Remnants of the Pulaski County school desegregation case linger on, despite the Little Rock School District’s achievement of unitary status, in part because of a dispute over whether the state has a permanent commitment to paying for magnet schools and majority-to-minority transfer programs in the three school districts. These programs were intended to help desegregate the schools. Little Rock contends the commitment is ongoing. The state disagrees.

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: The key to school performance is diversity of socio-economic classes.

  • RICHARD KAHLENBERG: The key to school performance is diversity of socio-economic classes.

As part of that argument, the Little Rock School District has hired an education expert to look at the merit of the desegregation programs. Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Fund, has produced a report that I’d recommend to anyone interested in closing the achievement gap between black and white students. Here’s the full report.

Kahlenberg concludes that the magnet schools and transfer program have been successful in producing both racial and socio-economic integration. But he said that U.S. Supreme Court rulings indicate that the day is coming when programs can no longer be sustained solely on the ground that they promote racial integration.


But, drawing on a wealth of research that shows the value of integrating students of different economic status, Kahlenberg recommended “that the Pulaski County inter-district magnet school and M-to-M transfer programs be maintained but that the focus of assignment be shifted from race to socioeconomic status.”

Over and over, he says, studies show low-income students attending lower-poverty schools outperform students in high-poverty schools. Effective high-poverty schools exist, he said, but they are very rare and haven’t proved “scalable.” He writes:


Racial diversity, without economic diversity, does not improve the achievement of African-American students because the benefits of an economically diverse school do not depend on skin color.

And, further:

Extensive research finds that the use of socioeconomic status in student assignment can improve educational outcomes for students by avoiding the harms associated with concentrations of poverty. High-poverty schools consistently fail to provide students an equal opportunity for an adequate education. All students perform substantially worse in high-poverty schools. Indeed, middle-income students attending high-poverty schools perform worse, on average, than low-income students attending economically diverse schools.

The Kahlenberg report isn’t about charter schools specifically, but along the way, he attacks the notion that charter schools have found the key. He takes on directly the KIPP schools, held out as an exemplar by school choice advocates in Arkansas for success with high-poverty students. I’ve written before that KIPP test scores, most recently in New York but also in past comparisons in Arkansas, don’t always bear this out. I also reported Higher Education Department figures compiled recently that indicated better college performance by graduates of neighboring conventional high schools against the college dropout rate of KIPP students receiving the same state scholarships.

But Kahlenberg goes much deeper and I’ve provided an except below for easy access beginning with high attrition rates at KIPP schools:

KIPP supporters respond that a 2010 study of 22 KIPP schools found that the attrition rates were comparable to nearby high poverty public schools that also have lots of kids leave. Poor people tend to move frequently, so high attrition rates are to be expected at KIPP schools, it is argued. But researchers have found that 40 percent of African American male students leave KIPP schools between grades 6 and 8.


Moreover, a key difference between KIPP and traditional high poverty public schools is that in KIPP schools, when students leave, few new students enter in the seventh and eighth grades. An analysis 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. While in comparison district schools where classes grew in 7th and 8th grades, at KIPP they shrunk. Comparison schools saw newcomers outnumber leavers so replacement was 145 percent in 7th grade and 146 percent in 8th grade. By contrast, in KIPP schools, only 78 percent of leaving students were replaced in 7th grade, and just 60 percent in 8th grade.

The study of San Francisco—area KIPP schools illustrates how the combination of attrition and low replacement rates combine to make KIPP cohorts of students smaller and smaller over time. It found a net enrollment of 312 students in 5th grade, then an uptick of students who enter during the 6th grade (the customary time to enter middle school), bringing net enrollment to 319. But then the total number of KIPP students in 7th and 8th grade fell precipitously: 238 in 7th grade and 173 in 8th grade. The KIPP Bay-area schools cannot be dismissed as an outlier on the KIPP attrition question: a 2008 review of several studies found high attrition rates at a number of other KIPP schools.

Having few new entering students is an enormous advantage not only because low-scoring transfer students are kept out but also because in the later grades, KIPP students are surrounded by other self-selected peers who have successfully survived what is universally acknowledged to be a very rigorous and demanding program. In terms of peer values and norms, then, KIPP schools more closely resemble economically mixed schools than traditional high poverty schools.

How important to KIPP’s success are the positive peer influences that come from self-selection, high attrition, and low levels of replacement? While we cannot know for certain, it is telling that on the one occasion when KIPP took over a regular high poverty public school—and came close to having to serve a regular, rather than self-selected, student population and with new students entering the classroom when they moved into the area—KIPP failed and got out of the business.

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.”