Charter Schools And Low-SES Students: Damned If They Do and Damned If They Don’t?

On average, charter schools seem to be about average. But some charter school networks seem to do much, much, much better on average. That’s worth knowing for two reasons. One is that we should be encouraging highly effective charter networks to expand, since more high-quality schools is a good thing. The other is that the success of some of these networks demonstrates that it’s possible to overcome challenging demographics. The most scrutinized of these successful charter networks is the Knowledge Is Power Program and the latest research (PDF, via Adam Ozimek) once again shows substantial KIPP-linked gains for poor kids, especially the weakest students and special ed kids.

The study also looks at the issue of whether KIPP is “skimming” through a high attrition rate. The authors confirm that KIPP does, indeed, have a high attrition rate. But it also finds that students who won the KIPP admissions lottery are no more likely to switch schools than those who lost. So it’s KIPP’s attrition rate, not the success of its students, that reflects a selection effect.

I think charter proponents may finally be winning this argument, since I just read a piece by Dana Goldstein making the reverse of a skimming critique, arguing that “there are some troubling questions about whether the most politically popular charter school model—the ‘No Excuses’ model popularized by KIPP and embraced by Moskowitz’s Success Charter Network—is palatable to middle-class and affluent parents.” In other words, if KIPP’s not condemned for skimming the easiest cases, it’s condemned for promoting segregation by declining to make itself appealing to the easiest cases.

To me, this is misguided. It all goes back to the basic issue of why poor kids do better in less segregated schools in the first place. Basically, kids seem to benefit from picking up certain bourgeois modes of behavior. Bourgeois kids generally pick them up from their parents. Poor kids can pick them up from their peers, but only if they go to a school with a relatively low concentration of poverty. Poor kids in a high-poverty school can also receive explicit instruction in bourgeois conduct. That’s the essence of the “No Excuses” model, but it doesn’t make sense in a bourgeois context. We should think of these kind of schools as stopgaps, workable solutions to the difficult problem of running a school in an environment of concentrated poverty. For a whole variety of reasons we should be trying to break those concentrations up and reduce the overall level of poverty. But given that concentrated poverty isn’t going to vanish next week, we should also be applauding people who are finding ways to make it work.