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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 06/14/2011

Do self-selection and attrition matter in KIPP schools?

I published a post last week 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,” about the KIPP charter schools. He criticized KIPP, arguing that KIPP “skims motivated students and yet is pointed to as a segregation success story.” Yesterday Ryan Hill, executive director of four KIPP charter schools in Newark, N.Y., responded with a post arguing that Kahlenberg was wrong. You can read it here, and then come back and read this, Kahlenberg’s response to Hill.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

One of the big questions about the highly successful high-poverty KIPP charter schools is whether it’s fair to draw broad policy lessons from them given differences in the student populations they educate compared with regular high-poverty public schools.

Ryan Hill, executive director of four KIPP charter schools in Newark, questions my assertion that self-selection of KIPP students, and high attrition rates coupled with low replacement rates, make a difference.

He writes in response to my recent post that “it is simply not true that KIPP students have an advantage because ‘by definition, KIPP students are from self-selected families who chose to enter a lottery; and KIPP has very high attrition rates.’” He says that enrolling in KIPP requires a “minimal amount of effort” and points to a June 2010 Mathematica study finding that student attrition rates at KIPP schools are “no different in the aggregate than the average from neighborhood public schools.”

But there is ample reason to believe that KIPP enjoys several advantages over traditional high poverty public schools.

First, KIPP parents must not only know about KIPP schools and take the initiative to apply, they are also required to sign a contract that is unlike those found in most public schools. According to the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, who has written the definitive book on KIPP, KIPP parents and guardians sign a commitment to “check our child’s homework every night ... and try to read with him/her every night.” It is unclear whether KIPP can enforce this contract, but its mere presence may serve to screen out families unwilling or unable to make the commitment.

Second, researchers have long recognized that self-selection can have important effects on academic achievement. Rigorous research commissioned by KIPP – and other charter school organizations – explicitly recognize that self-selection matters, which is why they seek to compare lottery winners with lottery losers. If self-selection didn’t matter, why not forgo the extra expense and just compare KIPP results with demographically similar public schools?

Third, while some research has found that attrition at KIPP is comparable to other high poverty public middle schools, as Hill suggests, he does not acknowledge a key difference: in KIPP schools, when students leave, few new students enter in the seventh and eighth grades. An April 2011 analysis by Mathematica found that while KIPP does accept many new students in 6th grade (a natural time of transition to middle school, and a time when KIPP is looking to fill seats from 5th graders who are held back in larger numbers), the spigot is severely constricted to new entrants in 7th and 8th grades. The authors find: “the number of new enrollees substantially declines after grade 6.”

The study finds that in comparison district schools, classes grew in 7th and 8th grade, while at KIPP, they shrunk. Comparison schools saw newcomers outnumber leavers so that the replacement ratio (new arrivals to attrition) was 1.45 in 7th grade and 1.46 in 8th grade. By contrast, in KIPP schools, only 78% of leaving students were replaced in 7th grade, and just 60% in 8th grade. KIPP students, therefore, have the advantage of being in a classroom where only those classmates who survive a rigorous program remain, and fewer new 7th and 8th grade students enter than in regular high-poverty public schools.

Finally, Hill doesn’t address at all the critical issue I raise about self-selection and attrition in my blog post: KIPP’s failure in its attempt to turn around a regular public school. If self-selection, attrition and replacement don’t matter, why doesn’t KIPP put the whole issue to rest by taking over large numbers of regular public schools, serving assigned neighborhood populations, through turnaround efforts? Then we would know once and for all how KIPP would do with a population that was mandatorily assigned to attend and in which students routinely enter in the 7th and 8th grades when they happen to move into the area.

KIPP came close to doing that in Denver, Colorado when it took over the Cole Middle School and renamed it Cole College Prep, in 2005. At Cole, KIPP sought to turnaround a school where most students came from the existing assigned school population. Even here, KIPP wasn’t faced with the pure turnaround challenge. Rather than simply absorbing all the students who had attended Cole Middle School, as the Denver Public Schools had hoped, KIPP insisted on requiring that students affirmatively apply. But research found that a majority of students were from the old Cole Middle School population, and that more than 50 percent hadn’t chosen the school because they wanted the KIPP model but rather because it was simply the closest school option available. Test scores increased under KIPP, but the school was also rocked by a series of problems.

Given these obstacles – and unpopularity among certain elements of the community who opposed the KIPP takeover – KIPP soon bailed out, citing difficulties in finding leadership for the school. Jay Mathews, a strong supporter of KIPP, wrote in 2009: “KIPP’s one attempt to turnaround an existing public school, in Denver, was a failure. KIPP said at the time they could not find a school leader up to the challenge, which is another way of admitting such a job may be beyond mere mortals.”

It may seem unfair to pick on one case of failure when KIPP has had so many successes, but KIPP appears to have learned an important lesson about trying to take over regular public schools. Rich Barrett, the principal of another KIPP school in Denver who supported the Cole effort, told the Denver Post, “Would I do it again? Absolutely not.” Andrew Smarick noted in a 2009 Education Next article: “KIPP’s lone foray into turnarounds closed after only two years, and the organization abandoned further turnaround initiatives. Said KIPP’s spokesman, ‘Our core competency is starting and running new schools.’”

Let me add one final point, because in raising questions about the comparison between regular public schools and KIPP schools, some misinterpret me to suggest that KIPP’s success is somehow fraudulent.

To the contrary, I’m very glad that so many KIPP schools exist. I’m glad that they are wildly successful at reaching an important self-selected subset of low-income and minority kids who have not been well served in the past. I have tremendous admiration and respect for the work that people like Ryan Hill are doing to significantly raise the achievement and life chances of low-income and minority students. KIPP leaders and teachers are working extraordinary numbers of hours and making a big difference for their students.

What some KIPP leaders may not fully realize, however, is that the success of KIPP is being misinterpreted and misused by some in the policy community to support deeply right-wing ideas: that poverty is just an “excuse” for failure; and that segregation doesn’t have to be addressed because KIPP shows it’s irrelevant.

KIPP leaders would earn greater respect from educators, in my view, if they openly acknowledged that the challenges they face are different than those found in regular high poverty public schools – and if they joined forces with those of us who are convinced that fighting poverty and segregation are central to providing equal educational opportunity.

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