corps, which was about 1,000 people was asked to attend an all-corps assembly in the theater.
Up on the stage was a table at which sat Levin and Feinberg. They explained to the group that they had just started their own school about a year earlier. They weren’t yet very media savvy so the audience was definitely thrown by Levin’s style. At one point he said something like “You hear people say ‘All children can learn.’ Well, that’s bullshit. I say ‘All children can AND WILL learn’.”
They brought up the KIPPsters on the stage and had them demonstrate some of what they’ve learned. The kids ‘skip counted’ by sevens and other things which I can’t remember now — this was 18 years ago. The audience was getting antsy though and grumbling. The thing they sensed was that this style of education lacked heart and soul. One of the other trainers, I remember, went up to some of the KIPPsters after they had sat down and asked about what sort of literature they read. “Have you read any Sandra Cisneros?” she asked.
Eventually, the grumbling got so fierce, people were coming up to the microphone and screaming at Levin and Feinberg and ultimately they cut the program short, and that was the end of the KIPP showcase that year.
Amazing what a difference 18 years makes, though the things that upset people back then are still valid.
KIPP released their latest annual report recently and one stat I’ve been tracking for years is their attrition rate. For the past three years, it has been a steady 12% — per year. This means that in a typical 5th through 8th KIPP, 100 fifth graders would shrink to 88 6th graders, 77 7th graders, 68 8th graders, and 60 graduating 8th graders for a total attrition of 40%.
Then they show this statistic.
This suggests that kids have a more than five times chance of graduating college by going to KIPP. But that 44% is just the 44% of the kids who make it to be KIPP alumni. So this stat is certainly skewed. Now you might say that 44% of the 60% who remain is still 26 percent, which is still over triple the 8%. You know, if they said that I still would have some issues, but definitely one issue less.
Another thing I noticed in the annual report is that the SAT scores from their juniors are horrific. Now I’m not the one who says that test scores are everything, but reformers do, so when I see KIPP Newark, which has gotten a lot of attention lately, and KIPP Washington DC with SAT scores in the 1200s, that’s about 400 per section which you could get by answering about five questions per section and leaving the rest blank, I have to wonder how well those students will succeed in college.
Funded, in part by the Waltons, KIPP is a bit like the Walmart of charter schools. And just like Walmart may have some good things about it — maybe prices there are low, I don’t know — KIPP might be good for the kids who are a ‘good fit’ for it. But also like Walmart, the negatives of KIPP seem to outweigh the positives. This is why the gut instinct of those 1996 corps members back in the day was correct.