Does Student Attrition Explain KIPP's Success?

A new Mathematica study persuasively puts to rest a common charge leveled at KIPP charter schools: that their test score gains are largely attributable to the attrition of their lowest-performing students. The authors compare nineteen KIPP middle schools to district schools and find no meaningful difference among those who walk in the door of each type of school. Nor do they find any difference in student attrition rates on the way out. Students who enter KIPP in later grades do indeed tend to be higher performers, but “a large part of KIPP’s cumulative effect occurs in the first year of enrollment, before attrition and replacement could have any effect.” Thus, high-achieving “backfilled” students can account for no more than one-third of the cumulative KIPP effect. Analysts, however, couldn’t determine whether students and families attracted to KIPP and its intensity are more ambitious or motivated in the first place—a point Richard Kahlenberg highlights in a critique of the study on Education Next’s website. “When children hear about the rigorous regimen,” he notes—the extended school day and copious homework, for example—“particularly motivated families might be excited to sign up, while less motivated families could be scared away.” The careful and sober Mathematica scholars openly acknowledge that this is “a potentially important limitation of this study.” And so it is. Nevertheless, the criticism rankles. Do low-income children not deserve the opportunity to attend school with others who are motivated and whose parents are ambitious for their children? Some will no doubt continue to begrudge low-income black and Hispanic children their success, discounting it unless they overcome not just the disadvantage of poverty but classrooms filled with the disengaged and disruptive. But no matter. Perhaps a future study might explore why some are so determined to deny ambitious have-nots what affluent families give their kids by paying tuition or moving.

SOURCE: Ira Nichols-Barrer, Brian P. Gill, Philip Gleason, and Christina Clark Tuttle, “Does Student Attrition Explain KIPP’s Success?,” Education Next Vol. 14, No. 4 (Fall 2014).

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.