New Study: KIPP Pre-K Has Big — and Possibly Lasting — Impact on Early Student Achievement

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Earlier is better when it comes to the KIPP charter network, suggests new research released Tuesday.

Researchers with Mathematica Policy Research, an independent group, found positive effects both for the combination of KIPP pre-K and KIPP early elementary grades and for KIPP pre-K programs alone.

“We believe it’s never too early to begin a KIPP education, and these findings show that starting KIPP at a young age can put our students on the path towards long-term success in college and life,” Susan Schaeffler, executive director of KIPP DC, said via email. Researchers studied KIPP pre-K programs at two elementary schools in Houston and one in Washington, D.C., between 2011 and 2016.

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Researchers also found that some of those benefits persist through second grade, even as other research has found that the advantages of preschool either fade out or turn into negative effects by early elementary school.

“The fact that it shows both that KIPP pre-K on its own and then the combination of KIPP pre-K and KIPP early elementary have positive effects on children’s learning outcomes is a big deal, particularly given some of the past research on pre-K and fade-out,” said Ashley LiBetti Mitchel, a senior analyst focused on early education at Bellwether Education Partners.

The combination of KIPP pre-K and early elementary school had “positive and statistically significant impacts on reading and math achievement” by second grade, researchers found.

They compared test outcomes for second-graders who entered and won lotteries for spots for 3-year-old pre-K programs at the two Houston KIPP schools and the one in D.C. versus those second-graders who entered the pre-K lottery but didn’t win spots.

In three of four measures of math and reading skills, researchers found “educationally meaningful” impacts.

The largest benefit, letter-word identification, is the equivalent of moving from the 66th to the 80th percentile when tested on that skill, researchers found. Math benefits, as judged by applied problems and calculation, were slightly smaller. The smallest benefit, reading passage comprehension, was the equivalent of moving from the 29th to the 36th percentile, they wrote.

Researchers also compared the test scores of second-graders who entered and won lotteries to attend KIPP schools in kindergarten with those who applied but didn’t get a spot. They then compared the benefit of attending KIPP starting in kindergarten to the benefit of attending KIPP starting in 3-year-old pre-K, two years before kindergarten.

They found bigger, though not statistically significant, benefits in reading for students who had attended pre-K as compared with those who started KIPP in kindergarten, and no difference in math scores.

“It looks pretty promising that KIPP pre-K programs are providing an additional benefit,” Virginia Knechtel, one of the Mathematica researchers, said.

To test whether the benefit of KIPP pre-K fades out over time, researchers compared the difference in lottery winners’ and losers’ scores in reading in kindergarten and again in second grade. Some reading benefit lasted through second grade; the researchers didn’t test math fade-out.

In general, the research pool was small — about 1,100 students in both the pre-K and kindergarten groups. The sample size on the fade-out benefits was even smaller, at 199, so “we have to sort of take caution in interpreting these findings,” Knechtel said.

KIPP is a high-performing charter school network founded in 1994. It serves 88,000 students in 209 elementary, middle, and high schools across the country. Twenty-seven of KIPP’s 80 elementary schools offer pre-K.

The pre-K research follows earlier studies of KIPP by Mathematica. In 2013, researchers found positive effects in reading, math, science, and social studies for KIPP middle schools. In 2015, a five-year study found positive effects on student achievement associated with KIPP schools across all grade levels.

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation sponsored the new pre-K research. The Texan philanthropists previously helped reopen Head Start preschool programs shuttered during the 2013 federal government shutdown.

The KIPP special sauce
Researchers also found smaller evidence that KIPP pre-K helps students’ executive function, things such as memory and switching tasks.

Sharon Foley, managing director of academics at KIPP Houston, previously taught first grade at a KIPP elementary school in Washington, D.C., where students also attended KIPP pre-K.

“The students get a bit of a boost, because we’re not spending time on these things that are very foundational year over year over year; we’re really able to build very quickly from start to finish,” she said.

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The Mathematica researchers pointed out six key features of KIPP preschools, including a focus on academics, establishment of a behavioral foundation for later success, and an emphasis on building relationships with students and families.

Among the characteristics researchers saw as key to KIPP’s success, Foley said the emphasis on teacher observations and coaching stuck out to her.

The network has a standard procedure for evaluation of its teachers, including classroom observations by a coach, a hypothesis on how the teacher can improve, and rigorous work on improving specific skills.

“That four- to five-step approach is really consistent whether you teach high school biology … or whether you teach pre-K–3,” she said.

Mitchel, the Bellwether analyst, said it’s noteworthy that the KIPP schools align their preschool and early elementary curricula, particularly given that most elementary and preschool programs exist in silos.

She also said she’d like more detailed research on what is making the KIPP programs work.

“There’s some information about what the programs look like, but not very much, and if we want to take this research and move it from just three programs to something that other programs can learn from, we need to be much more nuanced,” Mitchel said.

The Walton Family Foundation, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, Jonathan Sackler, and the Karsh Family Foundation have provided financial support to the KIPP Foundation and The 74.

Andy Rotherham co-founded Bellwether Education Partners. He sits on The 74’s board of directors and serves as one of the site’s senior editors.

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