Brand-Name Schools Closing Achievement Gap

Alternatives to failing schools

Coming soon to a neighborhood near you. It—s not Starbucks or Gap clothing stores-but brand-name schools. While they aren’t likely to feature commercials with hip teens dancing to 80’s music or snapping their fingers to a West Side Story beat, they are pitching something far more potent, academic growth. What’s more, poor and minority students appear to have reaped the most rewards from this chaining of public education.

Donald and Doris Fisher, the owners of the Gap clothing chain, well known for their retro, trend-setting commercials, have given $15 million in seed money to create hundreds of new schools across the country, modeled after two schools in Houston and the Bronx that are achieving phenomenal results with inner-city children. In effect, the Fishers are franchising the formula of the KIPP Academies (Knowledge is Power Program) by offering inspired teachers intensive six-week seminars and follow-up “residencies” to immerse in KIPP culture so they can start new academies across the nation.

By January, they will be in Atlanta, Houston, Washington, D.C., and rural North Carolina, working full-time to set up their schools, each scheduled to open with 75 fifth graders next year. Next year, 12 more people are slated to earn KIPP fellowships, then 25, 50, 75, 100, and 150. To remain in the KIPP network-which will offer $25,000 bonuses for high performance-schools will be evaluated every four years.

But the KIPP franchise is nothing new. Charter schools that receive public funds but are free from many public-school regulations, have allowed a growing number of nonprofit and for-profit schools to demonstrate that they can raise student achievement. And the schools that are actually raising achievement are attracting big money from investors to open more schools. The largest among these, Edison Schools, Inc. will soon have 108 campuses in 21 states, each copying a detailed formula.

An inevitable development in the education market; successful brands will flourish. Private investors will reward achievement and help emulate successful schools.

But just as the American brand-culture has its critics, so too does the growing for-profit education sector. Critics worry that such brand-name schools are out to profit at the expense of children. Supporters of profit-seeking schools agree that one goal is making money, but point out that to do so, they must outperform their public-school peers to attract new customers. A growing body of evidence suggests this formula is working.

Edison, for example, recently announced impressive results from last year’s students. Academic gains were up 20 percent over the previous year. Edison students made gains that were up to 7 times higher than the national average as measured by the federal government’s National Assessment of Education Progress.

Edison’s scores are especially impressive because 65 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged-twice the national average. More than 70 percent of Edison’s students are minority and many of the largest gains have occurred in schools that are overwhelmingly African American or Hispanic. In Washington D.C, for example, Edison students gained 10 percentage points on standardized tests and did 50 percent better than Edison—s national average.

Similarly, the existing KIPP Academies in Houston and New York, have raised student achievement for minority students. Its African-American and Hispanic students consistently get top scores on standardized tests. KIPP-New York outperforms all other Bronx middle schools on New York’s standardized tests, and 98 percent of the students at KIPP-Houston pass all sections of Texas’ state exams.

When consumers see the big green logo and wait in line for a cup of Starbucks coffee, they expect a certain consistency and quality. The coffee tastes the same whether you are in Los Angeles or New York City. While decisions about a child’s education are obviously more difficult than decisions about where to find a good cup of coffee, wouldn’t it be nice if parents could rely on a brand-name like Edison or KIPP Academy and know when they enroll their child that he or she will receive the same quality education regardless of the location?

It might not be the stuff that groovy commercials are made of but parents will certainly snap their fingers to the prospect of giving their children a way out of crumbling, failed schools.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.