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Posted at 8:30 AM ET, 01/10/2011

KIPP responds to criticism on attrition rates

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by leaders of the Knowledge Is Power Program, better known as the KIPP charter schools, in response to a guest post I published last week. That piece, by Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of "All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice," was itself in response to a debate that I had with my inimitable colleague Jay Mathews about school reform that touched on KIPP. You can find that debate here.

By Jonathan Cowan and Steve Mancini
On Jan. 3, The Answer Sheet featured a guest post by Richard Kahlenberg that highlighted attrition in KIPP schools.

We respect Mr. Kahlenberg’s right to question KIPP’s results, and we welcome healthy debate about the merits of KIPP’s philosophy and model. However, it is also important to clarify the fact base around the issues he raises.

At KIPP, we have a long standing commitment to transparency, continuous learning, and improvement. As such, we are always improving our data collection and reporting processes in order to share our successes and challenges. We focus on understanding the "health" of our schools: Are we serving the students who need us? Are our students staying with us? Are our students making academic progress? Are we fulfilling our promise to get kids to and through college? Are we creating a sustainable model?

Over the last few years, we have begun publicly reporting our performance as it relates to these questions. For instance, we publish our student mobility data in our annual Report Card, to illustrate whether our students are, in fact, staying with us. Our success depends on being held accountable for the results we produce for our kids.

In order to address specific criticisms raised in the piece, we ’d like to clarify Mr. Kahlenberg’s conflation of KIPP’s attrition statistics and our policies on “backfilling” empty student spots. In fact, these are two entirely separate issues, and should be addressed individually:

Assertion 1: KIPP’s success is due to high attrition and the fact that the “weakest” students leave.

Mr. Kahlenberg mentioned the June 2010 report by Mathematica Policy Research, but claimed that it does not tell the whole story when it comes to student mobility. In fact, the Mathematica report is very comprehensive, looking at 22 new and full-fledged schools over four years.

As Mr. Kahlenberg stated, the study found that attrition rates at KIPP schools nationwide were not systematically higher or lower than at comparable schools—some schools had higher attrition, some lower, some the same.

But the Mathematica report also had a second finding that Mr. Kahlenberg did not highlight: The vast majority of KIPP schools had a significant impact on achievement for all students who had ever attended, even if they didn’t complete all four years. Students who left the 22 schools during the study period were still counted in the report, which means the high achievement researchers found was not just a result of attrition. In fact, in conducting the analysis this way, Mathematica is holding KIPP accountable for all the students it ever enrolled, whether they stayed or left.

In his post, Mr. Kahlenberg relied on a study of KIPP Bay Area schools, published by SRI International in 2008, that found those schools to have unusually high levels of attrition. We absolutely agree that this study was rigorous and its findings are valid.

However, it was based on data from just five KIPP schools over a three-year period, and only one of those schools had reached full enrollment at the start of the study period. Thus, the SRI study does not account for how attrition rates at those schools have fallen as these KIPP schools have matured over the past four years.

Assertion 2: KIPP middle schools have high test scores because they do not enroll students after sixth grade.

Mr. Kahlenberg claimed that the reason Mathematica’s attrition results are flawed is because KIPP schools do not accept new students to make up for the ones they lose. He acknowledged that KIPP does take in new sixth-graders, but claimed that this is because sixth grade is “a natural time to start middle school.”

However, it is not the case that KIPP cuts off enrollment after sixth grade. Many KIPP middle schools, including those at KIPP DC, now regularly enroll new students at all grade levels, fifth through eighth. KIPP’s high schools also take students at all levels, from ninth to twelfth grade.

As more schools are reaching full enrollment and sustainability, this issue of “backfilling” classes is also subsiding.

The SRI study data Mr. Kahlenberg cites cuts off in 2006-07, when the eighth grade class was at 55% of the starting size of the entering fifth grade class. But that data is now several years old, and those numbers have improved dramatically. As of 2010-11, the KIPP Bay Area eighth grade class is at a full 86% of its starting fifth-grade size. We are working hard to increase that percentage even farther, at KIPP Bay Area and in all other regions.

As KIPP continues to grow, moving from start-up to sustainability, we have seen significantly reduced attrition rates and had success enrolling students at all grade levels. We remain focused on continuing to improve in these areas so we can set ever more students on the path to college and a better future.

Jonathan Cowan, Chief Research & Innovation Officer
Steve Mancini, Public Affairs Officer
KIPP Foundation


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 10, 2011; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  charter schools, kipp, kipp schools, knowledge is power program  
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The debate about outcomes too often ignores how the sausage is produced, right? My central concern about KIPP, HCZ, and all "no excuses" schools is ideological; some considerations of mine about the problem of using schools to normalize and "fix" students:

Posted by: plthomas3 | January 10, 2011 8:55 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad to see KIPP formally weigh in. A few thoughts in response to the authors:

- One, the authors seem to suggest that the Mathematica study demonstrates that KIPP helps even those students who drop out of the program. It is my understanding that the Mathematica study has not yet been completed and the preliminary report was pretty vague. If so, it seems premature to make this pronouncement.

- Two, the authors contend that the SRI study on Bay Area KIPP schools is both an abnormality and is based on outdated data. The problem is that 1) there is very little publicly available data on KIPP attrition rates and 2) the authors themselves supply very little data of their own on the subject, save one data point on an 8th grade class at a Bay Area KIPP.

- Three, I felt like a lot of their other statements lacked clarity. When talking about enrollment, for example, they say that they "regularly" enroll students beyond 6th grade. What does "regularly" mean? Regularly enroll 5 students a year? 50?

This isn't intended to be a KIPP bashing post. Clearly KIPP is doing some good things and they are helping a decent number of poor kids. At the same time, I think it's important to fully understand KIPP's limitations, whatever they might be, before deciding that this is some silver bullet to be scaled. I'm not sure this post gave us much clear direction on that front.

Posted by: joshofstl1 | January 10, 2011 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Does KIPP take over a school in its entirety, keeping the students and taking students who move into the neighborhood?

Posted by: edlharris | January 10, 2011 12:32 PM | Report abuse

>>>The vast majority of KIPP schools had a significant impact on achievement for all students who had ever attended, even if they didn’t complete all four years. Students who left the 22 schools during the study period were still counted in the report.... Mathematica is holding KIPP accountable for all the students it ever enrolled, whether they stayed or left. <<<

I'm not clear on what this means. Does this mean that if a student left in February and the test was in April, their score is still counted? Does it mean if a student left in 6th grade that their score in 8th grade (at a different school) is still counted?

Posted by: Busboom | January 10, 2011 12:51 PM | Report abuse

"Does KIPP take over a school in its entirety, keeping the students and taking students who move into the neighborhood?"

No. They've only done that once, and it lasted two years and then closed. They typically take kids by lottery from around a district -- and even then usually start with just one grade at a time. That gives KIPP more control over creating a good school culture.

Posted by: joshofstl1 | January 10, 2011 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Just to clarify, the San Francisco KIPP schools don't need to use a lottery, because they're not oversubscribed. And of course the 7th and 8th grades in some/many/most/maybe all KIPP schools have more openings than applicants, needless to say -- that's why their statistics show the dwindled 8th grades.

The New York Times said that "all KIPP schools have long waiting lists," but that's not so. I'm sure some schools have waiting lists in some grades.

Memo to the press that charter schools' "long waiting list" claims are highly suspect and can easily be checked with a quick phone call to find out if they have room for your child.

Posted by: CarolineSF | January 10, 2011 5:54 PM | Report abuse

". It is my understanding that the Mathematica study has not yet been completed and the preliminary report was pretty vague."

Good grief. The Mathematica study is easily obtainable via a simple Google search, and it is a lengthy and thorough study. There's nothing whatsoever vague about it. Why rely on your (mis)understanding of something that is so easy to find for yourself?

Posted by: educationobserver | January 10, 2011 9:35 PM | Report abuse

It is important to note a few things:
(1) KIPP only quotes studies done by one organization, studies we have not been replicable by anyone else. This should trouble any observer.
(2) As noted above, KIPP does not take over existing public schools and their school population (Except for their one very obvious failure). This is an admission that their policies cannot/will not work with a general population, and with the transience experienced by most urban/poverty schools. Whenever admission is controlled, the notion that this is "a reform model" is a fraud.
(3) I continue to ask why no one on either the KIPP or TFA boards will send their children or grandchildren to KIPP schools or schools employing TFA "teachers." Why do poor kids get this style school while rich kids get creativity and flexibility?

- Ira Socol

Posted by: irasocol | January 11, 2011 11:08 AM | Report abuse

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