Looking at the Dropout Issue

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008; 6:44 AM

Some of the most troubling questions about schools, such as what causes dropouts, have few clear answers because there is so little research. And the reason that data is lacking, at least in part, is that educators who would otherwise demand it are too busy with more even pressing issues, such as improving teaching and raising low student achievement.

The few schools that have made significant progress in teaching and learning, however, are beginning to look more closely at the dropout issue because they cannot be content when so many students miss out on what they have to offer. Note, for instance, a report just released by the KIPP Foundation (available at www.kipp.org) on the number of students who have left that well-regarded public charter school network.

KIPP, with 65 schools in 17 states and the District, mostly middle schools, is praised for its success in raising reading and math test scores among disadvantaged students. About 80 percent of KIPP students are from low-income families. About 95 percent are black or Hispanic. Since 2001, middle school students who completed four years at KIPP increased their average math achievement level from the 40th to the 82nd percentile and their reading level from the 32nd to the 60th percentile -- gains not seen anywhere else.

Such good news draws attention, and interesting questions. When San Francisco-based journalist and blogger Caroline Grannan looked at those results, she discovered large numbers of students in some California KIPP schools were leaving after only a year or two. These were not dropouts. They continued their educations at regular public schools. But it raised an alarm that led KIPP to gather more data and produce the new report.

The student mobility rate is the percentage of children who change schools each year. Studies indicate frequent moves can hinder academic growth. Transferring students have to adjust to new rules and expectations. Teachers have to figure out their academic levels and how best to help them. A 2004 U.S. Census report cited by Carrie Gloudemans, KIPP's director of research and evaluation, said about 15 to 20 percent of school-aged children nationally changed households the previous year. The mobility rate of low-income children, whose parents often struggle to find adequate housing, is often higher. Gloudemans found a 1994 study from the U.S. General Accounting Office (now known as the Government Accountability Office) that said more than 15 percent of children had attended three or more schools by the end of third grade.

The KIPP Foundation does not operate like an ordinary school district. The foundation limits the data its collects from schools in the KIPP network, realizing that each school has reporting requirements from the state or local chartering organization. But officials at KIPP's headquarters in San Francisco urged each KIPP school to take the time to calculate the percentage of its students that left between Oct. 1, 2006, and Oct. 21, 2007. Eventually, 45 of the 49 KIPP schools in operation at that time sent in their numbers.

"Annual mobility rates . . . ranged from a low of 4 percent to a high of 36 percent across the KIPP network, with an average rate of 16 percent," the report said. This was below the percentage of transfers from the California middle schools Grannan had examined. The KIPP data suggests that the schools Grannan noticed, although showing achievement gains, were having trouble holding onto students because they were new and short on some resources.

In the four regions (Houston, New York, Newark and the District) where KIPP schools share an executive director, a single governing board and back-office services, Gloudemans found mobility rates dropped as KIPP educators became more familiar with their students and impressed parents with their results. Ryan Hill, executive director of KIPP schools in Newark, said his annual mobility rates have dropped to 10 percent and lower. As a point of comparison, the average student mobility rate for Newark public schools was 25 percent in the 2005-2006 school year.

"Parents have more and more faith in us," he said. "Now they pretty much don't leave for anything unless they move out of the state."

Gloudemans noted that schools not in the four self-supporting regions have not seen a reduction of mobility over time. And the report asks other questions: "WHO is most likely to leave KIPP schools? Are there indicators (such as incoming test scores, family/home issue, etc.) that we can identify to better provide support for vulnerable students? WHY do students choose to leave KIPP? WHEN do they leave -- is it during the first few months of the first school year, or later on in the school year? HOW we are best able to retain students?"

She said her staff, and the researchers at Mathematica Policy Research doing a national study of KIPP funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies, are exploring these issues. I have heard many possible answers. Some students decide they do not want to work as hard as the KIPP nine-hour days and two-hour homework requirements demand. Some children don't like the discipline, which often means those who misbehave may not talk to their friends. Many families move out of the area. What does not appear to be happening at KIPP, except in rare cases, is expulsions. I have interviewed principals and teachers at about half of the KIPP schools, as well as many parents. They all say KIPP holds on tightly to even their most difficult students, since the educators who join KIPP do so to help such kids.

Each KIPP school is likely to answer Gloudemans' questions differently. Tracy McDaniel, founder and school leader of the KIPP Reach College Prep middle school in Oklahoma City, told me he thought his mobility rate was more than 30 percent because most of his teachers had left the year before and took some of his students with them. The teachers had been unhappy with McDaniel. He said they wanted a year to prepare for a new reading and writing program before using it in class. McDaniel insisted they start immediately, because he wanted to prepare his first graduating eighth-grade class for the demanding high schools, including the Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, they would be attending. "I couldn't afford to wait a year," he said. "I don't regret what I did . . . but it will take me three years to recover."

Answer Gloudemans' questions about mobility and you will be close to the root of the central focus of education planners these days -- high school dropout rates of 50 percent or more in the inner city. KIPP's first high school, in Houston, had its first graduation ceremony this year, and unlike most high schools, its administrators have followed those students carefully. Of the 60 freshmen who enrolled in 2004, only two have fallen out of contact and can be listed as dropouts. The other 58 either have their diplomas or are still in school, working toward them. Seventeen of the 60 did not graduate with their KIPP class this year. Six were held back but are still at KIPP. Seven transferred out of KIPP and graduated from another high school. All 49 of the KIPP Houston high school graduates (which include transfers) and the seven who graduated from other schools are going to college this year, KIPP officials said.

In several cities, KIPP To College offices are adding staff to keep track of KIPP students after high school, to offer assistance and see if KIPP's mission -- to prepare low-income children for higher education -- is being carried out. After middle school mobility rates and dropout rates, this is the next challenge -- trying to find out what happens to those kids in college. Few organizations, other than relatively small outfits like KIPP, the D.C. College Access Program or the Jack Kent Cooke scholarships, are doing much about it.

It is an exhausting task. Joseph M. Miller, executive director of KIPP to College in Houston, said when students have academic, emotional or financial trouble in college they often don't initially answer e-mails or phone calls. But gradually, he said, as he and his staffers reestablish contacts with the KIPP alumni, and their friends and family, they are acquiring the data that allow them to see these pathways more clearly, and make it less likely that next year's graduates will stumble.


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