Saturday, August 19, 2006

Marketing the Best Schools

Marketing the Best Schools
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 15, 2006; 10:54 AM

I try to avoid anything having to do with school district administration. I consider myself a classroom reporter, watching what the best teachers do to help children learn. To me, school board meetings are death. Interviews with school district superintendents aren't much better.

But a new report dissecting the KIPP Foundation, a very unusual kind of school administration, has reached me, and I am obliged to stifle my boredom with back-office details and reveal what it says. KIPP, short for Knowledge Is Power Program, is the most interesting initiative in American public education at the moment, and I have tried to be first with any important news about KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin and their growing number of teachers and students.

The intriguing part of this report, "The KIPP Schools: Deciding How to Go to Scale," by Howard Husock for the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is its exploration of the relationship between the 52 KIPP schools in inner city and rural neighborhoods and the clothing store magnates, Doris and Don Fisher, who have bankrolled the foundation. They have left KIPP administrators a free hand and KIPP has set up an intriguing mechanism to rein in the schools that are not performing to the level they want. The Fishers created the GAP stores. I don't shop there, but I have worn some GAP items that I stole from my children's closets. They were comfortable, and I figure the Fishers must be smart because they are worth several hundred million dollars.

I did not realize until I read Husock's report, available at www.ksgcase.harvard. edu how powerful a brand name can be for a public charter school and how control of that name can be used to maintain high learning standards just as it is more commonly used to make sure the buttons on the front of my jeans don't fall off.

Levin and Feinberg had been building their schools for five years when Scott Hamilton, a new breed of educational entrepreneur, told the Fishers in 1999 that if they wanted to back a program with the best hope of improving public education, they ought to put their money on KIPP. Like all such initiatives, this was a big risk. Feinberg's fifth-to-eighth grade KIPP Academy in Houston and Levin's similar school in the South Bronx had produced the highest test scores in their areas for very disadvantaged children with a nine-and-a-half-hour school days, required homework, required summer school, trips, games, competitions and very energetic teaching. But they had only two schools with a total of about 600 children. Many small but hopeful school experiments like that had shriveled away, and there was no guarantee that KIPP would make much of an impact on the sluggish behemoth that is public education in inner city America.

Nonetheless, the Fishers handed Feinberg, Levin and Hamilton $15 million, since raised to about $25 million. Don Fisher told them, "I don't want to do something that just touches a few people. I want to be able to do something that can be expanded in size to do something major in public education." When Fisher asked if they really thought they could do that, Levin replied, "Well, Mr. Fisher, we're not sure, but we'd be more than happy to use your money to find out."

In April 2000, when they got the money, Feinberg was 31, Levin was 30 and Hamilton was 35. None of them had any business experience. They had no interest in running a network of for-profit schools, as Edison Schools Inc. had been doing. They also did not think the GAP's method of owning and operating each of its stores would work, because they could not attract the most creative principals unless they gave them the power to innovate in their schools just as Feinberg and Levin had done.

So they decided to use the money to recruit and train the best school leaders possible, and give them much control over not only how their school would be run, but what city it would be in. The first three principals they selected were Susan Schaeffler, Caleb Dolan and Dan Caesar. Caesar was happy to start a second KIPP school in Houston, where he was teaching, as the foundation asked him to, but when the foundation asked Schaeffler and Dolan to start KIPP schools in Atlanta, each refused. Schaeffler wanted her school in Washington, D.C., where she had been teaching and had family. Dolan wanted his in rural Gaston, N.C., where he was teaching. True to the new independent operator vision for KIPP, the foundation leaders said fine, and quickly saw several reasons why the District and Gaston would be great for KIPP.

John Kanberg, the foundation's chief legal counsel, calls this the "Johnny Appleseed" or "GM-certified mechanic" approach. They pick the best and most ambitious teachers they can find, give them a year's training (called a Fisher Fellowship) in school management, finance and the methods that had worked best for Feinberg and Levin, and then have them set up their school, usually as a public charter that lets them tap tax dollars but follow their own rules.

It has become clear that the KIPP name, and the favorable publicity associated with it, is a powerful tool in winning approval for these charter applications and recruiting good teachers. KIPP schools have been featured on "60 Minutes" and "Oprah." The achievement results from the schools continues to be impressive. So the foundation leaders have constructed a device giving them some leverage on those few occasions when a school proves to be a disappointment.

Husock, who has just become vice president for policy research at the Manhattan Institute, provides the full text of the KIPP Foundation's 10-page Trademark License Agreement for the 2005 to 2006 academic year. Husock said, "The agreement gave the foundation the right to inspect the operation of the school, review its results, and call for 'corrective action,' if found to be needed. What's more, if the school were found to be failing in either financial or educational ways -- the latter defined in terms of the number of students who were performing below appropriate grade levels on standardized tests -- it could take more drastic action," such as revoking the KIPP name. The foundation began a series of school inspections based on Hamilton's experience overseeing charter schools in Massachusetts.

The results from the five oldest KIPP middle schools, those started by Feinberg, Levin, Caesar, Dolan and Schaeffler, are so exceptional that many communities are begging for their own KIPP school. Houston KIPP officials have plans for as many as 40 schools in the next 10 years. The mostly low-income students in those five first schools who entered KIPP fifth grade in 2001 and graduated from eighth grade in 2005 improved on average from the 46th to the 80th percentile in reading and math. Students entering KIPP are now starting at even lower levels of achievement, about the 28th percentile on average. The other 47 KIPP schools, including an elementary school and two high schools, are mostly showing good results, although it will take a long time before most people who understand how schools work are satisfied that the data is solid and reveals an approach that will make a significant difference in the country.

The foundation has used the licensing agreement five times to defrock schools that KIPP did not think were moving in a promising direction. Two schools lost the right to use the KIPP name but continued as public charter schools -- the KIPP SAC Prep because the Sacramento, Calif., school wanted more local control than KIPP would allow and the KIPP PATH Academy in DeKalb County, Ga., because of what KIPP officials told Husock were "philosophical differences." The KIPP Achieve Academy in Atlanta lost the name because of financial problems and was closed by the local district at the end of this school year. Foundation officials said non-charter KIPP schools in Chicago and Asheville, N.C., lost the name in June because of relative low student enrollment and KIPP unhappiness with restrictive district contracts. The Chicago school also had disappointing test scores. Both will be folded next year into district schools housed in the same buildings.

How much this system will effect the growth of more KIPPs is uncertain. But the schools are now in 16 states, and have an open door policy for anyone who wants to take a look around. Whenever I am in a KIPP city, I try to stop by. When assessing a growing new franchise, it is always useful to see exactly what they are selling.

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive

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