Myths and realities about KIPP
By Richard D. Kahlenberg
In the recent education debate between Valerie Strauss and Jay Mathews, a question arose about the attrition rates at the highly regarded Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools. The issue is important because if large numbers of weaker students drop out of KIPP’s rigorous program, it would be highly unfair to compare the test score gains won by the top KIPP students against the scores of all regular public school students – who include KIPP dropouts.
In the debate, Strauss mentioned some studies finding that KIPP schools “have had a very high attrition rate.” Mathews responded by saying it is a “myth that KIPP schools have poor retention rates” and cited a 2010 study that found that KIPP school “are doing about as well as regular schools in their neighborhoods” in terms of attrition.
Who’s right? While I respect Jay Mathews’s grasp of educational issues, on this question, the data overwhelmingly support Valerie Strauss’s skepticism.
In a rigorous 2008 study of five KIPP schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, researchers at SRI International found that an astounding 60% of KIPP students left over the course of middle-school. Moreover, the researchers found evidence that the 60% of students who did not persist through the tough KIPP regimen (a longer school day and week, and heavy doses of homework), tended to be the weaker students.
KIPP supporters, like Mathews, respond that a 2010 study of 22 KIPP schools by Mathematica found that the attrition rates were comparable to nearby high poverty public schools that also have lots of kids leave. Poor people tend to move frequently, so high attrition rates are to be expected at KIPP schools, it is argued.
The big difference between KIPP and regular public schools, however, is that whereas struggling students come and go at regular schools, at KIPP, student leave but very few new children enter. Having few new entering students is an enormous advantage not only because low-scoring transfer students are kept out but also because in the later grades, KIPP students are surrounded only by successful peers who are the most committed to the program.
Below is a figure that shows the attendance at KIPP Bay-area schools. (The figure is part of a Century Foundation document entitled “Charter Schools that Work: Economically Integrated Schools with Teacher Voice.”)
Bay Area KIPP Net Student Enrollment by Grade from 2003-04 to 2006-07
In the comments section of the Answer Sheet blog, when readers pointed out that KIPP schools don’t generally fill students back in, Mathews responded “KIPP schools DO take in new students beyond the 5th grade.”
This is technically accurate, but as the figure above suggests, the vast majority of students enter during the 6th grade (a natural time to enter middle school) and then the total number of KIPP students in 7th and 8th grade falls precipitously.
The KIPP Bay-area schools cannot be dismissed as an outlier on the KIPP attrition question. Columbia University researcher Jeffrey Henig’s 2008 review of several studies found high attrition rates at a number of other KIPP schools.
It may well be, in fact, that high attrition rates are a key explanation for KIPP’s success in raising test scores. When KIPP tried to take over a regular public school – where the students are not self-selected, but are assigned to the school; and where students not only leave, but large number of students enter — KIPP abandoned the field after just two years. KIPP long ago realized that what we charge regular public schools with doing is far more difficult than what KIPP seeks to do.
Follow my blog every day by bookmarking washingtonpost.com/