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Fighting California’s Middle-Grade Blues
KIPP Charter Schools...
[Lance T. Izumi] 4/20/06

While Rob Reiner is running around California telling voters that preschool is the magic bullet for the state’s education woes, testing data shows that children are having learning problems not at the beginning of their school careers, but in the middle. Too many public middle schools have become barriers to student achievement. In contrast, the KIPP charter schools, relatively new to California, offer a promising model for raising the achievement levels of middle-school students, especially those from low-income backgrounds.

In 2004, 26.4 percent of California elementary schools hit the designated performance target of 800 on the state Academic Performance Index (API), while only 17.3 percent of middle schools hit the target. In addition, the median score of elementary schools on the API in 2004 was 730 versus 696 for middle schools. Why student test scores dip in the middle grades is still not well understood. One thing that is certain, however, is that most California middle schools bear little resemblance to the KIPP charter schools.

Lance T. Izumi
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

Lance Izumi is Director of Education Studies for the Pacific Research Institute and
Senior Fellow in California Studies. He is a leading expert in education policy and the author of several major PRI studies. [go to Izumi index]

Started in New York and Houston, KIPP stands for “Knowledge is Power Program.” The KIPP model is based on five principles: 1) high expectations for students, teachers and parents, 2) choice and commitment to excellence, 3) more time on task through extended schedules, 4) greater flexibility and power to lead granted to the principal, and, 5) an unrelenting focus on results.

Students attend school from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm on weekdays, plus half-days on alternating Saturdays, and mandatory three-week summer sessions. This additional schooling means that KIPP students typically receive a full 60 percent more learning time than students in regular public schools. These additional hours are essential because KIPP requires all students to take a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum that incorporates frequent assessment. There is no tolerance for failure to complete homework or misbehaving. Teachers are often recruited from the nation’s elite universities.

A look at the test scores of KIPP’s California charter schools show that the model is working. Only one, KIPP Bridge College Preparatory (BCP) in Oakland, has three years of test-score data. The improvement at KIPP BCP has been staggering. In 2003, only 26 percent of KIPP BCP fifth graders scored at or above the proficient level in math on the main state standardized test. In 2005, 74 percent of those same students, who were now seventh graders, scored at or above proficient. Compare these impressive numbers with the performance, or lack of performance, of the Oakland Unified School District.

In 2003, 24 percent of Oakland fifth graders scored at or above the proficient level in math. In 2005, district students actually regressed, with only 18 percent of seventh graders scoring at or above proficiency. The same story occurred in reading.

In 2003, 16 percent of fifth graders of KIPP BCP fifth graders scored at or above the proficient level. By 2005, an amazing 63 percent of seventh graders were scoring at or above proficiency. In 2003, 21 percent of Oakland fifth graders scored at or above proficiency. By 2005, 24 percent of district seventh graders scored at or above proficiency.

The achievement of KIPP BCP students is especially noteworthy given that the student body is 80 percent African American, 15 percent Hispanic, and three quarters of the students are from low-income families. Even more amazing, KIPP BCP receives a paltry $3,750 in per-pupil state and local funding, about half the state average of nearly $7,500.

Most of KIPP’s nine California charter middle schools have been in existence for only one or two years, but even among these schools many are showing great initial promise. At KIPP Academy of Opportunity (AO) in Los Angeles, only 22 percent of fifth graders in 2004 scored at or above proficient in math, but the next year 54 percent of sixth graders scored at or above proficiency. Compare that improvement with students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where 33 percent of fifth graders in 2004 scored at or above proficient in math, but only 26 percent of sixth graders scored at or above that level in 2005. Like the students at KIPP BCP, the students at KIPP AO are almost entirely African American and Hispanic, and 83 percent are from low-income families. KIPP AO receives just $5,350 in per-pupil state and local funding.

One of KIPP’s mottoes is that “the actual proves the possible.” The improvement in achievement in the difficult middle grades among low-income, often minority, students at California KIPP charter schools demonstrates that there are better ways to raise student learning and performance. Now it’s up to California’s regular public schools and education policymakers to learn this lesson and replicate what works. CRO

copyright 2006 Pacific Research Institute



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