What explains KIPP’s success?

In Ohio, Fordham authorizes the state’s only KIPP school (KIPP Journey in Columbus). So we were excited to read Mathematica’s recent report KIPP Middle Schools: Impacts on Achievement and Other Outcomes. It  has garnered considerable media attention and commentary—from belief to skepticism—for its finding that KIPP schools significantly improve student outcomes. A large portion of the coverage and commentary has honed in on KIPP’s positive impacts on student achievement, with less attention paid to the Other Outcomes part of the report.

The other outcomes part of the report, however, deserves its share of attention—especially, the report’s analysis of what school-based factors explain KIPP’s success. This analysis is intended to pinpoint one, perhaps multiple, reasons why KIPP charter schools work for their students.

To answer why, the researchers link individual KIPP school’s impact estimates, which vary among the schools, with a set of 14 school-based explanatory factors. Here are some of the more interesting findings:

•Length of school day: Especially long school days are associated with lower student achievement. But, the KIPP schools with especially long school days also tend to spend more time in non-core subjects, which leads to point two—

•Instructional time: More time spent in the core subjects (math, language arts, science, and history) relates to higher math and reading scores. And conversely, more time in non-core subjects relates negatively to achievement scores. The upshot of this and the bullet above: A longer school day that’s loaded with non-core subject instruction is likely to disappoint, at least with respect to achievement scores.

•Student behavior: A school-wide behavior system relates to higher student achievement. A school-wide behavior system has three elements: First, consistently enforced behavioral standards and discipline policies; second, a behavior code that rewards good behavior; third, a code that sanctions students who violate the rules. KIPP principals who more strongly agreed that these elements were in place were more likely to lead schools with higher results.

•Staff and teacher characteristics: The researchers found no relationship between teacher experience, professional development, and turnover and student achievement. With respect to principals, the study found only slight evidence that principal experience impacts student achievement.

In the end, the researchers concede that they haven’t found the magic formula that makes KIPP schools tick—for various reasons, they couldn’t make conclusive or causal claims. Their findings, however, are certainly idea-fodder for school building leaders sorting through ways to improve their school, whether a KIPP school or otherwise.

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is a Ohio Research Director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute