The Attrition Problem

Fixing the education system.
Sept. 18 2008 2:53 PM

The Attrition Problem

In Wednesday's post , I mentioned a new study of the KIPP middle schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. I still haven't read the whole study (it's 140 pages), but I've read a good chunk, along with a report from the San Francisco Chronicle and one from the San Francisco Examiner . The study shows mixed results, and they're mixed in an intriguing way.

First, the five KIPP schools studied do, on the whole, a very good job of raising the achievement level of the students enrolled in them. Eighty percent of the students progressed faster than normal, and at the end of fifth grade, KIPP students outperformed their "matched counterparts"—demographically similar students at other schools who began fifth grade at the same academic level—by anywhere from five to 33 points on a percentile ranking.

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Second, the KIPP schools didn't attract higher-scoring students than other schools in their districts. This is important, and it was somewhat surprising to me. In my 2006 article in the Times Magazine about the achievement gap , I wrote about the fact that at the KIPP Academy in the Bronx, one of KIPP's two flagship schools, incoming students were above average for the neighborhood:

Even though almost every student at the KIPP Academy ... is from a low-income family, and all but a few are either black or Hispanic, and most enter below grade level, they are still a step above other kids in the neighborhood; on their math tests in the fourth grade (the year before they arrived at KIPP), KIPP students in the Bronx scored well above the average for the district, and on their fourth-grade reading tests they often scored above the average for the entire city.

The new study shows that even though that phenomenon may be a reality in the Bronx, it's not happening in the Bay Area. The report says that "students with lower prior achievement in [English] or mathematics were more likely to attend each of three KIPP schools, compared with other same-grade students in the same neighborhood." That makes KIPP's accomplishment in raising the scores of their students even more impressive.

But the third big piece of news in the report, on attrition, is less impressive. Sixty percent of the students who enrolled in fifth grade at the three KIPP schools studied had left their school by the end of eighth grade. Some of those students left simply because their family moved out of the district. (KIPP school leaders estimated that family moves accounted for 42 percent of the leavers.) But many of the rest of the students left, it seems, because KIPP was too demanding or difficult for them. One school leader is quoted as saying, "I think for a cohort of students and families, it was harder than they thought it was going to be. Our expectations were more than they had anticipated."

If that's true of KIPP schools across the country, it means that they're accomplishing an important but somewhat limited mission: providing an excellent education to that group of low-performing, low-income students who are able to keep up with the schools' intense demands.

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a speaker on various topics including education, poverty, parenting, and politics.