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‘Superman’ Film’s KIPP Schools Leave Kids Out, Study Says

Taxpayer-funded KIPP schools, praised in the film “Waiting for Superman,” succeed in sending poor graduates to college because the lowest-performing students drop out or don’t enroll at all, a study found.

KIPP academies have higher attrition rates than traditional public schools and enroll fewer students with disabilities and limited English skills, according to the study released today by Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York. KIPP oversees a network of 99 charter schools, publicly funded institutions operated by outside organizations, and enrolls more than 27,000 students in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

The American Federation of Teachers, with 1.6 million members, is among the groups concerned that charter schools may “cherry pick” the best students, according to a union policy paper. The new study shows that KIPP isn’t educating the same population as local districts, undercutting its claims for superior academic performance, said Gary Miron, the lead author.

“There’s a perception that KIPP is a model for turning around troubled schools,” Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University, said in a telephone interview. “That’s a myth.”

The study relies on inaccurate data and flawed methodology, said Steve Mancini, a spokesman for San Francisco-based KIPP, which stands for Knowledge is Power Program. Its approach, which feature a longer school day and three weeks of summer instruction, accounts for its superior results, he said.

Motivated Teachers

“We attract a very motivated group of teachers who believe that not only all students can learn, but all students will learn,” Mancini said in a telephone interview. “We have a strong student culture. We set high standards for the kids.”

KIPP’s financial backers include the philanthropic foundations of the late Gap Inc. founder Donald Fisher, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, KB Home co-founder Eli Broad and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Walton family.

Teachers Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin founded KIPP in 1994 after completing their work with “Teach for America,” which sends college graduates into public schools. The first academy opened in Houston and the second in New York City’s South Bronx. “Waiting for Superman,” directed by Academy Award winner Davis Guggenheim, chronicles how families enter lotteries to enroll in KIPP and other charter schools.

Point of Agreement

The new study of KIPP received no funding outside of Western Michigan, Miron said. In the past, his research has received financial support from the U.S. Education Department, the Cleveland Foundation, the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice, an East Lansing, Michigan nonprofit primarily funded by teachers’ unions, and ConnCAN, a New Haven, Connecticut organization that favors charter schools, he said.

KIPP and the study’s authors agree the schools have strong academic results and draw more than their share of poor families.

More than 85 percent of KIPP alumni have gone to college, and more than 80 percent are eligible for federal free or reduced-price meals programs, according to its website.

The researchers said KIPP’s success results primarily from student selection and retention. Fifteen percent of KIPP students leave each year, five times the rate of the school districts from which the organization draws students, the study found, citing federal data.

Forty percent of black males depart KIPP from sixth- to eighth-grade and more low-performing kids leave and aren’t replaced, the study said.

English Skills

KIPP runs schools for students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Sixty of the 99 are middle schools for fifth- to eighth-graders, according to the program’s website.

About 12 percent of KIPP students have limited English skills, compared with 19.2 percent in the districts from which KIPP draws students, the study found. About 6 percent were classified as disabled students needing special education services, half the level in the regular public schools.

KIPP is working to recruit more students with disabilities and limited English skills, Mancini said.

KIPP’s annual attrition rate is 12 percent, Mancini said. He cited a KIPP-commissioned June 2010 study from Princeton, New Jersey-based Mathematica Policy Research Inc., which found that KIPP’s attrition rate wasn’t higher than that of the schools that students would have attended.

The Mathematica study looked at student-level data, while the Western Michigan research relied on publicly available federal information for districts and schools, Miron and Mancini said. The federal information includes errors and has missing data, Mancini said.

Includes ‘Guestimates’

For that reason, the Michigan study includes “guesstimates,” Mancini said. “They are not precise numbers.”

KIPP schools are also more richly funded than traditional public schools, the Western Michigan and Columbia study found. KIPP received $12,731 per student, compared with $9,579 for the average U.S. charter school and $11,937 for the average U.S. public-school district, according to researchers’ analysis of 2007-2008 federal data.

Adding another $5,760 in private contributions, KIPP received an average of $18,491 per student, or $6,500 more than local districts, the researchers said, citing public tax filings. The higher funding levels contradict the idea that KIPP can serve as a model for cash-strapped public schools, Miron said.

The researchers’ figure for private donations is about twice as high as the reality, said Mancini. The study used incomplete data and included money raised for capital projects, he said. KIPP typically gets $9,000 to $10,000 per student in public money, he said.

“We’re not spending demonstrably more” than local districts,” Mancini said.

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