Map of 183 KIPP schools across the nation. Click here for details.
Eleven years ago, KIPP was on Oprah. Four years later, the network was the subject of a book written by the same guy who wrote about Jaime Escalante (of “Stand and Deliver” fame).
Since then, the charter school network — perhaps the best-recognized name in school reform outside of Teach For America — has grown to about 68,000 students in 183 schools nationwide (thanks in large part to a $50 million USDE grant in 2010).
But KIPP charter schools seem like they don’t get as much media attention these days, do they? That’s the impression I and some others have. The thought made me wonder whether KIPP coverage was down as steeply as it seemed, and if so, why?
Based on conversations and emails with both KIPP and a reporter who’s covered them closely, it turns out that KIPP still gets coverage, but it’s of a different kind than it used to be.
One obvious reason for the relative lack of attention in recent times is that the network isn’t shiny and new any longer (like Altschool) or headed by a hard-charging leader (like Eva Moscowitz).
“I don’t know of any successful education program that has continued to get much play as it continues to succeed,” notes longtime Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews, who wrote the 2009 book about KIPP. Citing examples like Success For All, AVID, and KIPP, Mathews says “We ed writers see that as old news.”
It is probably worth noting that the network hasn’t opened any new schools outside its existing regions for the last five years, though that could change soon. Opening new schools is one thing — a Redwood City proposal generated some attention, as did an expansion from Newark to Camden. But it’s a far cry from opening up in a new district or part of the country — say Miami, or Long Beach.
In addition, the network also no longer exemplifies the controversial “no excuses” approach to urban education that it once did. That isn’t who they are any more — at least not nearly as much as in the past. The network also reduced its extended hours several years ago, a move that other networks are now adopting. Principal retention is up from 50 percent over four years to 80 percent, thanks to something called “four vital behaviors.”
It’s possible that KIPP’s focus on transparency and accountability for its own results, rather than bragging about progress or accomplishments, makes it both less interesting and less easy to attack for charter critics. The network put its college completion numbers online in 2011 and again more recently. This openness avoids generating the kind of obsessive digging that some districts and networks engender by keeping a tight lid on their operations or making outrageous claims.
None of this is to say that there’s been no attention at all. Dale Russakoff’s Newark schools story told in The Prize led to this WNYC segment about Newark charter school performance in the Zuckerberg era. And a new study of the network won 2015 coverage from the Washington Post and Houston Chronicle.
In fact, according to KIPP’s Steve Mancini, press mentions of KIPP are up 18 percent from July to December as compared to the previous year. And high-profile mentions of the network in recent years include Malcolm Gladwell’s recent feature on New Orleans (as well as in his Outliers book) and a Fast Company profile of KIPP’s effort to increase principal retention. The network was also a major part of Paul Tough’s book on teaching non-cognitive skills, which was also featured in an NBC News segment a few years ago.
But the stories tend not to be investigative or conflict-focused. The main reason that KIPP may not be in the news as much or in the same way as other school reform organizations is that it doesn’t fit the conflict narrative that readers — and journalists — tend to look for.
For example, some KIPP schools in Houston and Baltimore now have health clinics on site for students and parents. The creation of a school-based health center in Baltimore generated coverage from the Baltimore Sun, as well as the local ABC, NBC and FOX affiliates. Some KIPP schools now provide daycare for teachers.
“We have a very polarized debate,” says Mancini. “Reporters play to this. You want to create two warring camps.” But “it’s hard to put KIPP in a box,” says Mancini. “There’s lots of things that KIPP is doing in the messy middle.”
According to Mancini, national education reporters may have trouble figuring out how to write about KIPP because it isn’t a top-down entity, but rather 31 autonomous organizations with their own nonprofit status.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any news outlets that want to look at progress being made. John Merrow featured a district partnership with Spring Branch Texas schools on the PBS NewsHour. “People want to see entities that are different working together,” says Mancini, who notes that nonprofit outlets like Chalkbeat and Hechinger Report have helped bring constructive coverage to the kinds of education work it’s been doing. “They ask tough questions, but they will not try and have an article fit into a preset agenda.”
Mancini cites a Danielle Dreilinger story as one of the favorite examples of media coverage he’s seen in recent years, because it avoids focusing on test scores or graduation rates but instead tells readers about students’ attempts to set up a traditional homecoming king and queen tradition before they graduate.*
Some new things that are still getting noticed include learnings about character development, just put it up on the KIPP website. And Mathews says that he’s working on a followup to his KIPP book, looking at the broader charter school movement. “I wish good news like KIPP got more coverage, but I don’t think it is a big problem if it doesn’t,” says Matthews. “We news guys don’t really add much to anybody’s success. They have to do the hard work.”
*Correction: The original version of this post mischaracterized Dreilinger’s article and attributed a quote to Mancini rather than Mathews.