KIPP: Changing Lives One Student at a Time

Roland Fryer showed that educational achievement is correlated with higher incomes, lower rates of unemployment, lower rates of incarceration, and better physical health.1 If you believe a causal relationship exists between educational achievement and life outcomes, then efforts to improve educational attainment should not be taken lightly. KIPP, a network of charter schools, has experienced success in educating students from low-income, minority backgrounds. KIPP’s success rests on four operational tenets: culture of high expectations, extended time in the classroom, decentralized control, and data-driven decision making.

Culture of High Expectations

To drive performance in their schools, KIPP has built a culture of high expectations. These expectations are set for students, teachers, and parents. Prior to the start of school, each student, parent, and teacher signs a “Commitment to Excellence” pledge that clearly details what is expected from them in the educational process (Exhibit 2).2 This pledge delivers value in three ways. First it clarifies the responsibilities of each person, which enables effective execution. Second the pledge provides transparency between students, teachers, and parents. This transparency allows people to hold each other accountable for their actions. Third the pledge provides a source of inspiration. The pledge reveals that each person is working to achieve a high-quality education. In addition, the emphasis on college graduation is further evidence of high expectations. This goal is communicated to each student. KIPP does not lower expectations for low-income students; as a result, KIPP students are achieving results that rival their high-income peers.

Extended Time in the Classroom

While KIPP does not lower expectations for students, KIPP has a clear understanding that their students often need extra support. The extra support comes in the form of extended time in the classroom. The typical KIPP school day starts at 7:30 AM and ends at 5 PM, a total of 9.5 hours whereas traditional public school days last seven hours.4 In addition, KIPP students are required to attend classes on select Saturdays during the school year and as many as three weeks of class during the summer. 4 The impact of this extra schooling leads to KIPP students spending 600 more hours in school than their peers at traditional public schools. 4 Most students enter KIPP below grade level in reading and math, so the extra schooling allows KIPP students to catch up to the academic proficiency of their peers.

Decentralized Control

KIPP has implemented a decentralized control system giving KIPP principals more power than principals at traditional public schools. Unlike principals at traditional public schools, KIPP principals make decisions about hiring, budgeting, and curriculum for their schools.5 This empowers KIPP principals to come up with innovative solutions to drive excellence in their schools. KIPP has training programs for principals to implement best practices, but at the same time, the decentralized control provides principals with flexibility to find solutions that will best serve their students. In addition, the decentralized system has allowed KIPP to grow quickly from two middle schools in 1995 to 183 schools serving almost 70,000 students today.2 KIPP’s growth model is analogous to a franchise model with the center providing support instead of making operational decisions for each school.

Data-Driven Decision Making

Data is critical to KIPP operations. When students enter a KIPP school, they are tested to set a benchmark level of performance.6 Every 6 weeks, students are reassessed to track progress, and these assessments are used to create student-specific training plans.6 Data has also influenced the creation of KIPP’s curriculum. KIPP aims to build character traits like grit and self-control in students. The character building goal was a decision based on research by Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Chris Peterson.6

Forty-five percent of KIPP’s middle school alumni have obtained four-year college degrees in 10 or more years while the national average for all students is thirty-four percent; college degree attainment of KIPP’s middle school alumni is five times the college degree attainment rate of all low income students in the U.S. (9 percent). 2 Ninety-six percent of KIPP students are black or Hispanic, and eighty-three percent of KIPP students qualify for free/reduced-price school meals.3 Given this demographic data, it is unlikely that KIPP is simply benefiting from selection bias by having the best students attend their schools. Instead, KIPP’s effectiveness in educating low income, minority children is a direct result of their operations strategy. Hopefully other schools will begin to incorporate KIPP’s operational strategies to drive educational achievement for their students.

Exhibit 1: KIPP Alumni Data on Educational Attainment

KIPP Alumni Data Educational Attainment

Source: KIPP Foundation

Exhibit 2: Sample Commitment to Excellence Form

Example of KIPP Commitment

Source: KIPP Foundation –


1Fryer, Roland G., Jr. Racial Inequality in the 21st Century: The Declining Significance of Discrimination. Thesis. Harvard University, 2010. N.p.: n.p., n.d. National Bureau of Economic Research. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

2 KIPP. KIPP Foundation, 2015. Web. 09 Dec. 2015. <>.

3Tuttle, C. C., Gleason, P., Knechtel, V., Nichols-Barrer, I., Booker, K., Chojnacki, G., Coen, T., & Goble, L. (2015). Understanding the Effect of KIPP as it Scales. Washington, DC.

4“The Time to Learn: KIPP Schools Show What a Longer School Day Offers.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 20 July 2010. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

5Peterson, Molly. “KIPP: Learning a Lesson from Big Business.” Bloomberg Business. Bloomberg, 04 Feb. 2010. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

6James, Paul. “Use Assessment Data to Set High Expectations for Your Students.” KIPP. SpecialEdConnection, 08 Jan. 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2015. <>.


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Student comments on KIPP: Changing Lives One Student at a Time

  1. Hi Obi, KIPP is a really interesting story and Exhibit 1, in particular, speaks to how successful this model has been. I’m curious about the economics of a KIPP school. Is most funding received through the government? How active is KIPP in lobbying on behalf of charter schools? It seems like the ability of the principals to manage the budget in a decentralized basis would help manage a school’s costs in a more targeted way, but are they also able to impact the revenue that a given school receives?

    1. With regard to funding, KIPP constantly thinks about whether they are building a sustainable financial model. KIPP talks about their approach to funding here:

      KIPP receives funding from local, state, and federal government. In addition, they receive private donations. The mix of revenue streams varies by city.

  2. This is really interesting. I think its really common to read about the success of charter schools and hear that those models are not scalable because they require more per student funding than the school systems have today. Obviously that is a valid point, and it would not be possible to roll out longer school days (and smaller class sizes, which you didn’t mention in your piece but I do think is a feature of KIPP and other charter school models like Green Dot). That said, I was struck that three of the four features of the operating model that you called out don’t seem funding-dependent to me. It seems like traditional schools could do more to empower principals, engender a culture of high expectations, and make data-driven decisions. Supplementing these features with online remedial courses seems like it might be able to have a real impact.

    1. This is a great point. Charter school networks like KIPP have achieved tremendous results, but now it is time to determine what parts of the KIPP operating model can be replicated in traditional public schools. Roland Fryer, a Harvard economics professor, is currently conducting research to understand this question. In Houston, Texas, he conducted a randomized, controlled experiment where charter school best practices were implemented in low-performing schools in Houston, Texas. Fryer implemented five charter school practices into the traditional public schools: increased instructional time, more-effective teachers and administrators, high-dosage tutoring, data-driven instruction, and a culture of high expectations.

      This economics paper provides the results of the research:

      Here is another piece touching on the research:

  3. This is a very interesting post, and a critical area to understand and optimize as we (as a country) spend the most per student on education without the benefits one would expect.

    I wonder what your thoughts are on whether there are any tradeoffs between teaching discipline and fostering creativity; does one sacrifice the latter in such a structured (some would say militaristic) model as KIPP? And does that matter for these kids later in life, or limit the type of work they are able to succeed at?

    Great job illuminating a very important topic.

    1. Wow, this is an excellent point. KIPP has created a highly structured environment for the students, but in some ways, the environment may be too structured. It is important for students to learn how to manage themselves. KIPP has recognized this, and they are working to instill character traits in their students that are positively correlated with good life outcomes. In 2011, The New York Times published an excellent article titled, “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” The article discusses how KIPP kids were achieving good grades in high school, but this was not translating to high performance in college.

      Here is a quote from the article: “As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class. Those skills weren’t enough on their own to earn students a B.A., Levin knew. But for young people without the benefit of a lot of family resources, without the kind of safety net that their wealthier peers enjoyed, they seemed an indispensable part of making it to graduation day.”

      In addition to teaching cognitive skills like math and reading, KIPP schools are now also working to develop noncognitive skills like optimism and self-control.

      Link to New York Times article:

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