Some Charters finally admit attrition — then rationalize it

There are much more subtle ways to fraudulently raise test scores than tampering with student test papers.  One that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the practice by many charter schools of improving their test scores through attrition.  Up until recently, these charters have not been very upfront about this factor contributing to their success.  With everything that these charters have at stake in preserving their reputations and their rich funders, I can understand why they might try to conceal what they’re doing.  Of course they have the right to portray their business in the most favorable light possible.  That’s what most businesses do.  The reason that I’ve become so involved in uncovering the truth behind these successes is that these ruses have tricked politicians into believing that one of the big solutions in fixing education is to expand the influence of charter schools.  Only states that agree to lift caps on charters were even eligible to apply to Obama’s Race To The Top initiative.

For years I’ve suspected that charters, even ones that claim to be ‘open enrollment,’ get a crop of students who are easier to educate than the neighborhood school whose students are selected by only geographic boundaries.  I know that there have been studies that have compared the success of students who lost the lottery against those who won the lottery at KIPP and they have concluded that the kids who entered the lottery and lost hadn’t been as successful as their lucky peers despite having parents who were motivated enough to sign up for the lottery.  These studies are not as convincing to me as the one I’d love to see — what were the 4th grade test scores of the students who entered the lottery vs. students who did not even enter the lottery.  So the lottery, to me, is a form of cherry picking.  Then, I suspect that many students who win the lottery are ‘counseled out’ of some charters before even starting there.  This one is also tough to prove.  Finally, and this one is something that I do have proof for, there is a large attrition rate at many of these schools.  Some, I recently learned, have low attrition, but that is because the numerous students they lose are ‘replaced’ with other students — students, I suspect, who are ‘better’ in some way than the ones who left.

Up until very recently, most charter schools simply denied their attrition problem.  I was frustrated by this because I ‘knew’ they were lying, just as a woman can ‘know’ that her husband is cheating on her.  As I investigated several schools, I got the proof I needed.  But, to take the cheating husband analogy a bit further.  Getting ‘proof’ wasn’t enough for me.  I wanted the charters to admit what they’ve done.

I’ve gotten at least five examples of people at charters acknowledging their attrition over the last few months.  The most notable is KIPP’s own report card where, after saying that a school with high test scores and high attrition is not a great school, then admits that their attrition rate is 40% over four years (though they mask this number with some clever math.)  Then in this article from a Florida newspaper a charter superintendent verifies their high attrition.  In this New York Times article which was just published, an example of how charters counsel out kids is discussed.

I think that the ‘party line’ for charters, in the wake of all the evidence which is fairly easy to attain on the state websites is no longer to try to hide or deny their attrition.  Instead, as you see in these articles, they have found a way to rationalize their attrition — to explain that it is a good thing!  A place where I have seen this a lot is in some of the comments that have been left on my recent blog posts.  In my post about expulsions from New Orleans charters, a reader identified as ‘dcchilin’ wrote

“I’ve worked in a high-performing charter, and yes, my school did expel some disruptive kids who were making it difficult for their peers to learn (or bringing drugs or weapons to school), and I’d do it again in a heartbeat to preserve a school culture where hard work and good behavior are the expectation for all.”

This was the first time I had seen anyone attempt to justify the attrition rather than deny it.  More recently, there were a series of comments in my ‘Kipp on Trickin” post from a reader named Heather and more from one named Paula.  E. Rat certainly held her own in debating Paula, who used a pretty strange analogy.

Thus, in the same way that violating the rules of air travel results in removing an offender from that space, to send a clear message that participating in air travel requires a certain level of responsibility, similarly, a child in a KIPP class who is removed and/or isolated for being disruptive is supposed to get the message (and in fact, most do), that s/he does not have the right to compromise anyone else’s learning, AND that s/he should be prioritizing her/his own learning as well.

The basic gist of these charter attrition defenders is that even if only 60% of the kids who start 5th grade at a 5-8 charter actually make it to graduation, it is still a good thing.  For those 60%, they will have gotten a better education than they would have in their neighborhood school.  For the 40% that didn’t make it, well, they’re no worse off than they would have been since they end up in the school they would have been assigned to if not for the charter school.  It’s a win-tie situation.  60% win, 40% tie.

There are two big problems I have with this logic.  The first one is that charters are only now starting to admit that this is happening.  Some are still not admitting it since they have found a way around it by replacing students so the low attrition rate is misleading.  Politicians still compare their scores to the scores of the neighborhood public schools who try to teach the kids who leave the charters and who can’t kick kids out (and who don’t even WANT to kick kids out.  Look at the great last sentence of the New York Times article “Still, Robert O’Brien, who has been principal there for 14 years, says the most gratifying part of his work is with the children who lower his test scores.”)  The other issue I have is that it is not really a win-tie situation.  Some (maybe all) of those 40% that leave the charters are damaged by the experience.  Winning a ‘lottery’ and then getting booted tells a kid that he’s such a loser that he can’t even get rich by winning a lottery.  Getting kicked out of a school as a 5th or 6th grader is very hard for a kid.  They start seeing themselves as not cut out for school and that can follow them in their own minds and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  So anyone who says “Better to have KIPPed and lost than to never have KIPPed at all” might not be correct in all cases.

So even though some charters who can’t escape the indisputable proof that they are losing many students are now beginning to admit it, I am still not satisfied by their response.  To complete my cheating husband analogy from before.  If I proved my husband was cheating on me and then he finally came out and admitted it, that would not be enough.  I would want two more things.  I’d want him to also admit that what he did was a bad thing and also to promise that he won’t do it anymore.  With these charter admissions, I got neither of those.  They have no remorse whatsoever about doing this.  They try to spin it so that it doesn’t seem so bad.  And they do not even lie and promise that they will not do it again in the future.

Just as the Atlanta cheating scandal was big news around the country, I’m hopeful that one day the inflated charter test results because of attrition will be investigated.  Unlike the cheating scandal, it seems like charter attrition is much easier to prove.  All you’d need is the list of 5th graders and the list of 8th graders three years later.  See how many of those 8th graders were originally 5th graders.  Then look at the 4th grade test scores of the 8th graders that made it through and compare those to the 4th grade test scores of those who left.  Give me access to the data, and I can prove everything I suspect in no time.

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26 Responses to Some Charters finally admit attrition — then rationalize it

  1. The mother’s story of how her child was pushed out of a charter school in Kindergarten here:

  2. K says:

    It might also be fair to point out that just because a school is a charter does NOT mean it is an elite school, or even a good or effective school. Some charters are “failing” schools and don’t expel students, but rather the teachers.

  3. KatieO says:

    Great post! I teach on an inpatient psych unit for children and adolescents with significant emotional or behavioral problems and I have met many kids who have been kicked out, (oops, I mean “counseled out”) of charter schools here in Chicago. This issue keeps coming up, but no one really seems to be paying attention. In fact, it seems like everyone, including the kids themselves, nod their heads and agree that maybe some kids “just aren’t cut out for school.” Many of the kids I’ve met who were counseled out end up dropping out of school ultimately. They consider themselves “failures”. It is so frustrating!! Feels like a big part of my job for these particular kids especially is re-building their self esteem.

    If the charter school “no excuses” mentality doesn’t work for all kids, why do “reformers” and politicians continue to point to them as “success stories”. I want charters to own up to their practices and admit, that it’s not that “some kids are just not cut out for school”, but rather that “their schools are not fit for all kids”.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Thanks for the comment. Great last sentence for twitter!

    • Heather says:

      KatieO, the phrase “counseled out” was not created by the charter schools at all. Some of the earliest critics of charter schools argued that the charter schools “kicked out” the undesirable kids. When the data did not support that (urban charter schools actually expel fewer kids than urban public schools), the charter critics said, “Well, we admit the kids are being kicked out, but they are being encouraged to leave. They are being counseled-out.” Sigh. And how are charter schools supposed to defend themselves against that accusation? Especially when you have otherwise intelligent people like Gary who say, “If 12 students leave charter school A, all 12 were bad kids who were counseled out.” Sure, because there is no other reason a kid might want and/or need to switch schools Ugh.

      • KatieO says:

        I understand your point, but I have met many of these children personally. Unfortunately, this phenomenon of “counseling out” is real. If you look as the % of students with special needs and ELLs being educated in charter schools, the # is significantly lower than the neighborhood public schools. If they aren’t being screened out for admission up front then some other phenomenon is at work. Plus, of the children I have met currently in charter schools, their disabilities tend to be things like depression or anxiety disorders, problems which are less disruptive in a classroom setting. (See my post on a charter school I visited last year:

        The charter school may frame the choice to leave in a way that says “we simply don’t have the services your child needs” or “our program isn’t a good fit for your child.” Many people wouldn’t even consider that being “kicked out”. Schools like KIPP even put behavioral expectations directly into contracts the parents and students sign. So when KIPP says, “hey, you’re not meeting these expectations” the children and their parents end up accepting the responsibility thinking “I’m not good enough to be at this school.”

        However, to me as a special ed teacher, this is exactly the problem. Some charters do a good job educating kids that respond positively to these limits and strict expectations, but believe me, that simply does not work for all kids. (By the way, charter schools don’t legally HAVE to provide these services. As long as the child has access to the services somewhere in the district, it’s not illegal. It’s just disingenuous since many public schools do HAVE to accept these difficult to educate children.)

        Like Gary said in his post, I just wish charters would acknowledge what is happening so we could more clearly understand what actually could work for ALL schools and ALL kids and what is specific to the subgroup of kids charters end up working with.

        And just to be clear, “counseling out” is not necessarily expelling kids, it’s simply telling parents that their child’s needs could be better met elsewhere. And which students needs aren’t being met? The special ed kids and the ELLs, kids who score the lowest on the tests.

  4. Heather says:

    Gary, Excellent job totally distorting my argument while also refusing to address it directly in the previous post. Since you obviously didn’t see it the first time, I will use caps this time. YOU CANNOT EQUATE ATTRITION WITH COUNSELING OUT. You just can’t. They are different things, so attrition numbers will NEVER by themselves prove that charters are counseling children out, much less that they are being replaced by “better” students. I’m a loyal reader – and an owner of one of your books – and it gets on my nerves that you persist in sticking your head in the sand and refusing to acknowledge the MANY other reasons a student might choose to leave a charter school.

    • Moody Towers says:


      What’s your point exactly? Let me use caps to make my point: WHAT’S YOUR POINT EXACTLY?

      On the spectrum of why students leave charters, being “counseled out” is actually one of the milder options. It implies that there was at least some decency or humanity on the part of the charter school’s administration to face-to-face advise the parent of other alternatives for their child.

      Less humane reasons children “leave” charters:

      1. Student has a learning disability and the charter school (CS) lacks adequate staff / resources / values to meet needs of child. Child becomes frustrated and falls behind. Parent pulls child out of school.

      2. Student his an undiagnosed psychiatric need (ADD, depression) which is negatively impacting their work and behavior. CS does not consult mental health professionals (like Katie, see prior comment) and decides child does not “want it enough.” CS imposes draconian, military-school type discipline on this child (the kind that is celebrated at the most successful CS networks as being ‘no nonsense, no excuses’). Parent fears for the emotional well-being of child, pulls student out.

      3. Because of the above reasons (and others, no doubt), a student’s academic performance suffers. Although the CS has offered no meaningful academic interventions (besides longer hours and more test prep), the student’s family is told that the CS has higher expectations than other schools and the child is at risk of being retained (needing to repeat a grade) at the CS. But because the surrounding “neighborhood” schools have lower (read: ‘no’) expectations, the child would likely be promoted elsewhere. The parent “chooses” to avoid retention by pulling child out. Of course, Heather, the CS didn’t exactly counsel the child out–the parent made a choice! And isn’t this all about choice?

      Heather, not all schools are fits for all students. But a CS can avoid the true customer-service approach of making things work for a difficult child (or family) and can always hide behind the “you don’t need to be here” approach which is normally employed by private, magnet and selective schools. NOT BY PUBLIC SCHOOLS.


  5. Sam says:

    I wonder if it is possible to go into the data and see why each student left their KIPP school. I imagine a number of the reasons were not spurred by the school: families moving, low attendance, choice on the part of the family/student. I totally agree with you that it’s immoral that these charter schools try to hide their attrition numbers, but like Heather above, I am not yet convinced that the high attrition proves counseling out or cherry-picking.

  6. Stuart Buck says:

    Why the obsessive focus on whether charter schools are doing this? Traditional public schools counsel kids out, as seen in Florida.

    But sometimes the parasites don’t have to do that much work, because public school administrators do it for them.

    Beginning a few school years ago, Carol City Senior High social studies teacher Paul Moore was mystified by a new, perennial exodus of his “problem” seniors — students who might fare badly on FCATs. They were kids he usually liked to have one last-ditch shot at improving their studies.

    Eventually, he figured out where many of them had ended up: Parkway Academy in Miramar, a charter school and target in 2009 of the Florida High School Athletic Association’s largest fine — $260,000; later reduced to $118,000 — for dozens of football recruiting violations. Other of Moore’s missing seniors had scattered to private schools, most of them McKay-funded. “It’s an absolute policy in this state now to move at-risk kids to charter or private schools,” Moore says.

    A Plantation High reading teacher, who asked that her name not be used, can relate. She has noticed her “problem” seniors disappearing like never before. Sometimes she runs into them on the street and finds out they’re at Preparatory Zion Academy or someplace similar. “These kids are graduating, but they’re illiterate,” the teacher says. “If you ask me, it’s criminal.”

    The principals of neither Carol City High or Plantation High responded to New Times’ inquiries. Public school brass are loathe to publicly admit to pushing struggling kids toward private schools.

    The illicit practice even has a name: “FCAT cleansing.”

    • E. Rat says:

      Because unless the state is Florida, or has a similar scheme of high-profit/no-education taxpayer-funded private schools, the children who leave charters end up in regular public schools.

      Also, the case in Florida – I’ve read the article and it’s hugely interesting, and the “Texas Miracle” seemed to use similar strategies – appears to involve mostly high school students. Those kids drop out.

      KIPP is mostly a middle school chain, and children who leave it are legally required to be in school. They don’t just drop out.

  7. CarolineSF says:

    I first exposed KIPP attrition on the blog by researching all the California KIPP schools in 2007 — I’m an unknown, but my research isn’t.

    I broke down the departees by demographics, and learned that the attrition was significantly higher among the subgroup that overall on average is statistically likely to face the greatest academic challenges — either African-American boys or Latino boys, depending on the makeup of the school. Putting it bluntly, that’s not something that “just happens.”

    In 2008, a study by SRI International of all the San Francisco Bay Area KIPP schools confirmed and amplified on my findings. SRI found that 60% of the students who entered the schools left and were not replaced — and that those were consistently the lowest-performing students.

    KIPP has actually veered back and forth in its responses. At times they have acknowledged the high attrition and attempted to justify it. At one point they released a breakdown of departees from the severely attrition-plagued KIPP Bridge in Oakland, Calif. Basically they varied, including the reasons listed by Sam.

    Several things are key here, though. First, “counseling out” shows up as the same thing as “choice on the part of the family/student.” Another issue is that KIPP is aggressive in requiring students to repeat a grade or leave. Lots of kids and families don’t want to repeat a grade. Voila — challenged student gone.

    But another key point is that students may well leave “by choice” because they find the program too demanding and rigorous. Well, that’s legit, but then KIPP’s boasts of success are based on promoting the image that they can bring all students to a higher level where they can cope with the demanding and rigorous program. Clearly, if 60% of their students are stampeding out the door because the program is too demanding and rigorous, that’s not true.

    And by the way, we constantly, constantly hear reports that “all KIPP school have long waiting lists.” Remember the girl in Waiting for Superman who lost the lottery to get into a KIPP school? Yet if the majority of KIPP students go stampeding out the door, that leaves vast numbers of empty seats, so shouldn’t all the students on the alleged “long waiting lists” — including the one in Waiting for Superman — be able to get into the schools if they just hang on long enough for the attrition to leave them a spot?

  8. Stuart Buck says:

    Caroline once again shows up to spread her woeful tale, without taking into account the more recent, MUCH more reliable, and more nationwide data provided in the Mathematica attrition study.

    Contrary to Caroline, Mathematica specifically found that KIPP schools have lower attrition for black students:

    “The attrition rates for black students and Hispanic students, however, were
    lower in KIPP schools than in comparison schools by statistically significant margins.”

    Find another talking point, Caroline.

    • KatieO says:

      What about this study?
      (From this article: )

      “• Selective entry of students. The findings in our report show that students with disabilities and
      students classified as English language learners are greatly underrepresented. The relative
      absence of students with disabilities and English language learners results in more
      homogenous classrooms. Secondly, in both traditional public schools and KIPP schools, the
      additional costs for these students—especially students with moderate or severe
      disabilities—is typically not fully funded, and therefore some of the costs for regular
      education is devoted to students requiring additional remediation. Because traditional public
      schools have a higher proportion of students with disabilities, and a higher concentration of
      students with severe and moderate disabilities, the burden of having to subsidize their
      education falls more heavily on them.

      • High rate of student attrition with nonreplacement. The departure of low-performing students
      helps KIPP improve its aggregate results. Unlike local school districts, KIPP is not replacing
      the students who are leaving. When a student returns to a traditional public school after the
      autumn head count, KIPP retains most or all of the money (the amount depends on the
      particular state) allocated for educating that student during that school year. Traditional
      public schools do not typically benefit in the same way when they experience attrition, since
      vacancies are typically filled by other mobile students, even in mid-year. The discussion of
      findings at the end of this paper describe how “peer effects” play to KIPPs advantage,
      especially given its practice of filling few of the large number of vacancies from students
      who leave.”

      • Stuart Buck says:

        That is a crappy study that was likely pushed out the door so as to steal the press from a much better study in the works:

        Mathematica followed individual students over time, and saw when they transferred or stayed within the same school. They did this comparing KIPP schools to similar traditional public schools.

        Miron did neither things. He didn’t follow individual students over time. And he didn’t compare KIPP schools to public schools — he compared KIPP schools to entire public school districts! There’s no good excuse for doing something so obviously wrong (comparing apples and oranges).

  9. KatieO says:

    One more thing, I would make a distinction between “counseling out” and “pushing out”. “Counseling out” refers to encouraging kids to leave the school for a different school (possibly due to a lack of appropriate Special Ed services or because the child or parent wasn’t following the contract as in KIPP schools.) “Pushing out”, on the other hand, is encouraging kids over the age of 16 to simply drop out of school (or to transfer to an alternative program like GED). Pushout is most definitely is happening in neighborhood schools around the country. (They now have an official push out awareness day! See While charters are certainly not alone in “counseling out” kids, from my personal experience and from the research and news stories I’ve read, charters seem to have many loopholes to encourage kids to leave their school and return to the neighborhood school. As a sped teacher, I’ve heard often that charter schools just don’t provide the same range of Sped services (not every charter school, mind, but most.) Where could the neighborhood school “counsel” kids to go? It’s a luxury only charters have.

    I think both counseling out and pushing out happen for similar reasons and I think both are sad and wrong. My problem with charter schools is that I feel like they COULD choose to use their extra funds and resources to work with Sped kids and ELLs, but don’t because it would bring their scores down. The public schools, at least the rough inner-city schools I’ve been to, are just overwhelmed and do kind of give up with some kids (and it is wrong!).

  10. CarolineSF says:

    Another issue with “counseling out” and charters:

    If a district school “counsels out” a challenging student, the district still has to deal with the student*. The student is pushed into another district school (run by a colleague of the principal doing the pushing-out); the district still must provide services as needed, etc.

    If a charter counsels out a student, the charter operator never has to set eyes on the student again, or have any other dealings with him/her. That’s a huge, gaping difference that totally discredits the “public schools can do it to” claim.

    *Unless the student goes to private school — not likely, since privates are loathe to accept kids with known challenges — or moves away.

  11. Stuart Buck says:

    Caroline, you might want to read the story I quoted above, which claimed that Florida public schools are known for counseling students out to charter schools and private schools. The article quotes a public school teacher as saying, “It’s an absolute policy in this state now to move at-risk kids to charter or private schools.”

    You might be able to come up with contrary evidence, but here as in so many places, you can’t make up stuff just because it seems likely to you. The world doesn’t always conform to your personal intuitions; you have to look at the actual evidence.

  12. CarolineSF says:

    Yes, but you know that’s only true if you’re talking about specialty schools designed for kids with disabilities and other challenges, which exist both among private schools and charters. And that can only happen if the school accepts the incoming transfer. Also, specialty private schools like that are wildly expensive, and in some cases school districts pay for it – but only some.

    But as far as “our school isn’t the right fit for you, so goodbye,” no.

  13. Pingback: Subtle Cheating by Charter Schools Through Attrition | Scathing Purple Musings

  14. Stuart Buck says:

    If we’re talking about low-scoring “at risk” kids, I see no a priori reason to think that charter schools are more likely (on average) to “counsel them out” back to a traditional public school than the traditional public schools are to “counsel them out” to a charter school. Traditional public schools have just as much to gain from getting rid of bad students as charter schools do.

    Show me the evidence otherwise.

  15. CarolineSF says:

    Of course they do, Stuart — you’re pointing out the flamingly obvious. But charter schools can easily counsel them out, and public schools can’t.

    The public school — A public school — has to take those challenging kids. A charter school doesn’t have to do squat that it doesn’t want to.

    The evidence is that statistics consistently show that charter schools serve far fewer special-education and limited-English students (two of the costliest-to-educate types of students) than comparable public schools do.

  16. Stuart Buck says:

    “The public school — A public school — has to take those challenging kids. A charter school doesn’t have to do squat that it doesn’t want to.”

    Nonsense. In every state that I’m aware of, charter schools cannot refuse admission to students who merely happen to be low-scoring. (Those are the students I was talking about).

  17. Pingback: The Best Posts About Attrition Rates At So-Called “Miracle” Schools | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day...

  18. CarolineSF says:

    Stuart Buck, here on Planet Earth, nobody oversees charter schools’ admissions processes. Nobody. They can do any damn thing they want.

  19. Pingback: Good School Reform Posts Of The Week | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day...

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