In response to Ryan McNeely’s excellent post yesterday on the success of KIPP schools (and I recommend that you read the comments where a lot of methodological issues get explored), Kevin Drum offers pessimism about the scale on which the model can be made to work:
Second, there aren’t very many KIPP schools, and their structure is a built-in reason for this: KIPP schools demand a lot of their teachers, who work very long hours and are required to be on call at all times. They pay a bit more for this, but only a bit, and this isn’t a model that scales well. You can always find a small cadre of dedicated young teachers willing to put up with this, but you’re never going to find the hundreds of thousands you’d need to make this work on a large scale.
That’s not to say that KIPP is a failure. It’s not. It’s a success. But it’s a limited one, and probably always will be.
It’s always worth keeping this stuff in mind, but I take it in a different spirit. Teaching poor children effectively is difficult. But at least one effective model seems to exist. It requires human capital resources that most schools don’t have and it’s not entirely clear how much of those resources can be obtained. But it’s genuinely not clear. KIPP started as two schools in 1994 and stayed that way until 2000 when they incorporated the KIPP Foundation. Since then as this McNeely chart illustrates, they’ve been expanding pretty steadily:
How big can this go at the end of the day? I have no idea. But there’s no reason to respond to this track record with pre-emptive pessimism. Instead the proper response is to encourage elected officials in a low-performing, high-poverty school district near you to welcome high-quality charter schools. What’s more, charitably inclined rich people should strongly consider closing their checkbooks to well-endowed universities and opening them to non-profit institutions that do an excellent job of educating poor kids. Institutions like KIPP.
In broader public policy terms, this all I think underscores the fact that we have a choice as a society about how much we care about the quality of our schools. It seems to me that we have evidence that good teachers make a big difference, and that it’s therefore worthwhile to pay substantial sums of money to obtain them. But that means lowering the barriers to entering the teaching profession, and then once people are in classrooms making it easier to get rid of them if they turn out to be ineffective and giving them raises so they continue teaching if they turn out to be extremely effective.