Student Attrition is a Core Feature of School Choice, Not a Bug

The issue of student attrition at KIPP and charter schools is never far beneath the surface of our education debates. KIPP’s critics claim that these schools exclude or “counsel out” students who aren’t doing well, thus inflating student test results. Supporters contend that KIPP schools are open admission with enrollment typically determined by lottery, and they usually cite a 2010 Mathematica report finding strong results among students in most (but not all) of 22 KIPP middle schools, as well as attrition rates that were no higher, on average, than at the regular public schools to which they are compared.*

As I have written elsewhere, I am persuaded that student attrition cannot explain away the gains that Mathematica found in the schools they examined (though I do think peer effects of attrition without replacement may playsome role, which is a very common issue in research of this type).

But, beyond this back-and-forth over the churn in these schools and whether it affected the results of this analysis, there’s also a confusion of sorts when it comes to discussions of student attrition in charters, whether KIPP or in general. Supporters of school choice often respond to “attrition accusations” by trying to deny or downplay its importance or frequency. This, it seems to me, ignores an obvious point: Within-district attrition – students changing schools, often based on “fit” or performance - is a defining feature of school choice, not an aberration.

The idea of school choice is that there should be an educational marketplace, if you will. Schools run by a variety of different operators, using a variety of different models, would all compete for enrollment, allowing parents to choose what’s best for their kids. From this perspective, student attrition (and mobility in general) based on how students are doing or “fitting in” is to be expected, as it signals the exercise of choice in a world of imperfect information (e.g., parents might not choose the best option on the first or second try). In other words, the proliferation of charter schools in any given area will almost invariably increase the non-random churn of students in and out of schools.**

So, instead of downplaying the existence and importance of student attrition/selection, charter supporters might clarify this debate by stating clearly that it’s part of the deal in a choice-based school system.

Moreover, from this perspective, the best case scenario is that a robust enough set of choices might provide something for virtually everyone, but the results of any one school or model cannot easily be generalized for all. Arguably, this is particularly true in the case of approaches such as KIPP’s, which entail intensive interventions, such as extremely rigid discipline and 40-50 percent more school time, that might not be right for many students, regardless of background.

What is clear about KIPP is that they are, from all indications, well-run schools. They serve mostly disadvantaged students, and those who do well really do well. This shouldn’t be dismissed or diminished, but it also shouldn’t be used to draw strong conclusions about the success or potential of charter schools in general, especially given the fact that so few models have produced consistent results.

Finally, I can’t speak to whether KIPP “counsels out” students (though I of course think it’s wrong for schools to do so). The brutal truth, however, is that there’s a somewhat thin line between “counseling out,” pushing out, and helping parents find the best fitting school for their kids. This is a line that any school choice system must necessarily straddle, and we can’t really have a productive conversation about it without first acknowledging its existence.

- Matt Di Carlo

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* As usual, the average attrition rates mask a great deal of underlying variation among these 22 schools (see, for example, the figure on page 10 of this report).

** It bears mentioning that, in theory, this selection need not necessarily “benefit” one type of school or the other. For example, parents may choose to switch their kids out of regular public schools when they aren’t doing well.

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Matthew Di Carlo

Matthew Di Carlo is a senior fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, D.C. His current research focuses mostly on education policy, but he is also interested in social stratification, work and occupations, and political attitudes/behavior. He also writes for the Institute’s blog, Shanker Blog. Matt has a...