The Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, is a national network of charter schools that have extended school days and a relentless focus on college. Currently, there are about 500 KIPP students in Memphis, but when the expansion is all done, in 2016, KIPP will have 4,500 students in every grade, kindergarten through 12. And 10 separate schools—five in North Memphis and five in South Memphis.
KIPP Memphis received $3 million to expand its operation from The Charter School Growth Fund, which describes itself as “a non-profit venture capital fund.” Before securing the money, KIPP sent data about its Memphis students’ academic performance to the fund.
“It’s aggressive growth, but the need is here,” said KIPP Memphis Executive Director Jamal McCall. “When you look at the need in the city it is not so aggressive.”
Now, you may have heard that charter schools, as a group, don’t perform any better than public schools—The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University did a study that looked at several states and found that only 17 percent of charter schools outperform their traditional counterparts. But CREDO also studied Tennessee’s charter schools and found that a little more than half of them—52 percent—including KIPP in Memphis, perform better than traditional public schools.
“We’re just scratching the surface with just 10 schools,” McCall said. “If we grow the schools, the kids will come because the kids are there and they need it.”
But Associate Professor of Education & Public Policy at Columbia University Luis Huerta says, “It is important to remember that this management organization’s [KIPP’s] effectiveness has yet to be shown in any research study to actually be real.”
Many studies of charter schools have been necessarily small. Governor Bill Haslam recently lifted a cap on charter schools, and their numbers are expected to grow, but there still aren’t that many in the state. So, that CREDO study of Tennessee’s charter schools, mentioned earlier, looked at only 27 schools.
Another study just of KIPP in Memphis done by the Center for Research in Education Policy at the University of Memphis also showed KIPP students doing better than district students, but started out with about 50 kids, which is all the students that were enrolled in KIPP at the time.
That’s just not enough data to be conclusive to a researcher like Huerta. And Huerta says there’s another big issue with these studies.
“There hasn’t been any sort of random assignment, of saying, ‘Here’s 1,000 kids—500 got selected through the lottery, 500 have to stay in traditional public schools and let’s follow both of those groups.’”
Instead, the studies rely on statistical modeling—so each child in a charter school is matched with a child in a district school with the same grade, race, and gender and similar scores on state tests. Then their academic progress is tracked and compared.
“Now granted some of the statistical modeling…are pretty sophisticated, however,” Huerta said, “you’re comparing parents who are actually choosing to exit traditional schools versus parents who actually stay back.”
And Huerta says growing a charter school isn’t as simple as multiplying by 10. “Going to scale is what we are discovering in research to be the biggest challenge right now with charter schools. And it’s not about a lack of facilities or a lack of funding. It’s a simple issue that is linked to a lack of human capital, effective teachers, and staff, and leaders,” Huerta said.
KIPP Memphis Executive Director Jamal McCall isn’t worried about keeping standards up during and after the expansion. “We say, ‘Growing bigger and getting better,’” McCall said.
McCall says to keep hiring manageable all schools will open one grade at a time.
“The data will be the driving force that tells us how we’re doing and what we need to do differently. And I think if I look at all those, use all those cues, we will get to where need to be.”